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1968: Grammatical Changes in Modern Literary Belarusian Language

Professor R. G. A. de Bray

A public lecture given under the auspices of the Anglo-Byelorussian Society in London on the 26th of January, 1968.

Anglo-Byelorussian Society in London 1967 I must first explain how I came to study Belarusian and thus show you that I do not claim to be an expert or specialist in this language. And so I beg you to excuse all the shortcomings of this paper, prepared as it has been during short periods literally torn from a life of extreme occupation, devoted now officially to the duties of filling the Chair of Russian and teaching that language.

From 1942 to 1955 I was Lecturer in Comparative Slavonic Philology at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies here in London, and after the war was over I decided to try and rectify a deficiency in the panoply of Slavonic philology which I had always keenly felt as a student at our school some years earlier. I had always regretted, when studying Slavonic philology from such works as Vondrák's Vergleichende slavische Grammatik1 and Meillet's Le slave commun2, that one did not get a clearer idea of grammatical structure and vocabulary of the individual Slavonic languages. And I felt the same in particular about the separate East Slavonic languages when studying the history of the Russian language from K. H. Meyer's Historische Grammatike der russischen Sprache3 and other works. Of course these works had quite other aims and did not set out to give overall pictures of individual Slavonic languages. Nevertheless, as a student who had been interested in the comparative phonetics (the study of sounds) of the separate Slavonic languages and had spent some time in Yugoslavia after graduating and visiting Czechoslovakia, I felt the need for a work that would do this. And so, with great temerity, as I now see it to have been, but also with great idealism and sincere feelings of the brotherhood of the Slavs (feelings which I have never lost or regretted) I set out to rectify this deficiency, as I felt it to be, and compose and compile a book which would at least attempt to give a sketch of each language4. This sketch would consist of a brief historical introduction, the alphabet, orthography and pronunciation, the main features of its historical development from Common Slav, characteristic phonetic and morphological features, a concise summary of grammar or morphology, a note on the difficult question of word order with enclitics for those languages which use them in morphology (this is an important problem in mastering the spoken language), and finally a few texts for reading practice.

My idea was to start the book with a brief sketch of Old Church Slavonic as an essential hinge or link in the comparative study of one, or more, other Slavonic languages after the study of the student's first Slavonic language, even if it that is his mother tongue. The crucial part of each section or chapter dealing with a particular language was the part dealing with its historical development from Common Slav followed by an explained list of its characteristic phonetic and morphological features. Through these lists of features the individuality of each of these closely related languages was highlighted and its claim to be regarded as an independent language was established. It proved that some of the Slavonic languages have more unique features in their phonetics and morphology than others, but that each of them, when one considers also the features shared with one more other Slavonic languages of the three main groups (East, West, and South Slavic), has quite a sufficiency of features to be regarded as separate language, quite apart from literary and cultural considerations.

How did Belarusian language fare when judged by such criteria? By and large I found that while literary Belarusian had relatively few phonetic features which are peculiar only to Belarusian, it has a few recurring features, such as akannie (), the differentiation of i () and y (), and the identical pronunciation of original e and yat', in common with Russian and a large number of mainly phonetic features in common with Ukrainian. Nevertheless the few uniquely Belarusian phonetic features, such as dzekannie () and cekannie (), the jakannie (pronouncing of pretonic je as ja), and the pronunciation of original v after a vowel (tautosyllabic v) as bilabial ŭ (), are so all-pervading and occur so frequently that they immediately and distinctly mark out Belarusian as an individual Slavonic language. And this is apart from any consideration of its markedly different morphology and, last but not least, vocabulary.

Strongly debated problems of orthography had been settled in Belarus by the Decree of 28th August, 1933, promulgating the adoption of the proposals of the Belarusian Academy of Sciences in Minsk; and these proposals were largely accepted by Belarusians in Poland and elsewhere. As far as I can see, they in no way altered the mainly phonetic character of the spelling in Belarusian, nor did they falsely represent the characteristic features of spoken Belarusian.

However, writing, as I was, my chapter on Belarusian in 1948 in England soon after the war and having to base myself entirely on material which I had collected in Yugoslavia (from Poland) before the war, when neither of these countries had close diplomatic or commercial relations with the Soviet Union, I was in some difficulties, and I am bound to confess I worked with great temerity! I was basing myself mainly on two works: B. Taraškievič's () school grammar of Belarusian, published in Vilnia in 1929, and R. Astroŭski's "Biełaruski pravapis" (" ") published also in Vilnia in 1930. There were no other books available then; and at that time the Soviet Union did not export books in languages other than in Russian, least of all grammars!

I have the impression that Taraškievič's grammar was based on sound and quite orthodox principles and was not "ultra-nationalistic", but gave an honest description of the language, not seeking to perpetuate the linguistic features of certain dialects just because they were uniquely Belarusian. His description of the grammar seemed to be clearly borne out and illustrated by all the literary texts I was able to get hold of and read at that time. (I was finally able to get a few from the Soviet Union.)

Soviet Belarusian Grammar 1959 Nevertheless, when I started working on the second edition of my book in 1965 (very intermittently, I must confess), and even more when, a few months ago, I was finally able to see the first volume of the new Academy grammar of Belarusian, "Hramatyka biełaruskaj movy" (" ") published in Minsk in 1962, I had the surprise of my life!

I had observed that many of the morphological features quoted by Taraškievič, often differing from the corresponding forms in Russian, had disappeared from the grammar, and even one or two forms, similar to those in Russian, were given which had not been quoted before by Taraškievič. I will now go through a list of the most striking and inexplicable examples, and as I am unfortunately little acquainted with modern spoken Belarusian, I would most warmly welcome your comments and questions after the lecture. I realize that it is possible that this latest grammar is based on norms of morphology taken from a different group of dialects. However I would be interested to hear the comments of those who have a practical and/or native speaker's knowledge of the language.

Starting with the declensions of nouns, in the so-called neuter n-stems of the type (name) we now also have alternative "reduced" forms, without the syllable -en- in the plural, as well as in the singular, e.g.:

N. , A. G. , () D. , I. , L. ,

These are given without any special commentary or explanation as to their origin or stylistic value.

Masculine nouns ending in -a, as as are now given as having alternative endings in the Dative, Locative, and Instrumental singular. E.g.:

D. L. (-) (-)
I. ()
 village headjudgedog

Most remarkable is the replacement of the endings - and - for the Dative and Locative plural respectively of all masculine and neuter o/jo-stem nouns by the endings - and - as in Russian and most of the other Slavonic languages. This is brought out when these endings are stressed, e.g.:

, , - (tables)
, , - (sands)
, , - (rains)
, , - (shoulders)
, , - (brothers)
, , - (fields)
, , - (elks)

In the declension of cardinal numerals, the form (one) now replaces in the feminine Genitive, Dative, Instrumental and Locative singular.

The former alternative forms of the oblique cases of , Gen. Loc. masc. , Dat. , fem. , now entirely replace the forms , , , .

Numerals ending in the "soft sign", of the type (five) now decline Gen., Dat., Loc. , Inst. instead of , , , and the word for "forty" () now has a common form for all oblique cases: instead of for Gen., Dat. and Loc. and for Inst.

In the Collective Numerals forms such as Gen. , are preferred to , .

In the declension of the pronouns, most notable is the replacement of the form of the Gen., Dat. and Loc. sing. fem. of the word "that" ( Nom. sing. masc.), by a form also instead of .

In the declension of (self) endings with replace those with , e.g. Inst. and Loc. sing. masc. instead of and in the plural Gen., Acc., Loc. instead of , Dat. for , Inst. for .

In the possessive adjectives, in the Gen. and Dat. sing. masc. forms like , (maternal, of mother) replace the shorter forms , -.

With the prepositions three important changes may be observed. According to my former observations, preposition meaning "over, along, after, by" could only be followed by the Locative case. Now it can also be followed by the Accusative, with the meanings "up to", and "for (to get)"; and also by the Dative (in the singular only!) with the meanings "along, according to" and also, distributively, "each", e.g.: "one each" – .

Some of the most striking changes of flexional norms seem to have taken place in the conjugation of verbs. In the present tense in the second person plural the personal ending when stressed is - and no longer -, e.g.: , , , not , , etc.

In the compound future form of the imperfective verbs, characterized by the suffixed auxillary verb -, -, -, etc., and which the Academy grammar says is to be found in literature as a reflection of a feature of southern Belarusian dialects (" , ") we now have the forms , , -, -, -, , etc. instead of , , ... (like Ukrainian).

Both the compound future perfect form, e.g. " " (I shall have gone) and the compound pluperfect tense, e.g. " ᳢" (I had done), both compounded with the past gerund, are characterized as dialectical by my informants in the Linguistic Institute (Instytut movaznaustva) of the Belarusian Academy of Sciences.

In the past tense the verb (to carry) now has masc. and the feminine, neuter and plural forms now stress the first syllable, e.g.: (fem. and neut.) and (plural).

Most notable is the replacement of the form in - for the 1st person plural of the imperative mood by the form of the 1st per. pl. present, e.g. not (let us carry!), (let us take!), but , with or without the auxiliary (-) for perfective verbs. This in particular seems to me to be a clear link with Russian, Bulgarian, and Macedonian usage, as opposed to that in Ukrainian, Serbo-Croatian, Slovenian and all the West Slavonic languages.

In the second person plural of the imperative the ending - is now preferred to the very old ending - which goes back to a Common Slav form exemplified in OCS -ete, e.g. .

Perhaps the most remarkable change of all to be observed in the Academy grammar is the restoration of the literary and somewhat archaic present participle passive, which until recently could have been said to have survived in Russian alone of all the Slavonic languages, no doubt under the influence of Old Church Slavonic and Lomonosov's "Rossijskaja grammatika" ( )5. The Academy grammar states that it occurs mostly in learned publications and in journals and newspapers. It states: " ' . ; ."

I believe that no amount of morphological alterations can ever reduce, let alone obliterate a language.

The following examples are given: " , " (. , ). " , " (. , ). " , " (). " , " ( ). " 1917 . , . . , " ( ). It's remarkable that not one example is given from a verb of the -i- category (second conjugation)!

The infinitive of two verbs now differs from forms given in earlier grammars. "to sing" is now and not , and "to blow" is and not .

In conclusion, I would like to say that I believe that no amount of morphological alterations can ever reduce, let alone obliterate a language, for languages are based not only on "grammar" but also (and far more) on phonetics (local or regional accents and intonations), local vocabulary which characterizes and builds up a national language, and on a national literary and cultural tradition which creates both poetry and prose, — both that created by the people as traditional oral poetry, songs and folktales, and that created by is great writers. These express the deepest thoughts, feelings and aspirations of a nation, and are among its greatest treasures; but these are treasures that cannot be stolen or taken away or destroyed.

On the other hand, I see no harm in uniformity between languages in such matters as punctuation, the use of capital letters, transcription of foreign names, etc. And differences artificially created or specially sought out from obscure dialects and sanctioned and enthroned in official grammars are, to my mind, to be deprecated.

The written language should faithfully reflect the living, spoken language of the people, as the great Serbian reformer, Vuk Karadžič taught. Then it is a useful, efficient and also beautiful means of communication, which is what language is, and a true reflection of the whole human life.

What interests me is: how far do the forms I have described and enumerated truly reflect the spoken language of the Belarusian people?


1. Vondrák's Vergleichende slavische Grammatik, 2 vols, Göttingen, 1924, 1928 [back]
2. 2nd edition, Paris, 1934. [back]
3. Volume 1, Bonn, 1933. [back]
4. Guide to Slavonic Languages, London, 1951 [back]
5. St. Petersburg, 1757. [back]

Reprinted from "The Journal of Byelorussian Studies" Vol. I, No. 3, Year III. London 1967. Professor Reginald George Arthur De Bray. "Grammatical changes in modern literary Byelorussian." (pp. 215-221).

See also:

- Francis Skaryna, the first Belarusian printer by Alexander Nadson
- New Belarusian language reform (2003) by Kiryla Pazniak (with an English summary)
- : Arche
- ʳ
- by Czalex
- Old Church Slavonic Grammar by Horace Gray Lunt
- The Slavonic Languages by Comrie &. Corbett
- The Dawn of Slavic: An Introduction to Slavic Philology by Alexander M. Schenker

- Write your comment

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