Belarus: changes proposed for Belarusan language

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Tue Sep 12 13:47:11 UTC 2006

forwarded from edling at

By David Marples

Monday, September 11, 2006

The newspaper Belarusy i rynok recently ran a series of articles on
education, devoted first to the new school year, but second to proposed
changes to orthography and punctuation in the Belarusian language. These
new rules are anticipated to move from draft to law in short order, with
little discussion among the public or among specialists in the Belarusian
language. The new school year began with fanfare. President Alexander
Lukashenka opened Palesky University in Pinsk and announced the future
Belarusian State University of Information and Electronics -- a research
and education complex that he maintained would be a Belarusian version of
Harvard University. Meanwhile Belarusian students received instruction in
their first lesson: "I live in Belarus and I am proud of it!" A new
methodological concept elaborated by the Ministry of Education focuses on
important monuments of Belarusian culture such as the Belaya Vezha forest,
the medieval city of Polatsk, and the palace at Nesvizh, the ancestral
home of the Radziwill family.

Under this facade of progress lies a stark picture: the closure of 580
schools over the past five years at a time when the number of pupils is
rising after many years of decline: 92,301 children began Grade One in
2006, compared to 90,576 last year. Official figures from the Ministry of
Education reveal that only 20.5% of students receive instruction in the
Belarusian language. To protest this situation, the new Russian version of
the history of Belarus for Grade 10 students was symbolically destroyed in
Minsk's Yakub Kolas Square by young protesters on September 1.

The same lamentable situation is reflected in the circulation of books,
magazines, and newspapers. In 1999, 63.3% of books were published in
Belarusian; by 2003 the figure was 48.4%. Only 10.5% of all
single-circulation newspapers appear in the native language, and, from the
perspective of Belarusian speakers, the situation deteriorates each year.

Language has long been seen as a political issue by the Lukashenka regime,
which now appears ready to delve into the complex area of orthography. A
new edition of the Regulations on Belarusian Orthography and Punctuation
is in preparation. It is supported by Alexander A. Lukashanets, director
of the Yakub Kolas Institute of Linguistics, who maintains that new rules
are needed to reflect changes that have occurred over the past 50 years
and to bring Belarusian orthography closer to the main principles of the
language. Critics are in no doubt that this is a new move introduced by
the regime to curtail further the use of the native language in Belarus.

At the core of the problem is the Belaruskaya hramatyka authored by
Branislau Taraskievich in the late 1920s, which sought to systematize
Belarusian orthography. The Belarusian Popular Front, for example, has
always adhered to the Taraskievich orthography. Lukashanets argues that it
is impossible to return to it as the "living language constantly changes
and develops." In 1933, the Stalin regime began its repression of
Belarusian intellectuals and introduced an academic, but Sovietized,
version. The new rules were systematized in 1957 and a new publication,
Rules of Belarusian Orthography and Punctuation, appeared in 1959. In
January 1990 Belarusian was adopted as the state language of the republic,
but progress was curtailed abruptly by the Lukashenka regime, which
advanced Russian to the status of second state language through a
referendum of May 1995, with 83.1% support among voters.

The latest draft on orthography appears to be the priority of the Ministry
of Education, which is being advised by Viktar Ivchankau. There has been
no public discussion of the amended version and the new rules have never
been published. The head of the Belarusian Language Society, Aleh Trusau,
for example, has not seen the new draft. Linguist Zmitser Sauka commented
that the decision is absolutely unique, because previous reforms did not
interfere with punctuation. In his view, the changes are political and
they are being rushed through. Earlier discussion among linguists, led by
former director of the Kolas Institute Alexander Padluzhny, had not
reached a satisfactory conclusion. Ivchankau did not participate in this
discussion, yet the new draft is being presented as part of the "Padluzhny

Sauka notes that the more changes are introduced to language rules, the
less such rules are used by the people, and the lower the number of
students who will select Belarusian for their language examinations. Much
of the Belarusian population speaks the mixed language --trasyanka-- of
Belarusian, Russian, and words derived from Polish and Ukrainian. Without
publication of the draft version it is impossible to discern precisely the
import of the proposed changes. But Lukashenka has consistently elevated
the Russian language, derided those who advocate linguistic purity as
encapsulated in the Taraskievich Orthography, and embraced the changes to
the orthography introduced in the Soviet period.

Thus the new draft appears to be the latest stage in the regime's assault
on Belarusian language and culture, an integral part of nation building
for any newly independent state. It highlights the irony of one of the new
textbooks issued to first-year pupils on September 1: the third edition of
Belarus: Our Motherland: A Gift from the President of the Republic of
Belarus. According to the text, the word "president" must always be

(Belarusy i rynok, September 4; Narodnaya volya, September 2;
Statisticheskiy ezhegodnik 2004 [Minsk, 2004], p. 215; Nationalities
Papers, December 1999)


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