Linguistic Adventures in Minsk

Arriving in the capital city of Belarus about 90 minutes later was really a breeze as there was no passport control or anything else I could see or hear to make me feel that I was somewhere even remotely foreign. Well, except for that welcoming sign reading Мiнск (in Belarusian). A photo I took of it got my Mum excited. She asked me to say hello to the city for her.

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A welcoming sign in Belarusian and English

That tiny trip was already becoming one of a kind – neither had I ever got to see my Mum and another country on the same day nor had she ever had any connection with the place I had visited on any of my overseas travels. Well, unlike my Mum who spent a few months in Minsk as a student, I had to remember I was actually abroad as I had to get some local money… That seemed quite an easy thing to do as the language barrier didn’t even exist in reading (so far). On my way to the city centre I started studying some billboards as the first visual cues to give me some feel for the city’s character and identity. They were all in Russian (so far)…

Through the course of that short day I chose to pretend I was a researcher on a mission to investigate the capital city’s languagescape. I expected ethnographic methods would be suited for the task. Before embarking on field work, I found myself grappling with a dilemma facing a lot of researchers. Should I weed through a great amount of scientific data to gain a wide range of perspectives on the issue? Should I simply go with my gut? Or finally, should I strive to strike a balance between the two and make a well-informed judgment relying on a variety of available internal and external sources? After all, I chose to examine some studies on Belarus’s language use and policies as well as resulting linguistic identities prior to my trip.

It is a common belief that every sovereign state claims its own identity largely by means of its national language. It is definitely not so straightforward for a lot of nations including Belarus. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, it was the last former Soviet state to pass on the language legislation. According to the controversial 1995 referendum sponsored by President Lukashenko, Belarusian and Russian are its official languages. Does that mean the country is bilingual? Belarus is referred to as the most “Russified” former Soviet state and its language policy as “quasi-bilingual” as the Belarusian language mostly serves a symbolic function. For instance, most legal documents are published in Russian and since the 1990s Russian has been gaining growing recognition in the Republic of Belarus. Some scientists refer to this scenario as “post-imperial” , i.e., when the language of the former dominating political power remains significant but is no longer a language of political allegiance. It seems obvious that Belarusians no longer want to be seen as “Russia’s younger brother”. As some poll data suggests, there has been less support for the Belarus-Russia union state in the last decade. Currently there are three distinct political movements in the country: Belarusophones, Russophones and official Belarusian State Nationalism that emphasizes the importance of maintaining the relations with Russia as well as the other CIS countries. According to the Republic’s President Lukashenko, Belarusians own Russian just as much as Russians. There was no reason why any attempt had to be made to suppress it, which might essentially involve Belarusians rejecting a part of their “soul”. Besides, Lukashenko still seems nostalgic about the former Soviet Union and the Russian language has been a linguistic glue holding its nations together. Despite a strong emphasis on state nationalism, Lukashenko has been consistently reported to diminish the role of Belarusian as associated with the language of the opposition. Thus, when in 2014 on the Republic’s Independence Day President chose to deliver a part of his speech in Belarusian (what he hadn’t done since 1994), he truly “stunned” the nation. Some political commentators argue that this speech might have been indicative of Lukashenko’s urge to claim autonomy from Russia in response to the annexation of Crimea.

In the recent decades there have also been a few studies exploring linguistic identities and language attitudes of around 10 million people living in the country. In contrast to the 1990s census data, some independent poll data from 2009 revealed that even though an overwhelming majority identified themselves as Belarusians, a more significant proportion reported Russian as their native language. Also, only a third of those who identified Belarusian as their native language claimed to use it at home while the majority reported speaking predominantly Russian. Interestingly, in some other surveys that offered the option “mixed language” a sizeable proportion of the participants reported to use it. However, the younger cohort seemed to prefer Russian. It must be noted that the surveys were conducted in Minsk. The numbers could have been somewhat different in smaller cities. A mixed use of Russian and Belarusian had to be adopted by former rural residents moving to bigger cities for career opportunities following the World War II. It is called as “trasianka” (“low quality hay” in Belarusian). This term has been a subject of scholarly debate as it has a certain negative connotation and is largely associated with a low social status and education level both by Russian and Belarusian speakers. President Lukashenko has been criticized by the opposition for using “trasianka”. It is argued that it is for fear of speaking this stigmatized language variation that Belarusians refrain from speaking pure Belarusian.

An early version of Belarusian was utilized in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. This formerly largest state in Europe comprised Lithuania, Latvia, Poland, some parts of Ukraine and what is today the Republic of Belarus. In the 17th century Polish started gaining momentum. While being ruled by Russia, the area continued to be dominated by the Polish culture up until 19th century. It was around the same time when the western borders of the Russian empire were being russified that the standard Belarusian was considered a dialect of Russian. In terms of linguistic proximity Belarusian and Russian are compared with Scots and English, Wallon and French, Low German and High German. The knowledge of Belarusian is barely mentioned as essential to “Belarusianness”. Belarusian classes are rarely offered as part of a school curriculum and 85% of books are published in Russian. However, a sizeable proportion of Belarusians are willing to improve their knowledge of Belarusian culture and history.

When it comes to Belarusian Russian, some linguists believe that its “nativisation” in Belarus led to a new variety as was the case for different versions of English. Due to the extensive influence the Russian media has had on it, Belarusian Russian has not been recognized as a “legitimate national variety of Russian”. More than 40% of print media is in Russian and no more than 15% of airtime is devoted to Belarusian-language programs. The view of Russian having a “homogeneous standard variety”, which was customary back in the Soviet Union, seems to be another stumbling block for this variation. Obviously, it has its own distinct phonological and lexical features. Lexicographers insisted on including forms that had previously been regarded as “substandard” in dictionaries, which sparked a debate on the literary norm in the post-Soviet era. Now that a large proportion of media is Internet-based, Moscow-based scholars have less control over standard Russian use. The Belarusian Russian has fewer English borrowings and some variations in political and legal terminology.

As can be seen, people of Belarus seem divided on what it means to be Belarusian and which language or variation defines them as a nation. Therefore language does not straightforwardly fit into the intricate tapestry of the Belarusian identity. Overall, Belarus presents a remarkably new phenomenon in the recent history of the Russian language in the CIS countries. This country also serves as a unique example of how contingent issues of language policies and emerging linguistic identities are.

So what kind of discoveries did I make through the course of my field work in Belarus? I believe that doing a bit of research on the country’s linguistic, political and cultural landscape enabled me to reevaluate my own attitude to it. I hate to admit that in a way as a Russian I used to patronize this small neighboring state as they sometimes do younger siblings. I would even describe my attitude as somehow inspired by despicable colonial policies of the past. Before my second short trip to Belarus, I was mainly interested in the way MY language was spoken there. As non-native teachers, we often resent natives claiming ownership of languages we teach for a living. In this line of work some of us have to renegotiate our professional and even personal identities again and again. At some point, we might start (un)consciously distancing ourselves from our first languages. But there is someone/something constantly reminding us of where we come from. A simple conservation starter “Where are you from?” sometimes dampens the excitement of interacting with native speakers making us, non-natives, feel that we are trodding on THEIR land. Even though some professionals manage to train themselves to gracefully stay afloat in the ocean of a foreign language, our (hopefully not so distinct) spoken and writing accents will always be there as a badge of otherness. Both natives and non-natives are contemplating their identities as English is gaining an unprecedented momentum as an international language. It is thus no longer surprising to hear conversations between non-native speakers that are anything to each other (passers-by, colleagues, friends, spouses, parents, etc.) in diverse corners of the world. Even though these polyphonies of sound as well as at times bizarre wording and phrasing might still make some natives cringe, I believe our “Englishes” are as legitimate as our unique identities. All I know is that after spending almost a year in an English-speaking country and engaging in countless conversations, I am back with at least an elusive sense of global citizenship as well as a renewed appreciation of my native language that I grew up speaking.

So is the way my first language is spoken in Russia different from the one in Belarus? I wish I had asked myself this on my first visit here. But I don’t think at that point of my career I was up for the challenge. That trip had a totally different agenda as I came to Minsk to see my favourite British boyband in concert. Those lads were responsible for fuelling my passion for English which back then I had no idea would enable me to do so much more than just understand their song lyrics. Here I was six years later doing some eavesdropping in the streets of this same city on a mission to observe actual linguistic behavior of Belarusians. Before ever coming to this neighboring country, I knew that there was one very famous Belarusian –the Republic’s President Lukashenko – who sounded remotely different to me. Even though I was listening hard throughout my day in Minsk, on the phonological level nothing stood out for me. Besides, unlike during ten months away from home, not even once had I been asked “Where are you from?” Could it be because my interactions were limited to a money-exchange kiosk, a restaurant, a Soviet-style department store, a café and a bus station and the airport? Or is Russian truly a pass beyond the national borders? Finally, was I too focused on the differences or were the samples and research environment too random and uncontrolled? It was only content analysis of those snippets of conversations that revealed the word “Belarus” and a few references to its different regions. Other than that, there wasn’t anything about what I heard to make me aware I wasn’t actually in Russia.

As the Belarusian language still seemed nowhere to be heard, I kept scrutinizing random billboards around me in the attempt to at least see some. Unlike those on my way from the airport which were all in Russian, a few in the city centre were in a mix of Belarusian and Russian (in that particular order). The symbolic significance of the former struck me in Independence Avenue (Minsk’s most central street). There I saw an imposing building of the House of Government with a Belarusian flag on top and a massive sign only in Belarusian that read “З Новым годам i Нараджэннем Хрыстовым” (“Happy New Year and Merry Christmas”). In Russian that would have been “С Новым Годом и Рождеством Христовым”, which is not significantly different and thus easy to decipher for a Russian.

sign
З Новым годам i Нараджэннем Хрыстовым” (“Happy New Year and Merry Christmas”), Independence Avenue

Further along the avenue I could see more Belarusian on numerous plaques. Their language was becoming more challenging to decipher. I failed to understand what exactly distinguished individuals who used to live in those buildings were famous for. Their names were clearly prominent in the Belarusian culture but totally unknown to me.

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A street sign for Independence Avenue (in Belarusian)

Continuing down the avenue after a few wrong turns, I sent a photo of the Minsk Circus building (Цырк) to an amazing American lexicographer and a teacher of Russian and French I met back in the U.S. I am sure on her future trip to Belarus she will have an engaging linguistic adventure of her own. Actually, a little glimpse of French also caught my eye as my promenade took me to the Svislach River Embankment just a bit off Independence Avenue. The French flair of a billboard that read “Minsk vous attend” (Minsk is waiting for you) might help in promoting international tourism here in Belarus. I saw a few billboards in English as well that were probably from the 2nd European Games held here earlier in 2019. Everything else I encountered – from restaurant and café menus and other billboards – was in the language we and Belarusians call our own.

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A restaurant menu (in Russian)
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An advertisement sign for a chocolate factory (in Russian)

A patriotic sign that read I heart Belarus could have been both in Russian and Belarusian as these words are identical in both languages.

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I heart Belarus (the same in Belarusian and Russian)

The last final brushstroke to my version of the Minsk linguascape were a few airport announcements in Belarusian, Russian and English. That was once that I had got to hear the former being spoken, even if in such a dry and impersonal tone. I caught myself thinking that it sounded like a mix of Russian, Ukrainian and Polish. In spite of multiple misunderstandings of varying scale, we still seem historically and linguistically intertwined in this part of the world. I concluded my field work with an eavesdropping session at an airport café – two waitresses at the bar spoke just the way their counterparts would back home…

On this trip what I realized was that the Belarusian identity was tangibly there in visual symbols. The Russian language was living and breathing as an essential part of it.

I think that living in such a vast country we might sometimes overlook the fact that Russian is a lingua franca in such an expansive area of the globe. It is truly fascinating how we don’t have to go too far beyond our enormous home country to be able to find engaging playgrounds for our eyes, ears and minds. As much as we crave for novelty while travelling, trips like this with no major linguistic misunderstandings are somewhat comforting. I must concur that “Belarusianness” is a blurred term to define indeed. Should I set out on conducting a full-scale study of my own, I will have to dive deeper into research data and probably go on another trip here. I am not sure about it yet – my own identity as a language teacher and a researcher is still evolving and so are my travelling motives and agendas. It was my teenage crush on a member of that British band that first brought me to Minsk. Now this feeling that had been feeding my curiosity for English is long gone. What remains is a much more profound feeling towards languages and my curiosity about how they shape our identities. I realize I might have to negotiate mine again and again as I hopefully explore more external and internal sources of knowledge and enlightenment. I surely don’t mind a lot more field work in the process!

 

References
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grand_Duchy_of_Lithuania
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trasianka
https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jan/28/-sp-russian-belarus-reclaims-language-belarusian
https://www.rferl.org/a/shocking-belarusian-president-speaks-belarusian-lukashenka/25443432.html
https://carnegie.ru/commentary/67939
https://www.cambridge.org/core/books/linguistic-anthropology/ethnographic-methods/F8894FE65BAF468EDE14DACDC5EB06E0
Bekus, Nelly (2010): Struggle over Identity: The Official and the Alternative “Belarusianness.” Budapest: Central European University Press.

Crystal, David (2003). English as a global language. (2n d ed. First ed., 1997), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Giger, Markus and Sloboda, Marián (2008): Language Management and Language Problems in Belarus: Education and Beyond. In Multilingualism in Post-Soviet Countries, ed. Pavlenko, Aneta. Bristol, UK: Multilingual Matters, 41-65.

Norman, Boris (2010): Russkij jazyk v sovremennoj Belarusi: praktika i norma. Russkij jazyk (6), 8-15.

Woolhiser, Curt (2011) “Belarusian Russian”: Sociolinguistic Status and Discursive Representations. In: Rudolf Muhr (ed.): Non-dominating Varieties of Pluricentric Languages. Getting the Picture. In memory of Prof. Michael Clyne. Wien et. al., Peter Lang Verlag

Woolhiser, Curt (2014) “The Russian Language in Belarus: Language Use, Speaker Identities and Metalinguistic Discourse”. In The Russian Language Outside the Nation, ed. by Lara Ryazanova-Clarke, 81-116. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

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