Quote: Whoever maintains their mother tongue is not a nationalist, but a linguist and a humanist.
Every year hundreds of languages disappear never to be heard from again. To use a quote from Shakespeare, they vanish into thin air. Homo sapiens has destroyed millions of species through his way of life, and languages are part of the ecosystems we have brought to the brink of collapse.
Part I: My language background and my relationship to Slavic languages in general and to Belarusian in particular
I grew up in a region called ‘Erzgebirge’, where in some places Arzgebirgsch is still spoken, a German dialect that is very different from standard German and cannot be understood by most Germans.
When I was a kid, I sometimes met older people who spoke only Arzgebirgsch, which was considered inferior and frowned upon. The dialect I grew up with was already strongly Saxon and inferior, but Arzgebirgsch is a whole other category when it comes to being different from High German. At Christmas time, we used to maintain our traditional customs, which included singing songs in Arzgebirgsch and reading out stories and poems by Anton Günther, our folk poet and singer, who created a written version of our regional dialect with his works. Since I have never actively used Arzgebirgsch, I can pronounce only a few short phrases correctly, such as these two: , but I understand most of what native speakers say in Arzgebirgsch. The interesting thing about Arzgebirgsch is that it contains many words of Slavic origin.
Since I grew up near the Czech Republic, which was also the only country we had free access to, I often traveled there with my parents, where I picked up some Czech phrases, especially since my father was a Russian teacher and also spoke some Czech.
In fact, most of what we now call “Saxony” was Slavic settlement territory until a few centuries ago. All the city names in Saxony are of Slavic origin, like Chemnitz (Kamjenica), Leipzig (Lipsk or Lipsko), Dresden (Drežďany), and pretty much all the other small cities in Saxony and Brandenburg. So if you ask me what my nationality is, I’ll say “German” of course, but it’s quite likely that some of my ancestors were Sorbian a few generations back. The Sorbs are a West Slavic people who already enjoyed the status of a national minority in the GDR. They have their own language called Sorbian, which should not be confused with Serbian, another Slavic language that has many more native speakers than Sorbian.
As a child, my father taught me Russian, and as a teenager I had my first encounter with two native Russian speakers who were only four years older than me and served in the Soviet Army as low-ranking soldiers. I was fascinated and shocked at the same time by the fact that I understood what they were saying, and apparently they understood me too. Up to that point, I had a few contacts with Russians through pen-pals organized by my father, but I could hardly imagine that I would ever meet Russians in person.
From then on, I always tried to spend as much time as possible with Russian speakers, which was extremely difficult in the GDR because every single contact between Soviet citizens and Germans was monitored by the KGB, especially when the Soviet military was involved. Despite these hurdles, or perhaps because of them, I constantly sought opportunities to practice and improve my Russian, and soon I reached a level far above that of our Russian teachers.
My Russian skills also helped me to connect with other Slavic neighbors and learn the basics of their language. For example, one summer I met a Bulgarian teenager who also spoke Russian and taught me a few phrases in Bulgarian, which is very similar to Russian. We exchanged addresses and he promised to send me a Russian-Bulgarian dictionary. A few months passed, and one afternoon I received a notice to pick up a package at our local post office. I was overjoyed to see that Nikolay actually made good on his promise and sent me a large dictionary, which I still own. A few years later, the summer before I started school, our school organized a stay at a youth camp in the Polish town of Siedliszcze, where I met young Poles from whom I learned a few Polish phrases.
A few years later, I began to visit Ukraine frequently, where I learned some Ukrainian, and in August 2020, I came into contact with Belarusian speakers for the first time when my wife and I attended a rally organized by the Belarusian diaspora in Leipzig, where I realized what a beautiful language Belarusian is. This Slavic language combines the best of its three immediate neighbors: Ukrainian, Polish and Russian.
I think it’s great that all of the more than 12 Slavic languages that have managed to survive have a lot in common on the one hand, and on the other hand are still individual languages and not just dialects or variants of the same language. Kind of like Dutch compared to Danish and German. Here are a few examples of common expressions that are very similar in Polish, Belarusian and Ukrainian:
“Hello” in Polish:
“Hello” in Belarusian:
“Hello” in Ukrainian:
“Hello” in Sorbian:
Part II: The current state of the Belarusian language and how to save it
So what is the state of the Belarusian language? In short, Belarusian is in danger of extinction, and it would be a tragedy if we let the language die out without a fight. If the Belarusian language dies out, it would be another blow to cultural diversity in Europe and around the world. For hundreds of years, the Russian Empire has expanded through wars, assimilating cultures and languages. As a result, hundreds of languages formerly spoken in Eastern Europe have disappeared through Russification, the forced promotion of the Russian language as the dominant means of communication.
On August 24, 1991, Ukraine gained independence from the Russian Empire for the first time in its history. That was the day when the decline of the Ukrainian language finally came to a halt. The Ukrainian government introduced a law that made Ukrainian the official language of the country, which meant that all public communication had to be in Ukrainian, not Russian. To this day, both languages, Ukrainian and Russian, are spoken and used daily throughout Ukraine, and the country has done an excellent job of restoring its national language without discriminating against those Ukrainians who consider Russian their native language. If you go to Kiev today, you will hear a conversation in which one party speaks Ukrainian and the other responds in Russian, and both are completely satisfied with this arrangement. Ukrainian children learn Ukrainian as their first language in school simply because they are Ukrainians and not Russians. So the Ukrainian language is alive and no longer in danger of extinction, which means that we can try to learn something from Ukrainians when it comes to restoring the Belarusian language as well.
Unfortunately, while Belarus is independent from Russia on paper, Putin’s grip on Belarus has only tightened since the rigged August 2020 elections because he cannot afford to lose another part of his empire to the West. Ukraine’s independence has caused Putin a lot of pain, and he will do anything to bring Belarus back under his totalitarian regime. Lukashenka is only a puppet, albeit an extremely brutal and sadistic one. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Belarusian language has never had any official status in Belarus, and the Lukashenka regime has done everything possible to suppress any attempts to reintroduce it. This has led to a steady decline in the number of active speakers of the Belarusian language, which, according to various sources, ranges from 1 to 5 million. In the UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Endangered Languages, the Belarusian language is classified as endangered.
Part III: Concrete steps towards the revival of the Belarusian language
There are currently a few places on the Internet where one can find audio samples of modern spoken Belarusian, by far the largest of which is Belarusian by Forvo.
The Forvo database was launched in 2008 and since then hundreds of Belarusians have contributed to this platform, mainly by recording single words. This means that the Belarusian community is motivated to preserve their national language, and the next concrete steps we will take are these:
- Adding the Belarusian translation to our sentence database.
- Editing the sentences to ensure that they are written in modern Belarusian
- Adding audio versions to the sentences
- Adding Belarusian version to our dictionary and vocabulary quiz
- Adding audio versions to each dictionary entry
to be continued…