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Ihar Klimaŭ (Minsk)

Taraškevica vs. Narkamaŭka –
the case of a bicultural conflict in Belarusian and in Belarus

It is not generally known that not one common standard but two standards exist in the Belarusian. Both standard varieties increased during the 20th century as a result of political controversies within the country. But this process reflects some cultural vectors of the Belarusian past.

Historically the first was Taraškevič’s standard, codified by Branisłaŭ Taraškevič in his grammar of 1918 and accepted all over the country without any legal act. The second was the so-called Soviet (otherwise called Narkom’s, or the People’s Commissars’) standard created by the Soviet government during the 1930s as opposed to Taraškevič’s.

For a long time (from 1933 to the end of the 1980s) both standards existed separately. Taraškevič’s standard was used in West Belarus (under Polish rule) and during the German invasion (under fascist rule) in the entire country; afterwards it was only used in the diaspora. The Soviet standard was isolated from Taraškevič’s influence and was developed under strict state control in Soviet Belarus. Since the destruction of the Soviet Empire, both standards function in parallel in Belarus, with some restrictions (since 1995) for Taraškevič’s in the official domain.

Since the end of the 1980s both standards have had contacts with each other, with Taraškevič’s standard principally exerting a major influence upon the Soviet one. Probably a kind of a hybrid between the two standards is being created. But at present there is no agreement about how the gap between the two standards will be gradually reduced. Their use is distributed according to personal preference. The debates regarding each standard divide the Belarusian elite into two irreconcilable camps.

Within Belarusian there is no dominant dialect. Taraškevič’s and the Soviet standard have identical phonemic systems, though the pronunciation of loanwords is different. In morphology, two standards are distinguished by distribution of the same forms: the Soviet standard has a tendency to copy the Russian forms. Both standards have most of their vocabulary in common, particularly in the field of terms; however Taraškevič’s standard tends to have more differences in lexis than the Soviet one. The latter is favorable to Russianisms but struggling against Polonisms, while Taraškevič’s behaves in the opposite manner with regard to Russianisms and Polonisms. The Soviet standard has virtually the same syntax as Russian; its word order is so similar that translation hardly ever requires any change. The chief difference is in orthography, and it is at this point that the interpenetration of the two standards is most difficult, since the advocates of both do not wish to eradicate this distinction.

The conflict of the two standards in Belarusian today is not reduced to a conflict over the spelling of forms which duplicate each other in overlapping domains. This is a conflict between different cultures: each one is associated with certain speakers who have antagonistic outlooks. Adherents of Taraškevič’s standard are open to Western influences and values; advocates of the Soviet one are imcomprehensible to them, because they are oriented on the Soviet past and are open to Russian influence. But similar situations can also be found in past periods of Belarusian history (at least since the political union of Krevo in 1385). Now Standard Belarusian might be viewed as a battleground between native trends as well as over European influence and Russian influence.