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Communism and linguistics

The communist regime tried to change not only people’s deepest convictions, but also the way they expressed their thoughts, ideas and feelings.

Communism and linguistics
Communism and linguistics

, 25.03.2024, 14:00

The communist regime tried to change not only people’s deepest convictions, but also the way they expressed their thoughts, ideas and feelings. The language of communism was commonly known as “wooden language” and Joseph Stalin contributed to its creation. In the summer of 1950, he penned three articles in Pravda, the official newspaper of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, under the title “Marxism and Problems of Linguistics”. In these articles, he outlined new research directions in linguistics that cancelled everything that had been written before. In Romania, which had been under the occupation of the Soviet troops since 1944, Stalin’s views were immediately adopted by the academic and research community, which was under the strict and brutal control of the ideological activists.

The translator and philologist Micaela Ghițescu, who also served time as a political prisoner under the communist regime, went to university in 1949, one year after the education reform of 1948. The new education system introduced political education courses and favoured children coming from working-class backgrounds. In an interview for Radio Romania’s Oral History Centre she gave in 2002, Micaela Ghițescu recalled how politics affected education in two ways:

On the one hand, they would teach us Marxism-Leninism, which was a year-long course. But then, during the French class, we would talk about what they called ‘topical issues’. The French were at war in Indochina at the time, and we would discuss about this during our French class. I remember they used to tell us that the French soldiers were cannibals and that they ate Vietnamese prisoners. And we were supposed to accept this without asking any questions.”

In 1948, Nikolay Yakovlevich Marr became the new star in linguistics, with his theory that all languages evolved from one original language gaining a lot of traction with linguists. Micaela Ghițescu recalls how she first got acquainted with some of Marr’s ideas that were turning upside down everything she and her generation had learnt in high school:

Marr’s theory, which was taught in the general linguistics course, raised all kind of question marks. Marr used to say that language is a superstructure and that changes to the social structure and organisation will lead to a change in language. Another theory was that language adopts the character of the latest conquering people, of the people that are the last to occupy a given land. So, as the Slavs were the last to arrive in these parts, it meant that the Romanian language had a Slavic character and was no longer to be considered a Romance language.”

Marr’s linguistic theory, however, would be denounced by Stalin, who put the national language back in its pride of place. The national language was now no longer believed to have evolved out of a single original language and no longer an expression of superstructure, but the language of the working people. Micaela Ghițescu explains:

With the publication of Stalin’s views on linguistics, Marr’s theories fell out of favour. Stalin’s theory focuses on the quality of a people’s culture, and that’s what gives the language of a given land its specific nature. The Latin culture being prevalent in Romania, Romanian again became a Romance language, overnight. It was just before an exam, and I didn’t know what was going on. The exam was on the same day as the publication of what they described as ‘comrade Stalin’s outstanding contribution to linguistics’ and which overturned everything we had learnt at the course of Prof. Graur. We were to give the written exam in the morning and the oral text in the afternoon. So, for the morning exam, the professor was late, and when he arrived he told us to write whatever we wanted. And for the oral exam in the afternoon he told us to read the newspaper carrying Stalin’s views spread over several pages.”

Stalin’s text also sparked reactions among historians. In an interview from 1993, the archaeologist Petre Diaconu recounted how a colleague ended up in prison:

In 1953, when ‘Marxism and Linguistics’ was published, everyone, from party educators to university professors would now say that everything that had been written on the subject of language before was to be discarded. The work of reference was now Stalin’s publication. During a public meeting at the History Institute, the then deputy director and also a party activist called Chereșteș got up and started telling us what comrade Stalin had said. It was at this point that an archaeologist called Vladimir Dumitrescu also got up and said we’d had enough of Stalin’s theories. This was sometime in spring and he was arrested in July, but it was only later that I realised the connection.”

Stalin’s ambitions as a thinker on language lasted until his death in 1953. Although the language of communism continued to exist after his death and ideology to act as a straitjacket for free thought, a certain sense of relief was felt everywhere.

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