Anatoly reproduces a poem by Sergei Grakhovsky (Russian Сергей Иванович Граховский, Belarusian Сяргей Іванавіч Грахоўскi) written to demonstrate once and for all that Belarusian is not just a dialect of Russian, as is often claimed or lazily assumed (and I speak as one who has lazily assumed it, even though I knew intellectually that it was a separate language). It’s called «Ветразь» and the opening stanza reads:

У выраі ветразь знікае
За хваляй, нібы на спачын,
І змора яго не злякае,
Не спыніць тугой далячынь.

It definitely does its job, because I have not the faintest idea what that, or any of the rest of the poem, means. I know ветразь [vetraz’] means ‘(the) wind’ because I looked it up on Google Translate. (Amusingly, the first comment in Anatoly’s thread is “Damn, it’s not even a Ukrainian dialect :)))—although some of the words are understandable, if you know Ukrainian, but only some.”)


  1. There is a Lithuanian word “vėtra” which means gale, or strong wind. Etimological dictionary says that it comes from old slavic ВѢТРЪ which means wind. Russian ветер means the same.

  2. I can second the comment that even knowing Ukrainian is not enough to figure out the meaning of this stanza. I can make out several words and kind of tell the general drift of the first 3 lines, but the fourth one is very murky.

  3. Just to round out the edge cases, I can confirm that Belarusian doesn’t seem to be a dialect of English either.

  4. I’ve only known about a handful of Belorussians in my life. Every one of them spoke the most standard Russian imaginable. If they pretended to be Moscovites, I wouldn’t have doubted them, certainly not from their speech. And I’m a Moscovite myself. They spoke standard Russian among themselves as well.
    Some time ago curiosity prompted me to watch some Belorussian language newscasts on YouTube. A native Russian speaker like myself understands about 90% of that. The same is true of standard, TV-news Ukrainian. Comprehension rises to well over 95% with written text because I have more time to connect cognates with each other in my mind while reading than while listening.
    I’m guessing that the stanza above is in a non-standard dialect that is either dead or dying.

  5. I’m guessing that знікае is related to возникает. Could выраі be related to вырыть (to dig up)? Perhaps it’s starting to get windy near a ditch? I could be very wrong about this. “на спачын” could refer to the beginning of something. І змора яго – and his (i.e. the wind’s) death? далячынь sounds like “of the far-away”.

  6. For what it’s worth, here’s what Google Translate came up with when I entered the entire quatrain:
    In terms sail disappears
    Behind the wave, as if to rest,
    And it does not fatigue zlyakae,
    Do not stop the tight distance

  7. Knowing Ukrainian definitely helps, because ветразь is вітрило, за хваляй is за хвилею, and не злякае is не злякає. But then, there’s Ukrainian that is impenetrable for similar, completely lexical reasons.

  8. I told GT that the text was Russian, and it came out with this:
    We vyraі Vetraz znіkae
    For let him who boasts, nіby on spachyn,
    I. zmora Iago not zlyakae,
    Not spynіts tight dalyachyn.
    Changing the Cyrillic iotas to etas (Russian doesn’t use iota any more, and Belarusian doesn’t use eta at all) gives:
    We expressed Vetraz znikae
    For let him who boasts, niby on spachyn,
    And zmora Iago not zlyakae,
    Not spynits tight dalyachyn.
    It’s funny that GT thinks it understands part of it.

  9. The Ukrainian version of the fourth line would be не зупинить тугою далечінь, i.e., the “great distance” will not impede the sail’s progress by making it sad.

  10. I looked at several Belarussian online dictionaries (not a lot do exist – there are many sites offering Belarussian online dictionaries or translations, but they all seem to cross-refer to the same few databases. The best one seems to be this here. So this is what I get:
    Into warm countries*1) a sail vanishes
    Behind a wave , as if for a rest,
    And tiredness does not affect(?)*2) it
    Nor does stop it the tight distance.
    *1) вырай is glossed as “Тёплые страны, куда летят зимовать перелётные птицы” – “warm countries where migratory birds fly to hibernate”.
    *2) None of the dictionaries I checked had злякаць, but from the context I’d assume it means “affect, slow down” vel sim.
    Now, I won’t dispute that Belarussian is its own language, but more for sociolinguistic reasons – it has its own written standard, literary tradition, and is (one of the) official languages of a country – it has the army, so to speak (don’t know about the navy, in a landlocked country 😉 ). But the (purported lack of) lexical proximity to Russian is not a good argument – it’s possible to write incomprehensible poems in many dialects, one just needs to select the right words. And my experience in reading “non-poetic” Belarussian is that I can understand most of it. It’s like Dutch – if there would be no Netherlands as a country and no Dutch literary tradition and langauge standard, it would be counted as a dialect of German.

  11. Has anyone written a poem in Scots that would be impenetrable to a speaker of standard English? Doesn’t seem like it would be that difficult.

  12. Actually two seconds of googling gave me this, the first two stanzas of “Keekin In”
    by Rowena M. Love (and I assume she wasn’t writing it to prove a point either):
    “Kye coorie in thir sta,
    life smokin fae thir mous;
    a leam o sunlicht thirls the mirk
    lik guid news
    an splatters braiths wi gowd.
    Anent the wa, a cuddy,
    wi its timmer fraucht:
    siller board set wi cairngorms
    that myrrh the air.”

  13. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    Probably with a bit of ingenuity one could write a poem in British English that would be unintelligble to a speaker of American English (or vice versa).*
    Do we know, incidentally, whether Grakhovsky was writing in the sort of language that any Belarusian speaker would immediately understand, or was he deliberately designing it to be unintelligible to Russian speakers?
    *Not a poem, but in a review of one of Stephen J. Gould’s books Richard Dawkins complained that American writers tend to assume that everyone knows all about baseball. To illustrate what he meant he “translated” a passage into cricket-speak.

  14. There is a Lithuanian word “vėtra” which means gale, or strong wind. Etimological dictionary says that it comes from old slavic ВѢТРЪ which means wind. Russian ветер means the same.
    Yes, once you know what it means you go “oh, yeah, like ветер.” But there’s no way you’re going to make the connection otherwise.
    was he deliberately designing it to be unintelligible to Russian speakers?
    Yes, definitely; it’s more a proof of concept than a “real” poem. But it’s a hell of a proof of concept.

  15. And… German would be counted as a dialect of Dutch if there would be no Germany as a country… But obviously big countries and big languages come first to the mind…

  16. Compare “Порато баско весной в Сиговце” (from Klyuev’s Pogorel’schina) or “у тие пората баска кошуля” (“you’ve got a very pretty fur coat”), both in a Pomorye dialect (not to be confused with the Polish Pomorze).
    On Dutch, didn’t Hoffman von Fallersleben write, “Von der Maas bis an die Memel?”

  17. J.W. Brewer says:

    If Belarusian wants to be taken seriously as a separate language, it ought to take a leaf out of the Ukrainian nationalists’ book and nag Anglophones to use different spellings for toponyms and personal names. For example, the poet in question could be “Siarhej” instead of the “Sergei” to which we have been accustomed when Englishing Russian.

  18. “For example, the poet in question could be “Siarhej” instead of the “Sergei” to which we have been accustomed when Englishing Russian.”
    They’ve been doing this, just not as consistently as the Ukrainians. The media are also adopting Belarusian spelling, perhaps for political reasons. Thus Victor Glazov becomes Viktar Hlazau and Yevgeny Stepanov becomes Yauheni Stsipanau.
    Belarusian spelling, especially Tarashkevich’s 1918 system, is almost purely phonetic, unlike its Slavic neighbors.

  19. @Hans: If злякаць has the same meaning as it’s apparent Ukrainian cognate, it would be “to frighten”.

  20. Yes, I think ветразь is definitely “sail”; compare Russian ветрило, a poetic synonym for парус. Actually, Hans’s translation reminds me somewhat of Lermontov’s poem:

    Белеет парус одинокой
    В тумане моря голубом. —
    Что́ ищет он в стране далекой?
    Что́ кинул он в краю родном?

    (A single sail shines white in the blue fog of the sea. What is it seeking in the far country? What has it abandoned in its native land?)

    Grakhovsky’s equivalent of the “страна далекая” is interesting. Вырей/вырай appears in Dahl’s 1860s dictionary under the heading “вырей”, and it has other meanings, depending on the region: “skylark” in Kursk, “sorcerer” in Tver and Pskov, “cabbage bed” in Vologda, and in southern Russia and Ukraine, “a fabulous, mysterious land, a paradise on earth, a warm country, a magical realm, the migratory bird flies to the vyrei…”:

    вырей, вырай, ирей, ирий, ирица южн., малорос. какой-то сказочный, загадочный край, земной рай, теплые страны; волшебное царство, перелетная птица летит в вырей; даже змеи, около воздвиженья, уходят в вырей: туда спасается, временем, зверь, целыми косяками, от злого лешего, проигравшего напр. всех зайцев своих в карты другому лешему, и перегоняющему их без толку на новые места; посему зверь является и исчезает годом без видимой причины.

  21. And ирей, according to Vasmer, comes from Iranian *аirуā-, “Aryan land”—in other words, Iran!

  22. Googling выраі shows a few examples of its use for migratory birds, but the poem in question comes up at the very first page of results. Which seems to indicate that the word is really obscure.
    And of course it isn’t hard at all to write, as a proof of principle, a stanza of obscure words / archaisms / dialectisms, to run it through a alternative phonetic spelling converter, and to make it totally nontransparent to readers with limited command of the language. The real test is different IMHO, “will the locals still get it right?”
    (In other words, how much you can monkeywrench the comprehension by the Ukrainians or the Russians before it goes up in smoke even for an average native speaker?)

  23. The average native speakers over at Anatoly’s place couldn’t make head nor tail of it. If it were just me, I wouldn’t have bothered posting it.

  24. The average native speakers over at Anatoly’s place
    Native speakers of Belarusian, or of Russian or Ukrainian? Here’s a poem in English by Charles Battel Loomis (annotated version at Wikipedia):
    A Classic Ode
    Oh, limpid stream of Tyrus, now I hear
       The pulsing wings of Armageddon’s host,
    Clear as a colcothar and yet more clear–
       (Twin orbs, like those of which the Parsees boast;)
    Down in thy pebbled deeps in early spring
       The dimpled naiads sport, as in the time
    When Ocidelus with untiring wing
       Drave teams of prancing tigers, ‘mid the chime
    Of all the bells of Phicol. Scarcely one
       Peristome veils its beauties now, but then–
    Like nascent diamonds, sparkling in the sun,
       Or sainfoin, circinate, or moss in marshy fen.
    Loud as the blasts of Tubal, loud and strong,
       Sweet as the songs of Sappho, aye more sweet;
    Long as the spear of Arnon, twice as long,
       What time he hurled it at King Pharaoh’s feet.
    The problem here isn’t the vocabulary, it’s the absence of anything resembling an underlying thought.

  25. The problem here isn’t the vocabulary, it’s the absence of anything resembling an underlying thought.
    Well, at least there’s always an overlying thought that can be brought to bear, as you show, namely: that there is no underlying thought.
    This “level model” of superior (observing) or inferior (participating) thoughts is very constrictive, I find. It’s the kind of thinking hypostasized in the systems theory notions of “actor, first- and second-level observers”.
    I take the view that one just pays attention to different aspects of different things at different times. This could be called the “one damned thing after another model”.

  26. Native speakers of Belarusian, or of Russian or Ukrainian?
    Oh, sorry, you’re right, I was thinking of Russian. I don’t think there were any native speakers of Belarusian there.

  27. (Another example of how I tend to conflate Russian and Belarusian!)

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