Belorussian is one of the three Eastern SLAVONIC LANGUAGES, and has generally been overshadowed by its neighbours (for map see RUSSIAN).
Belorussian or Byelorussian means White Russian, and that name (or White Ruthenian) has sometimes been used for the language. It has nothing to do with the White Russian faction that attempted counter-revolution against Communism in 1918–22.
Belarus is divided from Ukraine by the vast Pripet Marshes. It seems likely that early Slavonic speakers slowly spread northwards from Ukraine to settle Belarus and Russia in the first millennium AD. The written Old Russian of Kiev (see UKRAINIAN) may be regarded as ancestor equally of Russian, Ukrainian and Belorussian. Modern Belorussian is part of a dialect continuum that links Ukrainian to the south and Russian to the east.
Little is known of the history of Belarus before it became part of the dominions of the pagan Lithuanians under Prince Gedymin in 1315. Western Russian or Ruthenian, an early form of Belorussian mixed with Old Slavonic, was the official language of Lithuania, which in due course became a Christian state and one half of the Polish-Lithuanian kingdom. This variety of Belorussian thus spread wider than any later form of the language, being spoken and written – in some contexts – all the way from the Baltic coast to Ukraine, where, gradually modified by Ukrainian, it was used administratively even in the 17th-century Cossack state in eastern Ukraine. It was often called prostaya mova, ‘common tongue’, to distinguish it from Church Slavonic.
However, Polish gradually supplanted Belorussian as the ruling language of Belarus and Belorussian peasants were increasingly subject to Polish landowners. At the end of the 18th century Russia annexed Lithuania, including Belorussia, and Russian became the new language of prestige.
A Belorussian translation of the Bible, by F. Skaryna, had been printed in Prague in 1517–19. There are important texts from the 16th century, including chronicles of Lithuania. The language and literature flourished in the 19th century, and even more with the establishment of an autonomous Belorussian Republic within the Soviet Union.
Belarus declared its independence in 1991 but remains on good terms with Russia, although Russia was blamed for the Chernobyl nuclear disaster which has left part of south-eastern Belarus uninhabitable. Most Belorussians speak Russian fluently, and some still regard their mother tongue as little more than a rustic dialect of Russian (as Russians themselves tended to do). The Belorussian press is more than half Russian in language, though the Russian minority forms less than a quarter of the population of the country.
The language differs from Russian not only by its characteristic sound pattern – there are examples in the table of numerals – but also because of the large number of Polish loanwords.
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