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What language is spoken in Ukraine?

 

According to sociological findings, no one can exist isolated from the reaction of the social environment to her or to him. Applied to Ukraine, it means that Ukrainian-speaking Ukrainians when they speak their native language in their native country very often find themselves in a linguistically hostile environment which exercises a crippling psychological pressure on the Ukrainian speakers. At the same time, the Russian language which is widely spoken in many cities and towns of Ukraine exercises an inordinately strong language pressure on the social environment.

In the article that follows an attempt is made to find the roots and explanation of this abnormal and bizarre phenomenon.

 

In the mid-13th century, the Mongol invasion dealt a devastating blow to the feudal principalities which once made up the powerful Slavic state of Kyivan Rus-Ukraine. Later, attempts to regain independence in the 17th century and then in the late 1910s failed. It was only in 1991 that Ukraine re-emerged as a sovereign state after over seven centuries of foreign domination.

In the middle of the 17th century, the Ukrainian Cossacks launched a national-liberation war against the Polish occupation of their country, and for a short period of time, from 1648 to 1657, an independent Cossack state was established. However, the Polish and Turkish military pressure proved to be too overpowering for Ukraine to handle alone and she had to turn for help to an outside power, Muscovy. The year 1654 when Ukraine was forced by the then military and political situation to seek help from its northern neighbour, the Moscow state, was a turning point. Muscovy was an imperialist power which in the period from 1462 to 1914 increased its size over a thousand times, and it did not hesitate to acquire new dependant territories through treaties or direct invasion (this rate of growth translates into the acquisition of 80 square kilometres  over 30 square miles  a day!).

Russian help led to disastrous consequences for Ukraine. Within several decades she was reduced from an ally to the status of a province. The year 1775 marked the destruction of the last vestiges of Ukrainian independence when Zaporizka Sich, the seat of the Ukrainian Cossacks, was run over by the Russian troops and raised to the ground. It was done on the order of Empress Catherine II. The perfidiousness of this act of destruction was aggravated by the fact of Ukrainian Cossack troops being involved in the war Russia fought at that time against Turkey. The empress promised special favours and privileges for the valour the Cossacks displayed in battles against the Turks and chose the time in June 1775 when most of the Cossacks were fighting the Turks, to lay the Sich waste. At the same time, Cossacks commanders and rank-and-file Cossacks were awarded with gold and silver medals  Petro Kalnyshevsky, a Cossack otaman, was given a gold medal and almost a thousand of his Cossacks were given silver medals by the Russian command in appreciation of their victories. Little did the Cossacks know what fate awaited them. After the destruction of the Sich and the scrapping of the last tiny remnants of the autonomy of the Ukrainian Hetman statehood, the valorous Cossack commanders, Kalnyshevsky included, were arrested and exiled to Siberia. A favour and privilege indeed.

Back in 1654, when Ukraine entered an alliance with Russia, she was a country culturally considerably more developed than Muscovy. Ukrainian cultural development which peaked in the 11th and 12th centuries was slowed down by brutal interruptions in the succeeding centuries but never stopped, and in the 17th century many Ukrainian peasants could read and write whereas in Muscovy even the top stratum  boyars  of Russian society was illiterate. Among the boyars who sat on the Boyar Duma, the state organ that dealt with matters of vital importance, were some persons who were unable to read or write.

In the 1640s, well-educated Ukrainian monks were invited to come to Moscow where they set up a school of advanced studies, the first one in Muscovy  the Greeko-Roman School, and a library. In the 18th century, Ukrainians founded 20 seminaries in various parts of Russia and the first theatre in Moscow. Feofan Prokopovych, the rector of the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy in Kyiv, was instrumental, after his coming to Moscow on the invitation of Peter I, in starting an entirely new phase in the development of Russian literature.

The immensely huge Russian Empire was of an extremely variegated ethnic makeup  over 150 peoples and ethnic groups with ethnic Russians constituted only about 40 percent of the entire population, and holding such a state together in unity required a monstrous police force. The danger to the empires unity lay in the very fact of the existence within its territory of peoples and ethnic groups who spoke different languages, had their own cultural and historical traditions, customs and habits. The only way to lessen this danger was to assimilate them into one entity, the Russian people, to Russify them.

It was Peter I who launched a policy aimed at doing away with Ukrainian culture in general and the Ukrainian language in particular. Starting from 1720, many ukases were issued to suppress the Ukrainian language and culture. They included bans on using the Ukrainian language in offices and in official transactions; on using the Ukrainian language in churches and in sermons; on giving Ukrainian names to children at baptism; on calling the Ukrainian language Ukrainian  it was prescribed to call the Ukrainian language malorosiyskoye narechiye  Small-Russian dialect. All in all, the imperialist and then the Soviet Russian empire issued over 170 ukases, bans and orders aimed at suppressing Ukrainian culture and the Ukrainian language.

 

Some of the most important documents dealing with the suppression of Ukrainian culture and language:

1720. Peter Is ukase banning the publication and printing of books in Ukrainian.

1753. Ban on the tuition in Ukrainian at the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy.

1769. Ban on Ukrainian ABC books.

1775. Destruction of the Zaporizka Sich and closure of Ukrainian schools at Cossack centres.

1784. Only Pure Russian is allowed as the language of instruction at the Kyiv Religious Academy.

1863. Ban on printing any books in Ukrainian except for belles-lettres.

1866. Strict surveillance over Ukrainian belles-lettres is introduced.

1876. Ban on importing or bringing from abroad any books in the Small-Russian dialect; theatrical plays in Ukrainian, public recitals in Ukrainian and even the texts in Ukrainian accompanying the music notes are banned.

1895. Ban on childrens books in Ukrainian.

1978. The Soviet Union Communist Party instructions on the improvements in teaching the Russian language in the Soviet Republics.

1983. The priority status is given to the Russian language in non-Russian schools with teachers of Russian getting a higher pay.

 

Yet the most powerful assimilation factor was the economic one. The economic development of Russia in the 19th century brought Russian and Jewish merchants, entrepreneurs and businessmen to Ukraine. Hired labour from other parts of the empire followed. The newcomers settled down in the areas most affected by the growing industrialization. As a result, at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, the ethnic Ukrainians constituted only one third of the entire urban population of Ukraine. The bigger a town was, the fewer ethnic Ukrainians lived in it. For example, in 1897, Odesa had only 5.6 percent of ethnic Ukrainians living in it. In 1874, 60 percent of the inhabitants of Kyiv considered Ukrainian to be their native tongue; by 1897, this figure shrank to 22 percent and to 16 percent by 1917.

The Ukrainian revolution and the national liberation movement of 19171920 and the regaining of independence provided the chance to enter an entirely new phase of history as a sovereign Ukrainian-oriented state. But Ukraine was much too important for the Bolsheviks to let it out of their grip. When Ukraine separated from Russia, the latter lost 92 percent of the former empires production of sugar, 65 percent of the production of pig iron, 77 percent of the production of coal, to say nothing of bread, with Ukraine being a major European producer of grain. The Russian Bolsheviks resorted to open aggression, decisively and with no delays. The Ukrainian Peoples Republic, a sovereign Ukrainian state, collapsed, making the Ukrainian history a story of woes and irretrievable losses.

The next twist of this history of losses was particularly painful. The Russian dictator Joseph Stalin, in his struggle for power, used all the cunningly perfidious means of subversion and division. In order to get the support of the Communist Party (of Bolsheviks) of Ukraine, the biggest local communist party body in the Soviet Union, he allowed a considerable measure of Ukrainianization to take place, which, thanks to the efforts of Ukrainian intellectuals, soon got out of control. By 1930, 89 percent of the periodicals and 77 percent of books published in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic were in Ukrainian. 77 percent of schools provided tuition in Ukrainian. It was the time of cultural renaissance of Ukraine  and it was extremely brutally put an end to in 1931 when many Ukrainian intellectuals were physically destroyed on a scale unprecedented in history; the terrible man-made famine of 1933 killed another 8 million of Ukrainians. It was nothing short of a planned genocide.

The number of ethnic Ukrainians in proportion to other ethnics in Ukraine continued to dwindle during the Soviet era  man-made famines, firing squads, deportations and exile plus the second World War that took 8 to 10 million Ukrainian lives, all combined to bring the Ukrainians close to the brink of being destroyed as a nationality. Stalin even wanted to have all the Ukrainians deported from Ukraine to distant areas of Russia (similarly to what was done with the Chechens in the Caucasus and the Tartars in the Crimea; in fact, an official order was already issued  # 0078 of June 1944, signed by L. Beriya and H. Zhukov), and it was only the enormity of the task, the very logistics of its fulfilment that deterred him from going ahead with this nightmarish plan. The Russian democracy ends where the Ukrainian question begins, wrote Volodymyr Vernadsky, a Ukrainian academician.

Being fluent in Russian was a prerequisite of a successful career in the Soviet times, and it gave the Russian-speaking section of the Ukrainian population an advantage in climbing the social ladder. According to the Ministry of Education of Ukraine, by the end of the 1980s, the ethnic Ukrainians constituted only about 50 percent of the faculties in schools of higher learning  with the ethnic Ukrainians making up 72 percent of the population of Ukraine; the ethnic Russians made up 40 percent of these faculties with their share of the population being only 21 percent.

The history of Ukraine, filled with deportations, exiles, Russification, liquidations, repression, oppressions, imprisonments, famines, migrations, emigrations and brain drain may engender apathy in the Ukrainians of today, and the Ukrainian heroes who burned to ashes in these fires of history, took away with them the secret of their boundless courage and love of their native land. They keep silence under the impenetrable gley of our lack of faith waiting for our reawakening.

And here we are, pondering the throbbing issue of bilingualism in the present-day Ukraine. And we must be honest with ourselves, in assessing the available facts, without making our hopes a fait accompli, and without looking for vengeance, no matter how justified it may seem.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union and after Ukraines regaining her independence, an ongoing cultural national renaissance has been observed. A particularly significant shift towards Ukrainianization has occurred in schools  about 80 percent of secondary schools have been Ukrainianized. The situation is somewhat worse in schools of higher learning with only 50 percent of them being functionally Ukrainian (Ukrainian in its capacity of the official language is supposed to be the language of tuition in all the schools of Ukraine but the hard facts indicate a different situation). In book publishing the situation is considerably worse  only 30 percent of books in Ukraine are published in Ukrainian, and the worst situation as far as Ukrainianization is concerned, is to be found in the media  only about 11 percent of the newspapers and magazines are published in Ukrainian, and an absolute majority of privately-run TV and radio stations broadcast in Russian; the same is true of the Ukrainian websites on the Internet.

Once again the solution to the national question was offered by Moscow. Things began to happen faster than the Ukrainians could properly react to their subversive character.

Eight years ago, the Russian federation adopted a law On the State Support for Book Publishing and for the Press. This law eased the tax pressure on book- and newspaper- and magazine- publishing and on customs and other duties on the imported printing presses and other equipment and advanced technologies connected with the publishing business. In fact, book publishing has become the fourth most profitable industry after oil, gas, and arms sales. Ukraine, whose publishing business is being strangled by high taxes, has become inundated with cheaper Russian books. According to the most conservative estimates, at least a hundred million dollars of book-buying money leaves Ukraine for Russia annually. In other words, there is so much money potentially available for developing the Ukrainian book publishing. At present, about 90 percent of books to be found at the Ukrainian book market come from Russia. The Ukrainian government does not do anything to remedy the situation, and continues to destroy the Ukrainian book publishing by impossibly high taxes. Ukrainian patriots call the present situation with books and magazines the Russian information intervention  I would give it an even stronger definition: Information war which is being lost due to the incompetence, cultural blindness and national nihilism of the Ukrainian government.

Most of the post-Soviet states that once used to be part of the Soviet Union, faced linguistic problems similar to that Ukraine has. But the ways of solving it were different. Back in 1989, the Latvian parliament, for example, passed a law on the compulsory use of the Lithuanian language in public places and set limits to the use of the Russian language in business, both private and state-run; the signs in public places were to be only in Latvian, with the tourist and cultural spheres being the only exceptions. In 1998, a new, much stricter law on the functioning of Latvian in Latvian society was passed; it made Latvian the only language of tuition to be used in Latvian schools; an amendment to this law allows for dismissal from work of persons whose knowledge of Latvian is not sufficient.

There seems to be very little done by government or president in Ukraine to stem the tide of Russification in Ukraine. President Leonid Kuchma, speaking at a press conference in Symferopol, the Crimea, said without mincing his words, There must be no sharp Ukrainianization in Ukraine. It is a step-by-step process  people themselves will come to the understanding that the knowledge of Ukrainian is necessary for them. But in order for people themselves to understand, it is pivotal for government and president to understand the vital necessity of knowing Ukrainian.

 

The Hromadska Dumka Sociological Studies Centre carried out a sociological survey to determine what the language situation in Kyiv was.

 

The question What language do you use in everyday life was given the following answers:

mostly Russian  52 percent

both Russian and Ukrainian

in equal measure  32 percent

mostly Ukrainian  14 percent

exclusively Ukrainian  4.3 percent

 

According to the preliminary data obtained during the All-Ukrainian census which was held in 2001, 67.5 percent of the population of Ukraine regarded Ukrainian as their native tongue, which is 2.8 percent more than was declared in the census of 1989. 29.6 percent of the population said they regarded Russian as their native tongue, which is 3.2 percent less than was declared in the 1989 census. These figures indicate that 85.2 percent of ethnic Ukrainians recognize the Ukrainian language as being their mother tongue (14.8 percent ethnic Ukrainians said Russian was their native language). The ethnic Russians living in Ukraine are more consistent  95.9 percent of them regard Russian as their mother tongue, and only 3.9 percent of them said Ukrainian was their native language.

 

The language is not just the vocabulary we can use. To be regarded a native speaker of a language, particularly the one well developed, one is supposed to be able to speak grammatically and phonetically correctly; one is supposed to think in the language one uses and do it automatically; one is supposed to be able to engage in creating new words (neologisms) if need be; one is supposed to speak idiomatically and do many other things with ones language. The present-day linguistic situation in Ukraine is of a nature that precludes the mastery of Ukrainian on a mass scale and on a level required for a fluent native speaker. Only those who are passionate supporters and lovers of the Ukrainian language and culture are prepared to go to any lengths to attain perfection in language use. And such perfection includes being absolutely flexible and spontaneous in expressing oneself, being able to engage in word play, being able to use all the language registers, from the urban to folk talk, being able to use the whole spectrum of styles, from the colloquial to high brow. One is supposed to enjoy the language one is using, and one is supposed to find language satisfaction in the press one reads or hears on radio and TV broadcasts. None of these things are present in the Ukraine of today. Only when they have become facts of our lives, then it could be said that the language in general use has acquired the status of a national language is supposed to have. It seems that it is the Russian language rather than Ukrainian that has such a status in Ukraine.

Surzhyk  an ugly hybrid of Ukrainian and Russian  continues to be in wide use and it slows down the spread of literary Ukrainian, opening the way to the urbanites ultimately preferring Russian as the chief means of verbal communication. Surzhyk has retained, though in a much thwarted form, the basic features of Ukrainian and its main sphere of usage is communication in the family. Even slang, jargons, swearing and non-verbal communication presuppose a higher level of language use. But Surzhyk reflects a simplified paradigm of thinking, and in this respect is a reflection of spiritual and intellectual deficiency. A young person who speaks Surzhyk and who enters life and has to make a choice between Ukrainian and Russian culture and language orientation is likely to opt for Russian which is vigorously present in all the spheres  Surzhyk simply cannot compete with Russian in prestige.

Partaking in the sublime of culture enchants and gives one a feeling of being free  the freedom of a personality is directly proportional to the possibilities of means of expression. How to shield the Ukrainians from the fatal partaking in the sublime features of an alien culture so that they would fully appreciate the sublimity of their own culture, would fix in their consciousness the beauty of their own native language, would set free the energies of their native land? How to close the gates where there are no fences? How to protect the ethnical and cultural values and feelings in the present-day world which transcends ethnicity? To shield, to close and to protect are the things that Ukraine, a young, impoverished state can hardly do, particularly the Ukraine that in the words of the officialdom pursues a highly balanced, highly tolerant, highly democratic and highly wise policy in the linguistic sphere  the policy, the only palpable result of which will be Russian acquiring the status of a second official language. The highly politicized idea of introducing the official state bilingualism finds many supporters in the eastern parts of Ukraine. But a bilingualism, which allows for complete equality in the functioning of two languages and in the spheres of their use is a figment of the officials imagination. In reality, the principle of efficiency and of why-to-have-two-languages-when-one-would-suffice will promote one language to the total extinction of the other.

If we could look into the future and see what lies in store for us, we would immediately see with great clarity how things are today. God does not give us cuffs for our national nihilism and this absence of divine punishment can probably explain the fact that we, Ukrainians, have regained the sovereignty of our state after 750 years of non-statehood, that we have regained the Ukrainian army and fleet, that we are regaining our native tongue and that we have revived and rebuilt our holy places whose domes once again shine with gold.

 

By Myroslava Herasymovych

 

Myroslava Nechyporenko

A student of the Institute of Philology, Kyiv Shevchenko National University

 

I was lucky to have been born into a Ukrainian-speaking family. My memory takes me back to the time when I was still in the cradle and my Mom was talking to me in a sing-song language, my native tongue, the tongue that has become so dear to me thanks to the dearest of persons, my mother.

I speak Ukrainian both in the family and in public, and I insist on doing it in public places and with my friends, not because I want to stand out, to be different from those who speak Russian, but because Ukrainian is part of my nature, part of me. The Ukrainian language for me is my link with the very heart of my people; it is the language of expressing my innermost feelings and emotions; it is the language that unites me with the ancient culture of my native land, with its sorrows and woes, and with its joys and its beauty. I speak the language that comes from the very core of the Ukrainian nation.

When asked whether I feel underprivileged speaking Ukrainian in the Russian-speaking surroundings, I answer that I do not but at the same time I find the situation highly abnormal, chimerical, and preposterous  a Ukrainian living in Ukraine finding herself constrained speaking her native language, Ukrainian? Isnt it absolutely abnormal to be looked askance at for using your native tongue in social situations?

I feel genuinely sorry for those who neglect their own language and culture in favour of the language and culture of a foreign land  and eventually losing both. To cut oneself from the joy of listening to the songs of your native land  what a terrible loss for ones spirit! The wide-spread disregard for the values of Ukrainian culture is no less shocking for me than being ashamed of ones own language and culture.

Cultures should not and must not be compared as to the level of their prestige. Each culture is unique and has the right to be maintained and partaken of. The more cultures there are in the world, the more culturally diversified the world is, the richer it becomes.

We, Ukrainians, must get rid of that feeling of being second-rate that has been pounded into us by the centuries of foreign domination. We must learn how to acquire self-respect and national dignity, we must understand at last that there is nothing more prestigious than being what we are, Ukrainians.

 

Zoya Pavlovska

A student of the Institute of Philology, Kyiv Shevchenko National University

 

In my family, I speak Ukrainian with my father and brother, and I use Russian talking to my mother who does know Ukrainian but she prefers Russian which is her mother tongue.

I find it very unfortunate that in many social situations I have to revert to Russian in order not to stand out. I do not think its a good idea to introduce Russian as a second official language in Ukraine  Ukrainian will be in jeopardy of being pressed out of wide use in urban areas altogether. Language is part of national culture, and knowing your native tongue gives you an access to the treasures and values of your national culture. Language is a safeguard against being engulfed by an alien culture, against losing state sovereignty.

It gives me a nice feeling to see the signs on the stores in Ukrainian, to read Dyakuyemo za pokupku (Thank you for purchasing this item) rather than Spasibo (the same but in Russian) written on the checks they give you in stores. Its so important for people to feel that they live in a sovereign country, a country which has its own language with a history of many centuries, and that Ukraine is not a part of Russia. If, God forbid, Russian which is used so much anyway, becomes an official language then it will be double difficult for the Ukrainian people to fully realize that they are a separate ethnic and linguistic entity in its own right.

I am of the opinion that everyone should speak the language of their choice, but at the same time I am with a Ukrainian poet who writes, May God grant us the boon/ Of becoming true Ukrainians soon.

 

Olena Samolyst

A student of the Institute of Philology, Kyiv Shevchenko National University

 

I have to admit that in spite of being fluent in Ukrainian, I use Russian both in the family and in public. The problem the Ukrainian language faces now is a result of several centuries of the historical development during which the Russian language had an advantage over Ukrainian. It will not be easy to solve the problem. It will take a lot of effort to create favourable conditions for the development of Ukrainian so that it would become the principal means of communication in the family and in society. If Ukraine proves its economic and social worth, then it will be much easier for the Ukrainian language to do so.

I stand for tolerance and would not like to see any forceful measures used to press Russian out of use in Ukraine. The histories of Russia and Ukraine were too closely intertwined in the past two centuries for the accumulated cultural and historical legacy to be ignored. You cannot revive one language by denying the right for existence to another.

I think that Russian should be given the status of the second official language of Ukraine  there are too many people in this country who use Russian as their native tongue. Their interests must not be ignored. Take Finland for example  the Swedes make up only 11 percent of its population and yet Swedish is recognized as the second official language. In Ukraine, the percentage of Russian and of those who regard Russian as their mother tongue is much higher.

Besides, being bilingual is always culturally beneficial  isnt it true that the more languages you know the richer culturally you are? And we, Ukrainians, are bilingual in our majority.

 

Olha Andrushchakevych

A student of the Department of International Relations, Kyiv Shevchenko National University

 

Speaking about bilingualism in Ukraine one feels like using the words tragedy, disaster, crisis or other words in the same line in describing it rather than a dry word like phenomenon.

There are widely spread views in Ukraine which are highly detrimental to the development of the Ukrainian language but instead of being given a proper assessment in an open polemic, they are uncritically propagated.

Many of those who defend their lack of knowledge of the language of the state they live in, or even worse  their lack of any desire to learn this language, emphasize the point that language for them is only a means, a tool which they use to express their thoughts and feelings, and that the Ukrainian language does not play any role other than the one of being a vehicle of communication in society. But I, for one, absolutely cannot accept such an argument. Language is an embodiment of the spirit of the national past, of the national mentality; it reflects the historical development of a nation, the formation of the nation, its traditions and symbols. A nation without its own language lacks, in my opinion, a vitally important element of nationality.

In debates over the equality and equal opportunities for two languages in a bilingual situation, an argument in favour of bilingualism cites the examples of those countries which have two or more languages as official. It does not seem to be a valid argument. Out of 47 European states (Russia, Turkey and Trans-Caucasian states included), 41 countries have given the language of the major ethnic group the status of the official one. The examples of Canada and Switzerland, also often cited, are hardly applicable to Ukraine since the circumstances of the historical development of Ukraine and of these two countries were very much different. The different languages used in Canada and Switzerland do not interfere with each other, they coexist on equal terms, without exercising an eliminating pressure on each other. Besides, these languages function each in its own territory (a peaceful coexistence of two or more languages within one region is hardly possible). In Canada, it is the province of Quebec that uses predominantly French, with English being widely used in the rest of the country. We find a similar situation in Switzerland where each of its four languages (in the early 1990s 65 percent of the total population spoke German, 18 percent French, about 10 percent Italian, and about 1 percent Romansh (Rhaeto-Romanic); in 1938 a federal popular vote formally recognized Romansh as a fourth national, and a referendum in 1996 gave it semiofficial status as a federal, language) is predominately spoken in a certain number of cantons.

In these countries with two or more official languages we do not observe a struggle among the languages for dominance. By contrast, in situations, in which the central ethnic group does not have its language established as official as it happened in Yugoslavia, Chechnya or Kurdistan, conflicts are bound to flare up. At the same time, the coexistence of two languages within one national state may lead to the removal of one of the languages from the use in all the spheres of social life, reducing it to a limited function of a means of communication within certain social groups.

In order to have Ukrainian as a freely and fully functional national language, the proper conditions for it must be created. However, the situation is made particularly difficult for the Ukrainian language because of certain provisions in Ukraines constitution for the development and protection of languages spoken by national minorities in Ukraine. Attempts to give the Ukrainian language prominence and priority may come against stiff opposition on the part of champions of justice and democracy.

The slogan We are all of us people of Ukraine, and it does not matter which language we speak has gained considerable currency. In my opinion this slogan is not something that we should rally under or support. Ukraine is a state that has an ethnic majority  ethnic Ukrainians who are entitled to their own native language, and consequently the state of Ukraine is entitled to one official national language  Ukrainian. Which does not mean, of course, that other languages functioning in Ukraine should be suppressed.

The loss of Ukrainian as the language of the majority will necessarily lead to the loss of sovereignty. Isnt it paradoxical that in a country of many hundreds years of national history, the national language is in need of protection and support? Or in fact is in danger of being superceded by another language? Isnt it high time we did something about eliminating this danger?

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