Language Attitudes, Ethnic Relations, and Ethnic Identity in Crimea

Mica Hall, Department of Defense

This study is a sociolinguistic attempt to establish the degree to which ethnic group stereotypes are embedded in Crimean culture. As the least “Ukrainian” region of Ukraine, the Crimean culture consists of three major ethnic groups: the majority ethnic Russians, and the minority ethnic Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars. According to Romaine (1980) and others, people respond to linguistic samples based on their beliefs about those speakers’ social group identification. By providing linguistic samples of conversational style devoid of objective markers of speakers’ identity, I attempted to elicit reactions that would reveal linguistic stereotypes held by each ethnic group about their own and the other two main ethnic groups in Crimea.

As a result of their shared Soviet history, all three groups use Russian as their primary language of communication. The divergences in these groups’ language varieties are primarily phonological and group members are not aware of most of them on a conscious level. I obtained two Russian speech samples from eight different speakers, one male and one female each of ethnic Russian, Ukrainian, and Crimean Tatar residents of Crimea, as well as one male Russian national and one male Ukrainian national (living outside Crimea). Judges used a modified form of Osgood’s semantic differential consisting of a six-point scale rating the speaker’s character and physical features based on adjectives stated as polar-opposites.

All of the judges were residents of Crimea, ages twelve to thirty. I chose this age group in order to examine the potential perpetuation of ethnic stereotypes in future generations. Even young children have a strong sense of their ethnic identity and I am certain that if I had included older judges, I would have found generational differences among the responses.

According to Labov (1966) most perception of language actually reveals subjects’ perceptions of social experience. The ethnic Ukrainians as the titular nationality, the ethnic Russians as the majority, and the Crimean Tatars as a strongly unified ethnic group all have strong motivations for identifying with in-group speakers and downgrading out-group speakers. Instead, after analyzing the data based on judges’ self-identified ethnic group, I found particularly strong positive in-group identification among Crimean Tatars and ethnic Russians, and a particularly strong downgrading of in-group members among ethnic Ukrainians. What features of contemporary Crimean society have created this unusual sociolinguistic picture?

In Crimea, ethnic Ukrainians gain no popularity for supporting their ethnic group, as there is deep disdain and mistrust of the central Ukrainian government by the ethnic Russian majority and in Crimea in general (Barrington and Herron 2002). Ethnic Ukrainians in Crimea might be considered a diaspora as well, considering their relative cultural isolation from the rest of Ukraine, despite their geographic proximity. Given that ethnic Ukrainians in Crimea distinguish speakers of their own ethnic group based solely on language performance (self-ascribed group identity), while other ethnic groups also distinguish them as separate (other-ascribed group identity), Ukrainians may be forming their own ethnic identity in Crimea.