Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Window on Eurasia: ‘V Ukraine’ has Always Been Correct, Moscow Language Expert Says

Paul Goble


            Staunton, December 30 – Most English speakers now recognize that calling Ukraine “the Ukraine” is insulting, but Russians remain divided over whether to say “in Ukraine” (“v Ukraine”) or “on Ukraine” (“na Ukraine”), investing the choice with political meaning because in the minds of some, the first makes Ukraine a country and the second only a place.


            Oksana Grunchenko, a senior researcher at the Institute of the Russian Language in the Russian Academy of Sciences who provides guidance on Russian usage to the media and other scholars, say that the “v” or “na” issue has become especially heated in the last year (postnauka.ru/talks/39261).


            But she points out that it is not a new question and that “over the course of many years we have said that in reality, two forms exist historically: with the preposition ‘v’ and with the preposition ‘na.’” Pushkin used “v” in his poem “Poltava,” for example, and thus it is part of Russian literary language.


            At the same time, Grunchenko continues, she and her colleagues “stress that the normative form in contemporary Russian language which no one has tried or is trying to change is the form with the preposition ‘na.’” According to the Moscow scholar, “it always was the case, and until 1993, it didn’t come into the head of anyone to open a discussion on this issue.”


            “But in the process of establishing Ukrainian statehood,” she says, “this question arose” because Ukrainians live in their own country but speak Russian and overwhelming use a specific preposition: “v” and not “na.”


            Some scholars in Ukraine even began to demand that Russians use “v” as well because, “they said” it was important to “break the link with the offensive analogy ‘on the borderland’ and ‘on Ukraine.’” Perhaps not surprisingly, this has become a very sensitive issue for many, and the choice people make says something about their politics.


            If someone uses “v,” then they are being guided “by the principle of political correctness,” but if they use “na,” then they are being guided by the traditional norms of the Russian language.  “It is possible,” Grunchenko says, that doing the former is a better idea if one is speaking with “residents of a neighboring state” who feel strongly about this.


            Moreover, she points out, the leaders of the Russian state have used “v” on occasion when relations between Moscow and Kyiv have been relatively good but then shifted to “na” when conditions have deteriorated.  Over the last year, “v” has more or less disappeared in Russia, except in expressions like “’in Ukraine, as they say there.’”


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