|Image Courtesy of Wikimedia|
by Alyssa Lowery
Alyssa Lowery graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in May 2016 with a B.A. in Linguistics and Spanish. She wrote this blog post as a student in SPAN 418 ‘Language and Minorities in Europe’ in Spring 2016.
Many people assume that the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 marks the revival of Belarusian in Belarus; others believe the Ukraine Crisis has prompted the Belarusian people to begin reviving their language and culture; however, with a 2015 article on The Guardian stating that “no more than 10% of Belarusians say they communicate in Belarusian in their day-to-day lives,” it’s easy to question whether this is actually the case (Barushka, 2015). The question now is: is the Belarusian language being revived at all?
During and immediately following the collapse of the USSR, there was certainly an increase in Belarusian language policies, such as the new Language Law, which “expected that Belarusian would become the language of science, culture and the media within three years; the language of congresses, conferences and state decrees within three to five years; of business within five years; and legal matters within a decade,” along with more minor laws following, including the Law on Culture, Law on Education and Law on Languages. (Bekus, 2014: 31) Given that only 10% of Belarusians use the language in their everyday lives, it is safe to say that the Language Law did not meet its expectations.
Twenty-five years after the fall of the Soviet Union, signs of revival should be seen by now. Despite the bleak statistic offered by The Guardian, they are – even if the increase isn’t as drastic as officials predicted it would be after the new Language Law. According to Belteleradiocompany, each year on the first Sunday of every September, the Belarusian people come together to celebrate the literature of their language on Belarusian Written Language Day. This demonstrates 1) a strong pride for their language and 2) the preservation and use of their language through literature. Belteleradiocompany also states that as of 2015, the Belarusian Writers’ Union included 590 writers. Another positive sign for the Belarusian language is the free group language courses such as Mova ci Kava (Language or Coffee), Mova Nanova (Language in a New Way) and Movaveda popping up and continuing to grow in popularity (Astapenia, 2014). Additionally, the language has been put into the education system. Classes in the Belarusian language as well as literature are taken between grades 1-9 according to the World Data on Education (7th Edition). So why are there so few people speaking Belarusian?
A major inhibitor of the revival of Belarusian is (or based on information presented in the following paragraph, it might be more accurate to say “was”) an internal factor: the Belarusian government. Alexander Lukashenko, president of Belarus, declared in 1994 that "people who speak the Belarusian language cannot do anything else apart from speak the Belarusian language, because it's impossible to express anything great in Belarusian.” A major factor in the learning and survival of any language is the mindset of the people toward the language. For Belarusian to be dismissed by the president, who should be fighting to keep the language alive, negatively portrays the language to the people. A statement this bold and degrading to a language not only discourages Belarusian speakers and learners, but it also means nonchalant regulation of the protections already in place for Belarusian.
With that being said, Lukashenko made a completely reversed statement on January 29, 2015, demonstrating a new era and mindset toward Belarusian. Lukashenko passionately stated, “it [Belarusian] makes us different from the Russians. The native language is a distinctive feature of the nation. We must not forget the Belarusian language. We must know it as well as the Russian language. It is will be the biggest pride for the any Belarusian. I do not want this legacy to be lost.” Lukashenko’s positive statement toward Belarusian, after two decades of promoting Russian and dismissing the nation’s language, changes the mindset for the country and also portrays optimism to his people that he will not only create policies for the language but also accurately enforce them. One very important person can make a big difference.
Taking into account where the Belarusian language started before the collapse of the Soviet Union and analyzing where it is now, to answer the question posed above, yes, there is a spark in the revival of the Belarusian language. The new positivity and passion surrounding Belarusian cannot be missed. UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger still classifies the language as vulnerable, but with a recently changed mentality toward the language among government officials, Belarusian seems to be on the road to revival.
Astapenia, Ryhor. "Is Lukashenka Trying to Emancipate Belarus from Russian Culture?" Belarus Digest. 03 Oct. 2014. Web.
Barushka, Katerina. "After Decades of Russian Dominance, Belarus Reclaims Its Language." The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 28 Jan. 2015. Web.
Bekus, Nelly. "“Hybrid” Linguistic Identity of Post-Soviet Belarus." Journal on Ethnopolitics and Minority Issues in Europe 13.4 (2014): 26-51. Web.
"Belarusian Written Language Day Celebrated Annually on First Sunday of September." Belteleradiocompany. 27 Aug. 2015. Web.
"Lukashenko: Belarusian Language Issue Has Been Resolved Once and for All." Belarus News: Belarusian Telegraph Agency. 29 Jan. 2015. Web.
UNESCO-IBE, comp. "Belarus." World Data on Education 7th Edition (2011). Web.