The Belarusian language
Some languages are able to cross national borders, becoming a bridge that facilitates understanding between people of different cultures. Other languages, on the other hand, slumber in old books and are only spoken in remote areas where the wave of globalization has not yet arrived. This fate primarily befalls languages that are spoken by very few people. Fortunately, there are examples of how one’s own language can be cultivated even in small countries.
What is the fate of the Belarusian language? Many people will probably ask themselves one question while reading this: why does such a language actually exist?
The Belarusian language is as old as its Slavic sister languages – Russian, Ukrainian, Polish, etc. The basis for the emergence and development of Slavic languages were the dialects of individual Slavic tribes, which began to settle in the vast territories of Central and Eastern Europe two thousand years ago. The Belarusian language is based on the dialects of three Slavic tribes: the Dregovich, Krivich and Radimich. In principle, the current grouping of Belarusian dialects actually reflects the earlier settlement of the mentioned tribes on Belarusian territory. The oldest manuscripts date back to the 10th-11th century. Today the Cyrillic alphabet is officially used, which has existed since the 14th century. In the 16th century the Latin alphabet appeared.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the Cyrillic and Latin alphabets coexisted. For a while the newspaper “Nasha Niva” printed texts on two graphic systems, so that all Belarusians could understand what was written, because the Catholics got used to the Latin alphabet, and the Orthodoxy understood only the Cyrillic alphabet. Nowadays, the Latin alphabet is used mainly in toponymy, in names of geographical places. For example, the names of metro stations in Minsk are written in Cyrillic and Belarusian, not in English.
Since the 14th century, the Tartars, who were captured during their raids, began to settle in Belarus. Little by little they assimilated. With the time, writings were written in Belarusian-Arabic script. Thus there were three alphabets (graphic systems) in the Belarusian language.
From the 14th century until 1696, Belarusian was the official language of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. After the unification of the Principality and the Kingdom of Poland in 1569, the population of the Principality was gradually polonized. This ended with the complete suppression of the Belarusian language from official use. From 1696 all writings of the Polish-Lithuanian State Union were translated into Polish. Since then the Belarusian language has been used mainly in everyday life.
In the Belarusian language there are two different variants. The spelling founded in 1918 by the linguist and political activist Bronislaw Tarashkevich is today called “classical” or “Tarashkevich”. In 1933 as well as in the late 1950s, the spelling was changed as part of the russification reforms. The reformed spelling has an informal name and is called “Narcomovka”. After the law on the new spelling came into force in 2008, it finally received official status.
As a result of the long coexistence of the Belarusian and Russian languages, the so-called Trasyanka were created. Literally, this word means “hay of poor quality”, which is a combination of dry and freshly cut grass. In the Ukrainian language there is also a similar phenomenon called “surschik”. It is believed that this linguistic phenomenon was a consequence of communication between the predominantly Belarusian-speaking rural population and the Russian-speaking urban population. According to some researchers, the Stalinist repressions contributed to the spread of the Trasyanka, since the use of the mother tongue itself was a reason for denunciations, thus creating hybrid forms.
Belarus was one of the most heavily Russianized Soviet republics. The language law passed in January 1990 by the Supreme Soviet of the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic secured the Belarusian language the status of a unified state language. Russian was recognized as the language of interethnic communication. In the status of the Unified State, the Belarusian language existed until the referendum in May 1995, which was held on the initiative of President Alexander Lukashenka. As a result, Russian was introduced as the language of instruction in many schools. Today, the number of Belarusian-speaking school children is rapidly decreasing, while in regional centers and large cities only a few pupils are taught in their mother tongue. There is not a single higher education institution in the country that offers education in the Belarusian language. This is one of the main factors deterring parents from sending their children to Belarusian schools.
Only a small percentage of the population uses the Belarusian language in everyday communication. Belarusian is more often used on state television and radio channels. The creative and young intelligentsia of Belarus is using the Belarusian language more and more.
Finally, some facts about the Belarusian language:
The Belarusian alphabet is almost completely identical to the Russian alphabet, but there are also peculiarities.
- The letter Ў, ў (the short U), which is missing in the Russian language. In Polotsk during the past “Day of the Belarusian Written Language” a monument was erected to the letter “Ў”. This monument is absolutely unique and quite unusual. In fact, it is a monument to the cultural uniqueness of the whole Belarusian nation.
- The apostrophe ‘, which is missing in the Russian language. In Russian this corresponds to the letter ъ (hard sign).
- The letter i, which in contrast to the Russian “и” is written as in the Latin alphabet.
Of course the Belarusian and Russian languages are very similar, so Russians and Belarusians understand each other well. But there are words that sound completely different in the Belarusian language and are more similar to Polish. And to understand these words, as with any foreign language, you need to know the translation.
Here are some examples: bicycle: rower (bel.), welosiped (russian); beet: burak (bel.), swjokla (russian); flower: kwetka (bel.), tswetok (russian); onions: tsybulja (bel.), luk (russian).