Professor Svetlana Ter-Minasova, President of the Faculty of Foreign Languages and Area Studies, Lomonosov Moscow State University, Russia

December 9, 2016

Professor Svetlana Ter-Minasova of Lomonosov Moscow State University, Russia, gives an insight into the dangers created by language and culture in the fields of native and foreign language acquisition and translation, among others, dangers that are incomprehensibly present in every sphere of human communication. This paper was originally delivered as a Keynote Presentation at The European Conference on Arts & Humanities 2016 in Brighton, UK.

Nowadays it is common knowledge that the national language and the national culture as encapsulated in words play a very important part in moulding the personality of the user as well as the national character, mentality, identity.

Traditionally, national security is supposed to be the problem, task and responsibility of police, armies and military intelligence. However, national security implies not just the actual fighting with an existing threat but, even more so, investigating the origin, the roots of this danger which, thus, could be nipped in the bud. Here are the results of my investigation of the actual and potential sources in Russian and English that may and do provoke intercultural and international conflicts. The material of the research is Russian and English languages and cultures. Let us begin from the very beginning, i.e. from early childhood.

Lullabies, children’s rhymes

The first lines of Mikhail Lermontov’s very popular “A Cossack’s Lullaby” (a nineteenth-century classic of Russian literature) go as follows:

A fierce Chechen if crawling along the rapid, stormy river Terek,
Sharpening his dagger.
But your father is an experienced warrior,
So don’t worry, my dear little boy,
You may sleep soundly.

The lullaby was written by Lermontov during the war of the Russians with the Chechens, the people of a nation in the Caucasus. Lermontov was exiled by the Russian tsar to the battlefield for his anti-tsarist poem “On the Poet’s Death” in which he accused the tsar Nicholas I and his court of Alexander Pushkin’s death. Nowadays, since the war with the Chechens in the late nineties of the last century, this lullaby could easily trigger a conflict.

One very popular Russian children’s counting-out rhyme sounds quite aggressive: “A new moon is coming out of the fog, takes out a knife, I will cut, I will beat…” During World War II another variant appeared: “A German is coming out of the fog, takes out a knife…” In Russian the two words mesiets (a new moon) and nemets (a German) sound alike.

50 English Children’s Favourite Songs:

Taffy was a Welshman, Taffy was a thief,
Taffy came to my house and he stole a piece of beef.
I went to Taffy’s house, Taffy wasn’t home,
Taffy came to my house and stole a marrow bone.

This English children’s favourite song describes Welshmen as successful thieves.

Fairy tales and folklore

Fairy tales and other folklore items in both languages and cultures under investigation are full of horrible stories about monsters, ogres (man-eating giants), wicked witches (baby-gobbling old ugly women), violence, murders, etc.

The Russian Baba-Yaga is an ugly wicked witch from Russian fairy tales who steals babies and little children and then fries or bakes them in the oven for a meal. Usually they are saved at the last minute by a hero or a heroine.

The Oxford Dictionary of English Folklore gives the following title: The Princess who Murdered her Child. Shooting at the Father’s Corpse.

School children’s “folklore”

It is very popular with schoolchildren in Russian secondary schools from the Far West to the Far East. This kind of folklore is full of violence with regard to teachers and school administration.

Interestingly, these “jocular” rhymes and poems in which schoolmasters and schoolteachers are shot, hanged, drowned, etc. invariably caused slightly embarrassed smiles with all the adult audiences when I spoke on the subject. It was clear from the reaction of the listeners that they are fully aware of this kind of folklore and still remember all these “poems” (with slight variations) from their own happy school days. This confirms the well-known truth that children’s upbringing is extremely important because the ideas acquired by people in the early years are basic and well remembered for the rest of their lives. This is confirmed, among many other things and words, by an old oriental saying: “If you want to defeat your enemy, bring up his children.”

Adult language supports, reinforces and intensifies all these motifs of violence and aggression with a great variety of linguistic means.

The evidence of aggression, violence and xenophobia inherently present in a language can be found in the following sources.


The Thesaurus Dictionary of Russian Idiomatic Collocations [Baranov, Dobrovolskiy: 2007] includes 119 entries in the long columns headed “Physical Violence”. The absolute majority of the entries are marked as common, plain, jargon, indecent, obscene, low style, popular everyday usage. No comment!

Next comes the column of antonyms, which has four headings: kindness, humanity, inoffensiveness, docility. Under these four headings there are only seven entries (as opposed to 119 for “Physical Violence”) used to show kindness, humanity, etc. which are marked: journ. for journalism and bibl. for biblical.

Thus, the Russian language provides its users with a very large group/arsenal of linguistic means to express aggression and violence, and these are widely used in everyday life. They are opposed to a handful of kind and inoffensive expressions used by journalists and priests. As for journalists, the themes of kindness and docility etc. are not very popular, to put it very mildly.

Language teaching materials: Dictionaries, textbooks

The Longman Active Study Dictionary of English presents a bloody drama illustrating the verb “to kill”: “First she killed her husband, then she killed herself.”

Only one ELT dictionary illustrates the verb as “You shalt not kill.” The obsolete form “shalt” is not quite appropriate for foreign students of English but the content of the example is good.

Here are only two examples from the sea of language teaching materials. One is from a school textbook of English for Russian schoolchildren studying English, the other one is a text of a lesson in Russian for American students.

A hundred miles from any settlement in the midst of the wilderness the Lykov family lived, spoke and thought in the manner of the 17th century. In 1932, Karp Lykov had taken his wife into the remote Siberian taiga, deep into the Abakan River valley in response to disturbing events in Russian society. The family grew, and the men and women lived separately in a pitch-dark house with no lighting. It was a tiny colony with the primitive living conditions of the time of Peter the Great. They missed World War II and all the shake-ups that followed. The family had lived there for 46 years all alone, until geologists discovered them in 1978. Within a month three of the five family members suddenly died one after another and there is still little explanation for it. Soon Karp Osipovich, the family head, passed away, too. The remaining younger daughter Agafia, in her fifties, began to build a fragile relationship with the outside world with thoughtful dignity… (Lost in the Taiga)

Language, Culture and National Security Svetlana Ter-Minasova

Proverbs, quotations, aphorisms, collocations and set expressions

These sayings can be full of violence, xenophobia and aggression. For example, one African proverb goes: “If you meet a snake and an Ethiopian, first kill the Ethiopian, because the snake may not be poisonous.”

A Russian set-phrase meaning to have a deep sleep is “to sleep like a murdered/killed one”. It can be used about anybody, including babies. “A dead hour” is the time of daytime sleep after lunch in children’s institutions.

Don’t mention a rope in the house of the hanged (В доме повешенного не говорят о веревке). (Mind: the form hanged implies a crime, not a suicide.)

The English language, culture, mentality are notorious for their open negative attitude to everything foreign and foreigners. These words are most often used in negative, xenophobic contexts. Xenophobia, as is well-known, means extreme dislike or fear of foreigners, their customs, their religions, etc.

The English words foreign and foreigner are used as a rule in negative contexts. In English dictionaries the use and meaning of these words are usually presented quite negatively:

Anne’s father would not consent to her marrying a foreigner. (AL Dictionary of Contemporary English)
He has a distrust of foreigners. (AL Dictionary of Contemporary English)
My grandparents are suspicious of foreigners to the point of xenophobia. Xenophobia and racism became an increasingly strong undercurrent in the films they made at that time. The twin pressures of recession and immigration have undoubtedly fueled xenophobia (Cambridge International Dictionary of English (CIDE), CUP, 1995, p. 1694).

In the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations foreigners are also described negatively: “We cannot bring ourselves to believe it possible that a foreigner should in any respect be wiser than ourselves” (Anthony Trollope. Orley Farm (1862), ch. 18). And: “…abroad is unutterably bloody, and foreigners are fiends” (Nancy Mitford. The Pursuit of Love, 1945, ch. 4). This quotation is widespread in modern English usage.

This dictionary gives a quotation from a French play which has become popular for its strong “anti-foreign tendency”: “Plus je vis l’étrangers, plus j’aimai ma patrie” [The more I see foreigners, the more I love my country] (Du Belloy. Le Siège de Calais, 1765, act 1 sc.3).

Tom Stoppard, a well-known English writer, makes a somewhat disdainful assessment of Roman poets through the mouth of a character of his play who is an expert in the classical literature of antiquity: “Romans were foreigners who wrote for foreigners two millennia ago.”

This attitude to foreigners is clearly (forcefully) expressed in a well-known joke about an English lady visiting Hungary who spoke about Hungarians scornfully calling them “these foreigners”. When she was politely explained that in Hungary it is she who is a foreigner she was greatly astonished and retorted: “I cannot be a foreigner anywhere! I am English.”

The dislike and distrust of foreigners is so deep and strong that even such a neutral educational term like foreign languages is being ousted by international nowadays.

Derogatory, scornful ethnonyms

In other words, names of nationalities. For example, in Russian derogatory ethonyms include fritz for German, zhid for Jews, yaposhki for the Japanese, kitajoza for the Chinese, khachik for Caucasians, khokhol for Ukrainians, moskal for Russians (by Ukrainians), chuckchi/eskimoes for Inuits. They are considered to be very offensive and trigger conflicts often and easily, especially with young people.

The English language also has a great collection of scornful, derogatory names of nationalities (ethnonyms) provoking conflicts and violence.

English derogatory ethnonyms presented as follows show an increase of negative connotations. The mildest of them is Johnny foreigner – usually about a young male foreigner. Others include:

hans – a German (cf. fritz in Russian);
iti – an Italian;
yid (strong) – a Jew;
paki (very strong) – a Pakistani;
dago (very strong) – a man of dark skin;
wag (very strong) = Am. nigger – a black man;
limeys (Am.) – Englishmen.

Another explosive and conflict-generating sphere of linguistic means are so-called international jokes in which representatives of different nationalities find themselves in the same situation but their behaviour differs (reactions are different) according to the stereotypical images that are attached to certain nations.

These images are usually far from being complimentary, putting it mildly. There are many jokes about one particular nationality (often the closest neighbour), like, for example, the French make mockery of Belgians, the English of Scots and the Irish, Russians of Inuits, etc.

The stereotypical Scot in international jokes is absurdly greedy. For example: 1. A boy from Glasgow killed both of his parents to get a free meal for orphans; 2. The Grand Canyon in the USA came into existence when a Scot dropped a penny into a ditch.

The Irish are invariably presented as drunkards. For example:

An Irishman is sitting next to the conveyor belt at Dublin airport crying his eyes out.
“What’s the problem?” asked a fellow passenger.
“I’ve lost all my luggage,” he wailed.
“How did it happen?”
“The cork fell out.”

A man walked into a bar and saw an Irishman he knew sitting at the table with an empty pint glass in front of him.
“Would you like another one?” asked the man.
The Irishman looked at him quizzically and said, “Now what would I be wanting with two empty pint glasses?”

Invariably, stereotyped images of nations are either critical or openly derogatory, especially, as has been mentioned above, when they nominate neighbouring (and, therefore, more familiar) peoples. Ethnic (ethnical) jokes are very popular all over the world and have become quite a flourishing business. Indeed, cards, plates, souvenirs with these jokes are in a brisk demand and sell very well. However, they hurt national feelings of the peoples that are mocked at. The modernized version of these jokes under the influence of the political correctness tendency/trend presents the “vices” of the nations which are being mocked in a kind of “perverted” way as their would-be virtues: through the words with the opposite meaning, i.e. through antonyms. For example, a widespread text goes like this: “The perfect European should be sober as the Irish, cooking like a Brit, driving like the French, organized as a Greek, humble as a Spaniard, humorous as a German, famous as a Luxembourger”, etc.

Nevertheless, the thinly disguised mockery shines through in these jokes, and the smaller in size or the more insignificant/less significant a nation is, the more hurt its representatives are.

There are – alas! – many more conflict-provoking linguistic means and a comprehensive survey will require a thick volume. Especially important and serious spheres are language teaching materials, mass media language, non-verbal means of communication and many others. The conflicts provoked by language also vary greatly – from a quarrel within a family to a war between nations. However, as remarkable nineteenth-century Russian humorist Alexey Konstantinovich Tolstoy (not to be mixed up with Alexey Nikolaevich Tolstoy) wrote, “no one will cover the uncoverable”, especially in the genre of an academic paper. Its main purpose has been to draw attention to the extremely important subject of national security through language.

Talking about aggression and xenophobia in language it is worth mentioning some linguistic changes in modern Russia and the Russian language.

The words aggressor and aggressive, which imply a bitter and deep hostility to people, were especially active in usage in the 1930s when the Second World War was approaching. No wonder that at that time Russian collocations like немецкие/японские агрессивные планы / агрессоры [German/Japanese aggressive plans/aggressor] became clichéed.

Interestingly, however, nowadays in the second millennium, that is in the post-Soviet period of Russian history, the Russian words агрессор (“aggressor”), агрессивный (“aggressive”) are hardly ever used in mass media texts. However, the Russian noun агрессивность (“aggressiveness”) and especially the adjective агрессивный (“aggressive”) have suddenly come to the fore, but they have changed their collocability and have acquired new – positive! – connotations. These words may be used as terms in scientific and academic texts: in economics – aggressive portfolio, in linguistics – speech/language aggression – where they are stylistically neutral. That is how the loss of negative connotations began. However, now they are used more and more frequently with positive connotations: sports aggressiveness, aggressive music/advertisement. In positive contexts these words are associated with being purposeful, active, energetic, taking the initiative. According to the Chancellor of Moscow State University: “We must be more aggressive in forwarding our ideas…” The Deputy Minister of Education stated: “Humanitarians must be more aggressive in demanding grants for their research”.

To sum up

There is no doubt that national human languages loaded with national culture, ideology, the system of values, etc. play a major role in developing aggression and xenophobia and thus may provoke or may trigger international and intercultural conflicts.

We all live now in wonderful and disturbing times. Wonderful – thanks to technological innovations having opened up new kinds and ways of human communication, first and foremost the Internet. Disturbing because most nations have become aware of the threat of losing their national identity in the globalizing world. The reaction is paradoxical, as has been mentioned above.

And there is a threat of a world conflict between national security and international one.

In this situation a very important aspect or factor should not be neglected; it is the human one, the national language intertwined with the national culture.

If one hand, one bomb is stopped from being used for violence because a word has not been spoken or written, all the expenses of money, time, etc. will be justified.

Memento lingua.

Photography by Simona Karvauskaitė, SK Photography.

Professor Svetlana Ter-Minasova gave this Keynote Presentation at The European Conference on Arts & Humanities 2016 in Brighton, UK.

Professor Svetlana Ter-Minasova (Moscow State University, Russia). Photography by Thaddeus Pope

About Svetlana Ter-Minasova

Professor Svetlana Ter-Minasova is President of the Faculty of Foreign Languages and Area Studies at Lomonosov Moscow State University, Russia, and Professor Emeritus in the University. She is President of the National Association for Applied Linguistics (NAAL), Chair of the Russian Ministry of Education’s Foreign Language Research and Methodology Council, and President and founder of both the National Society for English Language Teachers in Russia, and the National Association of Applied Linguistics. She holds the Lomonosov Award for teaching achievements, Fulbright’s 50th Anniversary Award, and was named Doctor Honoris Causa by the University of Birmingham in the UK, the State University of New York (SUNY) in the USA, and the Russian-Armenian (Slavonic) University, in Armenia.


Cultural & Area Studies, Featured, Global, IAFOR Keynotes, Language Learning, World


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