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Belarus in Focus 2011

15 Nov

Aleh Bartsevich, Wirtualna Polska (Poland)

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It’s like Poles would speak in German

“Poles are not geese and have their own language” – as Mikolaj Rej, the first person in history to write only in Polish, once said. In this sense, we Belarusians can be called geese. Though we have our own language, we don’t use it.

- How is it possible that Belarusians don’t speak Belarusian? – asked an astonished fellow student from a Polish university I had studied at. – It’s like Poles would speak in German!

Exactly: how is it possible? – I asked myself then.


Belarus is the most Russified republic of the former USSR. In any other corner of the great empire, the Russian language hasn’t left such a significant stigma.

- The Russian language, like English in other places, was the classical “language-killer” to smaller languages of the empire, – linguist Źmicier Sauka tells me. – The rest of the languages in the USSR were exotic and served as decorations. As in Hawaii we can still find names of hotels, streets and even drinks in the language of indigenous inhabitants of these islands. But it doesn’t mean that the Hawaiian language is used or has any future, - the linguist adds.

Language of the countryside

The presence of the Russian language on Belarusian territory goes back as far as the times of Tsarist Russia. However, it obtained real domination only in the second half of the XX century, with the urbanization and development of modern means of communication. The countryside became the last mainstay of the Belarusian language.

At the turn of 80s-90s, Belarus gained independence on the wave of renaissance of native culture and language. However, in the opinion of many experts, this chance was lost due to Aliaksandr Lukashenka’s coming to power.

- We would speak in Belarusian if the authorities, the president spoke in this language, is a common reply to the question “Why don’t we speak Belarusian?”.

Ashamed to admit

The current leader of Belarus, former head of a collective farm, is the classic example of a typical inhabitant of this country, who through the centuries was taught to be ashamed of his own language and who moving from country to city gets rid of the signs of his origin.

Lukashenka had never spoken in pure Russian language and he, like a sizable part of the Belarusian population, uses “trasianka” in everyday life– a linguistic mixture, based on Russian, but containing a lot of lexical and phonetic features of the Belarusian language. For this reason, the degree of Russification of Belarusian society has reached the highest level in history. It has been almost entirely supplanted with education, media and public life.

- 20 years ago it was difficult to meet a person in Belarus who didn’t understand Belarusian, - Zmicer Sauka recalls. Indeed, the majority of urban inhabitants didn’t use it, but hardly anyone had problems with understanding. Nowadays there are more and more such people, especially among young people. And this is the sad result of the politics of Belarus’ current authorities. People born during Lukashenka’s rule don’t even understand the language of their grandparents and great-grandparents, – the linguist resumes.

The language of counterculture

Even experts cannot estimate how many Belarusians use their native language everyday. The number of users is unlikely to exceed a few percent. The field of users is very specific and is represented by two extremes: on the one hand, older rural inhabitants, on the other – a handful of educated urban inhabitants, intelligentsia. These are often people who started to learn the language at a certain point in their lives.

Usually they are regarded as freaks – in a shop, on streets, even in at home. For enthusiasts concerned with preserving the language, situations when the whole family speaks Russian and you speak Belarusian to them, when a husband uses Belarusian and wife – Russian, etc. are quite usual.

At the same time, under Lukashenka’s rule the Belarusian language has become the language of counterculture. Along with the national symbols abolished by him (and replaced by flag and coat of arms from Soviet times), the language has become a banner in the fight for freedom and against authoritarian rule. Also, because using the Belarusian language has assumed a political subtext, a person who ostensibly speaks the language immediately becomes suspicious in the authorities’ eyes.

Belarus – “the second Ireland”?

Forecasts about the future of the Belarusian language are different. Some believe that Belarusians will be able to repeat the journey, for example, of the Czechs who in the early nineteenth century pulled their native tongue out of obscurity after several centuries of Germanization. The condition for this would be a top-down policy from the government which replaces the current one.

However, an opposite example is modern Ireland. Most of the proud descendants of the Celts, who like to emphasize their separateness from Englishmen, do not use their native language in everyday life - despite years of efforts by the Irish government. Neither school, nor newspapers, nor television help.

Wicket to history

Experts advise taking a closer look. - We see how the rebirth of the Ukrainian language has advanced - Zmicier Sauka notes. - Its condition when the USSR collapsed differed little from the condition of the Belarusian language. There was a time when a person speaking in Ukrainian in Kiev was also a rarity. Today the situation has changed substantially, largely thanks to the will of the local ruling elite, - he adds.

To the tiresome question "Why do you speak in Belarusian?" in an era when most of his countrymen do not do this, the author of this article has jokingly responded for some time now: - Well, even if I were the last person on Earth who spoke Belarusian, at least ... I would go down in history.

Let’s hope not - I will add modestly at the end.

Wirtualna Polska 


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