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Number of Speakers: Approximately 10 million
Key Dialects: Northeast Belarusian, Southwest Belarusian, Central Belarusian
Geographical Center: Belarus, northeastern Poland
Ten million people speak Belarusian in Belarus, the former Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic, and in northeastern Poland (230,000 speakers). There are Belarusian speakers in the United States (10,000) and Canada (2,280), as well.
Belarusian is a Slavic language belonging to a group of East Slavic languages which include Russian and Ukrainian. Slavic languages (with the Baltic languages--Latvian and Lithuanian) form a branch of the Indo-European language family. Other Slavic subgroups are South Slavic (Old Church Slavonic, Slovene, Serbian/Croatian, Bulgarian), East Slavic (Russian, Ukrainian, Belarusian), and West Slavic (Polish, Czech, Slovak).
Belarusian dialects can be divided into three groups: the northeast group, the southwest group, and the central group. Scholars (Wexler 1977) interested in the historical relationships among the dialects have proposed different divisions.
Belarusian has been written since the fourteenth century when it was used as the chancery language of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. The traditional alphabet is Cyrillic, which had been used for other Slavic languages since its development in the ninth century. In the early twentieth century, some reformers in the western part of the country favored a switch to the Roman alphabet because of the large Catholic population in the area who were used to that alphabet. The Roman alphabet was used along with the Cyrillic alphabet until the former was abandoned in 1912. The Roman alphabet was revived in Poland between the world wars and it continues to be used by some emigrant groups. The current Cyrillic alphabet differs minimally from the alphabet used for the Russian language.
Belarusian is a richly inflected language like other Slavic languages. Nouns which are feminine, masculine, and neuter are declined in three declensions (mostly feminine a-stems, masculine and neuter o-stems, and feminine i-stems). Adjectives are declined for gender and case but only in the singular; in the plural they are inflected only for case. Number (singular and plural) is distinguished as is gender by inflectional endings on stems. The six inflectional cases are nominative, accusative, genitive, dative, instrumental, and prepositional.
Verbs have two conjugations distinguishing first, second, and third persons, singular and plural, thus independent personal pronouns are used only for emphasis. The aspectual distinction between perfective (completed action) and imperfective (durative or on-going action) is fundamental. Many perfective forms are constructed using particles prefixed to the infinitive.
In syntax, main verbs agree in person and number with their subjects. Adjectives agree in person, gender, and case with the noun they modify. One of the prominent features of the system with agreement is a high degree of redundancy: the gender and number information may be repeated several times in the sentence.
Word order is grammatically free with no particular fixed order for constituents marking subject, object, possessor, etc. However, the neutral order is Subject-Verb-Object (SVO). The inflectional system takes care of keeping clear grammatical relations and roles. Pragmatic information and considerations of topic (what the sentence is about, or old information) and focus (new information conveyed by the sentence) as in other Slavic languages, is important in determining word order. Constituents with old information precede constituents with new information, or those that carry most emphasis.
Modern Belarusian has 5 vowel phonemes, and a consonantal system of 38 phonemes. Belarusian has phonemic palatalization, and most consonants have a palatalized and non-palatalized variant. Also characteristic is the series of four affricates and nine fricatives. Stress is moveable and can occur on any syllable.
ROLE IN SOCIETY
The Belarusian language was considerably affected by Soviet language policies from the 1920s until the end of the 1980s. The percentage of Belarusian speakers declined due to the immigration of Russians into the republic and the emigration of Belarusians to Central Asia and Siberia (where they usually became Russian speakers). The number of Belarusian language books and newspapers declined during the Soviet period. Since the breakup of the USSR, and the establishment of Belarus as an independent country, official policy toward the language of Belarusian has changed. As the national language, use of Belarusian is now actively encouraged in government, the media, and education. However, recent reports (September 1995) indicate that nationalists who are aligned with Russia are discouraging the use of the language and mandating the use of Russian.
In the early fourteenth century, the territory of modern Belarus and parts of Poland were incorporated into the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. At that time, Belarusian was used as the language of the church. After Poland took over the administration of the Duchy in 1569, the use of Polish gradually gained ascendancy until Belarusian was outlawed in 1696. When the Russians took control of Belarus in the late eighteenth century, Belarusian continued to be suppressed and the use of Russian became widespread. Although a substantial amount of belles-lettres and poetry were written in Belarusian during the nineteenth century, they were printed abroad. It was not until the attempted revolution in 1905 that restrictions on Belarusian were relaxed. Books, periodicals, and newspapers were published; these were not widely read as only a quarter of the Belarusian population was literate at the time.
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Belarusian was considered a dialect of Russian and called "West Russian" while Belarus itself was called " West Russia." Scholars considered Belarusian to be an amalgam of Polish, Russian, and Ukrainian. Few features in Belarusian cannot be found in other Slavic languages. Also, the language had no official status and Belarusian intellectuals used Polish or Russian instead of Belarusian. It was not until after the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic was established in 1920 and Belarusian became the official language that scholars changed their views about the origin and status of Belarusian.
In the final decades of tsarist rule, Belarusian nationalists argued for a Belarusian language revival to enhance national prestige and end the practice of children being educated in Russian while speaking Belarusian at home. They discussed reforming the alphabet, making Belarusian the language of instruction, and ridding the language of Russian and Polish influence. After the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic was established and Belarusian became the official language, language reform was directed toward making the language suitable for everyday use in government, education, and culture. Although literacy increased, the number of Belarusian speakers decreased because many people adopted Russian. In 1933, Stalin attacked the language reformers and the purist movement, which aimed to remove Russian and Polish elements from Belarusian, by calling it "nationalistic." The government sought to facilitate Belarusian's intelligibility with Russian by the russification of Belarusian. The government campaign consisted of replacing Belarusian words that had Polish cognates and Belarusian words that were Polish borrowings with Russian words. Since the breakup of the USSR , the use of Belarusian as the national language has again been promoted.
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