The question of a written (literary) language of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (hereinafter, the GDL) has recently become one of the more widely discussed issues, which remains controversial. The articulation of a concept of a special independent language has long been problematic due to both political and scholarly reasons. Thus at present there is neither a general consensus on how to define the language of the extensive and diverse corpus of Ruthenian texts, nor an elaborated methodology of its description. My paper will discuss the main aspects of the dispute and suggest the conceptual framework for the linguistic description of Ruthenian.
An almost two-centuries-old search for an appropriate term for Ruthenian (connected with the attempt to categorize this language) reflects the complexity of its structure. It was referred to as Lithuanian-Russian, Polish-Russian, West Russian, South-West Russian, Written Little Russian, Old West Russian dialect, (Old) Belarusian, (Old) Ukrainian, Old Belarusian-Ukrainian, etc. Recently the terms rus'ka mova and prosta mova, used by sixteenth-century Ruthenians to refer to their language, became widely used in scholarly literature along with the English term Ruthenian which is based on the Latin term lingua Ruthena.
The traditional approach defines Ruthenian from the point of view of the modern division of languages, thus dividing it into Old Belarusian and Old Ukrainian (sometimes also West or South Russian). It will be shown that the delimiting of Ruthenian texts according to this principle is questionable as there are very few texts (almost none of which belong to ecclesiastical genres) that reflect exclusively Ukrainian or Belarusian linguistic features. An alternative approach acknowledges the existence of a special written language in the GDL but distinguishes between a number of varieties. Very briefly, this may be summarized as follows:
1. The Chancellery language or rus'ka mova, the administrative language of the GDL and the language of Lithuanian chronicles. In addition, some scholars distinguish two variants of this language-Belarusian and Ukrainian;
2. The language of religious polemic literature which developed in the second half of the sixteenth century (also referred to as prosta mova).
3. The language of individual authors, usually studied separately, for example the language of Smotryc'kyj, Vyshens'kyj or the biblical translations of Skaryna.
4. The language of ecclesiastical genres, typically described as Ruthenian recension of Church Slavonic or a Hybrid Ruthenian Church Slavonic. It will be demonstrated that this distinguishing of varieties is principally based on differences in the function or purpose of texts, and therefore can be described as functional registers of the same language.
In conclusion, I will suggest that Ruthenian texts should be described as exemplifying a distinct written language and outline the essential steps towards the standardized description of Ruthenian.