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Belarusian (/bɛləˈruːsiən/; беларуская мова, Belarusian pronunciation: [bʲelaˈruskaja ˈmova], BGN/PCGN: byelaruskaya mova) is an official language of Belarus, along with Russian, and is spoken abroad, chiefly in Russia, Ukraine, and Poland. Prior to Belarusgaining its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, the language was known in English as Byelorussian or Belorussian, transliterating the Russian name, белорусский язык, or alternatively as White Ruthenian (/ruːˈθiːniən/) or White Russian. Following independence, it also became known as Belarusian.

Belarusian is one of the East Slavic languages and shares many grammatical and lexical features with other members of the group. To some extent, Russian, Ukrainian, and Belarusian are mutually intelligible. Its predecessor stage is known as Old Belarusian (14th to 17th centuries), in turn descended from Old East Slavic (10th to 13th centuries).

At the 1999 Belarus Census, the Belarusian language was declared as a “language spoken at home” by about 3,686,000 Belarusian citizens (36.7% of the population). About 6,984,000 (85.6%) of Belarusians declared it their “mother tongue”. Other sources put the “population of the language” as 6,715,000 in Belarus and 9,081,102 in all countries. According to a study done by the Belarusian government in 2009, 72% of Belarusians speak Russian at home, while Belarusian is used by only 11.9% of Belarusians. 29.4% of Belarusians can write, speak, and read Belarusian, while 52.5% can only read and speak it. According to the research, one out of ten Belarusians does not understand Belarusian.

беларуская мова

BGN/PCGN: biełaruskaja mova
Native to Belarus, Poland, in 14 other countries
Ethnicity Belarusians
Native speakers
7.0 million consider Belarusian their mother tongue, but it is the language of the home for only 3.7 million (1999 census)
Language family

  • Balto-Slavic
    • Slavic
      • East Slavic
        • Belarusian
Early forms
Old East Slavic

  • Belarusian
Writing system
Cyrillic (Belarusian alphabet)
Belarusian Braille
Belarusian Latin alphabet
Official status
Official language in
Poland (in Gmina Orla,Gmina Narewka, Gmina Czyże,Gmina Hajnówka and town of Hajnówka)
Czech Republic (minority language)
Regulated by National Academy of Sciences of Belarus
Language codes
ISO 639-1 be
ISO 639-2 bel
ISO 639-3 bel
Glottolog bela1254
Linguasphere 53-AAA-eb < 53-AAA-e
53-AAA-eba to 53-AAA-ebg)
This article contains IPA phonetic symbols.Without proper rendering support, you may see question marks, boxes, or other symbolsinstead of Unicode characters.


Although closely related to other East Slavic languages, Belarusian phonology is distinct in a number of ways. The phonemeinventory of the modern Belarusian language consists of 45 to 54 phonemes: 6 vowels and 39 to 48 consonants, depending on how they are counted. When the nine geminate consonants are excluded as mere variations, there are 39 consonants, and excluding rare consonants further decreases the count. The number 48 includes all consonant sounds, including variations and rare sounds, which may be semantically distinct in the modern Belarusian language.


The Belarusian alphabet is a variant of the Cyrillic script, which was first used as an alphabet for the Old Church Slavonic language. The modern Belarusian form was identified in 1918, and consists of thirty-two letters. Prior to this, Belarusian had also been written in the Belarusian Latin alphabet (Łacinka / Лацінка) and the Belarusian Arabic alphabet. The Glagolitic script had been used, sporadically, until the 11th or 12th century.

There are several systems of romanizing (transliterating) written Belarusian text in existence; see Romanization of Belarusian.


Standardized Belarusian grammar in its modern form was adopted in 1959, with minor amendments in 1985. It was developed from the initial form set down by Branislaw Tarashkyevich (first printed in Vilnius, 1918). Historically, there had existed several other alternative standardized forms of Belarusian grammar. It is mainly based on the Belarusian folk dialects of Minsk-Vilnius region.

Belarusian grammar is mostly synthetic and partly analytic, and overall is quite similar to Russian grammar. Belarusian orthography, however, differs significantly from Russian orthography in some respects, due to the fact that it is a phonetic orthography that closely represents the surface phonology, whereas Russian orthography represents the underlying morphophonology.

The most significant instance of this is in the representation of vowel reduction, and in particular akannye, the merger of unstressed /a/ and /o/, which exists in both Russian and Belarusian. Belarusian always spells this merged sound as 〈a〉, whereas Russian uses either 〈a〉 or 〈o〉, according to what the “underlying” phoneme is (determined by looking at related words where the vowel is stressed, or if no such words exist, either by etymology or by the pronunciation in dialects that lack the merger). This means that Belarusian noun and verb paradigms, as written, have large numbers of instances of alternations between written 〈a〉 and 〈o〉, whereas no such alternations exist in the corresponding written paradigms in Russian. This can significantly complicate the task of foreign speakers in learning these paradigms; but, on the other hand, it makes spelling easier for native speakers.




Besides the literary norm, there exist two main dialects of the Belarusian language, the North-Eastern and the South-Western. In addition, there exist the transitional Middle Belarusian dialect group and the separate West Palyesian dialect group.

The North-Eastern and the South-Western dialects are separated by a hypothetical line Ashmyany–Minsk–Babruysk–Homyel, with the area of the Middle Belarusian dialect group placed on and along this line.

The North-Eastern dialect is chiefly characterized by the “soft sounding R” (мякка-эравы) and “strong akanye” (моцнае аканне), and the South-Western dialect is chiefly characterized by the “hard sounding R” (цвёрда-эравы) and “moderate akanye” (умеранае аканне).

The West Palyesian dialect group is more distinct linguistically, close to Ukrainian language in many aspects and is separated by the conventional line Pruzhany–Ivatsevichy–Telekhany–Luninyets–Stolin.

Classification and relationship to other languages

The question of whether contemporary Belarusian and Russian (as well as Ukrainian and Rusyn) are dialects of a single language or separate languages is not entirely decided by linguistic factors alone. This is because there is a high degree ofmutual intelligibility. As members of the East Slavic group of languages, they are descended from a common ancestor. Although Belarusian, Russian, and Ukrainian are usually listed by linguists as separate languages, one source lists them, with Rusyn, as four inner-languages within a single outer-language.

Within East Slavic, the Belarusian language is most closely related to Ukrainian.


The first Lithuanian statute of 1529, in Belarusian language

The first Lithuanian statute of 1529, in Belarusian language

The modern Belarusian language was redeveloped on the base of the vernacular spoken remnants of the Old Belarusian language, surviving in the ethnic Belarusian territories in the 19th century. The end 18th century (the times of the Divisions of Commonwealth) is the usual conventional borderline between the Old Belarusian language and Modern Belarusian language stages of development.

By the end 18th century, the (Old) Belarusian language was still common among the smaller nobility in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (GDL). Jan Czeczot in 1840s had mentioned that even his generation’s grandfathers preferred speaking (Old) Belarusian. (According to A. N. Pypin, the Belarusian language was spoken in some areas among the smaller nobility during the 19th century.) In its vernacular form, it was the language of the smaller town dwellers and of the peasantry and it had been the language of the oral forms of the folklore. The teaching in Belarusian was conducted mainly in schools run by the Basilian order.

The development of the Belarusian language in the 19th century was strongly influenced by the political conflict in the territories of the former GDL, between the Russian Imperial authorities, trying to consolidate their rule over the “joined provinces” and the Polish and Polonised nobility, trying to bring back its pre-Partitions rule (see also: Polonization in times of Partitions).

The Bible by Francysk Skaryna in Belarusian language, 16th century

The Bible by Francysk Skaryna in Belarusian language, 16th century

One of the important manifestations of this conflict was the struggle for the ideological control over the educational system. The Polish and Russian languages were being introduced and re-introduced, while the general state of the people’s education remained poor until the very end of the Russian Empire.

Summarily, the first two decades of the 19th century had seen the unprecedented prosperity of the Polish culture and language in the former GDL lands, had prepared the era of such famous “Belarusians by birth – Poles by choice,” as Mickiewicz and Syrokomla. The era had seen the effective completion of the Polonization of the smallest nobility, the further reduction of the area of use of the contemporary Belarusian language, and the effective folklorization of the Belarusian culture.

Due both to the state of the people’s education and to the strong positions of Polish and Polonized nobility, it was only since the 1880s–1890s, that the educated Belarusian element, still shunned because of “peasant origin”, began to appear in the state offices.

In 1846, ethnographer Shpilevskiy prepared the Belarusian grammar (using Cyrillic alphabet) on the basis of the folk dialects of the Minskregion. However, the Russian Academy of Sciences refused to print his submission, on the basis that it had not been prepared in a sufficiently scientific manner.

From the mid-1830s ethnographical works began to appear, and tentative attempts to study the language were instigated (e.g., Belarusian grammar by Shpilevskiy). The Belarusian literature tradition began to re-form, based on the folk language, initiated by the works of Vintsent Dunin-Martsinkyevich. See also: Jan Czeczot, Jan Barszczewski.

At the beginning of the 1860s, both Russian and Polish parties in Belarusian lands had begun to realise that the decisive role in the upcoming conflicts was shifting to the peasantry, overwhelmingly Belarusian. So, a large amount of propaganda appeared, targeted at the peasantry and written in the Belarusian language. Notably, the anti-Russian, anti-Tsarist, anti-Orthodox “Manifest” and the newspaper “Peasants’ Truth” (1862–1863) by Kalinowski, the anti-Polish, anti-Revolutionary, pro-Orthodox booklets and poems (1862).

The advent of the all-Russian “narodniki” and Belarusian national movements (late 1870s–early 1880s) renewed interest in the Belarusian language (See also: Homan (1884),Bahushevich, Yefim Karskiy, Dovnar-Zapol’skiy, Bessonov, Pypin, Sheyn, Nosovich). The Belarusian literary tradition was renewed, too (see also: F. Bahushevich). It was in these times that F. Bahushevich made his famous appeal to Belarusians: “Do not forsake our language, lest you pass away” (Belarusian: Не пакідайце ж мовы нашай, каб не ўмёрлі).

In course of the 1897 Russian Empire Census, about 5.89 million people declared themselves speakers of the Belarusian language.

Excerpt from the Russian Empire Census results
Guberniya* Total Population Belarusian (Beloruskij) Russian (Velikoruskij) Polish (Polskij)
Vilna 1,591,207 891,903 78,623 130,054
Vitebsk 1,489,246 987,020 198,001 50,377
Grodno 1,603,409 1,141,714 74,143 161,662
Minsk 2,147,621 1,633,091 83,999 64,617
Mogilev 1,686,764 1,389,782 58,155 17,526
Smolensk 1,525,279 100,757 1,397,875 7,314
Chernigov 2,297,854 151,465 495,963 3,302
Privislinsky Krai 9,402,253 29,347 335,337 6,755,503
All Empire 125,640,021 5,885,547 55,667,469 7,931,307
* See also: Administrative-territorial division of Belarus and bordering lands in 2nd half 19 cent. (right half-page) and Ethnical composition of Belarus and bordering lands (prep. by Mikola Bich on the basis of 1897 data)

The end of the 19th century however still showed that the urban language of Belarusian towns remained either Polish or Russian. The same census showed that towns with a population greater than 50,000 had fewer than a tenth Belarusian speakers. This state of affairs greatly contributed to a perception that Belarusian is a “rural” and “uneducated” language.

However, the census was a major breakthrough for the first steps of the Belarusian national self-awareness and identity since it clearly showed to the Imperial authorities and the still-strong Polish minority that the population and the language were neither Polish nor Russian.


The rising influence of Socialist ideas advanced the process of emancipating the Belarusian language still further (see also: Belarusian Socialist Assembly, Circle of Belarusian People’s Education and Belarusian Culture, Belarusian Socialist Lot, Socialist Party “White Russia”, Tsyotka, Nasha Dolya). The fundamental works of Yefim Karskiymarked a turning point in the scientific perception of the Belarusian language. The ban on publishing books and papers in Belarusian was officially removed (25 December 1904). The unprecedented surge of the national feeling, especially among the workers and peasants, coming in the 20th century, particularly after the events of 1905, gave momentum to the intensive development of Belarusian literature and press (See also:Naša niva, Yanka Kupala, Yakub Kolas).


During the 19th and early 20th century, there was no normative Belarusian grammar. Authors wrote as they saw fit, usually representing the particularities of different Belarusian dialects. The scientific groundwork for the introduction of a truly scientific and modern grammar of the Belarusian language was laid down by linguist Yefim Karskiy.

By the early 1910s, the continuing lack of a codified Belarusian grammar was becoming intolerably obstructive in the opinion of uniformitarian prescriptivists. Then Russian academician Shakhmatov, chair of the Russian language and literature department of St. Petersburg University, approached the board of the Belarusian newspaper Naša nivawith a proposal that a Belarusian linguist would be trained under his supervision in order to be able to create documentation of the grammar. Initially, the famous Belarusian poetMaksim Bahdanovich was to be entrusted with this work. However, Bahdanovich’s poor health (tuberculosis) precluded his living in the climate of St. Petersburg, so Branislaw Tarashkyevich, a fresh graduate of the Vilnya Liceum No.2, was selected for the task.

In the Belarusian community, great interest was vested in this enterprise. The already famous Belarusian poet Yanka Kupala, in his letter to Tarashkyevich, urged him to “hurry with his much-needed work”. Tarashkyevich had been working on the preparation of the grammar during 1912–1917, with the help and supervision of academics Shakhmatov andKarskiy. Tarashkyevich had completed the work by the Autumn of 1917, even having to move from the tumultuous Petrograd of 1917 to the relative calm of Finland in order to be able to complete it uninterrupted.

By the summer of 1918, it became obvious that there were insurmountable problems with the printing of Tarashkyevich’s grammar in Petrograd – a lack of paper, type and qualified personnel. Meanwhile, Tarashkyevich’s grammar had apparently been planned to be adopted in the workers’ and peasants’ schools of Belarus that were to be set up. So, Tarashkyevich was permitted to print his book abroad. In June 1918, Tarashkyevich arrived in Vil’nya, via Finland. The Belarusian Committee petitioned for the administration to allow the book to be printed. Finally, the first edition of the “Belarusian grammar for schools” was printed (Vil’nya, 1918).

There existed at least two other contemporary attempts at codifying the Belarusian grammar. In 1915, rev. Balyaslaw Pachopka had prepared a Belarusian grammar using the Latin script. Belarusian linguist S. M. Nyekrashevich considered B. Pachopka’s grammar unscientific and ignorant of the principles of the Belarusian language. In 1918, for an unspecified period, B. Pachopka’s grammar was reportedly taught in an unidentified number of schools. Another grammar was, supposedly, jointly prepared by A. Lutskyevich and Ya. Stankyevich, and differed from Tarashkyevich’s grammar somewhat in the resolution of some key aspects.


On 22 December 1915, Hindenburg issued an order on schooling in German Army-occupied territories in the Russian Empire, banning schooling in Russian and including the Belarusian language in an exclusive list of four languages made mandatory in the respective native schooling systems (Belarusian, Lithuanian, Polish, Yiddish). School attendance was not made mandatory, though. Passports at this time were bi-lingual, in German and in one of the “native languages”. Also at this time, Belarusian preparatory schools, printing houses, press organs were opened (see also: Homan (1916)).


After the 1917 February Revolution in Russia, the Belarusian language became an important factor in political activities in the Belarusian lands (see also: Central Council of Belarusian Organisations, Great Belarusian Council, I All-Belarusian Congress, Belnatskom). In the Belarusian People’s Republic, Belarusian was used as the only official language (decreed by Belarusian People’s Secretariat on 28 April 1918). Subsequently, in the Belarusian SSR, Belarusian was decreed to be one of the four (Belarusian, Polish, Russian, and Yiddish) official languages (decreed by Central Executive Committee of BSSR in February 1921).


Soviet Belarus

A decree of 15 July 1924 confirmed that the Belarusian, Russian, Yiddish and Polish languages had equal status in Soviet Belarus.

In the BSSR, Tarashkyevich’s grammar had been officially accepted for use in state schooling after its re-publishing in unchanged form by Yazep Lyosik under the name Ya. Lyosik. Practical grammar. P[art]. I (1922). This grammar had been re-published once again, unchanged, by the Belarusian State Publishing House under the name Ya. Lyosik. Belarusian language. Grammar. Ed. I. 1923 (1923).

In 1925, Yazep Lyosik introduced two new chapters to the grammar, addressing the orthography of combined words and partly modifying the orthography of assimilated words. Hence, Belarusian grammar had been popularized and taught in the educational system in that form. The ambiguous and insufficient development of several components of Tarashkyevich’s grammar was perceived to be the cause of some problems in practical usage, and this led to discontent with the grammar.

In 1924–1925, Yazep Lyosik and Anton Lyosik prepared and published their project of orthographic reform, proposing a number of radical changes. A fully phonetic orthographywas introduced. One of the most distinctive changes brought in was the principle of akanye (Belarusian: ́аканне), wherein unstressed “o”, pronounced in both Russian and Belarusian as /a/, is written as “а”.

The Belarusian Academic Conference on Reform of the Orthography and Alphabet was convened in 1926. After discussions on the project, the Conference made resolutions on some of the problems. However, a project run by the Lyosik brothers had not addressed all the problematic issues, so the Conference was not able to address all of those either.

At the outcome of the conference, the Orthographic Commission was created to prepare the project of the actual reform. This was instigated on 1927-10-01, headed by S. Nyekrashevich, with the following principal guidelines of its work adopted:

  • To consider the resolutions of the Belarusian Academic Conference (1926) non-mandatory, although highly competent material.
  • To simplify Tarashkyevich’s grammar where it was ambiguous or difficult in use, to amend it where it was insufficiently developed (e.g., orthography of assimilated words), and to create new rules if absent (orthography of proper names and geographical names).

During its work in 1927-1929, the Commission had actually prepared the project for spelling reform. The resulting project had included both completely new rules and existing rules in unchanged and changed forms, with those changed being, variously, the outcome of the work of the Commission itself, or of the resolutions of the Belarusian Academic Conference (1926), re-approved by the Commission.

Notably, the use of the Ь (soft sign) before the combinations “consonant+iotified vowel” (“softened consonants”), which had been denounced as highly redundant before (e.g., in the proceedings of the Belarusian Academic Conference (1926)), was cancelled. However, the complete resolution of the highly important issue of the orthography of unstressedЕ (IE) was not achieved.

Both the resolutions of the Belarusian Academic Conference (1926) and the project of the Orthographic Commission (1930) caused much disagreement in the Belarusian academic environment. Several elements of the project were to be put under appeal in the “higher (political) bodies of power”.

West Belarus

In West Belarus, under Polish rule, the Belarusian language was at a disadvantage. Schooling in the Belarusian language was obstructed, and printing in Belarusian experienced political oppression.

The prestige of the Belarusian language in the Western Belarus of the period hinged significantly on the image of the BSSR being the “true Belarusian home”.This image, however, was strongly disrupted by the ”purges” of “national-democrats” in BSSR (1929–1930) and by the following grammar reform (1933).

Tarashkyevich’s grammar was re-published five times in Western Belarus. However, the 5th edition (1929) (re-printed verbatim in Belarus in 1991 and often referenced to) was the version diverting from the previously published, which Tarashkyevich had prepared disregarding the Belarusian Academic Conference (1926) resolutions.


Soviet Belarus

In 1929–1930, the Communist authorities of Soviet Belarus made a series of drastic crackdowns against the supposed “national-democratic counter-revolution” (informally “nats-dems” (Belarusian: нац-дэмы)). Effectively, entire generations of Socialist Belarusian national activists in the first quarter of the 20th century were wiped out from political, scientific and social existence. Only the most famous cult figures (e.g. Yanka Kupala) were spared.

However, a new power group in Belarusian science quickly formed during these power shifts, under the virtual leadership of the Head of the Philosophy Institute of the Belarusian Academy of Sciences, academician S. Ya. Vol’fson (С. Я. Вольфсон). The book published under his editorship Science in Service of Nats-Dems’ Counter-Revolution (1931), represented the new spirit of the political life in Soviet Belarus.

1933 reform of Belarusian grammar

The Reform of Belarusian Grammar (1933) had been brought out quite unexpectedly, supposedly, [Stank 1936] with the project published in the central newspaper of the Belarusian Communist Party “Zviazda” on 1933-06-28 and the decree of the Council of People’s Commissars (Council of Ministers) of BSSR issued on 1933-08-28, to gain the status of law on 1933-09-16.

There had been some post-facto speculations, too, that the 1930 project of the reform (as prepared by people who were no longer seen as politically “clean”), had been given for the “purification” to the “nats-dems” competition in the Academy of Sciences, which would explain the “block” nature of the differences between the 1930 and 1933 versions. Peculiarly, Yan Stankyevich in his notable critique of the reform [Stank 1936] failed to mention the project prepared by 1930, dating the reform project to 1932.

The reform resulted in the grammar officially used, with further amendments, in Byelorussian SSR and modern Belarus. Sometimes this grammar is called the official grammar of the Belarusian language, to distinguish it from the pre-reform grammar, known as the classic grammar or Taraškievica (Tarashkevitsa). It is also known as narkamauka, after the word narkamat, a Belarusian abbreviation for People’s Commissariat (ministry). The latter term bears a derogatory connotation.

The officially announced causes for the reform were:

  • The pre-1933 grammar was maintaining artificial barriers between the Russian and Belarusian languages.
  • The reform was to cancel the influences of the Polonisation corrupting the Belarusian language.
  • The reform was to remove the archaisms, neologisms and vulgarisms supposedly introduced by the “national-democrats”.
  • The reform was to simplify the grammar of the Belarusian language.

The reform had been accompanied by a fervent press campaign directed against the “nats-dems not yet giving up.”

The decree had been named On Changing and Simplifying Belarusian Spelling («Аб зменах і спрашчэнні беларускага правапісу»), but the bulk of the changes had been introduced into the grammar. Yan Stankyevich in his critique of the reform talked about 25 changes, with one of them being strictly orthographical and 24 relating to both orthography and grammar. [Stank 1936]

Many of the changes in the orthography proper (“stronger principle of AH-ing,” “no redundant soft sign,” “uniform nye and byez“) were, in fact, simply implementations of earlier proposals made by people who had subsequently suffered political suppression (e.g., Yazep Lyosik, Lastowski, Nyekrashevich, 1930 project). [BAC 1926][Nyekr 1930][Padluzhny 2004]

The morphological principle in the orthography had been strengthened, which also had been proposed in 1920s. [BAC 1926]

The “removal of the influences of the Polonisation” had been represented, effectively, by the:

  • Reducing the use of the “consonant+non-iotified vowel” in assimilated Latinisms in favour of “consonant+iotified vowel,” leaving only Д, Т, Р unexceptionally ”hard.”
  • Changing the method of representing the sound “L” in Latinisms to another variant of the Belarusian sound Л (of 4 variants existing), rendered with succeeding non-iotified vowels instead of iotified.
  • Introducing the new preferences of use of the letters Ф over Т for fita, and В over Б for beta, in Hellenisms. [Stank 1936]

The “removing of the artificial barriers between the Russian and Belarusian languages” (virtually the often-quoted “Russification of the Belarusian language,” which may well happen to be a term coined by Yan Stankyevich) had, according to Stankyevich, moved the normative Belarusian morphology and syntax closer to their Russian counterparts, often removing from use the indigenous features of the Belarusian language. [Stank 1936]

Stankyevich also observed that some components of the reform had moved the Belarusian grammar to the grammars of other Slavonic languages, which would hardly be its goal. [Stank 1936]

West Belarus

In West Belarus, there had been some voices raised against the reform, chiefly by the non-Communist/non-socialist wing of the Belarusian national scene. Yan Stankyevich was named to the Belarusian Scientific Society, Belarusian National Committee and Society of the Friends of Belarusian Linguistics at Wilno University. Certain political and scientific groups and figures went on using the pre-reform orthography and grammar, however, thus multiplying and differing versions.

However, the reformed grammar and orthography had been used, too, for example during the process of S. Prytytski (1936).

Second World War

During the Occupation of Belarus by Nazi Germany (1941–1944), the Belarusian collaborationists influenced newspapers and schools to use the Belarusian language. This variant did not use any of the post-1933 changes in vocabulary, orthography and grammar. Much publishing in Belarusian Latin script was done. In general, in the publications of theSoviet partisan movement in Belarus, the normative 1934 grammar was used.

Post Second World War

After the Second World War, several major factors influenced the development of the Belarusian language. The most important was the implementation of the “rapprochement and unification of Soviet people” policy, which resulted by the 1980s in the Russian language effectively and officially assuming the role of the principal means of communication, with Belarusian relegated to a secondary role. The post-war growth in the number of publications in the Belarusian language in BSSR drastically lagged behind those in Russian. The use of Belarusian as the main language of education was gradually limited to rural schools and humanitarian faculties. While officially much lauded, the language was popularly represented as an “uncultured, rural language of rural people”.

That was the source of concern for the nationally minded and caused, for example, the series of publications by Barys Sachanka in 1957–1961 and the text named “Letter to a Russian Friend” by Alyaksyey Kawka (1979). Interestingly, the contemporary BSSR Communist party leader Kirill Mazurov made some tentative moves to strengthen the role of Belarusian language in the second half of the 1950s. However, the support for the Belarusian language could also be easily considered “too strong” and even identified with the support of “Belarusian nationalists and fascists”.

After the beginning of Perestroika and the relaxing of political control in the late 1980s, a new campaign in support of the Belarusian language was mounted in BSSR, expressed in the “Letter of 58″ and other publications, producing a certain level of popular support and resulting in the BSSR Supreme Soviet ratifying the “Law on Languages” (“Закон аб мовах“; 26 January 1990) requiring the strengthening of the role of Belarusian in state and civic structures.

1959 reform of grammar

A discussion on problems in Belarusian orthography and on the further development of the language was held from 1935–1941. From 1949–1957 this continued, although it was deemed there was a need to amend some unwarranted changes to the 1933 reform. The Orthography Commission, headed by Yakub Kolas, set up the project in about 1951, but it was approved only in 1957, and the normative rules were published in 1959. This grammar had been accepted as normative for the Belarusian language since then, receiving minor practical changes in the 1985 edition.

A project to correct parts of the 1959 grammar was conducted from 2006 to 2007.

Post 1991

After Belarusian independence, the Belarusian language gained in prestige and popular interest. However, the implementation of the 1992–1994 “Law on Languages” was conducted in such a way that it provoked public protests and was dubbed “Landslide Belarusization” and “undemocratic” by those opposing it in 1992–1994. In acontroversial referendum held on 14 May 1995 the Belarusian language lost its exclusive status as the only state language. State support for Belarusian language and culture in general has dwindled since then, and Russian is dominant in everyday life in today’s Belarus.


Since the 2010s the situation around Belarusian has started to slightly change thanks to the efforts of language advocacy institutions, individual representatives of such educational, cultural, scientific and linguistic organizations as Frantsishak Skaryna Belarusian Language Society, Belarus Academy of Sciences, Belarusian Writers’ Union, the endeavours of pro-Belarusian public figures from media and communication field, musicians, philosophers, entrepreneurs and benefactors. And despite losing its exclusiveness in the controversial referendum, smatterings of positive signs about Belarusian can be seen to trickle down into the life of the Belarusian society with advertising campaigns supporting the cause (outdoor billboards promoting and acquainting with the Belarusian language, branding campaigns for the leading telecommunication providers like Velcom, etc.), the simplified version of the Belarusian Latin alphabet on the metro map being introduced into the messages of the transport network, dedicated advertising festivals like AD!NAK upholding marketing communication in Belarusian, and informal language courses such as Mova Nanova, Mova ci kava, Movavedy, having sprung up in Minsk and around Belarus and spurring further interest of people, especially of young people, in developing good Belarusian communication skills in everyday life. Yet, these are just a few steps that have moved the image of the language towards its wide adoption among the majority of the population.

Taraškievica or Klasyčny pravapis (Classical orthography)

There exists an alternative literary norm of the Belarusian language, named Taraškievica (Tarashkevica). The promoters and users of it prevalently refer to it as Klasyčny pravapis(Classic orthography).


There are a number of names under which the Belarusian language has been known, both contemporary and historical. Some of the most dissimilar are from the Old Belarusian period.

Official, romanised

  • Belarusian (also spelled Belarusan, Belarussian, Byelarussian) – derived from the Belarusian name of the country “Belarus”, officially approved for use abroad by the Belarusian authorities (ca. 1992) and promoted since then.
  • Byelorussian (also spelled Belorussian, Bielorussian ) – derived from the Russian name of the country “Byelorussia” (Russian: Белоруссия), used officially (in the Russian language) in the times of the USSR and, later, in Russia.
  • White Ruthenian (and its equivalents in other languages) – literal, a word-by-word translation of the parts of the composite word Belarusian.


  • Great Lithuanian (вялікалітоўская (мова)) – proposed and used by Yan Stankyevich since the 1960s, intended to part with the “diminishing tradition of having the name related to the Muscovite tradition of calling the Belarusian lands” and to pertain to the “great tradition of Belarusian statehood”.
  • Kryvian or Krivian (крывіцкая/крывічанская/крыўская (мова), Polish: język krewicki) – derived from the name of the Slavonic tribe Krivichi, one of the main tribes in the foundations of the forming of the Belarusian nation. Created and used in the 19th century by Belarusian Polish-speaking writers Jaroszewicz, Narbut, Rogalski, Jan Czeczot. Strongly promoted by Vaclau Lastouski.


  • Simple (простая (мова)) or local (тутэйшая (мова)) – used mainly in times preceding the common recognition of the existence of the Belarusian language, and nation in general. Supposedly, the term can still be encountered up to the end of the 1930s, e.g., in Western Belarus.
  • Simple Black Ruthenian (Russian: простой чернорусский) – used in the beginning of the 19th century by the Russian researcher Baranovski and attributed to contemporary vernacular Belarusian.

Computer representation

Belarusian is represented by the ISO 639 code be or bel, or more specifically by IETF language tags be-1959acad (so-called “Academic” ["governmental"] variant of Belarusian as codified in 1959) or be-tarask (Belarusian in Taraskievica orthography).

Published - August 2014

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