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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

“Every computer sold in our country must have an electronic dictionary of the Ukrainian language”

27 February, 2007 - 00:00
THE FUTURE OF THE YOUNG STATE / Photo by Solomia ROZHKO, Lviv

The language issue may cause discord in our society. Unfortunately, we are witnesses to the first manifestations of this phenomenon. However, language can also bring peace to society. But a certain condition is necessary: crucial attention. Above all, citizens who want to study and master Ukrainian must be given such an opportunity, so that they can find all the required textbooks, references, and dictionaries in bookstores.

This is a task our government must set itself if it truly wants as many people as possible to know and use the Ukrainian language. Despite all the normative documents that are supposed to protect the Ukrainian language, the current situation is anything but ideal.

In order to clarify the question of perfecting the Ukrainian language and in conjunction with International Mother Language Day, the Ukrainian Linguistic and Information Foundation at Ukraine’s National Academy of Sciences held a traditional roundtable entitled “Language and Culture.” Below is an interview with the foundation’s director and corresponding member of NANU, Volodymyr SHYROKOV.

It seems that journalists, let alone ordinary citizens, know nothing about your Ukrainian Linguistic and Information Foundation as an organization that develops the lexical basis of the Ukrainian language, which should be a reference for all people working in the field of letters.

V.Sh.: The Ukrainian Linguistic and Information Foundation is a research institute functioning under the aegis of Ukraine’s National Academy of Sciences. It has a staff of 43, including 25 research fellows. Our activities are tied to research and development trends. Our research programs are based on studies of natural language, mainly through formal computer methods; in other words, computational linguistics. The foundation’s applied activity consists of creating a lexical base.

What about orthography?

V.Sh.: There is an academic orthography and we must use it.

Do you mean the 1933 orthography?

V.Sh.: Yes. Academic dictionaries are the de facto language standard; they are being prepared on the basis of the existing orthography. Language is a conservative system and destabilization produces negative consequences. Our range of activities is broad and orthography is just one component. In my opinion, there is no orthographic problem in Ukraine. As for changes to the current orthography, each one should be studied very carefully because those who come up with such “innovations” as a rule fail to provide the proper scholarly substantiation for their initiatives.

But such initiators often represent prestigious organizations?

V.Sh.: Yes. For example, V. V. Nimchuk represents the Institute of Ukrainian Language at the Academy of Sciences. He is a corresponding member of our academy. Several years ago the Naukova Dumka Publishers issued the experimental Draft of the New Ukrainian Orthography under his editorship. Certain structures are using it (perhaps because they believe that the democratic principles of society allow them to ignore current standards). I don’t think that the Ukrainian linguistic system will benefit from this.

How can interested organizations start collaborating with you?

V.Sh.: Beginning in 2001, we have been publishing electronic dictionaries every year. We have five to date, the latest issued in 2006 — this is more than 252,000 entries. The sixth edition of the orthographic dictionary with 170,000 entries was published recently. However, these dictionaries do not contain our entire lexical base. Thus, the general Ukrainian grammatical electronic dictionary has more than 570,000 entries, whereas the language’s actual capacities are much larger.

The publication of dictionaries by our foundation is done on government contracts. The sums are symbolic, so the print run of the sixth edition of the orthographic dictionary was only 2,000 copies. The first edition (1994) had a print run of 230,000 copies, and every subsequent edition did not exceed 10,000 copies.

Is this inadequate funding proof that the government is not interested in improving knowledge of the Ukrainian language?

V.Sh.: The government is interested. The president signed an edict about marking Ukrainian Book Year in 2007. One of its clauses makes it clear that the Cabinet of Ministers, in collaboration with the National Academy of Sciences, must draft a national program aimed at developing the national lexical base. Our foundation is dealing precisely with these questions: research and development of a national lexical base. In 2004 the Cabinet of Ministers issued a directive granting our lexical base (not only printed matter but also computer databases that we have created) scholarly project status, which is thus national property.

Not so long ago our team, jointly with other linguistic institutes and universities, completed a large lexicographical project resulting in a 20-volume descriptive dictionary of the Ukrainian language. Eighteen volumes contain basic vocabulary (some 190,000 entries) and two volumes contain onomastic data (about 70,000 place names). This dictionary is in our database, and this year we are planning to issue the first volume with a tentative print run of 1,000 copies. This will be a unique descriptive dictionary that will allow the building of a semantic marking system (known as the Semantic Web, an Internet search engine).

As for the above-mentioned state program, we hope to have a clear-cut action plan by June 1, along with funds supplied by the state for developing the lexical base. We will then be able to increase our print runs. In addition, this program contains a series of terminological dictionaries, particularly trilingual ones (Ukrainian-Russian-English format). We are working on print and electronic versions. I think this will be another 20-volume compilation.

Another lexicographical project that will definitely be on the national level is an etymological dictionary of the Ukrainian language, which will provide information on the origins of Ukrainian words. This project was initiated by Academician O. S. Melnychuk and is currently supervised by Academician V. H. Skliarenko. Most of the authors are staff members of the O. O. Potebnia Institute of Linguistics. The third volume of this dictionary was published in 1989, but that was as far as the project got. We entered this dictionary into our Dictionaries of Ukraine series, and in 2005 Naukova Dumka published the fourth volume, followed by a fifth in 2006. We are preparing the sixth volume and developing a system to issue the seventh one, which will be an index to all the languages listed in the previous six volumes. The first four published volumes of this etymological dictionary contain references to 246 languages. It is difficult to predict how many references the seventh volume will have.

Is this cooperation with the languages of the world?

V.Sh.: This definition tallies with a project entitled “Lexica- Slavica,” a system of universal Slavic lexicography. We are collaborating with the Vinogradov Institute of the Russian Language and the Institute for Slavic Studies under the aegis of the Polish Academy of Sciences; we have cooperation arrangements with Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Serbia, and Macedonia. Our foundation is trying to establish Ukraine as a center of general Slavic lexicography, building bilingual bridges among peoples, like the Macedonian-Ukrainian and Ukrainian-Macedonian dictionaries we are working on today.

What kind of dictionary do you refer to as concise?

V.Sh.: One that has 20,000 words or fewer. A modern standard dictionary must have 200,000 entries and this is a time-consuming job. For example, the 11-volume descriptive Dictionary of the Ukrainian Language took more than 40 years.

Apart from yours, what other academic institutions are working in the sphere of lexicography?

V.Sh.: Linguistic institutions of the National Academy of Sciences (the Institute of the Ukrainian Language, O. O. Potebnia Institute of Linguistics, Ukrainian Linguistic and Information Foundation, as well as philological faculties and chairs of linguistics at universities that are grouped in departments of literature, language, and art history.

Experts from the Institute of the Ukrainian Language, the O. O. Potebnia Institute of Linguistics, Taras Shevchenko National University, and National Linguistic University took part in developing the 20-volume descriptive dictionary. All told, about 40 lexicographers remain involved in the project.

Our organization published the sixth edition of the orthographic dictionary single-handedly, whereas the etymological dictionary is being developed by the Institute of Linguistics, while we are responsible for the software (our foundation will largely handle the seventh volume).

After the national program is enacted, we will be able to issue three or four volumes of the descriptive dictionary every year. Our foundation has also suggested that certain print runs be included in the national program (e.g., 10,000 copies of the descriptive dictionary) and that market sales techniques be drafted by the Ministry of Finance in collaboration with the Ministry of Economy, and duly specified. As it is, we are only allowed to distribute dictionaries among government-run institutions and agencies — which we are doing. Meanwhile, there is a great public demand for dictionaries. People keep calling us and we have nothing to offer. Last year 10,000 CD-ROMS of Dictionaries of Ukraine were released, while the market demand is for 20,000.

We are proposing that every computer sold in this country be loaded with an electronic dictionary of the Ukrainian language. On behalf of the Academy of Sciences our foundation prepared a message to the Verkhovna Rada (V. M. Lytvyn was parliamentary speaker at the time) substantiating a bill to this end; our initiative was supported, but our parliamentarians had no time to vote on it. We hope that the current Verkhovna Rada will vote on it.

Are any media showing an interest in the modern lexical base?

V.Sh.: There is no interest whatsoever, and I am shocked by their attitude, considering that educational establishments, civic organizations, even churches keep requesting our dictionaries. The impression is that the media, particularly television, don’t give a hoot about social problems linked to linguistic improvements. There is nothing we can do to change this situation. Our foundation is a scholarly institution that conducts research on the language system, and dictionaries are only the applied result of our endeavors.

Isn’t it true that the media should be the first to convey classical literary Ukrainian to the masses?

V.Sh.: If our National Television and Radio Council had gone farther than just issuing Ukrainian-language program quotas and introducing certain nationwide Ukrainian-language information quality criteria, the result would have been quick and effective.

We work with legal entities while ordinary citizens are looking for CD-ROMs of our dictionaries at the Petrivka bazaar. Perhaps we should not hinder those “noble people” who pirated the work of our foundation and “embellished” it with their own cover (including mistakes). After all, they are doing noble work, actualizing the Ukrainian language.

You mean that your foundation does not have the resources to distribute lexical information?

V.Sh.: That’s correct, we cannot. I have mentioned our staff. Our foundation takes part in special meetings, like the hearings in parliament on the language issue in 2003. We hold the roundtable “Language and Culture” on International Mother Language Day every year.

What are the other components of computational linguistics?

V.Sh.: We conduct linguistic expertise and logical-linguistic monitoring of Ukrainian legislation with its many discrepancies and lack of coordination. There is a crucial need for this kind of expertise.

You mean the language aspect?

V.Sh.: Linguistic juridical. Today these questions are the subject of study of a new science known as legal linguistics, so there is a market demand for linguistic expertise.

Are you studying our constitution in the same context?

V.Sh.: Yes. We are generating a semantic marking system that will allow us to define the meaning of a word or word combination in a specific rather than general context. This is a complicated task because current dictionaries do not embrace a multitude of all real situations. If this is not done, varying readings and interpretations will continue to prevent not just legislators from working effectively (the example of the Holodomor). We proposed an initiative: to pass bills together with their linguistic interpretations. This proposal is being studied at the Verkhovna Rada. It is overseen by the Parliamentary Committee on Science and Education, particularly by the committee’s head Kateryna Samoilyk, who has a clear understanding of this issue. The adoption of a pertinent resolution by the Verkhovna Rada will change the landscape of legislative work; there will be no room left for voluntarism, demagoguery, or wheeling and dealing.

Is there a system for monitoring the Ukrainian language for mistakes that crop up most often in Ukrainian-language publications and radio and television?

V.Sh.: We must work in this direction; we must have organizations specializing in social linguistics. Elsewhere in the world they have adequate tools for this kind of research — corpus linguistics (collections of various printed texts, speeches, etc.) Unfortunately, there is only one such Ukrainian national corpus linguistics (42 million references). Our foundation did this work. This corpus offers great possibilities for conducting multi-aspect linguistic research on the language system.

Can the activities of your foundation be compared to its Russian analogs? Does your foundation study the Russian language?

V.Sh.: Our Russian colleagues studied our work and were impressed by our achievements — and this considering that lexicography is very well developed in Russia. As for the Russian language, rest assured that our foundation has about the same amount of data on it as on the Ukrainian language.

We are collecting various dictionaries, trying to create at least one place in the country where you can translate any word. Recently we prepared German, English, French, Spanish, and Turkish grammatical dictionaries.

Are you studying phonetics?

V.Sh.: We have completed a two-volume orthoepic dictionary. Its print run was 5,000 copies, a large one for an orthoepic publication. All the copies sold out very quickly. Last year we published an orthoepic dictionary for schoolchildren and students.

Are you approched by creative associations, drama companies in particular, considering that phonetics is the actor’s second face?

V.Sh.: No, never. Schools and universities are showing an interest; mostly provincial ones, while those in Kyiv keep ignoring us for reasons best known to themselves. In the last while we have been frequently contacted by raion councils, mostly in eastern Ukraine. Our Web site, Ukrainskyi linhvistychnyi portal provides information on the foundation’s activities, and visitors who want to find an electronic dictionary can find it here. We deliberately made it accessible to everyone because we realize there is a colossal demand for it.

In addition, universities are interested in establishing chairs of applied linguistics. Our foundation is opening a Center for Cognitive and Applied Linguistics at Vernadsky Tavriisky National University. We are working on a similar project with National Radioelectronics University of Kharkiv. Last year we signed an agreement with the Kharkiv Polytechnic Institute. I am planning to link all these universities in a single system and have a Web site for a special network that can offer assistance and professional cooperation among philologists, called the “All-Ukrainian Linguistic Dialogue.”

By Lilia BONDARCHUK
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