Belarus: The Language Issue

Global Voices Online
Tuesday, June 27, 2006

In a perfect world, languages would be nothing but a way for people to communicate with each other - no language would be considered superior or inferior, children would be encouraged to study as many as possible. In the real world, however, languages are being used as political and ideological tools way too often, and in Belarus, for example, this has resulted in the Belarusian language practically vanishing from everyday use, replaced by the Russian language, and Russian being shunned by the politically conscious Belarusians.

LJ user wolny, a Belarusian living in the United States, writes (BEL) about his recent linguistic adventure on a bus in New York City:

Today, something interesting happened to me. On my way back from work, I was talking on the phone with [LJ user] e_ndrus. Because a group of young blacks was on the same bus and they were acting pretty [loud], I was forced to interrupt my conversation. Someone was getting off the bus at the next stop, so I got a chance to sit. I took an empty seat, and a woman sat down next to me and addressed me in Belarusian right away. I was speechless for a moment. =) She had been surprised herself when she heard me speaking Belarusian. It seemed to me that she used to teach in the past because her language was good but slow. She was interested in the Diaspora (said she was trying to look for the people but didn't find anyone), and I recommended [a Diaspora get-together] to her. We'll see if she shows up.

Here's a seemingly unlikely yet unsurprising response to this story (BEL):

slotoviepus: Cool! I think it was only once in my life that I happened to hear in a Minsk tramway how ordinary people were speaking in Belarusian - not during a language class, not in front of a TV camera, without any reason, simply on the tramway... This was nine years or so ago.

LJ user baleslau has reprinted wolny's text in his own journal. His reaction (BEL) is very similar to the comment above:


Here's how it is sometimes! Even in Minsk it's difficult to catch Belarusian being spoken, and wolny lives in America.

In the comments section, there's yet another Belarusian Diaspora language story (BEL):

adelka: And I once had a similar experience at Charles' Bridge - my friend and I were looking at the paintings sold there, and one of the artists turned out to be from Minsk (even from [...] a house next door :) and speaking Belarusian. It was fun to hear this answer to our broken Czech: "How much is this?) - in pure Belarusians - like, "Girls and boys, relax and speak Belarusian, you are being understood perfectly well" :)))

LJ user litota_ describes (BEL) the politics attached to her language use:

Sometimes, when I speak Russian, Belarusian words make their way into my speech, and I think with horror: "God, they are probably thinking I'm the opposition!!!"

LJ user czalex switches to English and posts an entry on the "Russian linguistic chauvinism". Here's one exchange in the comments section:

bacian: U can't set Russians straight anyway, there's no sense in it, so don't u waist your time on'em! ;)

czalex: that's what I'm talking about. We have our own language to switch to ;)

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