Hebrew and Russian Language Vitality and Conflict

One way to track the power and influence of a culture is by watching the shifts in language use. People are attached to the language they speak and the culture it embodies. When a group speaks a language it’s because they perceive that language to have standing and relative importance.
Russia may have just asserted itself and flexed its muscles but it’s really a weakened national polity as evidenced by the erosion of the Russian language around the world. As Marshall Singer reports, in his Foreign Affairs article “Language Follows Power” Russia is no longer the official language among many of its republics and the countries of the old Soviet bloc. Many state powers are turning away from Russia and its language and showing preferences for English and French.
Languages get used when they are functional and vital. A vital language is responsive to new usages and terminology and changes to reflect an active culture. Hebrew is a good example of a restored and revitalized language that is only spoken by about 8 million people but exercises a power beyond its numbers because of its ties to sectors of the economy and popular culture as well as traditional religious groups.
As nationalism broke out among non-Russian nationalities they began to reject Russian culture and especially the language. Singer also reports that the publication of books and the production of television programs has decreased in Russian but increased in other native languages. The Russian language has faded with the power of the Russian political entity – recent militarism notwithstanding.
Hebrew, on the other hand, within its national boundaries is so strong that it has drowned out some minority languages. Freeburg in a study of the revival of Hebrew offers interesting data on how other smaller languages in Israel (Karaim, Ladino, and Yiddish) have almost been threatened out of existence. The revitalization of Hebrew is typically pointed to as a tremendous success story but Freeburg suggests that the negative consequences of the revitalization of Hebrew have been overlooked. Still, as Russian and Hebrew evolve they change their relationship with the process of conflict resolution.
The Role of Language and Conflict Resolution
The assumption of universality is one of the first mistakes conflict resolution theorists make. In other words, they emphasize the common structural features of conflicts. Or, at least what they believe to be the common features. A Westerner will talk about “negotiation” or “reconciliation” and assume that these concepts are shared by the conflicting parties. The Westerner will assume common patterns and regularities even if terminology is different.
But Raymond Cohen has written cogently about emphasizing variations rather than resemblances. The differences between conflicting parties are important because meanings carry cultural weight and depict different versions of reality. Peace may seem to be a familiar enough idea but its use by various cultures contains characteristic distinctions and meanings. As Cohen explains, in English to “compromise” means to balance concessions and is a very laudable and positive term. But Arabic lacks such terminology and even the ones they use can imply a compromise over a principle of honor or justice which is to be avoided not embraced. Moreover, Israelis argue in a direct and pragmatic manner and consider deep philosophical arguments over principles to be paralyzing. But in Arabic there is no word for pragmatism and it is offensive to neglect principles.
Managing and resolving conflicts is an unavoidable human activity that is steeped in cultural values and differences. Consequently, meanings and implications of conflict resolution have accumulated over the millennia and found their way into the deep semantic structure of language. These semantic structures must be extracted and re-formed until conflicting parties see the nature of conflict from the same perspective – or at least the perspective that is “close enough.”


About Donald Ellis

Professor Emeritus at the University of Hartford.

Posted on April 1, 2014, in Communication and Conflict Resolution and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. As the video in the link shows, the English language still has room for various interpretations of the concept of “negotiating”. Let’s hope not all Wester “leaders” forget those.

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