Signage and Documentation Language in Belarus: Theory or Practice?

N. Anthony Brown, Brigham Young University

Following a 1995 referendum in Belarus, Russian gained co-official language status alongside Belarusian. The subsequent adoption of a Belarusian-Russian dual language policy significantly impeded Belarusification efforts in that it enabled Russian to “compete” once again with Belarusian in official spheres. Since Russian had enjoyed a privileged position in Belarus, the playing field for this competition was hardly a level one. Governmental officials once pressured to speak Belarusian under the former Belarusian-only language policy welcomed the option to speak Russian in accordance with the dual language policy. In addition to the spoken word, the written word underwent changes so as to represent both official languages.

Writing about signage language, Nettle and Romaine (2000) comment, “Not surprisingly, signs carry a lot of symbolic freight. They do more than identify places and things. They reveal social hierarchies.” Spolsky and Cooper (1991) illustrate this subtle, yet powerful role of language in their study of signage language in Jerusalem. According to Mechkovskaia (2000), language usage in different social spheres of a dual language community reveals the content of a community’s language laws. On 5 August 1998, the Council of Ministers in Belarus approved a law, which stipulated that “all names should appear in Belarusian and Russian languages” and that the naming and renaming of “businesses, institutions, organizations, railway stations, airports, and other objects situated in the territory of the Republic of Belarus, as well as physical-geographical objects” should take into account “general governmental interests, geographical, historical, national, domestic, and other conditions, as well as the opinion of the local population (Krutalevich, 2001).

Data for the present study were gathered three years subsequent to the Council of Ministers enacting the 1998 law pertaining to language usage on signage. Specifically, this study examines the treatment of Belarusian and Russian on signs located in the Minsk metro, on official signs affixed to buildings, and on non-official signs, consisting of street names, advertisements, signs displaying store hours, and store/business names. In addition, the research analyzes language usage on official documentation, including birth and death certificates, marriage certificates, passports, drivers’ licenses, and tax commission resolutions.

Preliminary findings suggest that governmental support for the Belarusian language manifests itself largely in name only. Although Belarusian appears on signs located at official and non-official sites, its presence often does not reflect a trend toward communication there in the same language.

Krutalevich, V. (2001). Respublika Belarus’: administrativno-territorial’noe ustroistvo [Republic of Belarus: administrative-territorial arrangement]. Minsk: IOOO.
Mechkovskaia, N. (2000). Obshchee iazykoznaniie: Strukturnaia i sotsial’naia tipologiia iazykov [General linguistics: Structure and social typology of languages]. Minsk: Amalfeia.
Nettle, D. & Romaine, S. (2000). Vanishing Voices: The Extinction of the World’s Languages. Oxford: Oxford University Press.