The Belarusian language in the communicative space of present-day Belarus

Belarusian language and ў letter

Like all natural languages, Belarusian has played an outstanding role in the history and life of the Belarusian society, especially at the beginning of the 20th century. The national resurrection of Belarusians and their existence as a distinct socio-cultural ethnic entity is inseparably related to the development of the new Belarusian language in its literary and written forms.

Due to the literary activities of many outstanding representatives of Belarusian culture, such as Uladzimir Zylka, Kazimir Svayak, Maksim Haretski, Maksim Bagdanovich, Yanka Kupala, Yakub Kolas, Zmitrok Biadula, and others, the written Belarusian literary idiom spread at the beginning of the 20th century over all the territory of Belarus known at the time as the North-Western region of the Russian Empire, and led eventually towards visibility [1] and recognition of the people who is characterized by its ethnospecific tongue, cultural integrity and beyond any doubt has the right to its national identity, state independence and sov­ereignty which Belarus eventually gained, first in 1918 and then in 1990. Since then the Belarusian lan­guage has been a most essential factor in the development and maintenance of the Belarusian culture’s integrity and national identity. It should be emphasized though that in spite of being a titular language of Belarus Belarusian in its 20th century history has practically always functioned in the situation of bilin­gualism which caused somewhat unfavourable conditions for its maintenance and safeguarding its com­municative rank, predetermined many ups and downs in its use as a state language (see for details [2; 3; 4, p. 181-182]). and paved way to seeing it as a potentially endangered, vulnerable language [5, p. 50].

This rather gloomy and pessimistic view of Belarusian is based on the following data. According to the 2009 census, the population of Belarus amounts to almost ten million people (9,503,807 to be exact, or 9 481 l00 by 01.01.2011).

Of 140 nationalities and ethnic groups that live on the territory of Belarus ethnic Belarusians con­stitute 83,7% of Belarus’ total population [6]. The next largest ethnic groups are: Russians (8,3%), Poles (3,1%), and Ukrainians (1,7%) followed by tatars, gypsies, Lithuanians, Latvians, Jews, Armenians and others [6]. The majority of the population are urban citizens who reside in Minsk, the capital of Belarus (almost two million people – 1 836 800 inhabitants), regional centres: Brest (310 000 inhabit­ants), Vitebsk (with the population of 348 000), Gomel (483 000 people), Grodno (328 000 people) and Mogilev (358 000 people), and in more than 1000 towns, among which 12 have the population exceeding 100 000 inhabitants. The population of the rural areas which made up according to the 1999 census 30,7 % [7] of the entire population has decreased to 25,7% according to the 2009 census (note: the agricultural sector of the national economy involves 9,3% of the employed population). This quantitative correlation of urban and rural population and cited figures are significant both for the vision and evaluation of the present and future of the Belarusian language and for constructing language ideologies.

The language situation in Belarus today can be characterized as multilingual with Belarusian-Russian official bilingualism. Having enjoyed a rather short period when after the 27 July 1990 declara­tion by the parliament of the sovereignty of Belarus and the adoption of the 1990 law «On languages in the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic» [8], the Belarusian language functioned as the sole state language of Belarus, active belarusianization and noticeable shift to Belarusian especially within governmental and educational spheres has slackened. But at the May 1995 referendum 83.3 % of the people of the Republic of Belarus voted for Russian as the other state language on a par with Belarusian. Since that time as explicitly expressed by Article 17 of the Constitution of the Republic of Belarus «The state languages of the Republic of Belarus are Belarusian and Russian languages» [9]. As Article 50 of the Constitution says «Everyone shall have the right to preserve their ethnic identity, and equally, no one may be compelled to determine or indicate their ethnic identity. Insults to ethnic dignity shall be pros­ecuted by law. Everyone shall have the right to use their native language and to choose the language of communication. In accordance with the law, the State shall guarantee the freedom to choose the lan­guage of upbringing and instruction» [9].

Article 59. «The State shall take all measures at its disposal to establish the domestic and interna­tional order necessary for the full exercise of the rights and freedoms of the citizens of the Republic of Belarus that are specified by the Constitution.

State bodies, officials and other persons who have been entrusted to exercise state functions shall, within their competence, take necessary measures to implement and protect personal rights and free­doms.

These bodies and persons shall bear responsibility for the actions violating the rights and freedoms of the individual» [9].

This constitutional language status and language provisions of the Constitution are revealed to a greater detail in the 1998 law of the Republic of Belarus «On languages in the Republic of Belarus» [10]. Articles 3, 4, 5 declare the right of the citizens of the Republic of Belarus to use their national language in all spheres of communication, in all legislative, executive, administrative and other social spheres. They emphasize the duty of authorities of any rank, be it a governmental office, local adminis­tration, enterprise administration, a judiciary body or a social organization to have adequate proficiency in both Belarusian and Russian languages to a degree necessary to successfully cope with their duties, and to have the decisions made in reply to a citizen’s request or application expressed in Belarusian and Russian languages. The refusal of an official to accept and to consider the request or application of a citizen in Belarusian, Russian languages due to the lack of language knowledge is viewed as violation of the rights and freedoms of the individual and ensues legal responsibility [10].

The implementation of the law on languages presupposes a legislatively documented and regulated way of use of any of the state languages in all or in the overwhelming majority of official spheres of social relations. As expressed in the encyclopedia «the Belarusian language» [4, p. 181], the state status of a language is based on organizational, cadre, material and technical, cultural, educational and other government measures and presupposes a system of the legislative and judiciary defense or safety mea­sures of the language on the territory of the corresponding state.

Viewed from this angle the official bilingualism as a language policy followed in Belarus, the co­equal status and equal rights guaranteed by the law must be considered as the most democratic regula­tion of the Belarusian society’s life in the multilingual situation which also answers the mainstream recommendations for language policy. But language reality and communicative practice asymmetry in Belarus indicate the existence of serious language problems in our Republic. The roots of the problems lie in the disparity of the official languages used in Belarus and in the change of a majority language into a minority language. According to the 2009 census the majority of the population of Belarus declare themselves as Belarusians by nationality and more than 60 % (60,84 %) of citizens of Belarus (4841319) declared Belarusian as their mother tongue. More than 12 % (12,69 %) stated that Belarusian is their second language which they can freely use. The basic concept of a mother tongue used in question­naires turns out to be vague enough. If it stands for the proficiency in a language, then we can make the conclusion that all in all more than 73,5 % of the population of Belarus stated in 2009 that they have knowledge of Belarusian. This sounds very encouraging and makes it possible to classify Belarusian as a majority language. On the other hand the concept of a mother tongue can be an expression of one’s language loyalty and can bedim the real language situation. In Belarus it is such that only 26,06 % of Belarusians, according to the 2009 census, use it in the home environment. Moreover, the comparison of the figures obtained in 2009 to those of the 1999 census tells of an obvious decline in the commu­nicative rank of Belarusian as ten years earlier 85,6 % of the citizens of Belarus claimed Belarusian to be their mother tongue and 41,3% used it in the home environment [7]. The percentage of people who use Russian at home grows to 87,29 % in Minsk. Other sources which describe the language situation in Belarus cite Russian as the main language, used by 72% of the population, while Belarusian, the second official language, is only used by 11,9%. The studies of national identity show that 34% percent of Belarusians declare high proficiency of Belarusian, while about 6% of Belarusians state that they regularly use Belarusian. About 74% of the population constantly use Russian. Ignoring the discrepancy of the figures we must admit that there is a definite fluctuation of Belarusian to a markedly lower status than Russian. Belarusian is, as mentioned above, the language of the titular nation used in all the docu­ments (passports, acts of birth and death, currency, stamps, geographical landmarks, etc.) but it is losing its ground in actual communication to Russian which is the most widely used language in all communi­cative spheres.

Such a seemingly easy departure by Belarusians from their ethnic language can be accounted for, among other historic, cultural and other reasons, by personal bilingualism of 37,00 % Belarusians who claim literary Russian as their mother tongue and an additional 15,16 % of those Belarusians who have a good knowledge of Russian. The sum total of Belarusians who declare to be fluent in Russian is more than 4 mln. people, or 52,16 % of the population. Conducive to bilingualism is the close genetic rela­tionship of the two languages which is undoubtedly a beneficial factor, on the one hand, and one of the causes of a great degree of interference resulting in the so-called trasyanka, on the other.

No matter how reluctant we might be, we must realize that the two-state language solution, being democratic in essence, has nevertheless led to a serious linguistic situation when the national language might become an endangered language and as such is in need of protection.

Whereas we must admit the existence of serious language problems in Belarus and the complex­ity of the language situation, it should also be stressed that there are no ready-made recipes to im­prove the situation instantaneously, especially, as some voices insist, by returning to Belarusian as the sole state language. As studies of the Ukrainianization process vividly demonstrate, the attempts to re­shape «the language situation in Ukraine from an essentially Russian-speaking society to a Ukrainian- dominated society» [11, p. 238] have not brought immediate effects (no noticeable shift during a decade of Ukrainianization and «the long-term impact of the official Ukrainianization language policies [11, p. 258] is too early and too difficult to predict, which causes the author to talk of null findings of the studies. See also studies of effectiveness of various management decisions in Australia [12, p. 3-25, 2003] or the experience of language management in Ireland [13, p. 143-158] and in many other corners of the world).

If we are willing not to ignore the facts and to see the true language situation in Belarus, we must also admit that there is enough ground for more optimistic prospects of the future of Belarusian. We firmly believe that in the 21st century it will be maintained as an active system of communication, the means of national identity and culture of Belarusians. Belarusian will keep its place in the language landscape of Europe and will escape the danger of facing disappearance. Our optimism is based on several factors: firstly, on the interpretation of the concept of the Belarusian language in use and its functional strength, secondly, on the language ideology pursued by the state and society at large, thirdly, the perspectives of Belarusian used by mass media and, last but not least, use of Belarusian as a language of instruction at schools.

On a par with the literary norms there are several varieties of Belarusian today which coexist and function within the communicative space in Belarus and which should also be taken into account. They are the so called «народныя гаворкі», or folk varieties which are remnants of traditional folk Belarusian vernacular, restricted functionally and socially to everyday communication of people of ad­vanced age and present in the speech of those of the younger generation who still retain their ties with their village relatives. There are also dialects of the Belarusian language: north-eastern, south-western, mid-Belarusian dialects. Besides there function newly arisen social dialects: student and youth slang, computer slang, etc., elements of which penetrate into the language of mass media.

Above all there exists a variety of Belarusian known as «trasyanka», a number of non-literary and non-prestigious Belarusian-based types of mixed oral form of communication which is characterized by the presence of both Belarusian and Russian elements and which have developed as a result of long-term close language contact and language interference. People who speak trasyanka are usually unaware of the fact while intelligentsia circles, including some linguists, usually despise it and would not recognize its existence as a form of communication characteristic not only of the rural area residents but of urban residents as well.

Among all the varieties mentioned, with their own spheres of use and social characteristics, the Belarusian literary language stands out as the most significant, highly prestigious, widest in use system which possesses all the properties necessary for its successful function as a state language in all the es­sential official spheres.

In order to successfully function as a state language and to answer all the needs of social relations, any language, Belarusian as well, must satisfy a number of prerequisites, namely, it must have a well-de­veloped lexicon, adequate scientific terminology, strict stable literary norms, a written tradition of long standing, etc.

If regarded from this angle, literary Belarusian, in spite of all the peculiarities of its development in the 20th century and its secondary status in the communicative space of Belarus today, is a highly devel­oped and well-described literary standard with an ordered system of norms, rich vocabulary and elabo­rate polybranched terminology, characterized by a variety of its oral and written genres. It is the best most representational form of the national language successfully used in all the spheres of social life and all the branches of its speakers’ activities. The literary language norms are registered in numerous lexicographic works [14-15], fixed in grammars [16-17], thoroughly analyzed in fundamental linguistic works, terminology reference books, school textbooks, etc. In accord with the social development the Belarusian literary language is an essentially dynamic system. As evidenced by the usage, its lexicon, following a universal tendency of internationalization, especially distinct in Slavic languages, has been actively replenished in recent times by a great number of loanwords, mainly of Anglo-American de­scent, on one hand (kamputar – kamputarny, etc. as one of the best examples). Parallel to international­ization there is a nationalization process which finds expression, first, in restraining the influx of Anglo- American borrowings, and second, in the attempt to make Belarusian more distinct from Russian by replacing some language forms, considered as influence of Russification, by their Belarusian, regional, sometimes obsolete, or quite often Polish counterparts (pasolstwa – ambasada, etc.). Both the oppo­site tendencies, also observed in, e. g., Ukrainian, Macedonian, etc., find their specific interplay in the Belarusian lexicon, preconditioning its ability to serve various communicative purposes.

Being the national language of the Belarusian people, a state language of the Republic of Belarus and the language of the titular nation, Belarusian occupies a noticeable place in the communicative, cultural and information space of present-day Belarusian society. If taken against the background of the mean number of 5000 speakers per average language (see, e. g., [18]) and the fact that the overwhelming majority of languages of the world can hardly boast even of that (see, e. g., data on Australian languages [5, p. 11; 12; etc.) the communicative rank of Belarusian today is incomparably high.

Though the previous decades, especially the 1990s, characterized by intense efforts taken to re-en- vigorate the use of Belarusian in most prestigious communicative spheres, haven’t resulted in the domi­nance of Belarusian they have had some positive effects. Most essential of them is the social awareness of Belarusian as a national language, an understanding of Belarusian as an intrinsic part of our culture and unprecedented interest of the whole Belarusian society in the language. Being the actual but second­ary means of communication, Belarusian today is viewed by the citizens of Belarus as part and parcel of their national culture, as the means of their national cultural inheritance and the symbol of their national identity and self-identification. Due to the radical change in the social evaluation and social localization of Belarusian the socio-cultural role of Belarusian has significantly grown, being strengthened by the ethnic self-awareness and self-esteem.

The language loyalty, shared in the preceding decades mainly by the rural residents who have been in the 1970s-1980s the major maintainers of Belarusian, is characteristic today of the urban population. In Belarusian society today it is highly prestigious to know both the languages – Belarusian and Russian (and some foreign language into the bargain – almost half a million of Belarusians can speak English) and to use them as communicative situations demand. Knowledge of languages is generally regarded not only as a foundation for self-esteem but an invaluable asset for the development of one’s intellectual potential and one’s professional career. Perjorative and contemptuous attitudes towards Belarusian are completely gone. One can often come across language situations when a speaker performs a switch from Russian to Belarusian and vice versa and this ability, this command of the two languages is highly respected. Moreover, the social basis of the Belarusian language today has shifted from the rural pop­ulation to primarily urban society represented by Belarusian intellectual elite, representatives of the younger generation of our country. In our activity as university teachers we have the pleasure of being frequently enough addressed by our students and colleagues in Belarusian and we always form our re­ply in Belarusian. This is the language practice quite common at universities where instruction may be given in various languages. Unfortunately one cannot definitely say in how many cases this bilingualism is symmetric or asymmetric (for that research is required) but it does exist.

The Belarusian language is widely used in the educational sphere. It is one of the mandatory sub­jects in schools with Russian as language of instruction, taught from the first year of schooling, and the language of instruction in the so-called Belarusian schools, i. e. schools with Belarusian as the sole language of instruction. According to the data of the Ministry of Education, in 2010/2011 school year in 1832 secondary schools (52,1%) instruction was carried out in Belarusian, in 1575 schools (44,8%) – in Russian, and in 105 schools (3,0%) – both in Russian and Belarusian. In 2010/2011 school year 19,1% of the students (179 947 students of the I-XI forms) attended schools with Belarusian as language of instruction, and 759 070 (80,8%) – with Russian as language of instruction. In all the schools the num­ber of hours allotted to Russian and Belarusian languages and literatures is identical, namely in the V-

forms – 5 hours per week, in VII-IX forms – 3,5 hours per week, in X-XI forms-3 hours per week. All the schools are provided with textbooks of the Belarusian language and of Belarusian literature for the I-XI forms and new textbooks of the Belarusian language and of Belarusian literature for the I, 11, V-XI forms have been published. New editions of textbooks for the lllrd and lVth forms are planned for the period from 2011 to 2013.

The school curricula prescribe a compulsory lXth form school exam both in Russian and Belarusian languages for the general basic education and an exam in either Russian or Belarusian at the end of sec­ondary education.

All the schoolleavers have the right to choose tests either in Russian or Belarusian while undergoing centralized testing necessary for university entrance exams. It might be of interest that in 2011 Bela­rusian as an entrance test was chosen by 52 006 schoolleavers, while Russian – by 94 491 youngsters. A hundred grade maximum was won by 5 schoolleavers in Belarusian and by 7 in Russian. There are 10 schools in Minsk with Belarusian as language of instruction – 5 secondary schools and 5 so-called gymnasia, i. e. advanced level schools. Due to the lower number of children in classes they try to provide better quality basic education which might act as a factor in widening their young generation coverage.

Considering all the above given data we can state that the secondary education system today is the major state educational establishment which supports the Belarusian language competence of our soci­ety. The support provided by school language education should not be underestimated though that does not mean that the school language policies cannot be improved.

To a lesser extent than at school Belarusian functions in the sphere of higher education and science.

It is also the language of national literature (Litaratura i mastactwa, Maladosc, etc.). Belarusian is also the language of the press (Zvyazda, Kul’tura, Krajaznaiiczaja gazeta, etc.) radio (the 1st radio pro­gramme broadcasts only in Belarusian) and television. It is also the medium of visual and sound adver­tizing. It is becoming the language used in SMS and the Internet.

Most essential is the fact that Belarusian is the language of all the state official documents. We also find it used in the sphere of office management and government documentation. Military terms includ­ing names of the majority of kinds of the armed forces, of military units, of military signs and military clothes markers are in Belarusian. By the end of 2009 general military charters (statutes) were trans­lated into Belarusian. Belarusian is the working language of the Honour Guard company.

As sermon today both in the catholic and orthodox church, in other Christian churches is often held in Belarusian the Belarusian language gathers strength in the religious sphere. High-quality translations of religious texts into Belarusian have appeared lately, so far confirming the development of a new func­tional style in present-day literary Belarusian.

Summing up, we can assert that Belarusian today is a polyfunctional language capable of success­fully servicing all the spheres of communication in Belarusian society. As this ability of Belarusian no longer requires any proofs there cannot possibly be any ground for the Belarusian language inferiority complex.

But all this cannot leave us at rest. The tendency of the Belarusian communicative space to decline, predetermined by its historic and cultural background in the previous centuries, by bilingualism of more than half the population of Belarus, the restriction of use of Belarusian in many traditional spheres of communication and other factors, is the foundation to be fully aware of the seriousness of the present- day language situation in Belarus. A possibility of a language catastrophe in the near future causes seri­ous worry among the intellectual elite, as well as in governmental circles. That means that our achieve­ments are still incomplete.

The problem today lies in the necessity to significantly widen the actual use of Belarusian as a lan­guage of equal prestige and legal standing in all spheres of social life. Though Belarusian legislature has created most favourable conditions for this there is a strongly felt and widely acknowledged need for a diversity of further protective measures of Belarusian and greater efforts to widen its prestige and communicative value. Language policy matters have received considerable attention from the govern­ment who are directly held responsible for language policy and the development of the Belarusian lan­guage and guarantees of entity and unification of its literary norms. The measures planned include more Belarusian-language journals, government sights, TV channels, further promotion of Belarusian arts and culture, etc.[19]. Acknowledging the progress in language policy development we must also admit the truth of the Minister of culture Pawel Latushko’s statement in which at the beginning of this year he drew attention to the fact that the initiatives of further popularization of Belarusian have not been exten­sively followed.

There must be numerous and much more vigorous efforts made and all-embracing measures taken to induce citizens of Belarus to use Belarusian either as their mother tongue or the second language which they should know, to create the situation of stable bilingualism which can be viewed as the most con­structive language policy to keep harmony of the Belarusian society.

To achieve this goal every social and governmental employee must become fully aware that to get a desired position one has obligatorily to possess knowledge of the two state languages.

More active dissemination of language relations, of the constitutional and lawful linguistic and cul­tural rights, language education, the demand of high responsibility from social and governmental em­ployees in the fulfillment of the constitutional provisions and the enforcement of the law on languages must become one of the priorities of the state language ideology at the next stage of Belarusian nation­hood and sovereignty.

Public opinion policy makers should work harder towards forming awareness in our society that a bilingual and bi-cultural person who knows the national language of one’s country is better prepared to implement one’s abilities and ambitions and is highly superior to a monolingual speaker. The prestige of symmetric bilingualism should be enhanced together with the increased pride in the mother tongue, in the nation’s culture.

In conclusion we would like to say that no single pattern can guarantee the ultimate success of the language policies. Above all language policy makers and specific language policy advocates should be guided by the deep understanding that they must tread most cautiously due to enormous complexity of the problem and because the future of their nation rests on their decisions.


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The article is focused on the status, communicative rank and role of the Belarusian language in the life of present-day Belarusian society. The Belarusian language significance in the history and culture of Belarusians has been emphasized. The high level of development, vocabulary wealth and a great variety of expressive means in oral and written genres of Belarusian alongside the awareness of Belarusians of their national language, protective measures taken and planned by the government have been viewed as guarantees of safeguarding Belarusian from extinction.

Author: А.A. Lukashenets, Z.A. Kharitonchik
Source: Весці Нацыянальнай акадэміі навук Беларусі. Серыя гуманітарных навук = Известия Национальной академии наук Беларуси. Серия гуманитарных наук / Заснав.: Нац. акад. навук Беларусі. — 2012. — № 3. Ст. 108-114.