Language Ideology and Language Conflict in Post-Soviet Belarus

Post-Soviet Belarus presents something of a paradox: the language of the titular nationality, despite its official status as a state language (alongside Russian before 1990 and since 1995), is used actively by only a minority of the country’s population and is currently at risk of still further marginalization. Observers of the language situation in Belarus have attributed the language’s decline to a variety of factors, including a relatively weak sense of national identity among many Belarusians, the close genetic and typological relationship between Belarusian and Russian, overt or covert policies of linguistic assimilation under the Tsars and Soviets, and the process of post-war urbanization. The objective circumstances surrounding the decline of Belarusian are, however, only part of the story; of crucial importance for the contemporary language situation in Belarus are the ways in which the subordinate status and decline of Belarusian are represented by both supporters and opponents of Belarusian language revival, as well as how these representations are reflected in popular attitudes and actual language use. Such representations of sociolinguistic hierarchies and the language behaviors associated with them are a crucial component of language ideology, which Irvine (1989: 255) defines as “the cultural system of ideas about social and linguistic relationships, together with their loading of moral and political interests.”

In this paper I investigate the expression of language ideologies in Belarus both at the level of elite and counter-elite (oppositional) discourse about language, and at the level of popular language attitudes and language behavior. My goal here is to determine whether in the Belarusian case there is a simple cause-effect relationship between dominant language ideologies and the language attitudes and linguistic practices of the subordinated speech community, or whether, as suggested by Gal (1993), the subordinated speech community may in fact display diverse, competing and often ambiguous responses to symbolic domination through language. The primary sources of data on elite and counter-elite ideologies in Belarus for this study will be pro-government and nationalist opposition publications as well as scholarly works. Popular attitudes about language in Belarus will be investigated on the basis of sociolinguistic interviews, participant observation, as well as the results of a matched-guise test conducted in rural and urban areas of Belarus in 1996–98.

Much of the ideological dissonance that occurs at the level of elite and counter-elite discourse about language in Belarus centers around divergent interpretations and uses of key terms such as “native language,” “state language,” and “bilingualism.” At the same time, there is a marked similarity between dominant and oppositional notions about the nature of the standard language and its relationship to non-standard varieties, reflecting both the impact of Soviet-era conceptions of “language culture” as well as the legacy of nineteenth-century European linguistic nationalism. This can be seen above all in puristic elite attitudes toward mixed Russo-Belarusian speech, known pejoratively in Belarus as “trasjanka” (literally, a mixture of hay and straw). While many supporters of the dominant position of Russian in Belarus defend an idealized, unitary norm of Soviet-era literary Russian, suggesting that the emergence of a local Belarusian variant of Russian is a dangerous tendency that should be combatted on all fronts, Belarusian language advocates similarly stigmatize language mixing as a culturally and politically harmful consequence of Soviet language policies. In nationalist discourse the notion of “trasjanka” has grown particularly elastic, coming to be applied not only to any forms of speech that deviated in some way from codified literary Belarusian or standard Russian, but in some cases even to the post-1933 Belarusian standard language that was used in the official media.

At the level of popular language attitudes (reflected in overt or covert linguistic stereotypes and talk about language, as well as in actual linguistic behavior), we find evidence of folk language ideologies in Belarus that are both congruent with and in opposition to the dominant Russocentric ideology. There is at the same time a generally greater tolerance of ambiguous linguistic allegiances and language mixing than we find at either end of the spectrum of elite language ideologies. I argue that the contradictory aspects of popular language attitudes in Belarus are primarily a result of tensions between the status and solidarity functions of the competing languages and are a reflection of the problematic relationship between the Belarusian language and Belarusian national identity.


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