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Can Language Be a Weapon?

HUM Grant recipient presents sociolinguistic research in Brussels, Belgium.

Given the ongoing war in the Ukraine, many people have strong feelings about Russia. But how do those feelings affect Russian speakers, if at all? BYU graduate Hannah Ackerman (Editing and Publishing ’23) recently completed a HUM Grant research project on changing linguistic attitudes towards the Russian language as a result of the Russia/Ukraine war to learn about how individuals form and navigate identity through language.

Ackerman’s interest in her topic began in a sociolinguistics class in winter 2021. Her professor shared a story of a Russian-speaking woman who stopped using her native language and tried to learn Ukranian when Russia invaded Ukraine. The idea that someone would give up their first language in protest fascinated Ackerman because, as she says, “We can’t escape language. It's ingrained in us. It's a part of who we are, and it shapes the way that we think and the way we look at the world.”

With the help of her mentor, Assistant Professor Lisa Morgan Johnson (Linguistics), Ackerman created a three-part survey to gather data from people who speak Russian. Part one included a demographics section that had respondents explain their connection to Russia and Ukraine. Part two asked respondents yes or no questions, including “Do you think that the Russian language is being used as a weapon?” Part three prompted respondents to reflect on their own use of Russian before and during the war, as well as their reactions to hearing or seeing Russian in their everyday lives.

Hannah Ackerman and her mentor point at her presentation poster.
Ackerman (right) and Johnson (left) with Ackerman's presentation.
Photo by Hannah Ackerman

Ackerman posted her survey in a variety of social media groups, including Instagram and Facebook, and Johnson shared it with her contacts, but surprisingly, most of the 150 responses to Ackerman’s survey came after posting the survey to Reddit. Conversations about people’s interactions with and feelings towards Russian sparked in the comments section on the anonymous social media platform. Ackerman says, “It’s a very divisive topic, and people were really diving deep on what the language means to them, where they see the language, what role the language plays in their lives.”

In July 2023, Ackerman flew to Belgium to present her research at the 18th International Pragmatics Conference, hosted by the International Pragmatics Association at the Universite Libre de Bruxelles. In her presentation, she shared her findings. For example, she found that 75% of people who answered “yes” to the question “Do you think that the Russian language is being used as a weapon?” reported using Russian less. People who answered “no” reported using Russian more or the same as before to joke, chat, or share memories with family members and friends. People in both groups responded that encountering Russian in advertisements or social media posts bothered them more during the war than before it started. Ackerman says, “Prior to the war there were more people who noticed [Russian] but didn’t think twice, and through the middle of the war there was a substantial increase in people who were consciously bothered by it.” The linguistic trends that Ackerman researched reflect larger questions about how society and individuals interact with language and form identity.

Ackerman presents her research.
Photo by Hannah Ackerman

Although she was initially nervous about presenting alongside professionals in the field, Ackerman says that her presentation “went so smoothly that by the time they held up the five-minute warning, I wondered, ‘Am I five minutes in?’ because I did not feel like I had been talking very long.” The cherry on top of her successful presentation came when a linguistics professor from Sweden thanked her for coming to present and contributing to the discussion.

Ackerman’s research will be featured in a book published by Cambridge University Press (forthcoming). She launched an editing business over the summer.

Learn more about HUM Grants.