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Not Only Cyrillic. What Is Biełaruskaja Łacinka?

Plošča Pieramohi, Kastryčnickaja, Plošča Lienina, Plošča Jakuba Kolasa… You’ve probably noticed that unusual spelling if you traveled by Minsk metro.

The names of the stations are written in Latin script but contain some letters one might not be familiar with.

The contemporary Belarusian language is based on Cyrillic, the old Slavic alphabet. However, it wasn’t the only one used by the Belarusians throughout history.

Before the definition of the modern version of Belarusian Cyrillic alphabet in the early 20th century, people living on the territory of Belarus used Arabic, Hebrew and Latin scripts. The Latin script used by Belarusians became known as Biełaruskaja Łacinka, or simply łacinka.

Nowadays one can see łacinka not only in Minsk metro schemes but also in Belarusian geographical and proper names (just check Google maps!).

Key features of Biełaruskaja łacinka

Present-day łacinka is based on the classical Latin alphabet with some elements of Czech and Polish graphics systems.

Łacinka on a theater poster of Yanka Kupala National Academic Theatre in Minsk. Photo: Zedlik / be.wikipedia.org

Thus, hissing sounds are transmitted using the superscript that reminds a tick: ж [ʒ] – ž, ш [ʃ] – š, ч [tʃ] – č (žyta – rye, šum – noise, čas – time).

The softness of consonants is indicated by the superscript that looks like the stress: loś – elk, hraź – mud, koń – male horse.

After consonants е [je], ё [jɔ], ю [ju], я [jʌ] are transmitted using a combination of vowels е, о,  u, а + і (lios – destiny, pień – snag, ziamlia – land).

At the beginning of the word, after the vowels and soft sign or apostrophe, we use the combination of vowels е, o, u, a + j (jon – he, maja – my, zjava – occurrence). For the sound ы [ɨ] we use y: byŭ – was, tytuń – tobacco.

Photo: Woloh / bramaby.com

The sounds дз [dz] and дж [dʒ] are written with two letters – dz and dž (dzień – day, doždž – rain).

The sound ў [w] is transmitted by ŭ with a bow above: chadziŭ – went, poŭnia – full moon.

A brief history of Biełaruskaja łacinka

Biełaruskaja łacinka has existed for centuries and even had the official status. The Latin alphabet was mainly used in periodicals, official documents and was also spread among peasants in Western Belarus.

The most ancient samples of the archaic Belarusian Latin script that have survived are legal documents from the XVI century. That was the time when western-style Reformation and education expanded the use of the Latin alphabet in Belarusian texts and cleared them from features of the clerical Slavonic language.

Lietapis Bychaŭca, one of the earliest examples of Latin script writing, late XVII century. Photo: nationalinterestby.net

The rarest surviving łacinka inscription dates back to 1583 and is displayed on the bell that formerly belonged to the church in Moladava, a small village in Brest region. You can see it in the Museum of Old-Belarusian Culture of the Academy of Sciences in Minsk.

Read also: Why Belarusians Don’t Speak Their Native Language?

Starting from XVII century more Belarusian texts written in Latin script begin to appear. It used  “cz” for [ch], “sz” for [sh], “ż” for [zh], “w” for [v], “y” for “y” and “j” resembling the old-Polish and old-Czech writing.

As Belarusian lands were becoming part of the Russian Empire in XVIII-XIX centuries, printing in Belarusian (either in Latin script or Cyrillic) became illegal. That was a hard time for Belarusian culture. However, Belarusian writers preferred to use the Latin script due to the fact that the majority of their readers knew it.

Among the most famous writers of that time who used Biełaruskaja Łacinka were Jan Čačot, Vincent Dunin-Marcinkievič, Francišak Bahuševič, and Adam Hurynovič. Revolutionary democrat Kanstancin Kalinoŭski printed the newspaper “Mużyckaja prauda” in łacinka in 1862-1863.

Photo: pressball.by

Overall, 38 books had been published in the Belarusian Latin during XIX – mostly outside the Russian Empire.

Although at the beginning of the century two fonts coexisted, in the 20th century the use of Biełaruskaja łacinka was still widely spread.

Thus, for example, Cyrillic and Latin script were used in “Naša Niva” (1906-1915), in the works of Belarusian literature classics Yanka Kupala, Yakub Kolas, and others.  In 1907 some modernizations were introduced to Biełaruskaja łacinka.

During World War I, łacinka gained (for the first time!) the official status in writing in Belarusian lands occupied by the German troops. In 1917 the German authorities even issued passports in both languages – the German and łacinka.

In 1929 linguist Branisłaŭ Taraškievič introduced the first Belarusian Latin alphabet and some new grammar rules that we are using now.

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

During World War II, łacinka was widely used on the territory occupied by the Germans, in Prague, and by the Belarusian diaspora.

Later on, the use of łacinka in Belarusian lands decreased but continued to develop abroad. The reason was simple. In the post-war Soviet Union, the use of łacinka was seen as something very provocative, nationalist, anti-Soviet. Meanwhile, certain Belarusian emigre publications contained some parts printed in łacinka.

For example, the publishing house “Zaranak”  in New York published several books in 1960-70s with łacinka pieces.

After the restoration of independence of Belarus in 1991 łacinka experienced a brief renaissance.

For example, the revived newspaper “Naša Niva” released in 1993 had an issue in łacinka. During 1998-1999 certain articles were printed in łacinka in magazines such as “Spadchyna” “Arche” i “Arche-Skaryna”.

However, łacinka’s revival slowed down considerably since 1995 when the Russian language returned to Belarus as official.

In 2007 the Belarusian State Committee on Land Resources, Geodetics and Cartography adopted the Instruction on the transliteration of Belarusian geographical names with letters of Latin script.

It is this version of transliteration that one sees on metro schemes. Approved by the world community, it’s being used in the preparation of cartographic, tourist and other documents for international use.

That means all the signs for foreigners should be transliterated according to that latest rules.

What about today?

Apart from seeing łacinka in geographical and proper names, you will unlikely find it anywhere else. Nowadays this script is not taught at schools, and periodicals written in it are quite rare.

Those who actually use Biełaruskaja łacinka in their daily life are mostly Internet users and programmers.

They usually convert Belarusian texts and websites from Cyrillic into Latin script. For example, you can find the layout of the łacinka keyboard for Windows here and here.

Certain Belarusian writers, musicians, politicians, and activists support łacinka, too. Uladzіmіr Arlou, a well-known Belarusian author, published a book with his prose in łacinka.

There is also an association created to popularize Biełaruskaja łacinka – Łacinka.org.

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

It might seem that Biełaruskaja łacinka has the potential to become a bridge between the Cyrillic and Latin alphabets. It provides an opportunity for those who don’t know the Cyrillic script to feel the beauty of the Belarusian language.

You can convert any text written in Cyrillic into Latin script. Put some Belarusian phrases you are curious about and try to read – you could have good pronunciation!


Text by Nadzeya Prasvirava. Based on Wikipedia, TUT.BY, nn.by, pressball.by, belhistory.com. Featured image samoeradio.by.