February 25, 2017

”The Native Language Should Be Learnt All Life Through”



Maria Voloschak — a literary editor with many years' experience, a Member of the National Union of Journalists, the Association of Ukrainian Linguists, the author of the text-books “Wrong — Correct. Using Ukrainian Words”, “Collection of the Linguists, Literary Critics, Publicists' Linguo-Stylistic Advice”, “Difficult Cases of Spelling and Declension of Surnames and Geographical Names”, “Peculiarities of Spelling, Declension and the Origin of Names”, co-author of the book “An Important Interview with a Linguist: 140 Questions and Answers”. Is a regular columnist on the culture of the Ukrainian language for some journals.

We recorded our talk not long ago, on the eve of the international holiday of the native language. Her thoughts expressed in the interview, to my mind, are no less interesting than the “messages” of our officials, and sometimes much more useful. Because they allow not just to look at ourselves from aside, but also to get answers to some questions about the so-called language policy, recurring in our society. And taking into account the role of the language in the life of the Ukrainians, it can be considered a geopolitical component of our state.


Pani Maria, is your knowledge of the Ukrainian language perfect? I ask because each of us has an idol to whom we look up, who is a model for us. But if you do know the language, you do not need an idol. Or am I wrong? And how to learn Ukrainian perfectly, for example, like you know it?

— Nobody knows the native language perfectly. It has been well said that a foreign language can be learned within a relatively short period of time, but it takes the entire life to learn the native one. Therefore, dictionaries, reference books are not just my assistants, they are my close friends. Because of my using them very often when editing books, they look, to put it mildly, not very attractive. They are very shabby, but to me they are the best, the most valuable. I already know by heart where, at what page to look for confirmation of my corrections, such as the “Complete Dictionary of the Modern Ukrainian Language”, linguistic guides by well-known authors such as “Ukrainian Word for Everybody and Each”, “Antysurzhyk”(”Anti-Rukrainian”), “Dictionary-Reference Guide to the Culture of the Ukrainian Language”, “Ukrainian Word in Today's Dimensions”, “Difficult Cases of the Use of Words”, “Speak Ukrainian”, “The Language Standard: Destruction, Search, Restoration”, “The Ukrainian for This Is...”.

Very often I look in the three-volume “Russian-Ukrainian Dictionary”, published in 1968, during the “Khrushchev thaw”. Renowned linguist Oleksandr Ponomariv called it a progressive phenomenon in the publication of Ukrainian dictionaries which let clean our language from numerous absurd recommendations.

Incidentally, I edit texts only in printed form. I have to see each my correction on paper. To be able, so to speak, to touch it. Therefore, I advise those who want to deepen their knowledge of the language, to read as many various books as possible, but not in electronic form, but “live” ones, which you can open, touch with your hands, when turning pages. The more you read, the more linguistic and spiritual treasures you get.

— I think you heard Professor Pavlo Grytsenko's speech of December 13, 2016 at the session of the Constitutional Court, where the case on the constitutionality of the Law of Ukraine “On the State Language Policy”. What can you say about it?

— Unfortunately, I did not hear that speech, so I cannot comment on it.

— All right, then, why do you think the Ukrainian language became a political issue?

— Because as soon as there are elections on the horizon — officials, politicians immediately think of the language. It is said to be dividing eastern and western Ukrainians. It does not! Not only in the West, but in the East of Ukraine, speaking a good Ukrainian is becoming prestigious, people begin to understand that a good knowledge of the language is an important professiogram of people of different professions.

Eastern patriots of the Ukrainian word do not pay attention to the intimidation, false statements of politicians and do their best to master their native Ukrainian language. Once in an interview, earlier, I was asked what regions were ordering the greatest number of copies of the practical linguistic manual “Wrong — Correct”, I replied — Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Among the then customers were the newspaper “Hirnyak” (Torez), Donetsk Musical College, Donetsk Institute of Tourist Business, Donetsk Pedagogical College, Snizhne Mining College, Research Institute “Respirator”, Slavic City Library, LLC “Epihraf” (Donetsk), Makiivka Teachers Training College, Kramatorsk Trade and Culinary Vocational School, Luhansk Regional Council, the V. Dal Eastern Ukrainian National University's College (Luhansk), Krasnodon Industrial and Economic College.

— Any language constantly evolves, the meaning of words, spelling change. Is it possible that the notorious surzhik will once become “academic”?

— It will never be “academic”. For, unlike the dialectal elements that enrich the language, surzhik is a disease of the language. Brilliant poetess Lina Kostenko aptly said about the current state of the Ukrainian language: “”The language is also the people's face, and it is badly maimed”.

There is no doubt, stresses the well-known linguist Aleksandra Serbenska, there are specific laws of development of languages in contact, in particular, of Russian and Ukrainian. If a person includes into his/her speech the words and phrases from a different language, without destroying the grammar, phonetic peculiarities of Ukrainian, protects its beauty, uses its inexhaustible lexical and phraseological richness, then this process is natural and unobjectionable. But one must not spontaneously mix the words from the Ukrainian and Russian languages, inflecting words and connecting them by the Russian models. Because the deformed language makes one stupid, making one's thinking primitive. Because the language expresses not only a thought. Word stimulates the mind, subordinates and shapes it.

Surzhik in Ukraine is dangerous and harmful, because it parasites on the language which has been evolving for centuries. The Ukrainian language has survived, despite all the prohibitions, harassment, humiliation, treacherous actions. Phonetic luxury, lexical and phraseological richness, syntactic flexibility, enormous word-formation opportunities were universally recognized in 1934 in Paris at the world contest of the beauty of languages, where Ukrainian won the third place (the first was French, the second — Persian).

— For a long time and with interest I have been watching the enthusiasm with which you are publishing your practical manuals — “Wrong — Correct. Using Ukrainian words”, “Collection of the Linguists, Literary Critics, Publicists' Linguo-Stylistic Advice”, “Difficult Cases of Spelling and Declension of Surnames and Geographical Names”, “Peculiarities of Spelling, Declension and the Origin of Names”, They are priceless. I lend them to my friends, warning that it is not for more than 2–3 days, and returning is a must. Tell me frankly, is this demand due to the desire of our citizens to know the language perfectly, or do they become so priceless as a result of the modest editions?

— As for the modest editions. To prove my point, I will quote a journalistic review “Correctly about the Wrong” after the release of the third edition of the reference book on using Ukrainian words in 2007: “The edition of the book, given the huge demand for it, is very modest — 10,000 copies. The founded by the author publishing house plans to print more, but only when the funds become available from the sale of the already issued edition. It seems it won't take long, yet... Isn't the very issue soul-crushing? Who needs extra copies of the book which should have been a book for constant reading for all who this way or other have to do with the language and speech? Maria Voloshchak or the Ukrainian state? Congratulating the author on a new edition of the extremely useful book, we are addressing this not rhetorical question to the services and agencies that could well increase the edition of the said “Wrong — Correct” at least by a few hundred times”.

Immediately after this publication, I received a call from “Regionals” from Donetsk, offering to issue a great number of copies of that book for libraries, schools in Eastern Ukraine. I rejected the offer because they insisted on mentioning in the book that it was published with the support of the Party of Regions. Although later, many journalists, linguists would angrily try to persuade me that I had committed a crime, because I had not helped Ukrainization of Eastern Ukraine.

I must say that even now, at this difficult time, customers from Donetsk region call and ask to send them practical handbooks. Believe me, I feel uneasy while explaining to Oleksandr Bilyi from Soledar (he is for the fifth time ordering the books), Hryhoriy Chosta from Kramatorsk, Fedir Psenyuk from Novohrodivka, Lyubov Agameryants from Slovyansk, that for three years I have not been able to print a single copy, because there is no money. But there is a notebook, to which I continuously add the names of people from all over Ukraine, who hardly believe they will get the long promised books soon. And when a few days ago I heard a voice on the phone of the long-term admirer of my books — Head of the Department of Ternopil National Economic University, I desperately asked him to find a true nationally conscious sponsor, who would help to print the books. Because neither ministerial officials, nor deputies have responded to my letters of request to participate in the publication of these practical books. While in other countries, if reference books are in demand, the state helps with their publications. When I was receiving a visa of the Ministry of Education and Science of Ukraine at the Institute of Innovative Technologies, Neonila Shynkaruk asked me to leave one copy of each books for employees of the department and pointed out that these books should be in every library of the educational institution.

In the meantime, new customers can get acquainted with these works only on my author website.

When I look at ads in the city, watching commercials on TV, listen to radio journalists, I can't help being shocked by elementary grammatical mistakes, borrowed foreign words. Is this “anti-grammar” process natural? If yes, what does it mean?

— Of course, it is natural. And to confirm — just an extract from the newspaper article: “Recently I was lucky enough to attend an interesting press conference themed “Emergency Language Aid”. To replenish the arsenal of professionalism in the struggle against illiteracy, the Firm of Literary Editing and Translations set a goal to provide emergency language assistance to the advertisers, MPs, businessmen and ordinary citizens. It would seem that the demand for such services must be crazy, but, unfortunately, it is not. According to Pani Maria, she has recently edited a small leaflet, found about 30 mistakes, sent it to the notified address with a proposal to use the services of the Firm, but has never got an answer. It seems that advertisers do not care literally or illiterately their products are advertized. I know that abroad (not here yet), particularly in the UAE, if you throw litter onto the street, you will pay a fine of 180 US dollars. I wish here it were like this: if you have posted your “junk of an ad” in the tube or on the billboard — you are fined.

The problem of illiteracy exists not only in the advertising business, but also in the politicians, civil servants' total poor command of the literary Ukrainian language. So far there is neither interest, nor incentives nor sanctions for the study of the native language. Without an effective state language policy and state support for individual enthusiasts, this crisis will not be overcome”.

This article is 10 years old, but I have a feeling that it was published yesterday. I keep sending it to banks, elite clubs their illiterate ads, correct the mistakes, offer cooperation, but nobody has ever answered, not even thanked. It seems that we live in a country with deaf politicians and blind businessmen. I got even more convinced of this when I read in a very interesting book, which I was editing for one Kyiv publishing house: “Worst of all is when we are governed by people devoid of conscience. They can achieve and do achieve social success through rational cost-benefit analysis on how to manipulate people for their personal enrichment. With outstanding ability to understand others and to foresee possible consequences of different actions, they can manipulate other people to get what they want. The problem is that they are completely devoid of compassion and feelings to other people, and only rational calculation in respect of their own interests does not allow them to harm others”.

— What does an inaccurate, illiterate use of words threat with? Or maybe there is no need for the correct use of the language — let a fool be seen from afar for a smart person to know whom should he deal with, and who is not worth wasting time on?

— No, this is a wrong position. As linguists stress, for a long time among many Ukrainians the Ukrainian language had not functioned as the native language, in which people think, communicate in all spheres of life, dream and see dreams, are happy and sad. Therefore, first of all, we need to make every effort to develop their skills of correct use of the language, to teach them to detect mistakes and to clear their oral and written language of the elements that distort it. Our national disadvantage continues to be deeply harmful state when the most authoritative source of knowledge of the language becomes “Because we speak so!” Or “But I like it this way”. However, not all used in the Ukrainian language sphere is inheritance of the modern Ukrainian literary language, warns a famous linguist Oleksandra Serbenska. Our state policy is not guided yet by the slogan “We will do everything for the Ukrainian word to be beautiful and wise”... What do you think, which language is most protected in the world?

— If I say it is Russian...

— Japanese! Although Japan is a mono-national, in fact, mono-ethnic state, but on the islands there is a special governmental agency that cares about the purity and culture of the Japanese language. It periodically registers neologisms and words of foreign origin; on television, apart from “soap operas” there are movies and TV shows on a linguistic theme.

Do you know what an inaccurate, illiterate use of words threatens with, for example in France? Every citizen can file a lawsuit against the newspaper for the use without the need of an English word — and in case if he wins, the edition suffers considerable financial losses. In Poland, as in France, the official use of each foreign word is determined by a special commission, composed of thirty leading linguists. For littering the language with terms of the foreign origin the guilty can be fined by up to 30 thousand US dollars. The Polish law demands to replace all foreign words in advertising, in the street windows, in the names of shops, cafes and in instructions on how to use goods and on their packaging and in other documents. There are also fines for members of the Polish Sejm for public swearing, which is stressed in the manual “The Language Standard: Destruction, Search, Restoration”. A group of German linguists and literary scholars, starting a campaign “For the Purity of the German Language”, suggested at a meeting of the German Academy for Language and Literature to renounce the use of 4000 Anglicism in pop music, advertising and computer and to replace them with German words.

— Who, do you think, of our political so-called elite respects the native Ukrainian language? And did you personally have to cooperate with such citizens?

— Three years ago Svoboda participated in the publication of my practical reference guide book “Peculiarities of Spelling, Declension and the Origin of Names”. I should say I was just lucky. People's Deputy Mykhaylo Holovko helped also to publish for his electorate a new fourth edition of the practical linguistic manual “Wrong — Correct” for which I am very grateful to him. Because, apart from this People's Deputy, who not in words, but in deeds cares about the purity and development of the Ukrainian language, no other MP heard me. Although many of them could have published the linguistic and practical manuals for libraries and educational institutions of their constituencies. Especially because in the book it would be pointed out that it saw the light thanks to the support of so-and so People's Deputy, true Ukrainian science patron. By the way, the practical linguistic manual “Wrong — Correct” was planned to be published for the Deputies of the Verkhovna Rada, which could have helped to avoid linguistic mistakes and misunderstandings in the Parliament.

— What, do you think, should make a person study the native language — need, duty, respect for one's national origin, which is called patriotism?

— Need, duty, patriotism. They are inseparable.

— I confess to you that I have rarely had to communicate with experts of the Ukrainian language. Personally I do not consider myself such an expert. But for the first time I was really impressed when in 1982 in Kyrgyzstan's capital, Frunze (now Bishkek). I heard the speech of a Ukrainian-Kyrgyz teacher of Slavic languages before an audience of soldiers. Later, in Ukraine, I heard Ukrainian of experts, some writers or artists, but, sadly, not often. I know only a few such experts, you being one of them... Please, tell me why knowledge of Ukrainian and communication in Ukrainian alone once were a disadvantage, and now are almost a crime, at least in the East of our country?

— I strongly disagree with this opinion. Many residents of the Eastern regions want to speak Ukrainian, but do not have corresponding practical manuals. But officials do not bother, obviously waiting for the Ministry of Education to buy and deliver the books. Because when recently I emailed a letter of offer to the address of the Donetsk Regional State Administration asking them to participate in publishing the practical linguistic manual “Wrong — Correct” for libraries, schools, local administrations of Donetsk region, in response I received letters-questionarries: whether I appeal as an individual or as a legal entity, can I confirm a digital signature, or... But no interest to the recommended books. As a rule, those who have received my letters of offer, ask about the edition, cover, price? Since I never heard such questions from the employees of the Regional State Administration, they obviously must have had the copies bought by their predecessors, because educational institutions, libraries, ordinary citizens had to order the books for themselves.

Now I want to answer the first part of your question about experts of the Ukrainian language. I once edited the author's theses of a post-graduate student, it seems from Nigeria. He studied at the Department of International Finances of Institute of International Relations of the Kyiv National University, with which I then worked as a literary editor. I was impressed when the student asked me to explain to him my every correction. Though his knowledge of the Ukrainian language could have been envied not only by Ukrainian post-graduate students, but by some teachers as well.

— Why is it that in Israel after its establishment, introduction of the single state language was compulsory, while in Ukraine this principle is perceived as a “violation of the rights”?

— Because the Israelis respect their own state. Hebrew is the official language, and no one denies that, nobody says it is hard to learn, nobody suggests any other language, not so difficult. In Israel, any event, even a wedding, begins and ends with the national anthem. It is sung not only by adults but also by children, invited with parents. I myself witnessed this when many years ago was at a wedding in Ashdod. My friend Dora, also a literary editor, my former colleague, invited me to the wedding of her son. I had just been paid for the first edition of my handbook “Wrong — Correct”, so I decided to go. I was the only Ukrainian among the guests. Since I communicate only in my native language, everyone who came up to me tried to speak Ukrainian, heard, perhaps, in childhood and adolescence. I was really touched when in the midst of the wedding the toastmaster announced that now there would sound a wreath of Ukrainian songs for the guests from Kyiv...

We must learn to respect first of all ourselves, to protect our language everywhere and always and to be proud of it. Tell me, please, in what other country, except Ukraine, my native language can have a status of an official language? There is no such country. Poles, Germans, Russian, Jews, Belarusians living in Ukraine are happy, because they have such states. I can only here, in my homeland — Ukraine, feel nationally protected, because my roots are here.

If it happened so that I had to leave for some other state, first thing I would try and learn the language of that country to demonstrate my respect for the indigenous people, who gave me a shelter.


Recorded by Oleh Makhno