According to Jan Maksimiuk’s article “An Unclaimed Creative Potential or the Belarusians in the Bialystok Region as a Trilingual People,” the almost 50,000 ethnic Belarusians living in eastern Poland are divided into two groups. About a fifth are litsviny (‘Lithuanians’: see below), who are rapidly being polonized; thus “the future of the Belarusian minority in Poland will be increasingly shaped by its padlashy demographic component,” ie, the “Podlasian Belarusians (padlashy in the Belarusian language), who live in the centre and south of Podlasie Province.”
In their everyday life padlashy use a language that is markedly different from the Belarusian literary language and its dialectal variants used by litsviny, that is, Belarusians living in the northern part of Podlasie Province. However, the language of padlashy, which is much closer to the Ukrainian than the Belarusian literary standard in terms of its phonetic and morphologic characteristics, has not become a decisive factor for the padlashys’ ethnic self-determination…
Belarusian as a language of domestic communication was declared by 39,900 people in Podlasie Province (82 percent of the total number of Belarusians in the province). This means that approximately 30,000 Belarusians belonging to the padlashy group officially identified their domestic language as Belarusian. From a “political” or an “emotional” point of view, this was a fully justifiable step. However, linguists and some others may have some justifiable arguments against such an identification, as well. The point is that in reality the Belarusians in the Bialystok region are a trilingual community — apart from Polish and Belarusian (or its dialectal variants), the overwhelming majority of them also speak a third language (or its local dialect), which has so far not been given any generally accepted name. This actual trilingualism of Belarusians in the Bialystok region was not registered by the 2002 census (at least, no such census data have been made public).
Our further considerations will be devoted to this third language of those Polish Belarusians who belong to the group of padlashy. Since this vernacular has no generally accepted name among its users, we will tentatively call it Svoja mova (literally: one’s own language) or Svoja for short, proceeding from the fact that when you ask padlashy what language they speak at home, the most frequent answer will be this: We speak our own language (po-našomu or po-svojomu).
Maksimiuk goes on to discuss efforts to standardize this language (which I think would better be called Padlashy, but never mind) and propagate it in written form; he links to a sample of the language, written in a Latin script (since “the circle of active users of the Cyrillic script among Belarusians in the Bialystok region is unavoidably shrinking”). Those who focus on the benefits of widely spoken languages will doubtless deprecate this effort to establish a tiny one of no practical use; personally, I welcome it. Let a thousand tongues flourish! (Via digenis.org; I should mention, in case it’s not obvious, that the j in Svoja mova is pronounced as in Polish or German—in English orthography it would be “svoya.”)
Adam Mickiewicz, the creator of the Polish literary canon, began his poem “Pan Tadeusz” with the exclamation, “Litwo! Ojczyzno moja!” [text corrected — LH] (Oh, Lithuania, my fatherland). Written in Polish, these words were addressed to the territory he was born in, called Litwa (Lithuania), where people for centuries were called “Litsviny” and spoke what we now think of as Belarusian. Another work by Mickiewicz, Dziady (“Forefathers’ Eve”), is based on local folklore and tales that peasants retained among themselves, and several Belarusian literati insist that Mickiewicz is, basically, “our” poet and that he (among many other pillars of Polish spirit) was aware of his Belarusian (Litvan) cultural roots.
Now these lands are in Belarus, while the city of Vilnius (Wilno), which all XX century Belarusian intellectuals have considered their spiritual capital (the first Belarusian books were published there more than 400 years ago, and the first newspaper at the turn of the century), but also where one of the oldest Polish universities was founded by Jesuits, is now the capital of Lithuania… […].
In 1569 Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (of which Belarusians think as “their” state, and Lithuanians as their, and Poles also can have a say in the controversy, and even Russians sometimes put their three cents in) signed the Lublin Union, a treaty against Moscow which is considered the end of Belarusian statehood. Since that year, at different times in history, the territory or its parts were incorporated into different states. Tsarist Russia regarded the region as North-West Province, a distant outpost, while for Poland Belarus and Lithuania were the Eastern Borderland (Kresy Wschodnie) facing what was seen as a huge Asian kingdom… Quite often Belarusians mention their country’s location in the geographical center of Europe as a matter of some special pride. Intellectuals view their land between Poland and Russia, on the borderline of two great cultural worlds, as a bridge between Orthodoxy and Catholicism (Belarus may be the only country in the world where both Catholic and Orthodox Christmas, Easter and All Saints Days are official holidays); between Byzantine and European political traditions, as “a unique place in the context of European cultural space, where the world of Slavia Orthodoxa meets with the world of Slavia Romana — and with the Baltic world as well”. Most European nations are probably unaware of Belarusian claims to the heart of their continent, and make their own claims and live in their own very different geographies. Simple folks, however, would have rather blurred ideas about their belonging. Quite often peasants or petty traders were not sure of the name by which to call themselves: they were neither Russians nor Poles (who could also be a different social status) nor Jews (who were of a different religion), while the medieval name of Litsviny or Litvans (related to the medieval Grand Duchy of Lithuania) went out of use by the eighteenth century or was referred to Lithuanians (very different ethnically). For a number of historical, political and cultural reasons, words “Belarus” and “Belarusian” are rather late and ambiguous coinages, and this fact had (and still has) political repercussions. As a way to still have a name, simple folk called themselves “tuteishyja”, which literally means “from here”, unable to define in any other way who they were and, probably, not very much interested in an identity defined as a “national belonging”. A 1931 newspaper article (published in Western Belarus, then part of Poland) devoted to the life and work of the turn-of the-century poetess Alaiza Pashkewich explained to the readers who they were by demonstrating how the poetess came to recognize her belonging:
(she) finally understood that the person who speaks as here – he, in fact, speaks Belarusian and, hence, he is Belarusian. From that moment all hesitation about what nation (people) to belong to were over for her.
Evidently, the search for the historically true and uncontested Belarusianness is too problematic, while with time the “tuteishyja” phenomenon took on the shape of a regional culture, a mythological construct and an ideal. In 1922 Belarusian greatest poet Yanka Kupala authored a play, “Tuteishyja”, with Western Scholar and Eastern Scholar among the characters. They make their appearance several times to discuss (one in Polish, the other in Russian, both of which are understandable for the Belarusian audience) how to scientifically classify the people around them. It is self-evident, one would say in Polish, they are an uncivilized off-spring of the Western Slavic group and their language is of Polish origin. It is absolutely clear, the other would say in Russian, they are just spoilt Russians and their language is Eastern Slavic and they belong with us. Meanwhile German troops (it is 1918) occupy the city, and dwellers have to think how to co-exist with still new power…
Addendum. For the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and its relation to modern Belarus and its language, see the discussion in this comment thread.