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Belarussian, Belarusian, Byelorussian, Belorussian
the language of the Byelorussians, the main ethnic group of the Byelorussian SSR. Byelorussian, like Russian and Ukrainian, is part of the East Slavic language group. According to a 1959 census, the number of people who speak this language is 6.6 million. The language can be divided into the northeastern and the southwestern dialects and the central Byelorussian and the Polesie sub-dialects.
The sound system of contemporary Byelorussian preserves its historical affinity with that of Russian. Characteristic of both languages is akan’e (the pronunciation of unaccented o as a), the softening of consonants that precede front vowels, and the devoicing of voiced consonants that precede devoiced consonants and occur at the end of a word. The specific phonetic traits of the Byelorussian language include dzekan’e (the pronunciation of d as dz)—dzed for ded and dzen’ for den’; tsekan’e (the pronunciation of t as ts)—tsen’ for ten’; a hard r (paradak for poriadok and gavaru for govoriu); the transformation of l, v, and u into a non-syllabic u [ŭ]; the hardening of labial consonants that precede [j] and occur at the end of a word; and the lengthening of consonants that precede [j] in an intervocalic position.
The grammatical structure of Byelorussian is basically close to that of Russian. Its morphology differs only in the alteration of certain words—that is, the alternation of the consonants g, k, and kh with z, ts, and 5 in first-declension feminine nouns (nase for naga, rutse for ruka, strase for strakha), the absence of the final t in the third person singular of present-tense verbs (niase for neset, chytae for chitaet), and so forth. One of the characteristic differences in syntactic structure is the use of a descriptive phrase instead of a participle—for example, “the woman who is walking” instead of the Russian “the walking woman.”
Words of Common Slavic origin constitute the basis of the contemporary Byelorussian lexicon—for example, agon’ and chalavek. In addition, there are a number of Byelorussian words that were formed in the process of its development as an independent language, such as zolak (dawn), vodgulle (echo), or namesnik (deputy). The language has also preserved some words which have disappeared from other Slavic languages, such as volat (giant) and siabra (friend). There are borrowings from Polish, German, Latin, Turkic, and Lithuanian. Written records exhibiting Byelorussian characteristics made their first appearance in the 13th century (Trade Agreement of Smolensk with Riga and the Gothic Coast, 1229). The Old Byelorussian literary language took shape in the middle of the 15th century when specifically Byelorussian traits found in the written language attained significance as a literary norm.
The development of Byelorussian as a literary language was aided by its use as the official language of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. The course of its development was also influenced considerably by Frantsisk (Georgii) Skorina (c. 1490–c. 1541), who printed the first books in Byelorussian and translated the Bible into Byelorussian. The direction set by Skorina in religious genres was followed by S. Budnyi, V. Tiapinskii, S. Zizanii, L. Karpovich, M. Smotritskii, and other Byelorussian cultural figures who had completely made the transition to the Byelorussian language.
In the 16th and 17th centuries Byelorussian was used in all kinds of written documents—in secular, religious, and commercial documents and in translated and original literature. However, by the end of the 16th century, there was a tendency, related to polonization, for Polish to supplant Byelorussian as the language of business transactions. After 1696, when the Polish Sejm prohibited the use of Byelorussian in government and business, the language continued to be used only in conversation. The reunification of Byelorussia and Russia in 1795 contributed, to an upsurge of Byelorussian national consciousness and prepared the foundations for the formation of a new Byelorussian literary language. This language, which began to take shape in the first half of the 19th century, was independent of the old literary language and was based instead on the living, spoken language. After the October Revolution the Byelorussian people received the right to use their native language in all spheres of culture and in the affairs of government. In the course of its development the Byelorussian literary language synthesized the most important traits of most of the Byelorussian dialects. The Byelorussian alphabet was developed on the basis of the Russian, but it includes some additional graphemes, such as dzh, dz, i, and ŭ.
REFERENCESKarskii, E. F. Belorusy, issues 1–3. Moscow, 1955–56.
Gramatyka belaruskai movy, vol. 1. “Marfalogia.” Edited by K. K. Atrakhovich (Krapivy) and M. G. Bulakhu. Minsk, 1962.
Dyialektalagichny atlas belaruskai movy, parts 1–2. Minsk, 1963.
Lingvistychnaia geagrafiia i grupouka belaruskikh gavorak. Minsk, 1968.
Zhurauski, A. I. Gistoryia belaruskai litaraturnai movy, vol. 1. Minsk, 1967.
Kramko, I. I., A. K. Iurevich, and A. I. Ianovich. Gistoryia belaruskai litaraturnai movy, vol. 2. Minsk, 1968.
Belorussko-russkii slovar’. Moscow, 1962.
Russko-belorusskii slovar’. Moscow, 1953.
A. N. BULYKO