, and shares many grammatical and lexical features
with other members of the group. Its predecessor was the
declare it their "mother
tongue". Other sources put down the "population of the language" as
6,715,000 in Belarus and 9,081,102 in all countries.
inventory of the modern
Belarusian language consists of 45 to 54 phonemes: 6 vowels and 39
to 48 consonants, depending on how they are counted. Usually, the
number is given as 39, which excludes the nine
consonants as "mere variations".
Sometimes, rare consonants are also excluded, thus bringing the
quoted number of consonants further down. The number 48 includes
consonant sounds, including variations and rare
sounds, which may have a "phonetic" meaning in the modern
language. The modern Belarusian form was determined in 1918, and
consists of thirty-two letters. The
script had been used, sporadically,
until 11th or 12th century. In the past Belarusian has also been
written in the
in its modern form was adopted in 1959, with minor amendments in
Historically, there had existed several other
alternative standardized forms of Belarusian grammar.
of the Belarusian language, the
North-Eastern and the South-Western. In addition, there exist the
transitional Middle Belarusian dialect group and the separate
The North-Eastern dialect is chiefly characterised by the "soft
sounding R" ( ) and "strong
" ( ), and
the South-Western dialect is chiefly characterised by the "hard
sounding R" ( ) and "moderate akanye" ( ).
There are quite a number of various names under which the
Belarusian language has been known, both contemporary and
historical, some of them quite dissimilar, especially when
referring to the Old Belarusian period.
on the ethnic Belarusian lands in the 19th century. The end 18th
century (the times of the
and Modern Belarusian language stages of
By the end 18th century, the (Old) Belarusian language still
enjoyed some popularity among the smaller nobility in the
in 1840s had mentioned that even his
generation’s grandfathers preferred speaking (Old) Belarusian.
(According to A. N.
Belarusian language was still being spoken here and there among the
smaller nobility during the 19th century.) The Belarusian, in its
vernacular form, was the language of the smaller town dwellers and
of the peasantry. It had been the language of the oral forms of the
folk lore. The teaching in Belarusian was conducted mainly in the
schools run by the
The development of the Belarusian language in the 19th century was
strongly influenced by the political conflict in the territories of
the former GDL, between the Russian Imperial authorities, trying to
consolidate their rule over the "joined provinces" and the Polish
and Polonised nobility, trying to bring back its
One of the important manifestations of this conflict was the
struggle for the ideological control over the educational system.
The Polish and Russian language were being introduced and
re-introduced in it, while the general state of the people's
education remained poor until the very end of the Russian
Summarily, the 1800s–1820s had seen the unprecedented prosperity of
the Polish culture and language in the former GDL lands, had
prepared the era of such famous "Belarusians by birth – Poles by
. The era had seen
the effective completion of the Polonization of the smallest
nobility, the further reduction of the area of use of the
contemporary Belarusian language, and the effective folklorization
of the Belarusian culture.
Due both to the state of the people's education and to the strong
positions of Polish and Polonised nobility, it was only since the
1880s–1890s, that the educated Belarusian element, still shunned
because of "peasant origin", began to appear in the state
Since mid-1830s, the ethnographical works began to appear, the
tentative attempts of study of language were uptaken (e.g.,
Belarusian grammar by Shpilevskiy). The Belarusian literature
tradition began to re-form, basing on the folk language, initiated
by the works of
In beg. 1860s, both Russian and Polish parties in Belarusian lands
had begun to realise that the decisive role in the
was shifting to the
peasantry, overwhelmingly Belarusian. So, a large amount of
propaganda appeared, targeted at the peasantry and prepared in the
Belarusian language. Notably, the anti-Russian, anti-Tsarist,
anti-Orthodox "Manifest" and the newspaper "Peasants' Truth"
anti-Polish, anti-Revolutionary, pro-Orthodox booklets and poems
The advent of the all-Russian "narodniki" and Belarusian national
movements (end 1870s – beg. 1880s) renewed interest in the
Belarusian language (
). The Belarusian literary
tradition was renewed, too (
). It was in these times
that F. Bahushevich made his famous appeal to Belarusians: "Do not
forsake our language, lest you pass away" (Belarusian: ).
, about 5.89 million people declared
themselves speakers of the Belarusian language.
Excerpt from the Russian
Empire Census results
|* See also: Administrative-territorial division of Belarus and
bordering lands in 2nd half 19 cent. (right half-page) and Ethnical composition of Belarus and bordering lands
(prep. by Mikola Bich on the basis of 1897 data)
The end of the 19th century however still showed that the urban
language of Belarusian towns remained either Polish or Russian and
in the same census towns exceeding 50000 had Belarusian speakers of
less than a tenth. This state of affairs greatly contributed to a
perception that Belarusian is a "rural" and "uneducated"
However the census was a major breakthrough for the first steps of
the Belarusian national self-conscience and identity, as it clearly
showed to the Imperial authorities, and the still strong Polish
minority that the population and the language was neither Polish
The rising influence of the Socialist ideas advanced the process of
emancipating of the Belarusian language still further (see
of Belarusian People's Education and Belarusian Culture
Belarusian Socialist Lot
Socialist Party "White Russia"
). The fundamental works of Yefim
marked a turning point in the scientific perception of
Belarusian language. The ban on the publishing in Belarusian was
officially raised (1904-12-25). The unprecedented surge of the
national feeling, especially among the workers and peasants, coming
in the 1900s, esp. after the events of 1905, gave momentum to the
intensive development of the Belarusian literature and press
(see also: Naša niva
, Yakub Kolas
During the 19th - beg. 20th cent., there was no normative
Belarusian grammar. Authors wrote as they saw fit, usually
representing the particularities of different Belarusian dialects.
The scientific groundwork for the introduction of a truly
scientific and modern grammar of the Belarusian language was laid
down by linguist Yefim Karskiy
By the beg. 1910s, the continuing lack of a codified Belarusian
grammar was becoming intolerably obstructive in the opinion of
uniformitarian prescriptivists. Then Russian academician Shakhmatov
, chair of the Russian language
and literature department of St. Petersburg University, approached
the board of the Belarusian newspaper Naša niva
with a proposal that a Belarusian
linguist would be trained under his supervision in order to be able
to prepare the grammar. Initially, famous Belarusian poet Maksim Bahdanovich
was to be entrusted
with this work. However, Bahdanovich's poor health (tuberculosis)
precluded his living in the climate of St. Petersburg, so Branislaw Tarashkyevich
, a fresh
graduate of the Vilnya Liceum
, was selected for the task.
In the Belarusian community, great interest was vested in this
enterprise. The already famous then Belarusian poet Yanka Kupala
, in his letter to Tarashkyevich,
urged him to "hurry with his much-needed work". Tarashkyevich had
been working on the preparation of the grammar during 1912–1917,
with help and supervision of academicians Shakhmatov
. Tarashkyevich had completed the work
by the Fall 1917, even having to go from the tumultuous Petrograd
of 1917 to relatively calm Finland in order to be able to complete
By Summer 1918, it became obvious, that there were insurmountable
problems with the printing of Tarashkyevich's grammar in Petrograd
– a lack of paper, type and qualified personnel. Meanwhile,
Tarashkyevich's grammar had apparently been slated for adoption in
the workers' and peasants' schools of Belarus that were to be set
up. So, Tarashkyevich was permitted to print his book abroad.
1918, Tarashkyevich arrived in Vil'nya, via
petitioned for the administration to allow the book
to be printed. Finally, the 1st edition of the "Belarusian
grammar for schools" was printed (Vil'nya,
There existed at least two other contemporary attempts at
codification of the Belarusian grammar. In 1915, rev. Balyaslaw Pachopka
had prepared a
Belarusian grammar using the Latin script. Belarusian linguist S.
Pachopka's grammar unscientific and ignorant of the principles of
the Belarusian language. In 1918, for an unspecified period, B.
Pachopka's grammar was reportedly taught in an unidentified number
of schools. Another grammar was, supposedly, jointly prepared by A.
Lutskyevich and Ya. Stankyevich, and differed from Tarashkyevich's
grammar somewhat in resolution of some key aspects.
On December 22, 1915, Hindenburg
issued an order on schooling in German Army occupied territories
(of contemp. Russian Empire), banning the schooling in Russian and
including the Belarusian language in the exclusive list of the four
languages being mandatory in the respective native schooling
systems (Belarusian, Lithuanian, Polish, Yiddish). The attending to
school wasn't made mandatory, though. The passports in these lands
were being issued bi-lingual, in German and in one of the "native
languages". [Turonek 1989] The certain numbers of the Belarusian
preparatory schools, printing houses, press organs were opened
(see also: Homan
After the 1917 February Revolution in Russia, the Belarusian
language became an unprecedentedly important factor in the
political activities in the Belarusian lands (see also:
Council of Belarusian Organisations
, Great Belarusian Council
, I All-Belarusian Congress
). In the Belarusian People's Republic
the Belarusian was used as its only official language (decreed by
Belarusian People's Secretariat, 1918-04-28). In the Belarusian SSR
, the Belarusian was decreed to
be one of the four (Belarusian, Polish, Russian, Yiddish) official
languages (decreed by Central Executive Committee of BSSR, February
In BSSR, the Tarashkyevich’s grammar had been officially accepted
for use in state schooling after its re-publishing in the unchanged
form by Yazep Lyosik
under the name
Ya. Lyosik. Practical grammar.
(1922). This grammar had been
re-published once again, unchanged, by the Belarusian State
Publishing House under the name Ya. Lyosik.
Belarusian language. Grammar. Ed.
In 1925, Yazep Lyosik introduced two new chapters to the grammar,
addressing the orthography of combined words and partly modifying
the orthography of assimilated words. Hence, the Belarusian grammar
had been popularised and taught in the educational system in that
The ambiguousness and insufficient development of several
components of Tarashkyevich’s grammar had been the cause of some
problems in practical mass usage and stirred a certain discontent
with the grammar.
In 1924–1925, Yazep Lyosik and Anton Lyosik prepared and published
their project of orthographical reform, proposing a number of
radical changes. A fully phonetic
was introduced. One of the most distinctive changes
brought in was the principle of Akanye
(Belarusian: ), wherein unstressed "o", pronounced in both Russian
and Belarusian as [a], is written as "а". Consequently, words like
are pronounced the same in both languages but written as in Russian
and in Belarusian.
The Belarusian Academic Conference on Reform of the Orthography and
Alphabet (1926) had been called, and after discussions on the
project the Conference had made resolutions on some of the
problems. However, as the project of Lyosik brothers hadn’t been
addressing all of the problematic issues, so the Conference hadn’t
been able to address all of those, either.
As the outcome of the conference, the Orthographical Commission
created to prepare the project of the actual reform was formed on
1927-10-01, headed by S. Nyekrashevich, with the following
principal guidelines of its work adopted:
- To consider the resolutions of the Belarusian Academical
Conference (1926) non-mandatory, although highly competent
- To simplify Tarashkyevich’s grammar where it was ambiguous or
difficult in use, to amend it where it was insufficiently developed
(e.g., orthography of the assimilated words), and to create new
rules if absent (orthography of the proper names and geographical
During its work in 1927-1929, the Commission had actually prepared
the project of the reform of the orthography. The resulting project
had included both completely new rules and existing rules in
unchanged and changed forms, with those changed being, variously,
the outcome of the work of the Commission itself, or the
resolutions of Belarusian Academical Conference (1926), re-approved
by the Commission.
Notably, the use of the Ь
(soft sign) before the
combinations "consonant+iotified vowel" ("softened consonants"),
which had been denounced as highly redundant before (e.g., in the
proceedings of the Belarusian Academic Conference (1926)), had been
cancelled. However, the complete resolition of the highly important
issue of the orthography of the un-stressed Е
) had not been achieved.
It is worth noticing, that both the resolutions of the Belarusian
Academic Conference (1926) and the project of the Orthographical
Commission (1930) caused much disagreement in the Belarusian
academic environment. Several elements of the project were to be
put under appeal in the "higher (political?) bodies of
In West Belarus
, under Polish rule, the
Belarusian language was at a disadvantage. Schooling in the
Belarusian language was obstructed, and printing in Belarusian
experienced political oppression.
The prestige of the Belarusian language in the Western Belarus of
the period hinged significantly on the image of the BSSR being the
"true Belarusian home". This image, however, was strongly disrupted
by the "purges" of "national-democrats" in BSSR (1929 – 1930) and
by the following grammar reform (1933).
Tarashkyevich's grammar was re-published five times in Western
Belarus. However, the 5th
edition (1929) was the version
from the previously published, which
Tarashkyevich had prepared disregarding the Belarusian Academic
Conference (1926) resolutions.
In 1929 – 1930, the Communist authorities of the Soviet Belarus had
brought out the drastic crackdowns against the supposed
"national-democratic counter-revolution" (informally "nats-dems"
(Belarusian: )). Effectively, the entire generations of the
Socialist Belarusian national activists of the 1st quarter of the
20th cent. had been wiped out from the political, scientifical, in
fact, from any real social existence. Only the most famous cult
figures (e.g. Yanka Kupala
However, the new power group in the Belarusian science quickly
formed, or, possibly, emerged after the power shifts, under the
virtual leadership of the Head of the Philosophy Institute of the
Belarusian Academy of Sciences, academician S. Ya. Vol’fson ( ).
The book published under his editorship Science in Service of
(1931), represented the new
spirit of the political life in Soviet Belarus.
The Reform of Belarusian Grammar (1933) had been brought out quite
unexpectedly, supposedly, [Stank 1936] with the project published
in the central newspaper of the Belarusian Communist Party
" on 1933-06-28 and the decree of
the Council of People’s Commissaries (Council of Ministers) of BSSR
issued on 1933-08-28, to gain the status of law on
There had been some post-factum speculations, too, that the 1930
project of the reform (as prepared by the people no longer
politically "clean"), had been given for the "purification" to the
"nats-dems" competition in the Academy of Sciences, which would
explain the "block" nature of the differences between the 1930 and
1933 versions. Peculiarly, Yan Stankyevich in his notable critique
of the reform [Stank 1936] didn’t mention the project prepared by
1930, dating the project of the reform to 1932.
The officially announced causes for the reform were:
- The pre-1933 grammar was maintaining artificial barriers
between the Russian and Belarusian languages.
- The reform was to cancel the influences of the Polonisation
corrupting the Belarusian language.
- The reform was to remove the archaisms, neologisms and
vulgarisms, supposedly introduced by the "national-democrats."
- The reform was to simplify the grammar of the Belarusian
The reform had been accompanied by the fervent press campaign
directed against the "nats-dems not yet giving up."
The decree had been named On Changing and Simplifying the
( ), but the bulk of the changes had
been introduced into the grammar. Yan
in his critique of the reform talked about 25
changes, with 1 of them being strictly orthographical, and 24
relating to both orthography and grammar. [Stank 1936]
It is worth noticing, that many of the changes in the orthography
proper ("stronger principle of AH-ing," "no redundant soft sign,"
"uniform ’’nye’’ and ’’byez’’") had been, in fact, just
implementations of the earlier propositions of the by then
repressed persons (e.g., Yazep Lyosik, Lastowski, Nyekrashevich,
1930 project). [BAC 1926][Nyekr 1930][Padluzhny 2004]
The morphological principle in the orthography had been
strengthened, which also had been proposed in 1920s. [BAC
The "removal of the influences of the Polonisation" had been
represented, effectively, by the:
- Reducing the use of the "consonant+non-iotified vowel" in
assimilated Latinisms in favor of "consonant+iotified vowel,"
leaving only Д, Т, Р unexceptionally "hard."
- Changing the method of representation of the sound "L" in the
Latinisms to another variant of the Belarusian sound Л (of 4
variants existing), rendered with succeeding non-iotified vowels
instead of iotified.
- Introducing the new preferences of use of the letters Ф over Т
for fita, and В over Б for beta, in Hellenisms.
The "removing of the artificial barriers between the Russian and
Belarusian languages" (virtually the often-quoted "Russification of
the Belarusian language," which may well happen to be a term coined
by Yan Stankyevich) had, according to Stankyevich, moved the
normative Belarusian morphology and syntax closer to their Russian
counterparts, often removing from the use the indigenous features
of the Belarusian language. [Stank 1936]
Stankyevich also observed that some components of the reform had
moved the Belarusian grammar to the grammars of other Slavonic
languages, which would hardly be its goal. [Stank 1936]
In West Belarus
, there had been some
voices raised against the reform, chiefly by the
non-Communist/non-Socialist wing of the Belarusian national scena.
Yan Stankyevich named Belarusian Scientific Society, Belarusian
National Committee, Society of the friends of Belarusian
linguistics in the Wilno University. [Stank 1936] Certain political
and scientifical groups and figures went on with using the
pre-reform orthography and grammar, however, in succeedingly
multiplying and differing versions.
However, the reformed grammar and orthography had been used, too,
e.g., during the process of S.
Second World War
In times of Occupation of
Belarus by Nazi Germany
(1941–1944), the Belarusian
collaborants used the Belarusian language, in the press and schools
which were influenced by them, in the Belarusian language variant,
which was deliberately rejecting all post-1933 changes in
vocabulary, orthography and grammar. Much publishing in Belarusian Latin script
Otherwise, including but not limited to the publications of
Soviet partisan movement
Belarus, the normative 1934 grammar was used.
Post Second World War
After the World War, several major factors influenced the
development of the Belarusian language. The most important was the
implementation of "rapprochment and
unification of Soviet people
" policy which resulted in Russian
language by 1980s effectively and officially assuming the role of
principal mean of communication, with Belarusian relegated to a
secondary role. The post-war growth of circulation of publishing in
Belarusian in BSSR drastically lagged behind those in Russian. The
use of Belarusian as main language of education was gradually
limited to rural schools and humanitarian faculties. While
officially much lauded, the language was popularly imaged as
"uncultured, rural language of rural people".
That was the source of concern for the nationally minded and
caused, e.g., the series of publications by Barys Sachanka
in 1957–1961 and the text
named "Letter to Russian friend" by Alyaksyey Kawka
(1979). Interestingly, the
contemporary BSSR Communist party leader Kirill Mazurov
made some tentative moves to
strengthen the role of Belarusian language in the 2nd half 1950s.
However, the support of the Belarusian could also be easily
considered "too strong" and even identified with the support of
"Belarusian nationalists and fascists".
After the beginning of Perestroika and relaxing of the political
control in end 1980s, the new campaign in support of the Belarusian
language was mounted in BSSR, expressed in "Letter of 58" and other
publications, producing certain level of popular support and
resulting in the BSSR Supreme Soviet ratifying the "Law on
languages" ("Закон аб мовах
"; January 26, 1990) mandating
the strengthening of the role of Belarusian in the state and civic
Reform of grammar in 1959
In 1949–1957, the discussion on problems of the Belarusian
orthography and on the further development of language, started in
1935–1941, was continued, and the need to amend some unwarranted
changes, introduced in the 1933 reform, was expressed. The
Orthography Commission, headed by Yakub
, had the project prepared about 1951, but the project was
approved only in 1957, and the normative rules were published in
1959. This grammar is the normative for Belarusian language since
then, receiving minor practical changes in 1985 edition.
In 2006–2007, the project of corrections and of parts of the 1959
grammar was being discussed.
After Belarusian independence, the Belarusian language gained much
prestige and popular interest. However, the implementation of the
1992–1994 "Law on languages" was done in such a way, that it
provoked public protests and was dubbed "Landslide Belarusization"
and "undemocratic" by opposing 1992–1994. In a controversial referendum
May 14, 1995 the Belarusian language lost its exclusive status as
the only state language. The state support of Belarusian language
and culture in general has dwindled since then.
The legitimacy of the reform of grammar in 1933 was never adopted
by certain political groups in West
, unlike, e.g., KPZB
, neither by the
emigrants, who left Belarus after 1944. This rejection was made an
issue of ideology, and presented as anti-Russification
. One of the most vocal critics
was Yan Stankyevich
, beginning with
his 1936 publication.
rejecting all post-1933 official developments, the community was
left with all the problems of the pre-1933 grammar virtually
unaddressed (cf. the materials of Society for the Cleanliness of
Belarusian language, Prague,
1930s-1940s) and effectively with no unified grammar to use (cf.
the discussion between Yan Stankyevich and Masyey Syadnyow in
beg.1950s, the policy of Bats'kawshchyna printing house
It is worth noting that with the Belarusian schools in Poland
closed in 1937, the only wide-scale use of the pre-1933 grammar
after the 1930s took place during the German occupation of Belarus
The important issue is the certain ambiguity of the Belarusian word
" which in non-academic use may refer either to
or to the other
branches of grammar (e.g., morphology) in general.
In the Perestroika period of the end 1980s, the movement for the
returning of "true" language was initiated, meaning the further
unprecised "cancellment" of the effects of the 1933 reform. Several
periodicals, chiefly of Belarusian People's Front
political spectrum, Svaboda
, began to be
issued in beg.1990s in the grammar with several issues of the
Belarusian orthography and grammar used in the pre-1933 form,
notably "issue of soft sign", "westernized Latinisms", "westernized
Generally, the ban on the publishing in non-normative grammar was
There was no unified approach between the editors as to what set of
grammar and lexics features to use, although calls to unification
were made, principally by Vincuk
(cf. publications in journal Spadchyna
in 1991 and 1994, project of
"revised classic orthography" in 1995, ibid).
The orthography (or, actually, grammar, as pointed out in the issue
of word pravapis
) with such features was named
in BGN/PCGN romanization
in such editions, emphasising its closer relation to the 1918 work
editions started to refer to it as "classic" since c. 1994
(notably, in 1994 article by Vincuk
On the other hand, any post-1933 official grammar was derogatory
" in the press of that persuasion,
emphasising grammar's origin in People Commisariat
" – Ministry).
Generally, the issue created a schism in the Belarusian-speaking
community, opinions varying from wholesale approval to likewise
rejection, with notable expression in the 1992–1993 discussion in
the newspaper "Nasha slova", published then by Frantsishak
Skaryna Belarusian Language Society
, or in the 2003
questionnaire in the journal ARCHE
Major editions of Belarusian minority in eastern Poland, like
, did not
take sides in the issue, and continued to use normative variant of
There was certain amount of lobbying in 1992–1993 to enact the
retro-changes in orthography through the state authorities
decision. The Civic Commission on the Orthography was called as
result, with mission of providing the recommendation on that
matter. The recommendation of the Commission (September 13, 1994)
said that while partial return of some of the pre-1933 rules could
indeed be plausible, the time for such changes is not yet
After the 1994, the promoters of the alternative ("classic")
grammar continued the publishing and work on the internal
codification based on the Viačorka project.
the editions targeting the popular audience, like newspapers
Svaboda (Minsk) and
Pahonya (Hrodna), switched
to the normative variant of Belarusian later.
In the 2005 the working group of four persons produced the "Classic
orthography. Modern normalisation" being the attempt on the
internal standard. One of the prominent features was the optional,
not obligatory to use letter Ґ
to the alphabet.
This proposal was adopted by such major Tarashkevitsa-using media,
as the newspaper Naša Niva
Belarusian editions of Radio Free
and Radio Polonia
adoption status in the other supporting groups, like other
publishing houses or Belarusian USA diaspora, is uncertain.
Belarusian is represented by the ISO 639
, or more specifically by IETF language tags be-1959acad
("Academic" ["governmental"] variant of Belarusian as codified in
1959) or be-tarask
(Belarusian in Taraskievica
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Беларусь №17, 30.08.1917] // Язэп Лёсік. Творы: Апавяданні. Казкі.
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Ян Станкевіч. Збор твораў у двух тамах. Т. 1. - Мн.: Энцыклапедыкс,
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