The Belarusian language is an East Slavic language that is historically the native language of most Belarusians. Many 20th-century governments of Belarus had policies favouring the Russian language, and, as a result, Russian is more widely used in education and public life than Belarusian. Belarusian forms a link between the Russian and Ukrainian languages, since its dialects shade gradually into Russian dialects and Ukrainian dialects on the respective borders.
An older form of Belarusian was used as the official language of administration in the 14th to 16th centuries in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, which included present-day Belarus as well as Lithuania and Ukraine. The Belarusian alphabet is a variant of the Cyrillic script, which was first used as an alphabet for the Old Church Slavonic language. The modern Belarusian form was defined in 1918 and consists of thirty-two letters. Before that, Belarusian had also been written in the Belarusian Latin alphabet, the Belarusian Arabic alphabet (by Lipka Tatars) and the Hebrew alphabet (by Belarusian Jews). The Glagolitic script had been used, sporadically, until the 11th or 12th century. There are several systems of romanising (transliterating) written Belarusian text in existence; see Romanization of Belarusian. Rarely, the Belarusian Latin alphabet is used.
Standardised Belarusian grammar in its modern form was adopted in 1959, with minor amendments in 1985 and 2008. It was developed from the initial form set down by Branislaw Tarashkyevich (first printed in Vilnius, 1918). Historically, there had existed several other alternative standardized forms of Belarusian grammar. It is mainly based on the Belarusian folk dialects of Minsk-Vilnius region.
The Grammar of Belarusian Language
Belarusian grammar is mostly synthetic and partly analytic, and overall is quite similar to Russian grammar. Belarusian orthography, however, differs significantly from Russian orthography in some respects, due to the fact that it is a phonetic orthography that closely represents the surface phonology, whereas Russian orthography represents the underlying morphophonology.
The most significant instance of this is in the representation of vowel reduction, and in particular akannye, the merger of unstressed /a/ and /o/, which exists in both Russian and Belarusian. Belarusian always spells this merged sound as ⟨a⟩, whereas Russian uses either ⟨a⟩ or ⟨o⟩, according to what the “underlying” phoneme is (determined by looking at related words where the vowel is stressed, or if no such words exist, either by etymology or by the pronunciation in dialects that lack the merger). This means that Belarusian noun and verb paradigms, as written, have large numbers of instances of alternations between written ⟨a⟩ and ⟨o⟩, whereas no such alternations exist in the corresponding written paradigms in Russian. This can significantly complicate the task of foreign speakers in learning these paradigms; but, on the other hand, it makes spelling easier for native speakers.
Dialects of Belarusian language
Besides the standardized lect, there are two main dialects of the Belarusian language, the North-Eastern and the South-Western. In addition, there is a transitional Middle Belarusian dialect group and the separate West Palyesian dialect group. The North-Eastern and the South-Western dialects are separated by a hypothetical line Ashmyany–Minsk–Babruysk–Homyel, with the area of the Middle Belarusian dialect group placed on and along this line. The North-Eastern dialect is chiefly characterized by the “soft sounding R” and “strong akanye”, and the South-Western dialect is chiefly characterized by the “hard sounding R” and “moderate akanye .The West Polesian dialect group is a dialect of Ukrainian and is separated by the conventional line Pruzhany–Ivatsevichy–Telekhany–Luninyets–Stolin.
There is a high degree of mutual intelligibility among Belarusian, Russian, and Ukrainian languages. Belarusian has 80% mutual intelligibility with Ukrainian, 75% with Russian, and 41% with the Polish language. Within East Slavic, the Belarusian language is most closely related to Ukrainian.
Are the Belarusian and Russian languages very similar?
Although both languages belong to the same group of Slavic languages, the differences between the two are significant. Russians cannot understand the Belarusian language well, especially if authentic Belarusian words are used. Belarusians can understand Russian, however, because almost all of them are bilingual.
The old Belarusian language was an official language of the Belarusian–Lithuanian State Grand Duchy of Lithuania (1230–1596). In 1517, the great Belarusian scholar from Polatsk, Doctor Francysc Skaryna, published the Bible in the Belarusian language. The Belarusians became the third nation after the Germans and the Czechs to have a printed Bible in their native language.
Diverse Names of the language
There are a number of names under which the Belarusian language has been known, both contemporary and historical. Some of the most dissimilar are from the Old Belarusian period.
Belarusian (also spelt Belarusan, Byelarusian) – derived from the name of the country “Belarus”, officially approved for use abroad by the Belarusian MFA (ca. 1992) and promoted since then.
Byelorussian (also spelt Belorussian, Bielorussian ) – derived from the Russian name of the country “Byelorussia”, used officially (in the Russian language) in the times of the USSR and, later, in Russia[citation needed.
White Ruthenian (and its equivalents in other languages) was literally, a word-by-word translation of the parts of the composite word Belarusian.
Great Lithuanian– proposed and used by Yan Stankyevich since the 1960s, intended to part with the “diminishing tradition of having the name related to the Muscovite tradition of calling the Belarusian lands” and to pertain to the “great tradition of Belarusian statehood”.
Kryvian or Krivian, Polish: język krewicki) – derived from the name of the Slavonic tribe Krivichi, one of the main tribes in the foundations of the forming of the Belarusian nation. Created and used in the 19th century by Belarusian Polish-speaking writers Jaroszewicz, Narbut, Rogalski, Jan Czeczot. Strongly promoted by Vacłaŭ Łastoŭski.
Simple or local – used mainly in times preceding the common recognition of the existence of the Belarusian language, and nation in general. Supposedly, the term can still be encountered up to the end of the 1930s, e.g., in Western Belarus.
Simple Black Ruthenian– used at the beginning of the 19th century by the Russian researcher Baranovski and attributed to contemporary vernacular Belarusian.