Maryna Krazhova: Status of the Belarusian Language in the UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger. Вэб-часопіс “Культура. Нацыя”, №27, красавік-май, 2021, 79-108.

Maryna Krazhova: Status of the Belarusian Language in the UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger

Марына Кражова, нарадзіласяў 1986 годзе ў мястэчку Вызна (Красная Слабада) на Салігоршчыне. Скончыла Педагагічны Каледж №2 і навучалася ва Ўніверсітэце Культуры і Мастацтваў па спецыяльнасці інфармацыйныя сістэмы ў сфэры культуры. У 2020 скончыла Northeastern University, Boston, MA са ступеняй магістра Міжнародных Адносінаў у галіне вырашэння канфліктаў. Вывучае моўнае пытанне і яго ролю ў сучасных нацыянальных супярэчнасцях і накірунках. Піша вершы і апавяданні, друкуецца ў Альманаху “Беларус”.

Адна з мэтаў дадзенага даследавання, давесці што перабольшванне і прыўкраса рэальнага становішча беларускай мовы, гэтак як і ігнараванне ці прымяньшэнне, не ідуць на карысць адраджэнню і захаванню моўнай спадчыны. Недасканалае разуменне абставінаў і адсутнасць празрыстых сацыялагічных дадзеных Рэспублікі Беларусь, ствараюць неадпаведны рэчаіснасці статус беларускай мовы ў прасторы міжнародных арганізацый.



Literature review                    


Linguistic rights 

Case study: Belarus 


Belarusian Spring 



Language diversity is essential to the human heritage. Each and every language embodies the unique cultural wisdom of people. The loss of any language is thus a loss for all humanity.                                          UNESCO


Language is “human speech; the expression of ideas by words or significant articulate sounds, for the communication of thoughts” (Noah Webster, 1828). As defined, the importance of language cannot be underestimated in the sphere of political science. Some may ask, “Why do we waste our time on translations, research, and dictionaries when a great number of people have already supported the idea of the unilingual domain?”. Even though it is already too late for hundreds of languages, people do not believe that extinction will cause any harm in the future. As Brian Barry said: 

A language becomes extinct, simply because those speaking it take decision that it aggregate result in its disappearing. Very many languages have done just that in the past and doubtless many more will do so in the future. A liberal society cannot adopt policies designed to keep a language in existence if those who speak it prefer to let it go (2002, p.65).

Moreover, the opinion that a unilingual global society will be beneficial for world trade and culture remains popular. One common language is the mythical nostalgia for the pre-Babel tower times, where the single language has been seen as a convenience that will allow people to negotiate and make connections in a much easier way. Nevertheless, the easy way never changed anything fundamental. Everything became more accessible – online shopping and services, grammar auto correction, fast mail, and messengers. At the same time, there are still wars and conflicts, violent protests and political prisoners, poverty and epidemics, just like two hundred years ago. Experience has shown that recognizing linguistic rights has not enforced separatist movements; they have tended to result in more stable and less violent societies. On the contrary, when minorities are marginalized because of the denial of their human rights, conflicts can develop (Varennes, 2019).

The are many linguistic theories, and one of them, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis combines two principles: 

  1. Linguistic determinism – states that language determines the way we think.
  2. Linguistic relativity – states that the distinction encoded in one language is not found in any other languages.

A study in 1960 showed how English – and French-speaking Canadians viewed each other (Crystal, 2010). English-speaking students were asked to listen to recordings and concentrate solely on voice/personality and mark on a checklist what the personality traits of the speakers were. The students were not told that the voices belong to perfectly bilingual speakers, each of whom read the passage both in English and French. Of course, the English speakers were evaluated more favorable “intelligent, kind, ambitious.” When French-speaking students were given the same test, they too rated the English voices higher. The study had shown the low esteem in which the French language was held at that time (Crystal, 2010). Language affects our personality and the way others react to our characters. Immigrants usually describe a personality split when switching to another language. Some of the features are understandable; people who are not so fluent in a foreign language turn into a slow speaker regardless of the speed in their tongue. Other differences, such as an inability to joke or to describe a feeling or emotion even though their lexicon allows them to do so, are more noticeable. Language is a personality itself.  

In the early 20th century, the Belarusian language suffered as a result of urban development and the Communist way of life with Russian, as an international language. The Soviet authorities brought the wave of Russian migration into Belarusian territories and speeded up the process of natural language assimilation in favor of the Russian.

In the early 1920s, the Soviet authorities began a campaign to eliminate illiteracy. They encouraged talented exiles to return home and become a part of the Belarusian cultural renaissance. Inspired writers, teachers, and academics were coming back, mostly from European countries, to build up a new state. However, by the end of the 1920s, the proponents of the Belarusian language were named “bourgeois nationalists.” The cultural renaissance was turned into “national deviationism,” and the scholars were accused of inventing counter-revolutionary orthography (Marples, 1996). The Soviets exiled 600,000 Belarusian people, and around 200,000 of them died in camps. In 1937 the intellectual elite, including 90 percent of writers, were killed, and on the night of October 29, NKVD shot 132 talented professors. In 1946 the Belarusian leadership structure was completely Russified.

The next revival of the Belarusian language began in the early 1980s and continued until 1995. In 1995, President Lukashenka held a referendum. The deputies initiated a hunger strike in the chamber in protest, but they were forcefully removed from the building by the KGB. As a result, the referendum sought approval for four presidential proposals: to change the flag and national symbols into the earlier Soviet style; to give Russian the status of official language alongside Belarusian; to approve the policy of economic integration with Russia; and to give the president the right to dismiss parliament in the event of a “gross violation of the constitution” (Bennett, 2011).

A year later, the referendum of 1996 moved the Independence Day celebration to 3 July. The original date, 25 March 1918, had declared the independence of the Belarusian Democratic Republic from Russia. On the other hand, 3 July is the anniversary of the Red Army’s liberation of the capital city, which has nothing to do with independence. Anyhow, historical symbols and the date of 25 March 1918 were connected to the German troops that occupied Belarus at that time. Later, unconsciously or with the help of ideology, the German troops of WWI absorbed the features of the German troops of WWII and became fascists.  Consequently, the President, as a former history teacher, propagated the concept that the use of old symbols is a passion of radical nationalists, and potential fascists.

Nevertheless, the symbols, including the Belarusian language, are recognized by the Belarusian diaspora across the globe. The 100-year anniversary of the unofficial Independence Day in 2019 brought together thousands of people in Canada, USA, UK, Czech Republic, Poland, Lithuania, Ukraine, Switzerland, Belgium, Israel, Latvia (Pashkevich, 2019).

Most likely, the presidential elections in 2020 will not change the leadership of the state. Thirty out of thirty-one maps of integration between Belarus and Russia were signed in December 2019 and more propaganda of the Union State appears in mass media. Under current circumstances, the extinction of the language will be inevitable.

Literature review

There are a few arguments on the importance of diversity described by scholars.  Without a doubt, diversity leads to healthy competition, and to the strongest eco and human systems. Different ways of describing the world make us productive rather than confused and provide people with more tools to express their identities (Crystal, 2002). “Language is a rudiment of consciousness and close to the core of personality; deprivations in relation to language deeply affect identity.” The modes of deprivation usually create discrimination and conflicts (McDougal, Lasswell, Chen, 1976, p.151).

Languages are repositories of history that contribute to the sum of human knowledge. People who belong to a monolingual culture have mindset of a dominant culture in which other people learn your language and you do not learn theirs (Crystal, 2014).) There is an increasing consensus that language also plays a vital role in democratic transition and development (Thomason, 2015).  

Crystal gave the most pervasive observation of the current language affairs, and relying on the collected information made the most logical predictions. His work will be exciting and informative to all scholars of cultural anthropology, historical linguistics, and political science in cases of globalization or nation-states. He was trying to stand up for the importance of the world’s authenticity in its diversity and explained why there is no place for the destruction of one’s culture in a peaceful global society and how our incorrigibleness benefits the natural development. 

UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger (Moseley, 2018) is the most recent study, that gives us the fullest detailed map of the problem. Most observational work does not provide readers with any plans, solutions, or reports of success or failures in this field.  Having this picture and access to the world’s language data creates the possibility of comparing different stories and finding typical features that might be helpful in revival or at least in preservation of one’s linguistic heritage.

Thomason (2015) and Garcia (2011), following the idea of Crystal, made their observations on the importance of language diversity and its connection with national/cultural identity. The texts by A. Smith (1991) and B. Anderson (1991) discussed identity through the presence of authentic national languages. A significant point of view based on Anderson’s “imagined communities” was presented by Belarusian scholar Akudovich (2007), who showed that in the case of Belarus, the community made the preference to be “invisible” by its own choice even though it remains “imagined.” Explaining the formation of European Nations, Hroch also gave the leading role and power to the language, describing the steps and directions that were necessarily followed by nation-building processes (2015).

From the viewpoint of the political theory subject and law, Kymlicka and Patten (2003), Lautsen (2003), Paz (2014), Radzik (2001), Sloboda (2011), Vareness (2015) observed the policies and movements in the sphere of language rights, proving that they are an essential part of democratization. The European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages (Council of Europe,1992) also provided readers with programs, laws, and conditions at work in this field.

In his book Language, Society and Identity (1985), Edwards, observed the language and especially the death of language through nationalism and different forms of oppression.

The smallest Slavonic Nation. The Sorbs of Lusatia by Stone investigated the unique story of the Sorbian language and revealed how the nation fought for its cultural heritage (1972).

Belarusian language and current politics of the Republic took the fundamental space in works of Sloboda (2011), Volakhava (2010), Vasilevich (2015), Radzik (2001), Komorovskaya (2016), Laustsen (2003), Ioffe (2003), Goujon (1999), Kittel (2010), Bekus (2010). The understanding that all of the mentioned authors live and work in different countries might lead us to the conclusion that Belarus already attracts the attention of international scholars as a very problematic case that needs to be covered and resolved. 

A wide range of scholarly articles and publications, along with the reports and legal documentation, represent the importance of the subject in different academic fields such as Political Science, History, Linguistics, Cultural Anthropology, Sociology, Law, Philosophy, Public Diplomacy, and others. From different points of view, language might play the role of a tool, and can be observed as an issue or as an actor. The investigation of the language issues in different fields gives us a better image of their significance and opens more perspectives for creating the right strategy.


This work will concentrate on the importance of the preservation and revival of languages, especially the Belarusian language and will describe what needs to be done for success with suggestions of the “why” and the “how”. It will explain why some of the global policies failed to appear in Belarusian society and why the new status of the Belarusian language was exaggerated.

The main goal of this study is to review the official reports and documents and analyze scholarly articles on the issue, and to show that the vulnerable status of the Belarusian language on the UNESCO’s report should be changed from “vulnerable” to “severely endangered” to attract international attention and prevent the potential extinction of the native tongue.

The scholars who were looking forward to mutual understanding through the existence of one official unifying language have a lot in common through the centuries. As we see, even though the most significant part of the native tongues of the former USSR disappeared and were replaced by the Russian language, not all of them were given up so quickly. Lithuania, Georgia, Ukraine, and many others went through a recovery and eventually gained their power. 

Only an independent country with a strong national identity, cultural memory, and respectful diplomatic reputation can be effective on the crossroads of different civilizations. 

When you lose a language, you lose a culture, intellectual wealth, a work of art. It’s like dropping a bomb on the Louvre. Ken Hale

Linguistic rights

After the Second World War, the anti-imperialist theories focused attention on imperial centers and the peripheral languages that were marginalized by them. In the post-war era, UNESCO has carried the anti-imperialist flag regarding national languages and declared education and governance in one’s mother tongue to be a right of all people (Kymlicka, Patten, 2003).

In 1992, the International Congress of Linguists discussed the issue of endangered languages in Canada and formed the Endangered Languages Committee. At the instigation of a Hungarian linguist Stephen Wurm, the Committee decided to create a research center, the International Clearing House for Endangered Languages (ICHEL) and to publish the UNESCO Red Book of Endangered Languages (Thessismun, 2018). 

After lengthy discussions, scholars agreed that some institutions need to take this problem under their control and supervision, and in 1993 the General Assembly adopted the “Endangered Languages Project.” Later, ICHEL was inaugurated in Tokyo, and the “Endangered Language Fund” was instituted in the USA. 

In 2001, UNESCO adopted the Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity that recognized a relationship between biodiversity, cultural diversity, and linguistic diversity. The same year, Stephen May connected the protection of dominated languages with issues of justice. May emphasized “that the switch of minority peoples from using their mother tongues to the language of the dominant group was never a free choice, but the result of ideological coercion” (Kymlicka, Patten, 2003, p.85). Following the 1993 Draft Declaration of Indigenous People, he wanted to popularize the need for dominant groups to facilitate a remedy for the revival of marginalized languages.

The European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages was created in 1992, and 25 countries have signed and ratified the Charter (Council of Europe, 1992). Policy recommendations still encourage countries to participate in the promotion and production of national strategic plans. The Charter is a legal highpoint of the intention to protect of linguistic diversity. Under the Charter, “each language covered by the treaty in a specific country should be treated in terms of its use by a government in a way that reflects the situation of each language” (Varennes, 2019, p.45). The European Council’s Resolution of 2008 noted that diversity is part and parcel of the European identity.

From the human rights perspective, states are free to decide whether or not to declare one or more official languages. Integration is also entirely legitimate if there are no signs of forced assimilation or other human rights violations.

International law follows three primary trends:

  1. Legal protection for endangered languages;
  2. Legal recognition of rights or obligations for the protection or promotion of linguistic diversity;
  3. Legal protection of human rights having a linguistic impact.

The UNESCO 2003 Convention for the Safe-guard of Intangible Cultural Heritage and the 2005 Convention on Biological Diversity has no concern with protecting endangered languages but provide funding to record and preserve endangered tongues. However, the treaty supports short-term projects, “and only those proposed by governments.” The government has to submit a proposal for a specific action, which can then be financially supported by the UNESCO Fund for this purpose (Varennes, 2019).

According to the reports, linguistic diversity has been significantly promoted, and at the regional government level, some states have structured well-developed plans for the safeguarding of their languages, such as Irish and Scottish Gaelic. Other successful projects appeared to support the Sami language and languages of the communities on the Isle of Mann and Wales. Scholars also agreed that the development of national or ethnic identities is connected “to the educational support provided for their languages and cultures” (Smolicz & Radzik, 2003). Some countries succeeded, some failed, and there are some states “overwhelmed by centuries of negative evaluation and subordination to the languages and cultures of colonial powers, dominant neighbors or domestic elites” (Smolicz & Radzik, 2003). 

UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger of 2019 is the most recent study that gives us a map of the problem. They classify the languages as 

  • Safe, if the language is spoken by all generations; 
  • Stable yet threatened, if all generations are multilingual but the dominant language is starting to take over. Switching to the language of the dominant group is never a free choice, according to some authors, but the result of ideological coercion (Kumlicka & Patten, 2003). However, vocabulary does change through generations and borrow words from other languages when convenient. There is no reason to invent another form of the word “the computer,” but when the words from our everyday life are being replaced by the words from dominant, promoted language, the situation cannot be observed as healthy assimilation. Thomason wrote that “large scale lexical replacement is the rare phenomenon of language death” (2015). 
  • Vulnerable, if most children speak their parental language as a first language, even if only at home; 
  • Definitely endangered, if the language is no longer learned as the mother tongue and the youngest speakers are of the parental generation; 
  • Severely endangered, if the language is only spoken by grandparents, the parental generation still understand it; 
  • Critically endangered, if the youngest speakers are of the great-grandparents, and language is not used every day; 
  • Extinct, if no one speaks or remembers the language over the last 50 years. (Krauss; Wurm; UNESCO). 

What language can be named dead? First of all, the language that has no fluent speakers. What is important is that before the “death,” the period of “dying” appears. There is no strategy to measure this period, according to Crystal (2014). Sometimes it can be applied to 500 speakers; in some cases, even 20,000 fluent speakers might be considered as speakers of the dying language. For example, the speakers of Breton in 1905 were 1.4 million people. Today, the number is reduced as low as 250,000 (Crystal, 2014). Crystal’s research showed that today, nearly 500 languages have fewer than 100 speakers; 1,500 have fewer than 1000, 3,340 – fewer than 10,000. 

According to Thomason, languages become endangered as a result of conquest (America, Australia, Siberia), economic pressure (Saami, Greek), melting pots, language politics (oppression), and attitudes of speakers (marginalized languages). The safest languages, in her opinion, are the languages with many millions of speakers. For example, English is an official language in 45 countries, French in 30, Spanish in 20, Arabic in 20, and Portuguese in 6 (Thomason, 2015). 

There are three broad stages on the way to the language death, according to Crystal: governmental pressure on the people to speak the dominant language; emerging bilingualism; decline of bilingualism with the old language giving way to the new (2014). Edwards stated that the most significant cause of language decline “is an inadequate concentration of speakers faced with economically powerful and sophisticated neighbors,” where the lack of transmission of historical language from parents to children occurs. However, miracles did happen in history – the awakening of Hebrew in Israel that had been dead for almost two thousand years as a language of everyday communication. Coincidentally, the revival of the spoken Hebrew language was started by Belarusian Jew Eliezer Ben-Yehuda (1858-1922). He was the first to raise the concept, published articles on the topic in newspapers, invented new words to denote objects unknown in Jewish antiquity. Today, Hebrew is the official language and the primary medium of life in Israel.

Some efforts were also made to revive Sanskrit as a spoken language, and the Census of India reported 49,736 fluent speakers in 1991 (Thomason, 2015). 

As already mentioned, the views why languages die differ: persecution, killing by those wishing to destroy the country, voluntarily suicide, lack of transmission. A language can also be associated with a lower social class, and then people will encourage their children to speak another language in order to distance themselves from the “bottom.” Languages may die voluntarily instead of being killed by the oppressor, but the line between these variants is blurred. Anyhow, the most noticeable feature of European Charter for Regional or Minority languages stated that the protection of the historical regional or minority languages of Europe contributes to the maintenance and development of Europe’s cultural wealth and traditions” (Council of Europe, 1992). This statement is designed to build the world based on the principles of democracy and cultural diversity. It also means that the country that receives the ticket to the list of minority languages gains international attention, support, and benefits such as the recognition of the language as an expression of cultural wealth; promotion and safeguarding; establishing of cultural relations; the provision of appropriate forms for teaching and of educational facilities; 

The question is, “Why are the languages are still dying and who gets the lucky ticket?” Well, the language death, as stated earlier, is the natural process and the lucky ticket – are the people themselves. Most of the minor languages that survive have a unique story, a combination of different factors, and specific features. For example, a small Sorbian group was voluntarily Germanized during the growth of capitalism at the begging of the 19th century, but in 1849 there was a republican revolt in Dresden. The king, Friedrich August, managed to escape from the city with the protection of Sorbian troops. In recognition of the Sorbian troops Friedrich August directed that the Crown Prince should study the Sorbian language. It made the tongue valuable and recognizable (Stone, 1972). This is one of the reasons why we still have the Sorbian language, even though the country is the smallest Slavonic nation. This example shows that to start the process, every community needs its own “king,” in other words, “recognition”. The role can be played by NGO, international organizations and even by the enthusiasts. It can be promoted on different levels including video blogs, podcasts, and tweeter accounts.

If you don’t breathe, there is no air. If you don’t walk, there is no earth. If you don’t speak, there is no world. Yomomoto

Case study: Belarus

Many countries succeeded, some failed, and there are some states “overwhelmed by centuries of negative evaluation and subordination to the languages and cultures of colonial powers, dominant neighbors or domestic elites” (Smolicz & Radzik, 2003). The oppression of the Belarusian nation and territory lasted for centuries, and the revivals appeared cyclically. However, the country was the most Sovietized of the USSR’s republics and remained under the strong influence of Russia, which is reflected in the bilingualism with Russian as the primary dominant language (Komorovskaya, 2016). 

The Belarusian language for centuries was the official state language in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, the most significant part of which was the territory of modern Belarus with the cultural center in Vilnius. Stalin’s revisions of the borders and loss of the capital had built a blocking wall to the nation-building in Belarus, turning it towards Russia. Minsk was not able to compete with Vilnius and never became such a powerful center for Belarus (Laustsen, 2003).

In 1897 the first Russian census revealed that 70 percent of the inhabitants of Belarus spoke Belarusian. In 1919 the first Belarusian revival started to promote native language through literature, and from 20 percent in 1925, the explosion of active usage reached 80 percent in 1927 (Marples, 1996). After that, mostly in 1937, the Stalinist purges of the educated Belarusian intelligentsia successfully erased the language despite the previous massive interest. The reform in 1933 changed the Belarusian into an academic form, but Sovietization created confusion between people and scholars. Crystal stated that the affection of grammatical features, such as “an increase in the use of inflections and function words from the dominant language” (2014), might play a final role in killing languages.

Furthermore, they did; authentic dictionaries were rewritten, corrected, and adapted to the Russian words with a sort of Belarusian pronunciation. When knowledge of vocabulary declines, the generation of older people unfamiliar and antipathetic to the borrowed lexicon impair the dialogue with the younger people who keep only a proportion of the traditional vocabulary (Crystal, 2014). This process damages the transition of traditional values between the generations.

Switching to the language of the dominant group is never a free choice, according to some authors, but the result of ideological coercion (Kumlicka & Patten, 2003). However, vocabulary does change through generations including the borrowing of words from other languages when convenient.  In most cases, large scale lexical replacement is the rare phenomenon of language death (Thomason, 2015). From this point, today, we can observe only the official version of the Belarusian language and, in contrast, the dead authentic language that has been preserved in the circle of intellectuals. If the status of the official language has a chance to be named “vulnerable”, the status of the original official  language will be in the “severely endangered” zone. However, scholars refuse to pay attention to the importance of the label. 

Since 1939, the population of the Republic has shared its official status only with Russian (Ioffe, 2003). The latest attempts to draw attention to the Belarusian language and culture in December 1985 were not successful. The unofficial, unpublicized cultural clubs were allowed to exist, while any kind of promotion of the Belarusian language was strongly restricted (Savchenko,2009). On the other hand, Russian was a language of prestige and power. In 1986-87 there was hardly a single school that taught Belarusian left in the cities (Smolicz & Radzik, 2003). 

The wave of the nationalistic movement arose in 1988 after revealing the massive grave of Stalin’s victims (some say 300.000, but exact information is still in unknown). After this archeological investigation, a significant number of writers, teachers, and amateurs united to resist Russian integration and assimilation. The Law on Languages in the BSSR on 26 January 1990 recognized the Belarusian language as the only state language of Belarus (Vasilevich, 2012).

In 1994, 75 percent of students were attending Belarusian schools. The Constitution of the Republic of Belarus adopted on 15 March 1994 in Article 17 agreed with the Law on Languages and maintained legislation:

  • Belarusian as a state language;
  • Russian as the language of inter-ethnic communication and simultaneously a minority language;
  • Other minority languages (not mentioned specifically) (Vasilevich,2012).

Only three years later, after the presidential elections (1995), the referendum gave the Russian language official status, and most of the nationalistic leaders had left the country or stopped their projects. After such an epic failure, the Belarusian language was politicized “and directly linked to the Belarusian opposition, namely Belarusian Popular Front party” (Vasilevich,2012). The independent radio 101.2, which broadcasted in historical language was suspended for technical reasons in 1996. In 1997-1998 newspapers that used the language was banned and received a “warning from the State Press Committee accusing it of distorting generally accepted language norms” (Goujon,1999). 

Sloboda provided an experimental evaluation of the success of the Belarusian National Movements. Based on the number of speakers from official censuses and the number of schools he stated that the overall success of the Belarusian language is better than Irish, worse than Croatian, or Slavic Macedonian and is similar to Welsh (2011). It means that the number of speakers remain higher than in Ireland and supposedly will improve like the Croatian or at least, like Welsh, will stabilize its minority position. Not so bad we might think, but as an answer to this comparison Ioffe quoted the words of a famous Belarusian poet Nil Gilevich:

Some readers may say to me: you were offended that Welsh is presented to us Belarusians as an example. May it be known to you then that both the Welsh people and their language will endure, if only as a form of cultural autonomy, because they live under England, while we Belarusians and our language will perish because we will be living under Russia. Russia is not England (2003).

Nonetheless, the most noticeable feature of the dying language is the lack of transmission to children that occurred as a result of confused national identity. Some scholars, such as Ioffe, stated that there is nothing to transmit at all, which proves that the Belarusian language can be observed as “dying.” Continuing, Volakhaeva stated, that the biggest challenges of the population on the road of building identity are the following: social demographic – mixed marriages, the Chernobyl catastrophe, labor migration to Russia, a large number of former Soviet military officers; post-Soviet consciousness.  

These factors support the prevalence of Russian speaking majority and make the interethnic difference between Belarusian and Russian minimal. 

The numbers provided in both tables show the code-switching tendency through the mixed Belarusian-Russian speech and the total decline of traditional lexicology. However, the speakers of the mixed language may continue to report the knowledge of both Russian and Belarusian. In reality, the level of both languages will not be recognized as fluent or advanced if it is measured on a test like TOEFL, where the examinees have to show their knowledge on the four-scale language evaluation such as reading, writing, listening, speaking.

Ioffe, as a scholar who has studied the issue for a decade, assumed that only 0.1 percent of the population (10.000 people) use Belarusian daily and concluded that the Belarusian language is rarely used in everyday interpersonal communication, schooling, and the news media; there is no standard Belarusian language or literary norm; reunification with Russia is harmful for Belarus and it already marginalized the language (2003).

                            1999 CensusSchroder (2004)IISEPS (2008)
NationalityNative languagelanguage spoken at homelanguage spoken at homelanguage of everyday communication
Russian11.424.162.864.655.7 (Komorovskaya, 2016)

Figure 1. Ethnic groups declaring Belarusian as their mother tongue, according to censuses

1st age cohort (age 50+) %2nd age cohort  (children) %3rd age cohort (grandchildren)%
Standard Belarusian1.10.60.0
Belarusian with some Russian words4.95.42.5
Standard Russian7.21913.7
Russian with some Belarusian words31.341.250.2
Belarusian-Russian or Russian-Belarusian mixture55.542.833.4 (Kittel, 2010)

Figure 2. Self-reported language of ordinary usage.

Goujun stated that the ancient language of Belarus “was a sign of recognition inside Belarusian communities in United States, Britain, Australia, Germany” and always provided intellectuals with moral and later, financial support (1999). Such a support actually was easily turned by the current leader into Westernization and propaganda of nationalism and created a negative attitude among the population. But the possibilities of political activists to complete language policy steps by themselves seem to be impossible. Smith wrote that nationalist language is broader than ideology because it connects that ideology with the mass sentiment, linking both elite and more extensive strata (1991). In these conditions, leaders of national movements work in two directions: Outwardly (approaching the “power “for approval and support) and Inwardly (mobilize the potential members of the rising nation for the adoption of a literary language. (Hroch, 2015) When these activities fail, the scenario turns into two possible cases – the nation will not be rising, or the nation will be rising with the support of an independent party.

As we see, primary, secondary, and higher education should be available in the minority language; judicial and administrative, public services have to apply the language when needed. But right now, the number of Belarusian classes is minimal. In 2005-2006 1.2 million children attended secondary schools, and only 23 percent were taught in Belarusian. The universities and colleges of the Ministers of Interior, Defense, Communication, Aviation, Sports and Tourism, the Presidential Academy of Public Administration, the Academy of Music, universities of tech science are exclusively Russian-language establishments (Giger & Sloboda, 2008). Judges generally refuse to hear cases in Belarusian, post offices cannot accept telegrams, hotel reception for completing forms cannot be provided, police reports cannot be filed, in September 2001 the Central Electoral Commission refused to accept ballots in Belarusian. There are no vocational schools and colleges using Belarusian (Ioffe, 2003). The organs of government ignored 55.000 signatures in support of the foundation of Belarusian National University in 2002, and 97 percent of TV broadcasting is in Russian (Smolicz & Radzik, 2003).

Vasilevich stated that the Russian language is closely linked with the concept of the Russian World. It is supported by the Orthodox church and promoted as a language of business by the Russian-oriented economy. Belarus keeps itself out of the “severally endangered” label by following minimum criteria that may satisfy the eye of the foreigners. Article 50 of the Constitution of the Republic of Belarus states that:

Everyone shall have the right to use one’s native language and to choose the language of communication. In accordance with the law, the State should guarantee the freedom to choose the language of education and teaching. 

And the government has a few TV programs, one radio station, one newspaper on a regular basis – that is pretty much enough for the state to keep itself imaginary bilingual. In reality, exclusively Belarusian speaking actors are on European Radio, funded by the EU; Belsat TV funded by Poland; Radio Racyja, supported by the Polish government; Radio Liberty, funded by the USA, European Humanitarian University in exile (Vilnius), funded by the US and EU. All of the above are located beyond the border (Bassuener, 2013).

According to the studies, countries with an ethnic majority and significant ethnic minority are at higher risk for civil war (Hroch, 2015), and that possibly can be seen as an excuse for the Belarusian government. Nationalistic movements at the end of 20th century that pushed for Belarusian language and identity against Soviet identity had lost the game as an aggressor rather than revivalist, so, to keep the peace, Belarus has to remain a part of Russia.

As we observed above, the attitude of people toward one’s language plays an important role as well, then why Belarusian society does not see the language as a part of national identity? Inspired by Anderson’s idea of “imagined communities,” Belarusian academic and writer Akudovich observed the problems of the Belarusian nation. Based on “imagined communities,” his book The code of non-existence (2007) showed that nations create their significant ideas, usually applying past achievements from the Golden Ages of one’s country. They use the history and symbols as the foundation for nation-building, but in the case of Belarus, language is not included in this process for one reason: Firstly, for centuries it was the language of peasantry that cause marginalization of language and discrimination of it by the upper classes – the Belarusian became a “symbol of poverty.” Secondly, after a quick uprising and revival, and especially when the entire team of linguists that was working on a five-volume dictionary along with other scholars, writers, teachers, and amateurs was killed, the language became a “symbol of a problem.” Akudovich stated that keeping these facts in mind and carrying this luggage of cultural memory, Belarusian people have made their choice and decided “not to exist” for their own protection. There are no good examples in their history to rely on and there are no powerful enough leaders to follow. Nobody is against the revival, and during the censuses, Belarusian citizens continue to claim that each household is bilingual, giving the Belarusian language the role of “mother tongue” mostly because they do unconsciously separate themselves from Russia, but what they do not understand is the example that they give to their children. The example of lying will be crucial in the future. There is a strong possibility that the international community will continue to construct their opinion according to the censuses, where the Belarusian language is present forever, and by its official status. In reality, the official status does not show the objective situation. Besides, there are many similar examples around the globe – Malay in Singapore, eleven official languages in Africa, Meankieli in Sweden (Garcia,2011).

According to Lough, destabilization of Belarus, such as loss of monetary system, and adaptation of mutual Russian-Belarusian taxation system, will lead to severe consequences for European security (2019). He stated that many EU capitals regard Belarus as an extension of Russia, and people to people contacts between the EU and Belarus remain limited.

The US State Department noted in its 2018 report on human rights in Belarus that the government’s violations include torture; life-threatening prison conditions; unlawful interference with privacy; restrictions on free expression; violence against journalists; restriction on freedom of movement; failure to account for longstanding cases of politically motivated disappearances; corruption in all branches of government (Lough, 2019). Citing the UN declaration, Moria Paz stated that major treaties and leading scholars take the position that the regime ought to enforce the right of linguistic minorities to maintain a high level of linguistic separatism (2014). Under current circumstances the government will never report the problem of language disappearance. In the new era of Public Diplomacy, when the attention has switched from actor-state to non-state actor, and the voice of a single representative can influence and make changes in society, we are forcefully compelled to listen to the single wrong voice. Russification is an unwritten law that people have to obey rather than a preference. Russification is a war between generations of Soviet/colonial minds and the minds of modern independence, diversity and inclusion in which the latter remains silent. This game is confusing and illogical because we share the same church system, TV channels, movie stars, and singers, the similar Soviet history and monuments. It is like playing hockey with one gate where both teams are dressed in identical uniforms with their faces covered under the helmets. Who gets to pass the puck? 

Many underlined that international human rights institutions are not prepared to force the states to accept the costs and protect linguistic heterogeneity. But the red or yellow dot as attached to Cornish, Livonian, Saami or Catalan, Irish, Scottish Gaelic on the UNESCO’s Atlas will inevitably attract the attention of readers and even if there will be no other actions, at least the next generations will not accuse the current generation of ignorance.  

Language management theory, described by Giger and Sloboda, works when language problems are experienced and/or presented by social actors themselves and focused on ways in which individuals manage language choice (2008). Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenka is the only actor and individual in this discourse, and his language choice is obvious and unproblematic.

According to Paz (2014) there are three types of language policy: 1) focused on the needs of individuals rather than groups – protection against prejudice; 2) assimilation; 3) political compromise between the minority and majority, granted only to the minorities that were part of the original settlement. All of them are legal, and it is true that if people of Belarus choose the Russian language as primary and the government supports the flow – there is nothing wrong with assimilation. What is wrong is that the Belarusian government represents its policy as a third type: political compromise, when compromise was/is impossible and fictional. An example of political compromise is the Canadian government that supports both official languages by ensuring that each language flourishes as far as possible. The schools and universities are using languages equally, police reports can be accepted in both languages, and people can ask for road directions in English or French without being judged.

One of the most popular Belarusian websites published an article, which stated that a recent sociological study showed the number of 3 percent daily language users (, 2019). The number of mixed-speakers is significant. However, it does not mean that they use a 50/50 Russian/Belarusian lexicon. It is rather the Russian language with Belarusian pronunciation and a few Belarusian words. Positive thinkers observe this process as the creation of a new language. Anyhow, artificial languages have not proved their viability in the past. Coincidently, Esperanto was created by a Belarusian-Jewish Ludwik Lejzer Zamenhof (1859-1917), but it could not survive and compete with more powerful languages. There is no need for an artificial language and especially for a mixture of two independent tongues. 

In the United States the Spanish language is a leading minority language. Let us say Spanish-speakers adopt English words but mix them with Spanish grammar to state their identity. As a result, they will start using words such as “frendigo,” “thankias,” “smalito childo,” and so one and so force. The older generation of Spanish-speaking, as well as the old generation of English-speaking people, will not be able to understand and accept this emerging tongue. The majority and the prescriptivists (teachers, linguists, writers, journalists) will defend the clergy of the language, which is based on traditional literature. It will take a hundred years to develop a mixed language and support it with creative writing, publications, and scholarly articles. In the case of the U.S., this plan sounds ridiculous and impossible, but in the case of Belarus, positive thinkers see no issues in such transformation. 

Liskovets compared the phenomenon of mixed Belarusian-Russian speech to urban Wolof – a mixture of Wolof (the language of Senegal, the Gambia), French, and Arabic. She stated that with fewer French elements, the language is considered pure Wolof, and with more French elements, it is considered French by its speakers (2009). In reality, the permanent combination of two languages means the inability to speak any “pure” language, and nowadays, a mix of languages has a very low level of prestige worldwide.

The British portal Independent published a list of languages in March 2018. Under the heading “25 endangered languages you need to listen before they disappear” were listed:

Figure 3.

WiradjuriAustralia30 speakers left
NawatEl Salvador200 speakers left
AymaraBolivia, Chile, Peru2,000,000 speakers left
BaltiIndia, PakistanUnknown number of speakers left
BasqueSpain, France660,000 speakers left
BelarusianBelarus4,000,000 speakers left
BretonFrance 250,000 speakers left
ChoctawUnited States9,500 speakers left
CornishEnglandUnknown number of speakers left
GuaraniParaguay, Argentina, BrazilUnknown number of speakers left
Irish/Gaelic Ireland440,000 speakers left
KalmykRussia153,602 speakers left
LimburgianNetherlands, Germany Unknown number of speakers left
LombardItaly, Switzerland3,500,000 speakers left
NafusiLibya240,000 speakers left
North Frisian Germany10,000 speakers left
North SaamiFinland, Norway, Sweden, Russia30,000
OjibweUnited States6,000 speakers left
OsseteGeorgia, Russia550,000 speakers left
QuechuaBolivia, Peru2,300,000 speakers left
VenetanItaly, Croatia, Slovenia, Brazil, Mexico3,800,000 speakers left 
WaloonBelgium, France, Luxembourg600,000 speakers left
WelshWales750,000 speakers left
West FrisianNetherlandsUnknown number of speakers left
WichiArgentina, BoliviaUnknown number of speakers left           (Townsend, 2018)

Belarus is the absolute leader on the list by the number of speakers left. Nevertheless, as we mentioned above, the status of the Belarusian language, according to UNESCO’s Atlas, is equivalent to the status of the Welsh. The population of Wales is about 3 million people. 750, 000 of the population speak Welsh, which is 1/4. The population of Belarus is expected to be 9 million, 1/4 out of 9 is 2.5 million. So, either Welsh deserves a different status on the map, or there is a mistake in the Belarusian number of speakers. More likely, it is a mistake, because the study above showed 3% of Belarusian-speaking, which is 270,000 speakers, like Breton in France and Nafusi in Libya – both languages are marked as severely endangered on the Atlas. The gap between 4 million and 270,000 is too large to remain unnoticed and needs further investigation. Belarusian is not Welsh for a couple of reasons. First, as mentioned above, the U.K. is not Russia. Second, the Welsh Assembly Government sponsors the activities; the total grant in aid 2009-2010 was 13,653,000 euros. Third, Wales uses intense networking with its partners in the United Kingdom and the E.U. (professional societies, lobby groups, interest groups). Finally, Welsh programs and plans consistently change to meet modern needs. Even though many of those plans had failed, activists did not stop further modifications (Williams, 2014). In many cases, the estimated time for the needed results is about 20 years. As a result, we need to monitor one generation from kindergarten to high education to make a conclusion. Wales has a 20 years plan, Belarus has not.

Brad Montgomery-Anderson (2008) stated that “a dead language can have fluent speakers and/or proficient speakers. For example, none of the Latin-speaking priests in the Vatican learned Latin as their first language. According to the author, Latin, like any other language that is no longer acquired as a children’s first tongue, is endangered or dying (2008). In general, the speakers of virtually “alive” languages, such as Belarusian, rely on fixed phrases and less on the creative new utterance. For each time, there is a new slang, and if it is not, the language is turning into a “hobby language,” no matter how many fluent speakers it has.   

Language activists cannot operate effectively in an atmosphere of confusing numbers. Every time they knock on the door, their plans and recommendations are misunderstood by the side that uses proportionally opposite statistics. As an informative authority, UNESCO and, in general, the Atlas have to be stricter with their researches. 

The nine factors for characterizing the sociolinguistic situation of a language are the following: 

  1. Levels of integration language transmission (from safe to extinct);
  2. The absolute number of speakers;
  3. The proportion of speakers within the total population;
  4. Trends in Existing Language Domains (universal use, multilingual parity, dwindling domains, limited or formal domains, highly limited domains, extinct); Response to new domains and media (dynamic, robust, receptive, coping, minimal, inactive);
  5. Materials for language education and literacy;
  6. Governmental and institutional language attitudes and policies, including official status and use (equal support, differentiated support, passive assimilation, active assimilation, forced assimilation, prohibition); 
  7. Community attitudes (all, most, many, some, a few, no one); 
  8. Amount and quality of documentation (superlative, good, fair, fragmentary, inadequate, undocumented) (Fishman, 1973).

Let us not forget that even if some points from the list were accomplished in the Belarusian case, the requirements were supported by Western foundations, which tried to contribute to democracy. For instance, in 2005, only 92 out of 421 titles published by state publishing houses in Belarusian (Gapova, 2008). In public, there are also signs of Belarusian, such as passports, public transport, road-signs. All of the above are limited to symbolic function. In 2019, facing the struggle of translation, Lukashenka could not understand the road-sign on his way and ordered the text to be replaced by Russian. Possibly, the reason for having Belarusian signs on public transport is that the President never uses it.   

Only when transparent and fixed data are analyzed can people start acting. Nevertheless, international linguists receive this kind of statistics from the censuses or official reports. According to observations, these reports may be misleading. This practice is common in authoritarian states that want to cover up the truth for their own benefit. Only transparent and honest information can make the first step toward revival. 

There are a few factors that are associated with the revival of a fading language, such as language prestige, economic growth, legitimate power in the eyes of the dominant community, strong education system and online language usage (Crystal, 2002).

These factors were proposed in 2002, but what achievements have been made since then? The year of 2019 was UNESCO’s year of indigenous languages. The latest Strategic Outcome Document of the 2019 International Year of Indigenous Languages, provided the latest conclusions. It stated that the empowerment of languages is possible only through empowering the users themselves, and current mechanisms do not adequately reflect the needs of speakers. According to the plan, by 2030 states are asked to acknowledge and recognize indigenous languages’ role in peacebuilding, to raise awareness and adopt normative solutions. Each state required to contribute to the reconciliation processes by adopting a human-rights based approach and to form evidence-based data. Memberstates have to strengthen community centers, and get wider recognition and appreciation with the help of global partnership. (UNESCO, 2019).

The empowering of the people in the case of Belarus is almost impossible because the people are simply not informed. They are trying to have a ‘free ride’ thinking that “somebody speaks” even if they do not have Belarusian speakers in their surroundings. 

Private editors and publishers have turned their heads toward the importance of language preservation, and the first poetry book Poems from the Edge of Extinction: An Anthology of Poetry in Endangered Languages was released. The Belarusian-American poet Valzhyna Mort had also noted the problem, by publishing her poem in this book. However, the citizens of less powerful countries regularly have no access to such prospects. Scholars like Crystal (2002), Thomason (2015), Edwards (1985) stated that the language policies often fail because, by the time they are implemented, the speakers have already shifted to the more dominant language. 

None of the UNESCO required actions will be applied to Belarus unless the government signs the Charter and starts to cooperate. Nelly Bekus assumed three possible scenarios for the future of the language. First, the Ukrainian, the politics of positive discrimination and consistent switch from the Russian. Second, the Irish, national revival and independents and decline of the national language. And the final Catalonian scenario, co-existing with majority language, promotion, and protection (2012).The Ukrainian scenario will be possible only with a change of governance, when the new leader or authorities will be able to establish the new policies and system of education. There is little hope that the presidential election 2020 will bring any changes, but the scenario has a potential on a long-term scale. The Catalonian scenario is possible with an increased number of NGO and individual initiatives, when sport celebrities, singers, and artists promote the language through speaking it. Again, without education the level of lexicon will remain limited and there is a big chance that they will use the mixed language. The Irish scenario is the path that Belarusian language is following. Still, the Gaeltacht minority and the traditional Belarusian-speaking minority are able to transmit the language to the next generation. There were a few revival movements of the Belarusian language from 1823 to 2020, and each arose from zero knowledge, and as a result of self-education rather than natural transition. However, a nation with a large literary heritage is doomed to cyclical revivals. Belarusian, as an official language of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (1230-1795), will magnetize people even if their average number will decrease. 


We do not have a project that can magically change the world at once, and only those who want these changes will be able to receive them.  Nelson Mandela said, “I want to pray to my ancestors in my own language. It has to come from the heart” (Thomason, 2015, p.74), and there are so many prayers that cannot be received today. For example, the people who spoke Massachusett language had a structured grammar and dictionary, and in the 18th century, they were able to read the Bible in Massachusett, but today their story is a legend (Austin,2008). 

What exactly has to be done for global linguistic diversity and social health? At the end of the 19th century, Irish housewife Mary Butler focused on the domestic sphere as central to the creation of identity and was able to turn the entire neighborhood into a Gaelic-speaking community. First, while her husband was fighting for the language on the governmental level, she started to speak to her family members, then to her friends and employees at the local grocery stores and pharmacies. Unfortunately, her husband did not achieve his goals. After a few months, he returned home from Dublin, and found out that his wife did a better job than any policy. The Irish language, she said, can best be served by low-voiced women who teach little children their first prayers, and “make those around them realize the difference between a home and a dwelling” (Biletz, 2002).

Following the Fishman’s plan, adults have to voluntarily learn the language to become teachers and transmit it to the life activity, from household to national level (1975). The government has to change as well. Pharaohs, kings, czars are great in fiction and their portraits should belong to the movie industry. Even modern fairy tales do not praise monarchs any more. Slowly but surely the tales attach the negative context to the image of the king while in reality some dictators raise successors. Belarusian will be revived by people who have a right to elect their president.

UNESCO must change its strategy towards authoritarian states. Minimization of the problem does not show a positive tendency, and in such cases, they should switch to the exaggeration of the problem. If there is no proof either for 4 million speakers or 10,000 why not the latter number? Belarus, as a member of UNESCO Intangible Heritage Convention, must, like any other member, obey the set of rules. But the freedom status of the country signals that the government is not eligible for transparency and it tends to falsify the reports. New international NGOs should do researches, such as interviews or online tests, and support the local activists by giving them a platform to perform: online poetry contests, essays, grants to study abroad in the linguistic field and others.

Belarus is an ancestral land for many exciting personalities. Artist Erwin Berlin, artist Marc Chagall, writer Fedor Dostoevsky, rebel Tadeusz Kosciuszko, poet Adam Mickiewicz, engineer David Sarnoff, artist/writer Branislaw Zalessky; Ignacy Domeyko – Chilean activist and geologist, Nikolai Sudzilovsky – the second President of Senate of Hawaii, Shimon Peres – the ninth President of Israel and many others. However, none of the above represented themselves as Belarusian-speaking and remain in history as Polish, Russians, Jewish or other. If we go further and read their letters, memoirs or biographies, we will find out that they knew who they were and loved their ethnicity. The only problem is that we have no time to read all of it, and Sarnoff will remain exclusively American, Kosciuszko – Polish, Domeyko – Chilean.

As Ioffe mentioned, Belarus has been portrayed as a puzzle, a virtual black hole in Europe, an anomaly in the region (2003).  If it is true, in the world population of 7.7 billion people, there must be a detective for every puzzle, and an explorer for every black hole, and a scientist for every anomaly. We only need to call and let them act. Belarus is ready for another revival, but has a leader without a voice. Activist should get around the ruler with the set of linguistic policies and for that, they need international support and recognition.

Belarusian Spring

   The thirst is itchy

and my throat impaled with splinters

of subdued words. 

Their tongues are neatly cut

by pleasure of affectedness. 

The glitters

                 of modern flow are tearing them apart.

I do not want to drink the distilled water

of dictionaries that begrimed with dust

under the label “dying language”,

                                        “extinct grotto”,

“the cry of claptrap”, “the defective crust”.

I want my language to be heard and noticed,

to be revived with breath, saliva, rhythm

of Speakers. 

            Not the experts. 

                         Not the prophets.

I need to sip some water from the spring.

Maryna Krazhova, 2019


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Maryna Krazhova: Status of the Belarusian Language in the UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger (abstract)                                                                                    (web-magazine “Kultura. Natsyja”, issue 27, April 2021, 79-108,

This paper analyzes the current status of the Belarusian language and describes the necessity of a correct image of the language on a global scale. The research covers legal aspects and the unique features of the Belarusian language that were formed during the Soviet rule and includes recommendations for improving language policies and preventing the arising dangers. To reveal the issue, we got acquainted with scholarly articles, books, and reports, we compared the opinions, and applied the results to the UNESCO’s measurements on the Atlas of the World’s Languages in danger. Our research showed the miscalculations and understatement of the language status as vulnerable. The misleading numbers and incorrect image of the Belarusian language will lead to language extinction, which will negatively affect global cultural diversity. To prevent language extinction, we need to reevaluate the vulnerable status of Belarusian using public opinion and scholarly articles instead of governmental censuses.

Марина Кражова: Статус белорусского языка в Атласе языков мира, находящихся под угрозой исчезновения ЮНЕСКО (резюме)

(вэб-журнал «Культура. Нация», вып. 27, апрель 2021, 79-108,

В статье анализируется современное состояние белорусского языка и описывается необходимость правильного образа языка в глобальном масштабе. Исследование охватывает правовые аспекты и уникальные особенности белорусского языка, сформировавшиеся в советское время, и включает рекомендации по совершенствованию языковой политики и предотвращению возникающих опасностей. Чтобы выявить проблему, мы ознакомились с научными статьями, книгами и отчетами, сравнили мнения и применили результаты к измерениям ЮНЕСКО в Атласе языков мира, находящихся в опасности. Наше исследование показало, что просчеты и занижение статуса языка являются уязвимыми. Вводящие в заблуждение числа и неправильное изображение беларусского языка приведут к исчезновению языка, что негативно скажется на глобальном культурном разнообразии. Чтобы предотвратить исчезновение языков, нам необходимо переоценить уязвимый статус белорусского языка, используя общественное мнение и научные статьи вместо правительственных переписей.

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