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  • Contested Tongues: Language Politics and Cultural Correction in Ukraine
  • Tanya Skubiak
Laada Bilaniuk. Contested tongues: Language politics and cultural correction in Ukraine. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2005. [xvi] + 230 pp. [Culture and society after socialism, 6.]

Language in Ukraine has been a point of social and political contention for several centuries, especially so since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Since the establishment of Ukraine as an independent nation, language has been a focal point of social tension as "histories, identities, and economies [are] revised and reinterpreted, as people [seek] to exalt, reject, or combine the contending pre-Soviet, Soviet, Western, and newly invented traditions" (14). The declaration of Ukrainian as the official state language, along with the realities of its implementation, has left the nation in a state of linguistic flux. In Contested tongues: Language politics and cultural correction in Ukraine, Laada Bilaniuk analyzes the current situation in Ukraine, illustrating the political roots of the struggle between Ukrainian and Russian along with the hybrid language that has arisen as a consequence of their long coexistence.

The author identifies her personal connection to Ukraine as a member of the Diaspora but vows to maintain an objective stance in her book. My initial reaction to this apparent contradiction was skepticism. However, Bilaniuk adhered to this promise by methodically working through three goals set forth in the introduction: to examine language ideologies and politics in Ukraine, to analyze the "mixed language," Surzhyk, and to look at the transformation of symbolic values in post-Soviet Ukraine. Her focus on the theoretical and ideological aspects of the issue—particularly on the definition of identity through language choice, the nation-building potential of a standard language, and the reality of two coexisting languages in one country—has allowed her to produce an interesting analysis of the sociological, political, historical, and, of course, linguistic factors of Ukraine's recent history.

The book begins with an introduction to Soviet russification policies and post-Independence ukrainianization policies and their effect on language use in Ukraine. This develops into a theoretical discussion [End Page 169] of language and its symbolic value in a developing nation. The author discusses the paradox in considering any language as a single, stable system, when in fact language is not static and regularly varies across speakers. This variation is dependent on "habitus" (Bourdieu 1990)—"the dispositions instilled in each individual through their upbringing and myriad aspects of daily life in their society, as a result of which they come to accept certain practices and ideas as 'natural'." Despite the linguistic reality, it is far more convenient to categorize language as a single, distinct system if it is to be used as a marker of group membership and identity. In twentieth-century Ukraine, standardized Ukrainian and Russian have come to represent "correct" versions of language that have helped shape the social structure of a nation: once the standard is set, linguistic adherence to or deviation from that norm act as identifiers of class membership, education, and political beliefs. Due to the significance placed on language as a result of its ability to define a person or group, language choice can be a great source of social tension. In a country like Ukraine, where people of Ukrainian ethnicity and self-identified Russians continue to compete for places in the social hierarchy, individual and national language choices become powerful political tools.

Another player in Ukraine's language dynamic is language purism, or an intolerance of non-standard language variants. Bilaniuk states that the elevation of Ukrainian to the status of an official national language has caused "an increased awareness of class- and regionally-based linguistic differences, with the elevation of a 'pure' or 'most refined' variety" (19), forming a hierarchical diglossia. Even though this diglossia has shifted in recent years, removing the "low" stigma from standardized Ukrainian, Bilaniuk cleverly observes that purism remains. The modern "low" language is Surzhyk. Its low status and demeaning function in class assignment are exemplified by the literal meaning of the word surzhyk, which refers to a low-grade mixture of wheat and rye flours (17).

In her second chapter, "Lives of language," Bilaniuk brings the language struggle to...


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