Language Follows Power: The Linguistic Free Market in the Old Soviet Bloc

Along with political and economic domination, a great power exerts tremendous cultural influence over its colonies or satellites. Language offers a particularly dramatic illustration, as with the linguistic quilt the French and the British stitched across Africa. When empires decline, so does their cultural sway, including the use of their language. For insight into changing power relations after communism's fall, listen to what the former Soviet bloc is speaking.

People's attachment to language and the culture it embodies-or resentment of them, in the case of a conqueror's tongue and culture-runs deep. But whether the motivation is emotional or pragmatic, ardent nationalism or the desire to get along, any language people choose for themselves and their children is a function of their perception of that language's standing in the world and of the relative importance of the nation or nations that use it.

As Moscow's power waned across the Soviet Union, in Eastern Europe, and on the periphery of empire, so did the linguistic hold of Russian. Six years after the demise of the U.S.S.R., among the 15 erstwhile republics and 20 countries of the old Soviet bloc, Russian is the official language only in Russia and--after the referendum on the June 1997 union treaty with Russia--in Belarus, where it has equal status with Belarusan. By comparison, almost four decades after the collapse of the British and French empires,

English or French is still one of the official languages in more than half the former dependencies, and many use only English or French.

Moreover, as the newly independent and the once nominally but now genuinely autonomous states turn to powers other than Russia for their economic, military, and other needs, their citizens are increasingly speaking those powers' languages, along with their own native tongues. Russian is no longer the language that elites and people concerned with getting ahead are encouraging their children to study. English is, followed by German, with French often a distant third. Language use serves as a barometer of the severity of the Soviet collapse, the attraction of Europe, and the allure of English, which is emerging as the contemporary lingua franca of the West and large reaches of the rest of the world.

THE REPUBLICS TURN THEIR BACKS

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