Tuesday, March 11, 2008

When Words Matter

(EDITED - I found the post I was looking for - thanks to Technorati - and have edited to reflect and include links)

I don't usually stray into political matters -- there are far better informed sites for that (and I'm going to add a list of those sites soon). But yesterday I read this post at Window On Eurasia on remarks by Russian President Vladimir Putin about his chosen, I mean elected, successor, Dmitry Medvedev, and it makes me wonder . . .

I'm kicking myself for not bookmarking this page (FOUND IT!), but the gist was that In this speech, Putin described Medvedev's "Russian nationalism" with the word that means "ethnically Russian" -- russkiy -- instead of rossiikiy, which means "citizen of Russia." It makes no difference in English, and perhaps in many European languages -- Russian and Russian are the same. But the post points out that there's a big difference in Russian, especially given the fractured ethnic politics of the country. Saying "Russia for the ethnic Russian," instead of "Russia for the citizens of Russia" signifies a HUGE difference in political ideology.

So how does this relate? I see a correlation in language between Kazakh (as an ethnicity/nationality), and Kazakhstani (as an identity-card-carrying citizenship), but no similar examination in Central Asian coverage on language use. Americans (with whose language I am most familar), blithely use Kazakh to mean "citizen of Kazakhstan," but none of the non-ethnically-Kazakh citizen of Kazakhstan I know would accept that term to describe themselves. Few have commented on the government's recent move to use Kazakh as a term for all "citizens of Kazakhstan," even though the pictures show Asian, Eurasian, Turkic, Slavic and European faces. Ignorance, complacency, or an identity shift I have yet to accept?

It seems to me that until all the native-born citizens of the country speak the same language as they settle into nationhood, words matter a lot. Until employment and educational opportunities are equalized for all citizens, regardless of "nationality" (because everyone speaks the same language), a pan-nationality term -- Kazakhstani in English -- is politically inclusive, as the politicians claim to be. One generation more, and maybe they're there. Is that really so long to wait to make all citizens feel like they belong?

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