Mother tongue and ancestral language in Belarus

Masha Gessen wrote in The New Yorker three weeks ago:

A Belarusian-language literature has been developing, and Alexievich has expressed regret that she cannot write in the language of her country.

At present, the language of Belarus appears to be Russian. Belarusian was spoken by the (mostly peasant) ancestors of most of the country’s residents, who often feel it is the “genuine” language of the land and the nation even if they are native Russian speakers.

There exists a considerable body of literature in Belarusian, including Vasil Bykov’s prose (most of which he translated into Russian). But, according to my Belarusian acquaintances and to their regret, it is no longer a developing, fully living language.

I have met and worked with a few educated urban Belarusians. All of them speak Russian natively and use it as the primary language but none identifies as Russian. All of them know Belarusian, some very well, some at a reading-comprehension level, and regret that the language is underdeveloped and underused. None, however, wishes to force out or stop using Russian: they don’t see it as a threat to their Belarusian identity, to which they cling steadfastly but without a hint of chest-thumping.

According to the 2009 census, 84% of Belarus residents self-identify as Belarusians: even in Minsk, the percent is as high as 79%. However, over 70% of the total population and about 70% of the ethnic Belarusians use Russian as the home language. This 2011 study by Hentschel (a linguist at Oldenburg) and Kittel (now head of Department of Economic Sociology at the University of Vienna) found that 55% of respondents used Russian and 41%, a mixture of Belarusian and Russian, in everyday speech, while only 4% used Belarusian.

In sharp contrast to this, 61% of the ethnic Belarusians named Belarusian as their mother tongue in 2009. This number stood at a mind-boggling 86% in 1999, when 59% of this ethnic group used Russian at home. Most respondents apparently understood “mother tongue” not as the language spoken by their parents but rather the language of their ancestors.

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