You are missing a vowel and everything is turned upside down. In recent days, you may have read articles about the Russian invasion of Ukraine, worried that you might need glasses or develop mild dyslexia. Don’t worry, you read “Kyiv” correctly instead of “Kiev”, the capital of Ukraine currently under fire from major military operations by Russia. Why ? The newspaper Release explained to his readers, on Tuesday, March 1, the reasons why he too was abandoning the spelling derived from Russian “Kiev” in favor of “Kyiv” derived from Ukrainian: “ Today, these four letters have become the symbol of the Russification of Ukrainian toponymy, which contributed to diluting a language and a culture in the great tsarist and then Soviet melting pot. “, writes the daily. Between Kiev, from the Russian camp and Kyiv, from the Ukrainian camp, no salvation? Marianne spoke with semiologist Mariette Darrigrand about the inevitable political dimension of language.
Marianne :“Kiev”, “Kyiv”, does this change really matter?
Mariette Darrigrand: This battle over language is not new. The Soviet Union had imposed Russian on the country, Ukrainian was rehabilitated after 1991 with the fall of the USSR. More recently, the Ukrainian government passed a law to impose Ukrainian in public services. It is therefore anything but a point of detail: it is a conflict for identity, a way of affirming the existence of Ukraine as a nation, like a flag. Language, in the history of conflicts, is above all a tool of resistance, sometimes even hidden, in the same way as religious practice, which has sometimes even been prohibited.
“A territory is never just physical land. It is a set of habits, a vision of the world and the concepts that govern it, that is to say a whole language. »
Does this mean that the use of a language in a territory is a tool of conquest, of domination? One thinks of anglicisms in the French language or of the Francophonie in Africa, for example.
It all depends on how the language is used. The obligation to speak a language can be authoritative. When French was imposed on the regional languages in France, it was part of a centralizing ideal. As such, we have crushed these regional languages, which have only just begun to re-emerge in recent years. Today, in pro-independence Catalonia, for example, the first language is Catalan. Language is therefore an issue of power, a tool of domination, resistance or coercion.
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For the Francophonie, the situation is very different, because it is a means of creativity and of increasing the mother tongue, therefore a form of creolization. Today, French-speaking African writers have become very important in the Francophonie. They do not refuse French, they have also become masters of it and have a different relationship to their French from that of a Frenchman to his mother tongue. It’s true, there has been a colonizing dimension in the history of the Francophonie, but above all today it contains a very significant creative hybridization.
But for Ukrainians today, or other countries, particularly in Africa, which are changing names – such as Swaziland, which became eSwatini in 2018 – is this really an issue of territoriality?
Language is an imaginary territory. A land, a territory, is never just a physical land. It is a set of habits, a vision of the world and the concepts that govern it, that is to say a whole language. Look at the phenomenon of diasporas around the world. Very often, even after years in a foreign country, they continue to practice their native language. Sometimes even with hybridizations with local languages, I am thinking for example of Yiddish and German. When a diaspora forms, it pursues its culture by preserving some of its habits of course, but also by preserving its language. A diaspora is a language.
Other times, for an identity to be fixed, language is frozen. This is, for example, the case of regions with a strong independence movement that call their towns by their name in the regional language, such as the Basques or the Corsicans. Today in Spain, it no longer surprises anyone that San Sebastian is called Donostia, its Basque name.
“You have to understand one thing: words do not carry the truth, they always carry a relative meaning. »
But then, changing a word is a political act?
Sure. The human being is a symbolic animal and language a common code, it is one of the six functions of language theorized by Roman Jakobson. If the common code changes, the reality attached to it also changes. When you choose to stop saying “Kiev”, you put yourself in a resistance group against the Russians. Through this code, I adhere to much more than just the code, I adhere to the referent in reality, which is resistance to the Russians.
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In politics in general, in the West in particular, we believe in the performativity of language, that is to say in the power of words over reality. ” In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning in God. », says the prologue of the Gospel according to Saint John. In politics, this is perhaps the area where we think the most that saying things is doing them. Today, to designate the capital of Ukraine, you have the choice between its Russian name and its Ukrainian and according to your choice, you designate the reality that you desire.
What if I don’t want to choose sides?
It’s impossible, because you can’t escape the political dimension of language. You have to understand one thing: words do not carry the truth, they always carry a relative meaning. From the moment they are given a scope of absolute truth, that is where totalitarianism begins. With words, all one can do is always keep in mind the effects they can have when choosing them, and tinker as best they can.
“The code changes and creates new realities. We Westerners, yet free products of social democracies, are invited to put ourselves in new categories.
This is what George Orwell showed in 1984 with his “New speak”?
The reference to Orwell is interesting. When he invites the New Speak ” in 1984, he shows that when you want to conjure up an authoritarian dystopia, you create language. In the West, we are no longer in a confrontation with attempts at an authoritarian regime, but we have the appearance of a whole language that will concern the field of intimacy, like all the new “LGBTQIA+” terms which bring out a vision of sexuality that did not exist until then. In times of peace, French or European identity is irrelevant, we try to codify our deep identity, we want to be recognized in our “micro-micro-micro identity”. Today, for example, we speak of “hypersensitive individuals with high intellectual potential”. The code changes and brings forth new realities. We Westerners, yet free products of social democracies, are required to put ourselves in new categories. Language is therefore intrinsically linked to the fundamental question of identity.
Mariette Darrigrand is the author of Manly like Venus published by Equateurs.