Communities of Practice and Linguistic Divergence: Belarusophone Students as Agents of Linguistic Change

Curt Woolhiser, Harvard University

The language situation in contemporary Belarus is characterized not only by mass Belarusian-Russian bilingualism among the Belarusian-speaking part of the population, but also by a significant division within the Belarusophone community in attitudes toward the standard language: those whose usage is oriented toward the post-1933 standard (the only form of standard Belarusian officially recognized by the Belarusian government), and those, allied with the pro-western anti-Lukashenka opposition, who seek to distance themselves from what they regard as the overly russified language used in the official Belarusian-language media and state educational system.

In this paper I examine the language usage and language attitudes of a small, but potentially quite influential, segment of contemporary Belarusian society: Belarusophone university students. Employing the "community of practice" model developed by Lave and Wenger (1991) and Wenger (1998), and applied in sociolinguistics by researchers such as Eckert (2000), I show that although there is a considerable range of variation in Belarusophone students' usage of and attitudes toward the competing variants of standard Belarusian, this variation, when we take into account the students' participation in specific forms of social engagement, is in many cases entirely predictable and regular.

On the basis of an e-mail survey of 70 Belarusophone students conducted in 2004-2005, I sought to test the hypothesis that the most active participants in what I call "oppositional communities of practice" are leading the way in the use of non-codified, innovative forms associated with the non-state, pro-western Belarusian-language media and younger Belarusophone intelligentsia. The oppositional communities of practice that were the focus of this study include the Association of Belarusian Students (ZBS), Malady Front, Zubr, and fans of Belarusian-language rock groups (the "Belarusian sound community," as Survilla (2002) has called them), all of which define themselves in opposition to what they regard as a Russo-Soviet-oriented official Belarusian culture.

Participants in the survey were asked to fill out a linguistic questionnaire, focusing on their usage of and attitudes toward variants in the phonological shape of loanwords, variants in inflectional and derivational morphology, and a number of morphosyntactic and syntactic variables. To determine the respondents' level of participation in oppositional communities of practice, the questionnaire also included a series of questions concerning their exposure to Belarusian-language oppositional media, membership in Belarusian youth organizations (official vs. oppositional), exposure to Belarusian-language rock music, and so on.

Preliminary analysis of the data shows that, as hypothesized, the students with the highest levels of participation in oppositional communities of practice, regardless of their socio-economic background or area of study, show the strongest preference for the innovative variants, while those with minimal involvement adhere more closely to the norms of the post-1933 codified standard. On the basis of these findings I argue, following Coulmas (2005) and other researchers, that a focus on speaker agency, as expressed in the socially-motivated choices that speakers make from the linguistic options available to them, helps to shed new light on the problems of language variation and change that are at the heart of the sociolinguistic enterprise.