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Belarus: "Belarusian" and "Belarusan" the correct adjective forms

Uladzimir Katkouski

Yes, there is a country called Belarus somewhere on the outskirts of Europe. Millions of English-speaking people know very little about this country and its language, and usually one of the very first questions that arises when people first encounter the name is: "What is the correct adjective form, and how does one pronounce it?"

This seemingly easy question does not have a simple one-word answer. Google shows that Internet users spell it any way they want to; there is no firmly established norm. Nevertheless, these Google statistics are a useful indicator of popular usage, and I will use them as a starting point to investigate the situation with the adjective.

I have written a simple script that loops through virtually all conceivable spellings ("B[..|i|y]el[a|o]rus[s][i]an", a total of 24 possibilities) and feeds them to Google. These were the search results when I ran the script back in October 2002:

Google: search Belarusian
1. Belarusian  198000
2. Byelorussian  54000
3. Belarussian  47000
4. Belorussian  32600
5. Belarusan  5550
6. Belorusian  1120
7. Bielorussian  918
8. Byelarussian  359
9. Byelorusian  90
10. Bielarusian  66
11. Belorusan  52
12. Belarussan  27
13. Bielorusian  23
14. Byelarusian  17
15. Bielarussian  13
16. Bielarusan  6
17. Byelorusan  4
18. Belorussan  3
19. Byelarusan  2
20. Byelorussan  1
21. Bielorussan  0
22. Bielorusan  0
23. Bielarussan  0
24. Byelarussan  0
  Est. total:340000

Obviously, Belarusian is the leader, and indeed it is widely accepted to be the correct form of the adjective. It is used in United Nations documents and in English versions of official government documents in Belarus. The above statistics show that the adjective Belarusian is used roughly 60% of the time (198,000/340,000*100%). It may seem a relatively high number, but in my opinion it is awfully low, because it means that 40% of the internet users use some alternative spelling, and therefore do not find all the information they could've found about the topic had they known and used the correct spelling.

Note: Google engine also considers this to be the correct form, and alleviates the problem of wrong searches by offering a "spell check" warning, in case you spelled it differently.

The adjective Byelorussian is still very wide-spread over the Web (54,000 pages according to the above data). This is an old Soviet form that stems from the Russian spelling of our name. During the long Soviet occupation, the outside world received all its information about Belarus through Russians, so this form used to be dominant. Even today, some sources such as Russian news agencies still use this form, perhaps to emphasize the kinship with the White "brothers." Also, in my experience, even Russian speakers from Belarus itself who learned English from Russian textbooks are accustomed to the now-deprecated form Byelorussian.

Some even go so far as to use the expression "White Russian" which is even more misleading. In fact, "White Russian" could be confused with the term "Whites" which refers to the Tsarist supporters in Russia who fought against the "Reds" (Bolsheviks) during the October Revolution and the Civil War, which has nothing to do with Belarus. The same problem exsits in languages other than English (e.g., German, Swedish and many others) where the adjective for Belarus etymologically means "White Russian", but discussing this misnomer is beyond the scope of this article.

Given the destructive nature of the Russian imperial rule that Belarus had to endure, many people in Belarus would find the adjective Byelorussian even offensive. So if you want to treat Belarusians with respect, eliminate Byelorussian and other similar forms (Belorussian) from your vocabulary.

The third most popular spelling is Belarussian, with 47,000 pages. To the best of my knowledge, this form is not officially endorsed by anybody, and most probably it is simply a "hybrid" form, a strange compromise between Belarusian and Byelorussian. Or, perhaps, it simply indicates ignorance on the part of English speakers. Paul B. Gallagher also notes that we should consider the fact that many instances of intervocalic "s" in English spelling are pronounced as /z/, so an "ss" spelling may be an attempt to make sure the consonant is not voiced. For example, figure skater's last name Marina Anisina is often spelled Anissina in English.

Belarusan ranks only fifth, but it is considered the only acceptable form by some hardcore linguistic purists in Belarus. Moreover, it was used by the United Nations from 1992 to 1995. It is also used by the BNR ("Belarusan National Republic") government-in-exile. Some academics use this form. For example, professor Zaprudnik uses Belarusan in his book Belarus: At a Crossroads in History and in other publications.

[bl@-rs-i-@n] and [bl@-rs@n]
– e as in "bet," secondary stress
@ – a as in "sofa," i.e., schwa
– u as in "rule," primary stress
i – i as in hundreds of place names: "Algerian," etc.

So, the simplest answer to the original question is that Belarusian and Belarusan are the two forms that would be considered correct by most experts. But the second part of the question remains unanswered: how would you pronounce them? Not being a native English speaker, I am definetely not an authority on this issue. Based on my experience native English speakers usually pronounce the word Belarusian as [Bl@rsi@n], while Belarusan is pronounced as [Bl@rs@n]. Please, see the explanation in the accompanying text box. I think, most people have already learned this and don't pronounce the second part of the word as "russian." Another alternative pronunication that I've heard a few times is [Bl@rsh@n] ("sh" as in "share"), but this is not so widespread, perhaps because the name is still relatively new in English, and the morpheme boundary still feels pretty firm for the native speakers of English.

Weissruthenien army patch, 1918 Finally, an inquisitive reader might ask: "But why all the fuss? Doesn't the word Belarus actually mean White Russia, if you translate it literally?" This is a widespread misconception. Rus refers to the Eastern Slavic lands that nowadays belong mostly to Belarus and Ukraine. There is a Latin term for Rus which has been used in English scholarly works as well: Ruthenia. So, etymologically, the word Belarus means "Ruthenia Alba" or "White Ruthenia." Indeed, for centuries Russian historians have tried to confuse the situation by equating Ruthenian with Russian. But in Belarusian language there is a clear distinction between ruski (refering to Ruthenia) and rasiejski (refering to Russia). Unfortunately, in many other languages there is no special word for Ruthenia (Rus), so this differentiation may be difficult. But, essentially, it must be clear that "Belarus" does not mean "White Russia", but rather "White Ruthenia." For further reading I would like to recommend a great book by Ales Biely The Chronicles of White Rus' - Chronicon Russiae Albae, published in 2000 in Belarusian language.

Big thanks to Paul B. Gallagher, Cynthia C. Ramsey and Emily Tall for proof-reading, editing tips and helpful suggestions.

See also:

- 21 Names of Belarus (How internet users misspell this name)
- Britannica Stumbling (The most scandalous blunders in Britannica's entry on Belarusian language)
- Germany = "White Holland"; Belarus = "???" (online discussion of the same topic from rydel23's livejournal)

- Write your comment

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