BELARUSIAN LANGUAGE

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SOME FACTS ABOUT BELARUSIAN LANGUAGE

Belarusian is the language of the Belarusian nation. It is one of the three East Slavic languages and is spoken in and around Belarus.

It is also known as “Belarusian”, “Byelorussian”, “Belorussian”, or “Belarusian”. The word “Byelorussian” is an adjective derived from the transliteration of the Russian name of the country (Byelorussia). It was in predominant use in English earlier. The adjectives “Belarusian” and “Belarusian” and many other forms emerged in the 1990s by English-speaking people to denote something or somebody of or pertaining to present-day name of Belarus, its people and the language they speak, whereas in Russian and Belarusian no new forms of the adjective appeared in those days. “Belarusian” is the adjective in most common use today (but the Soviet or Russian version adjective “Byelorussian” can still be found in many texts).

History

The modern Belarusian language has evolved considerably from its early roots, the dialects of Old Ruthenian (Common East Slavic) spoken in the territory of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, Rus’ and Samogitia. A version of Ruthenian, which is considered to be the Old Belarusian, became the official language of the chancellery and courts of the Grand Duchy until 1696. All of the documents of the Lithuanian Metrika (the whole archive of the State Chancellery of the Grand Duchy) and Statutes of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania are written in this language. Old Belarusian was actually the language of the first Bible to be printed in one of the Eastern Slavic languages — the achievement of Francysk Skaryna. The 16th century was the Belarusian golden age: many schools were active, and religious quarrels between Orthodox, Catholics, Protestants and Jews were fought using printing presses rather than violence. Many Belarusians were people of the Renaissance, educated at the universities of Western Europe or the Lithuanian university in Vilnius that was founded in 1579.

After the series of wars known in Polish history as the Deluge, the Belarusian population was halved, partly due to deaths, and partly due to the policy of deportations of skilled craftsman and workers to Russia by the occupying Russian army. Especially devastating was the 13-year war (1654–1667). In the process, most cities were burned down, almost all schools were closed, and the remaining educated people were attracted by Polish culture. By 1696, the language of the upper classes of society had switched to Polish, followed by a change of the official language. Belarusian was used both by peasants, and by nobles wishing to express their sympathy toward common people.

By the 16th century, the term “ruski” (“Russian” or “Ruthenian” in Latin) continued to refer to the language spoken in modern-day Ukraine and Belarus, not the language of Muscovy (the modern Russians).

After partitions of Poland (1772–1796), the Belarusian territory was incorporated into Imperial Russia. Unlike Ukraine, Belarus has historically lacked a strong nationalistic drive. During the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth times, educated people of Belarus tended to identify themselves with Poland, and today some prominent persons are claimed both by Poland and Belarus for their nationality. More recently, the population of Belarus tends to identify itself as a close associate of Russia (if not considering themselves Russian outright).

One of the reasons for this situation is the minority status of Belarusian speakers in urban areas—traditional cultural centers. For example, according to the 1897 Imperial Russian census, in Belarusian towns of more than 50,000 residents, only 7.3% respondents reported Belarusian as their mother tongue (the criterion in defining nationality for the purposes of the census). This state of affairs greatly contributed to a perception that Belarusian is a “rural”, “uneducated” language.

In the 19th century and at the beginning of the 20th century, very few people wrote in Belarusian, peasants being mostly illiterate, and urban dwellers preferring Russian, Polish or Yiddish. Still there existed a minor movement for returning to the Belarusian language; it was important in the circle of friends of Adam Mickiewicz.

On March 25, 1918, Belarusians proclaimed the independence of the Belarusian National Republic, but it was short-lived and didn’t manage to stay independent. The official language of all communication in the BNR was Belarusian. In 1918–1919, Soviets took control of the Belarusian lands and created the Belarusian SSR. In the 1920s, a campaign of Belarusization started, as a part of the all-Union campaign of “Korenizatsiya” and revival of national cultures. Some administration and legal affairs began to be carried out in Belarusian and a large number of books were printed in the Belarusian language by prominent Belarusian authors and publicists: Yakub Kolas, Yanka Kupala, Zmitrok Biadulia, Maksim Bahdanovich, and many others. Active discussions were carried out about the standardisation of the language.

The Belarusization was stalled and even reversed beginning in the 1930s. Hundreds of people were shot or sent to Siberia. The orthographic reform of 1933 clearly “russified” the Belarusian spelling rules. In 1938 Russian language become an obligatory subject in all Soviet schools. The final blow was the school reform of 1958, when parents were given the right to select the language of instruction for their children. After that, more and more people began to send their children to Russian-language schools, and the number of Belarusian-language schools began to diminish.

Under the Soviets, there was also the elimination of the Belarusian middle class between 1917 and 1941 by the Communist Party; in Kurapaty (a suburb of Minsk), the NKVD killed perhaps 100,000 people. Many thousands of people were sent to concentration camps (Gulag) or resettled to Siberia. Around 400 Belarusian authors were repressed during anti-nationalism campaigns that started around 1929 and culminated during the Great Purge.

Interest in the Belarusian language was revived at the end of 1980s during perestroika. In 1990, Belarusian became the only official language of Belarusian SSR, and a second campaign of Belarusization followed. The “Law on languages”, ratified on January 26, 1990, envisioned a complete switch of all administrative and official documentation of the country into Belarusian by 2000. However, the Belarusization was totally stopped following the election of Alexander Lukashenka in 1994. Also in 1995 there was a referendum which, among other things, gave Russian language an equal status with Belarusian. Currently, russification is taking place in Belarus on an ever-growing scale, and the government does not provide any support for the Belarusian language. In this respect, a fact of note is that the official website of the Belarusian President (www.president.gov.by) is in two languages: Russian and English (as of 2005).

During Soviet times, the Belarusian language was viewed by many native speakers as a rural and peasant language as opposed to Russian’s image as a modern and urban language. That image in the eyes of the public has changed somewhat in the years of Belarus independence: some perceive it as a language of the young emerging urban elite. Nevertheless, current Russification policies are seen by some as a serious threat that may lead to the eventual extinction of the Belarusian language in Belarus.

The largest centre of Belarusian cultural activity, in the Belarusian language, outside Belarus is in the Polish province of Bialystok, which is home to a long-established Belarusian minority.

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