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Why Belarusians Don’t Speak Their Native Language?

Why Belarusians don’t speak their native language? This is one of the most delicate and tiresome questions a foreigner may ask a local.

Belarusian and Russian are the official languages of Belarus. But how come present-day Belarusians speak Russian better than their mother tongue?

belarusian language

Obviously, it all starts with history that always goes hand in hand with politics.

Belarus Explained is a project that blasts off stereotypes and myths about Belarus and gently uncovers the Belarusian soul to foreigners. Daily life, habits, character explained by the locals!

History and politics

There is no exact data on when the Belarusian language originated in history, although we know that it has existed for centuries.

It is impossible to go back in time to listen to the language used by people 800-1000 years ago, but we can turn to written sources to build up a picture of the events that had led to the present situation.

1229 the treaty between Smalensk, Ryga and Gotsky bereg with distinctive features of the Belarusian language.

Read also: Why everyone thinks Belarus is a part of Russia

1517Francysk Skaryna publishes his first edition of the Bible with his own prefaces in the Old Belarusian (Ruthenian).

Francysk Skaryna monument in Minsk; Photo by Mikhail Brouka

1529 – the First Statute of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania: all the legislation written in Belarusian.

1566 – the Second Statute of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania: Belarusian is the official language of the state.

1859-1905 – publishing in Belarusian Latin script was banned in Russian Empire.

1862 – the first illegal newspaper Mużyckaja prauda by Kastuś Kalinoŭski.

1897 – 5.89 million people declared themselves speakers of Belarusian during the Russian Empire Census.

Belarusian language

The Belarusian language in the Russian Empire in 1897

1906 – the first legal Naša Dolia newspaper written in Belarusian.

1918 – Belarusian is the official language of the Belarusian People’s Republic (BNR).

1926 – International Academic Conference in Minsk on the Belarusian language.

1929 – the start of the mass repressions against the Belarusian linguists and writers.

1933 – the Russification Language Reform of the Belarusian language.

1990 – Belarusian is the only state language.

As seen from the turbulent history of the country its territory, as well as its language, repeatedly became the spheres of influence of the Russian Empire, Poland, and other states. It saw years and even centuries of aggressive Polonisation and Russification policies.

Read also: How Belarusians differ from Russians and Ukrainians

Belarusian was banned in schools and public institutions, shunned as the language of peasants, villagers, and nationalists. It faced a series of drastic crackdowns and there were just several short periods when Belarusian culture flourished.

Not so independent?

After gaining independence from the USSR in 1991, the Belarusian language regained its prestige and popular interest but not for long.

Four years later the Russian language was introduced as the second state language, while the Belarusian language lost its status as the only official language. Brainwashed for centuries, Belarusians had little reason to switch back to Belarusian.

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There was no real government support and promotion of the native language. The number of Belarusian-only language schools was decreasing, books published in Russian were prevailing, state television and newspapers were predominantly in Russian.

Read also: This dialect map lets you hear how Belarusians speak native language

The language was gradually stigmatized in favour of Russia. In the following years, Belarusian became the language of the political opposition and counterculture. Those speaking Belarusian were perceived as renegades and were subject to discrimination in a Russian-speaking society.

The revival

At the moment even language experts can’t estimate the exact number of Belarusians speaking their mother tongue.

belarusian language

Government statistics put the figure at 23% of the population, according to the census of 2009. It also shows 72% of Belarusians speak Russian at home, while Belarusian is actively used by only 11,9% of Belarusians. About 29.4% of Belarusians can write, speak, and read it; while 52,5% can only read and speak it.

Read also: 5 tender phrases to say ‘I love you’ in Belarusian

Meanwhile, independent sources report less than 10% of Belarusians using Belarusian in their daily lives. The UNESCO put Belarusian in the category of endangered languages. Currently, the language speakers are mostly represented by older rural inhabitants and a handful of those living in the cities.

Despite a formally equal status of Belarusian and Russian, the latter is still primarily used by the Belarusian government. It is dominant in all spheres of life, including public and private services, legislation, education, and the media.

‘My first word in Belarusian’ campaign by McCann Erickson Belarus advertising agency

Recently, the situation has started changing slightly. Belarusians are tired of being associated with their neighbours in the east and finally seem ready to embrace their identity and language.

Due to the efforts of numerous public language organizations, pro-Belarusian public figures, musicians, philosophers, and entrepreneurs new signs of the spread of Belarusian have emerged.

Read also: Foreign ambassadors join flashmob, recite poetry in Belarusian

Here and there one can come across outdoor billboards promoting Belarusian, listen to the messages in public transport and use the metro map with the Belarusian Latin alphabet version.

People attend language courses (such as Mova Nanova, Mova ci kava, Movavedy), several state TV channels broadcast in Belarusian, businesses and brands are switching to Belarusian in their advertising campaigns.

Among them are a private network of gas stations A-100, Velcom cell-phone operator, Samsung, BelWeb Bank, local food chains, just to name a few.

Is there any future for the Belarusian language? We can’t tell. And somehow, right now, it feels more than appropriate to recall the famous appeal of poet and writer Francišak Bahuševič to Belarusians “Do not forsake our language, lest you pass away.”


Written by BelarusFeed based on open sources and media publications