[This post was originally published in March 2014.]
The recent post on the status of the Ukrainian and the Russian languages in Ukraine has generated a discussion of the status of the third—yet often disregarded—East Slavic language: Belarusian. It is the official language of Belarus, yet everything about Belarusian—the spelling of its name, the number of its speakers, and the peculiarities of its grammar—seems to be controversial.
To begin with, the name of this language is spelled many different ways, both in English and in Cyrillic (Russian and Belarusian). In English, the spelling Belarusian (used in this post) is now the most common, with alternative, older spellings, Byelorussian or Belorussian, being less frequently used. In Cyrillic, the word can be spelled with an -a- or an -o- and with one -s- or two -ss-. However, the four spellings are not equally common. A quick series of Google searches reveals that the spelling with -a- correlates with one -s- (481,000 hits for беларуский ‘Belarusian [masculine]’ and 31,000,000 hits for беларуская ‘Belarusian [feminine]’). The spelling with -o- correlates with two -ss- (8,090,000 hits for белорусский ‘Belarusian [masculine]’ and 3,860,000 hits for белорусская ‘Belarusian [feminine]’). The alternative spellings, беларусск- and белоруск- (in both genders) are far more rare. The reason behind this biased distribution is that in Belarusian itself, the word is spelled with an -a- and one -s-, while in Russian the (correct) spelling is with an -o- and two -ss-. A quick review of the actual hits shows that the Belarusian spelling (‑a- and one -s-) is indeed most commonly used in Belarusian websites, while the Russian spelling (-o- and two -ss-) is frequent in both Russian and Belarusian websites. Incidentally, the greater numbers for the feminine in the case of беларуск- and for the masculine in the case of белорусск- is explained by the fact that in Russian the word for ‘language’, jazyk, is masculine, while its Belarusian counterpart, mova, is feminine. (The word for ‘cuisine’ is feminine in both languages.)
How many people speak the language and its vitality status are controversial as well. Our usual go-to website documenting linguistic demographics, the Ethnologue, places Belarusian in the “national language” category, citing the figure of 6,720,000 speakers in Belarus and 7,818,960 speakers worldwide, out of 9,050,000 ethnic Belarusians. However, other sources paint a very different picture. According to the UNESCO Atlas of World’s Languages in Danger, Belarusian belongs in the “vulnerable” category. The figure cited here is 4,000,000 “active users based on various sources”. The Wikipedia article on Belarusian gives more detailed information: according to the 1999 Belarusian census, 6,984,000 Belarus citizens (85.6%) consider Belarusian as their mother tongue, but only 3,686,000 Belarusian citizens (36.7% of the population) use it as the main language at home. Of these, Wikipedia explains, about 3,370,000 (41.3%) are ethnic Belarusians, and roughly 257,000 are members of other ethnicities, such as Russians, Poles, Ukrainians, and Jews.
Outside of Belarus, Belarusian is spoken by relatively small groups. In Russia, it is declared as a “familiar language” by about 316,000 inhabitants, among them about 248,000 Belarusians, comprising about 30.7% of Belarusians living in Russia (data from the 2002 Russian census). In Ukraine, Belarusian is declared as a “native language” by about 55,000 Belarusians, comprising about 19.7% of Belarusians living in Ukraine (data from 2001 Ukrainian census). In Poland, Belarusian is declared as a “language spoken at home” by about 40,000 inhabitants (data from 2002 Polish general census). Thus, in all countries where it is spoken, the Belarusian language is neither the mother tongue nor the home language of the majority of ethnic Belarusians. Such a status is particularly striking in Belarus itself, which is the focus of the remainder of this post.
According to a 2009 study, conducted by the Belarusian government, the number of Belarus citizens who speak Belarusian at home had plummeted to only 11.9% from the 36.7% figure found a decade earlier. The same study found Russian to be spoken at home by 72% of Belarusians. The decline of active use of Belarusian is further confirmed by the finding that only 29.4% of Belarusians can write in the language, as well as speak and read it, while 52.5% can only read and speak it. According to the research, one out of ten Belarusians does not understand Belarusian at all. Other sources also indicate that ever fewer Belarusian children are acquiring the language as their mother tongue.
This decline in the use of Belarusian and its increasing lack of intergenerational transmission are due in large part to the growth of Russian as the predominant language in Belarus. As was the case with many other ethnic languages of the USSR during the post-WWII era, Belarusian was effectively replaced by Russian as the principal means of communication throughout the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic. The post-war number of publications in the Belarusian language in the republic drastically lagged behind those in Russian. The use of Belarusian as the main language of education was gradually limited to rural schools and faculties in the humanities. Although the law provided options for studying the “second language of instruction”, which would be Belarusian in a Russian language school and Russian in a Belarusian school, the great majority of schools used Russian as the primary language of instruction (95% in the 1955/1956 school year). While officially much lauded, the Belarusian was popularly represented as an “uncultured, rural language of rural people”.
This view of Belarusian as the language of peasants was not limited to the post-WWII Soviet Union. Historically, East Slavic predecessors of Belarusians moved into the territory of present-day Belarus by the tenth century. Subsequently, these lands became part of the Kievan Rus’ state. However, this area was politically and linguistically separated from the Russian linguistic and cultural sphere after the Mongol invasion of Rus’ in the thirteenth century, which did not extend to the Belarusian territory.
Instead, most of present-day Belarus was incorporated into the Grand Duchy of Lithuania in the late 1300s and subsequently became part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. At the time, “an estimated two thirds of the population of the Grand Duchy was Slavic” (Grenoble 2010, p. 593). Polish was the language of the elite, while Belarusian—at the time only beginning to emerge as a distinct language, separate from other East Slavic languages—was used by villagers. Curiously, the local form of Church Slavonic, which was adopted as an official language, was called Rusky ‘Russian’ by the Poles and Lithuanian by the Russians in Moscow, while “in Ukraine the written form was seen as Russian and the colloquial (spoken) language as Lithuanian” (Grenoble 2010, p. 593). The label “Lithuanian” in this circumstance, it is essential to note, was geographical than linguistic.
After the Union of Lublin treaty in 1569, Belarus became part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, with Latin and Polish as its official administrative languages, while the local nobility was increasingly Polonized. In 1697, the use of Belarusian was officially banned and Polish was made the sole official language. Widespread immigration of Polish gentry to Belarus “resulted in the emergence of a variety known as polszczyzna kresowa ‘borderline Polish’, Polish with a significant Belarusian substrate” (Grenoble 2010, p. 593). But the linguistic contact between the two languages was mutual at the time, with many Polish words—including both everyday items such as vjandlina ‘ham’ and political/military terminology such as zbroja ‘weapons’—entering Belarusian. With the partitions of Poland in 1772-1795, the area was incorporated into the Russian empire. A nationalist uprising in January 1831 resulted in restriction on the use of the Belarusian vernacular. “The name of the region was officially changed from Belorussija to Severo-zapadnyj krai ‘Northwestern region’, and Russian replaced Polish in all public spheres, including education, government, and the courts” (Grenoble 2010, p. 594). From then on, Belarusian has existed “under the shadow of Russian” (ibid), though in Western Belarus, Polish remained a prestige language up to WWII.
In the late 1870s and early 1880s, the advent of the all-Russian “narodniki” revolutionary movement, along with the emergence of Belarusian national movements, renewed interest in the Belarusian language. Efforts were made to renew the literary tradition in the language. Yet even in the late nineteenth century, Belarusian remained the language of the mostly illiterate peasant masses. According to the 1897 Russian Empire Census, about 5.89 million people declared themselves speakers of the Belarusian language. Speakers of Belarusian constituted 56% of the population in Vilna province, 66% in Vitebsk province, 71% in Grodno province, 76% in Minsk province, and 82% in Mogilev province. Yet this census also showed that the urban language of Belarusian towns remained either Polish or Russian: in towns with populations greater than 50,000, fewer than 10% of their inhabitants were Belarusian speakers.
The next wave of promoting the Belarusian language came from an unlikely source—the Germans. On 22 December 1915, Paul von Hindenburg issued an order on schooling in the German Army-occupied territories in the Russian Empire, banning instruction in Russian and placing Belarusian in a list of mandatory languages for education, along with Lithuanian, Polish, and Yiddish. Belarusian continued to be promoted for about a decade after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, first by the newly formed Belarusian People’s Republic and then under the auspices of the USSR. As of February 1921, Belarusian was decreed to be one of the four official languages of the Belarusian SSR, again alongside Lithuanian, Polish, and Yiddish, while a decree of July 1924 confirmed that the Belarusian had a co-official status in Soviet Belarus, equal to that of Russian, Yiddish, and Polish.
Around 1929-1930, however, a drastic change in policy towards ethnic minorities was implemented by the Soviet authorities. The earlier policy of ethno-territorial autonomy was replaced by a crackdown against the supposed “national-democratic counter-revolution”. Effectively, the entire generation of Socialist Belarusian national activists was wiped out, and only the most famous cultural figures, such as poet and writer Yanka Kupala, were spared. Kupala, however, was recognized as a national symbol of Belarus during the Soviet era. A museum, dedicated to his life and work, remains open in Minsk. State University of Grodno was named after Janka Kupala. I once attended a performance at a Belarusian theater named after Yanka Kupala. Yet for all of his fame and official recognition, Kupala’s death in 1942 in Moscow is shrouded in mystery. Not surprisingly, allegations have been made that he was murdered by Joseph Stalin’s agents.
As mentioned above, after WWII Belarusian was gradually pushed out of official use by Russian. With the beginning of Perestroika in the late 1980s, a new campaign in support of the Belarusian language emerged. In January 1990, the Belarusian SSR Supreme Soviet ratified the “Law on Languages” requiring the strengthening of the role of Belarusian in state and civic structures. However, the implementation of this law in 1992–1994 was poorly conducted provoking public protests. Critics dubbed the program “Landslide Belarusization” and claimed that it was “undemocratic”. In a controversial referendum held on 14 May 1995, which according to the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly violated international standards—the Belarusian language lost its exclusive status as the state language. Over 4 million people, or 86.8% of the electorate, voted for “assigning the Russian language the status equal to that of the Belarusian language”. In the same referendum, 78.6% of the population voted in “support [for] the actions of President aimed at economical integration with Russia”. Naturally, the Russian State Duma issued a statement supporting the official results of the referendum. Since then, official support for the Belarusian language and culture in general has dwindled, resulting in the grim status of the language today.
However, standard Russian and Belarusian are not the only linguistic varieties spoken in Belarus. Similar to the mixed Ukrainian-Russian variety called Surzhik in Ukraine, a Belarusian-Russian mixed language called Trasjanka has emerged in Belarus. According to Grenoble (2010, p. 594), Trasjanka “stems from a combination of the intense Russification policies, the prestige of Russian, and the linguistic similarity of Belarusian and Russian”. Given that many Russians and even Belarusians consider the Belarusian language itself to be a substandard form of Russian and that Trasjanka is typically spoken by villagers rather than urban dwellers, it is not surprising that Trasjanka has a very low social status. Like the term “surzhyk”, the word Trasjanka is pejorative, as it originally referred to a debased form of grain, a mixture of wheat and straw. Also like Surzhyk, Trasjanka is variable and hence has been difficult to describe linguistically. Still, it does have its structural regularities, such as combining the syntax and phonology of Belarusian with a mixed lexicon and morphology deriving from both Russian and Belarusian, as illustrated by the following example (from Grenoble 2010, p. 594). Here Russian elements are underlined and the Belarusian are in boldface: ščas pagljažu iakie sapožki pradajuc’ ‘now I’ll look what (sort of) boots they are selling’. Lexical elements come from both languages, but the pronunciation of pagljažu ‘I will look’ is Belarusian (cf. Russian pagližu), as is the pronunciation of pradajuc’ ‘they are selling’ (cf. Russian pradajut).
Grenoble, Lenore A. (2010) Contact and the Development of the Slavic Languages. In: Raymond Hickey (ed.) The Handbook of Language Contact. Wiley-Blackwell. Pp. 581-597.
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