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Britannica Stumbling

Uladzimir Katkouski

My trust in the Encyclopedia Britannica seemed as unshakable as the granite of the Barysau stone until I accidentally stumbled upon the article for my native language - Belarusian. The entry's 111 words do not contain a single truthful word. Somewhat upset by this distorted view of my language, I will try to correct the distortions contained in that short article. So, here goes the original entry:

Belarusian language
Belarusian also spelled BELORUSSIAN, or BYELORUSSIAN, also called WHITE RUTHENIAN, or WHITE RUSSIAN, Belarusian Beloruska, East Slavic language that is the major language of Belarus. Belarusian forms the link between the Russian and Ukrainian languages, since it has dialects transitional to them both. Although two dialect areas exist, standard Belarusian is based on the dialect of Minsk, the capital city of Belarus. The language contains many Polish loanwords and is written in a form of the Cyrillic alphabet. An older form of Belarusian was used by the Lithuanians as the official language of administration during the 14th century, when they were in control of the area of present-day Belarus.

Let's go sentence-by-sentence to straighten out the facts.

Belarusian also spelled BELORUSSIAN, or BYELORUSSIAN, also called WHITE RUTHENIAN, or WHITE RUSSIAN...

Of all those names, only the first one is used officially and considered to be the only correct form in English. Of the other four forms given, the first two are transliterations from Russian, the third is now archaic, and the fourth is again a transliteration from Russian (used mostly by the Russians to emphasize the imaginary kinship with the "White" brothers). Britannica also fails to mention one more spelling variant that was officially used by the United Nations from 1992 to 1995 "Belarusan."

The question remains: why is it undesirable to mention terms like "White Russian" as if they were acceptable forms for modern use? There are two problems. The first is that they are misleading. If researchers use them to look in search engines or libraries, they might end up finding the wrong sources. For example, "White Russian" is the term that refers to Tsarist supporters in Russia who fought against the "Reds" (Bolsheviks) during the October Revolution and the Civil War. The book "White Guard" by Bulgakov, though a fiction book, gives a great overview of who the "White Russians" really were. To give yet another example, the term "White Ruthenian" (Bielaja Rus) has been used very inconsistently through the centuries referring to various and completely unrelated regions in modern-day Belarus, Russia and Ukraine. Furthermore, the term "White Ruthenian" has never been used together with the word "language" to refer to the Belarusian language, although "Ruthenian" by itself has been used in the past with a wide variety of meanings (including "Russian"), of which one was to denote a language of some literary monuments of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. The second problem is closely related to the first: Britannica is there to set standards, to be an authority in all areas of human knowledge, so promoting such misleading terminology (whether it is done on purpose or not) is clearly damaging to their image. By providing those spelling variants without explanation, they encourage incorrect modern usage and propagate distorted word forms.

Belarusian Beloruska, East Slavic language...

I couldn't understand the purpose of this word "Beloruska" implanted into the English-language text until I looked up the entries for other languages. In the article on Bulgarian language it said "bulgarski ezik," so I figured here we should have the name of our own language in our own tongue. This should then have read "bielaruskaja mova". To the best of my knowledge, "Beloruska" is the adjective "Belarusian" in Bulgarian and some other Slavic languages.

Belarusian Beloruska, East Slavic language that is the major language of Belarus.

I may be a victim of a language barrier, but in my understanding "major" means "dominant," "great," "primary." I must assure you that the contemporary status of Belarusian language is anything but "major." Lukashenka's referendum in 1996 elevated the status of Russian and made it equal to Belarusian. Lukashenka is well known as a zealous promoter of Russian interests in Belarus; he has endorsed russification policies in all areas of our lives. According to a recent on-line survey (http://poll.systeam.ru/) participants answered the question on their "most frequently used" language as follows:
- Belarusian 375 (27.2%)
- Russian 891 (64.7%)
- Other language 78 (5.7%)
- No answer 34 (2.5%)
There are other surveys that show Russian language to be even more dominant.

Belarusian forms the link between the Russian and Ukrainian languages, since it has dialects transitional to them both.

Any person that speaks Ukrainian or Belarusian (natively) will laugh at the above statement. Ukrainians have very little trouble understanding Belarusian and vice versa, while typical Russian speakers have trouble with either of the two. This has been confirmed by a linguistic study published by TBM (Tavarystva Bielaruskaj Movy). This is the first time I have heard anyone allege that Belarusian forms a link between Russian and Ukrainian, although I have heard people claim that Belarusian is a transition between Polish and Russian. And if I understand the expression "forming a link" correctly, then the latter comparison is more justified, for we have common vocabulary with the Poles and a grammar somewhat similar to Russian. Nevertheless, these kinds of statements are equivalent to non-scientific and distasteful statements like "Dutch is a transition dialect between English and German" or "Spanish is a transition between Italian and Portuguese."

Although two dialect areas exist, standard Belarusian...

There are at least several dozen dialects of Belarusian. Still, even if you'd like to have a more general subdivision, linguistic specialists distinguish five (5) major dialects of Belarusian. I am curious which two of those five they chose as worthy of their attention. In any case, you can see a map of those dialects here:
http://www.belarusguide.com/as/map_text/havorki.html

Although two dialect areas exist, standard Belarusian is based on the dialect of Minsk, the capital city of Belarus.

Ninety-five percent of Minsk residents use Russian (or sometimes "trasianka" - a Belarusian-Russian patois) as an every day language of social interaction. This could hardly be the basis for a literary standard. In fact, the literary Belarusian language is based on the so-called "middle" (siaredni) dialect which is spread across Belarus from Vilejka and Ashmiany all the way to Homiel and Buda-Kashaliova.

The language contains many Polish loanwords...

Poland is our neighbor, moreover, we lived together for several centuries in a federation known as the Republic (Rzecz Pospolita), so having common words with Polish is a normal phenomenon. The "mauvais ton" of the Britannica is to create an impression that those words belong exclusively to Polish. In fact, they are as much Polish as they are Belarusian. Again, I should say this sort of statement is as unscientific (and potentially offensive) as saying that "French contains lots of Italian loanwords" or vice versa. The Romance languages have inherited many words from Latin, and similarly the Slavic languages have plenty of words from Protoslavic. It is true that many words for sophisticated cultural concepts which originated in Latin, German or French may have entered Belarusian via Polish, just as many more entered Russian via Belarusian and Ukrainian, but these are a special category of words which are now almost Pan-European.

[Belarusian] is written in a form of the Cyrillic alphabet.

Even this seemingly innocent statement is not entirely correct. The official alphabet is indeed Cyrillic. But there is a long tradition of using Latin script. The founding father of the literary Belarusian language, Francishak Bahushevich, wrote in Lacinka (Belarusian Latin script). So did Kastus Kalinouski, the head of the 1863 anti-Russian uprising, in his "Muzyckaja Prauda." Nowadays, newspapers "Nasza Niva", "Studenckaja Dumka", "Krynica" (by the Saint-Petersburg Belarusian society) and the magazine "Arche" occasionally publish articles in Lacinka, according to the author's preference. There are dozens of Web sites written in Lacinka. Here you can find more about it:
http://www.cus.cam.ac.uk/~np214/lacin.htm or
http://members.nbci.com/litvania/lacinka.htm

Also, the Belarusian Tatars used a modified Arabic alphabet to write their Ketabs in Belarusian. They were first researched by Dr. Janka Stankievicz in the beginning of 20th century. Thus, it would be correct to say that written Belarusian exists in three alphabets: Cyrillic, Latin and Arabic.

An older form of Belarusian was used by the Lithuanians as the official language of administration during the 14th century, when they were in control of the area of present-day Belarus.

This is entirely untrue. To respond briefly I can say just one thing: "the Lithuanians are us." A complete elucidation of the issue would require a large book (yet to be written). I'll provide just a couple of brief clarifications. The Grand Duchy of Lithuania was a multi ethnic state populated and dominated by the Litvins (modern-day Belarusians) and was ruled by dukes of both Samogitian (modern-day Lithuanian) and Litvin (modern-day Belarusian) descent. The myth that the Lithuanians conquered the Belarusians was created by the Russians to justify their "wars of liberation." Later on that myth lived on thanks to the vehement support of modern-day Lithuanians who wanted to assert their self-identity. They also propagated the myth that it was simply a language "for administrative purposes," failing to notice that Old Belarusian was the language of administration precisely because it was used by the majority of the population. It was also the language of a number of sophisticated literary works.

The first historian to disperse this myth was Mikola Jermalovicz. He wrote two fundamental works:
- Pa sladoch adnaho mitu (Tracing a Myth)
- Bielaruskaja Dziarzava Vialikaje Kniastva Litouskaje (The Grand Duchy of Lithuania, a Belarusian state)
Both works as well as other related books can be downloaded from Bielaruskaja Palica (http://www.knihi.com/) or the Belarusian eBooks Library (http://www.mylib.com/). Additional resources on the Web pertaining to GDL issues:
- http://www.belarusguide.com/as/history/history.html
- http://members.nbci.com/litvania/
- http://vkl2000.cjb.net/
- http://www.geocities.com/vilnia2000/

It is evident that Britannica's entry for the Belarusian language requires serious revision. I gather from the information on their Web site that Britannica's editorial staff welcomes users' comments and suggestions, so you can forward this article as well as your own comments to the following address: editorial-comments@us.britannica.com

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