Belarusian language: facts and figures

International Mother Language Day is celebrated every year on 21st February. Belarusian is one of the two official languages of Belarus. It is considered native by the majority of the population. However, only somewhat 26% use it in everyday life. Belsat has prepared the facts and figures about the Belarusian language for you.

A short history of the Belarusian language

The first mention of the Belarusian languages dates back to XIV-XVI centuries when the current territory of Belarus was a part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. The Belarusian language, then an official language, was used in state affairs. Later, as a part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth followed by the Russian Empire, Belarus went through processes of polonisation and russification. In the 1897 Russian Empire Census, 5.89 million people stated they could speak Belarusian.

In Soviet times, the goal of creating a New Soviet people led to longterm discrimination of the Belarusian language. Despite being banned from the official use, the language and culture revitalization were supported by many groups of citizens. When Lukashenka came to power in 1994, relying on the idea of Soviet nostalgia, the Belarusian language became associated with the language of the opposition. This label was strengthened in 1996 when the Russian language became the second official language. The stigma of the language of opposition remains, even though in the last five years, the Belarusian authorities have tried to popularize the language as a cultural and identity marker. At the same time, superficial state support to the Belarusian language has only minor reflection in the labor market, in public policy, media, healthcare, and education.

What is the Belarusian language like?

The Belarusian language is an Indo-European East-Slavic language that has the most linguistic similarities with Ukrainian, Polish, and Russian. According to some research, 80% of oral Belarusian is similar to Ukrainian, with 80% modern written language identical to Russian. The Belarusian language once used the Latin alphabet, which had later been replaced by the Cyrillic alphabet. In the XVI century, Belarusian also used Arabic and in XX century — Hebrew alphabets. The language has its dialects; all of them were recorded and placed on the map by a project called “dialects.natatnik.”

How many people speak Belarusian?

The Belarusian language is assessed as vulnerable by UNESCO, facing inequality with Russian in many spheres, mainly in official communication and business. According to the population census in 2009, 60,8% Belarusians consider Belarusian their native language, while 26% Belarusians stated they use the language at home. At the same time, only around 10% of the population actively use it in everyday life.

Where is the Belarusian language used?

Although the majority of students study Belarusian at schools, not so many educational establishments provide instruction in the Belarusian language.

“Without the state support, more language classes at school, and the wide usage of the language on the official level, it is too early to talk about real change,” the Guardian quotes Andrei Yeliseyeu, a political analyst from the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies, an independent think tank.

The Russian language dominates the media; only Belarus 3 TV channel produces content in the Belarusian language more or less regularly. Independent media that often struggle with accreditation in Belarus and face repressions publish in the Belarusian language more often. Among them are Belsat, Radio Free Europe, Nasha Niva, etc.

When it comes to the business sector, Belarusian language is visible to a certain degree in telecommunications, bank sphere, and services. Belarusian advertisement festival Ad.nak! attracts more and more participants, but the Russian language is still mostly used in services and marketing.

The Belarusian language finds its niche in literature, music, and arts, as well as some cultural projects. The language courses MovaNanova provide an opportunity to study the Belarusian language in several cities of the country for free. The world-famous company Wargaming expressed its support to the Belarusian language by translating the game World of Tanks into Belarusian.

Bonus: listen to the song of the Witcher in the Belarusian language.

Alesia Rudnik for