Language is often affected by historical events, but often the reverse is true – and Belarusian is a good example of the latter.
Despite being a distinct ethnic and cultural area, Belarus has spent the majority of its history as part of other countries or empires – most notably Russia beginning in its imperial period in the late 18th century all the way to the late 20th century. Belarus has enjoyed its longest bout of independence in the last two decades, but is hardly free from the powerful influence of Russia on its Eastern border.
As a result of this history of non-independence, only about 12% of the Belarusian people speak Belarusian. The overwhelming majority speak Russian (which is in fact an official language there).
The dominance of Russian was exacerbated during the Soviet era (1918 – 1990) when Russian was imposed as the only official language on the region and the people. This was made easier, however, due to the close relationship between Belarus and Russian (and, indeed, with a great many other Eastern Slavic Languages, such as Ukrainian). In fact, some respectable linguists still think Belarus and Russian should be considered dialects of a single language. However, the mainstream opinion is that they are closely related but unique languages.
Other Languages & Belarusian Resurgence
In addition to Russian and Belarusian, the population of Belarus speak several minority languages due to immigration and proximity. These include Polish, Ukrainian, and Eastern Yiddish.
Interestingly, despite being the native language of just 12% of the population (Russian is spoken by 72% of the population, with the rest spread among the minority languages), about 36% of the households in Belarus have declared Belarusian to be the “language spoken at home.” This belies a resurgent nationalism spurred on by the declaration of independence from Russia in 1990 and the democratic government established in its wake. As with many of the former Soviet-bloc countries, Belarus is riding a wave of enthusiasm for all things native, including its language.
As a result, many linguists expect the statistics of native Belarusian speakers to grow in the coming decades, although no one expects Russian to shrink too much in that country. The most likely scenario is increased bilingualism – which, as a business translation professional, I fully support, and even see as the best of all possible outcomes.
Image courtesy tobelarus.com