Just after we moved, our real estate agent back in Pittsfield called to say that a package had been left on the doorstep by the FedEx truck. I asked her to hold it for us until the closing; when it became apparent we wouldn’t make it to the closing, I didn’t know what to do about it, but she said “Don’t worry, I’ll mail it to you” (you’re a peach, Barb!), and today it showed up: an incredibly generous LH reader used the Amazon wish list to send me a copy of An Encyclopedia of the Languages of Europe! Just flipping through the book makes me want to drop the copyediting job I’m working on and spend a few days immersed in it; it has entries on everything you can imagine (Vandalic, Venetic, Veps, Vestinian, Visigothic…), and I’ve already had my preconceptions shaken up by the entry on Belarusian:

The emergence of Belarusian as a fully fledged language used in all areas of human activity came to an abrupt halt with the onset of Stalinism at the beginning of the 1930s. The grammar and spelling norms of the Tarashkevich grammar were altered by decree in 1933 to bring them closer to Russian. Active use of Belarusian was likely to attract accusations of ‘bourgeois nationalism’ and the inevitable consequences.
After 1945 the pace of Russification quickened, so that by the 1970s there were almost no schools, and certainly no higher educational establishments, in which classes were conducted in Belarusian. Parents were given the right to withdraw their children from what were supposed to be compulsory Belarusian language classes, and apparently made abundant use of that right. The Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic was virtually the only ‘national’ (i.e. non-Russian) republic in the USSR in which such a situation had been allowed to arise.

I had assumed that all “national” languages were officially supported in the USSR. They go on to say that Belarusian is likely to fade away: “Belarusian, unlike Slovak for example, has probably arrived too late on the scene to be promoted to the ranks of ‘high-culture’ languages.”
The book is full of figures and maps and bibliographies; it immediately goes into a place of honor on my linguistics shelf, and I’ll be consulting it frequently. Many thanks, Pamela!


  1. I know that book. Worthy indeed! Any encyclopaedia that gives due coverage to Basque-Icelandic pidgin must be respected as comprehensive.

  2. Generally speaking, it’s true. Un Ukraine, the situation was similar, though things didn’t go as far. Officially, all languages were supported indeed, at least symbolically; along with that, there was a system of measures to secure their smooth vanishing.
    Speaking in Belarusian was above suspicion, if the speaker was uneducated and unambitious; the attitude to educated people was different. By the 1970s there were, AFAIK, no Belarusian schools at least in Minsk; they remained, however, in rural areas. No higher education in Belarusian, indeed (except Belarusian philology and perhaps some other local-themed things), up to now.
    The right to withdraw the children from compulsory Belarusian classes (i.e. Belarusian language and literature; there was no history of Belarus separate from the history of the URSS, and I can remember only one history lesson during my school years dealing specifically with Belarus) was at first granted to military men, because they were likely to be often moved to other places; in fact, it was rapidly expanded to everybody and such withdrawing was even encouraged by school administration.

  3. Michael Farris says

    I think Belarussian has also had bad luck in post Soviet times as Thug-in-chief Łukašenka doesn’t really speak it or think much of it (one reason why I prefer to write his name in Belarussian).
    A few years ago I spoke with a Belarussian speaker living in Poland who said that there are more educated people now who _can_ speak Belarussian now since independence but mostly they choose not to.
    Another factor is the silliness issue. The Slavic languages are close enough that a native speaker of one can understand lots of words in another but their development has been different enough (often purposely so) that the usage of roots across languages will strike others as bizarre or silly. In other words, the very aspects of Belarussian that would make it most independent of Russian are those that work against it achieving the prestige needed to be able to compete against Russian.
    It’s too bad because I actually like Belarussian, especially in łacinka which I think makes it look less like warmed-over Russian (though I guess critics may say that łacinka makes it look like warmed-over Polish or Slovak…).

  4. łacinka makes it look like warmed-over Polish or Slovak
    And I wouldn’t be surprised if they did, Belarussian in Latin script does look a lot like Slovak, especially Eastern Slovak. This dialect of Belarusian sounds particularly familiar to my ears.
    I got my copy of (the Czech translation of) Price’s Encyclopedia for last Christmas. Needless to say, best Christmas ever 🙂 I started with the chapter on Catalan and fell in love with the book. The chapter on Slovak is great, but I’m afraid they got a small bit wrong. Not telling you which one, as it warrants a more detailed study 🙂
    Oh and the Czech translators deserve a double praise: once for the great translation and once for ammending the bibliography. They included the most important works on respective languages and scripts (yes, it’s got scripts too) written in Czech or Slovak.

  5. David Marjanović says

    (though I guess critics may say that łacinka makes it look like warmed-over Polish or Slovak…)

    Altogether, it probably looks most like Upper Sorbian. Check out the Upper Sorbian Wikipedia. 🙂

    Officially, all languages were supported indeed, at least symbolically; along with that, there was a system of measures to secure their smooth vanishing.

    Some sooner than others. Teaching in Nivkh was stopped when the Party determined all speakers were fluent in Russian in the 1960s or something (I’m too lazy to read the Wikipedia article again). Nivkh is now highly endangered.
    In the long run, all were scheduled for “merging” into Russian. In communism there will no longer be any national differences, you know.

  6. David Marjanović says

    that the usage of roots across languages will strike others as bizarre or silly.

    Oh yeah. In July I spent 2 weeks digging for Triassic fossils in Poland and learned that “skull” is czaszka in Polish. The same word in Russian means “cup” as in “cup of tea”.

  7. David Marjanović says

    I completely forgot to ask: What is Vestinian?

  8. An Italic language, “closely related to Oscan and Umbrian and less closely so to Latin, and little of it remains.”

  9. Tomasz Kamusella says

    The fight between national, Tarashkevich, Belarusian and Russified, Soviet Belarusian still rages on, as evidenced by the existence of two different Wikipedias in these kinds of Belarusian.
    Serious publishing in Belarusia, which commenced at the turn of the 20th c., was both in the Latin and Cyrillic scripts. During WWI, under German occupation, Cyrillic was banned (alongside Russian. During the interwar period, in Soviet Belarus the Latin script was banned, while in Polish Belarus the authorities and the Catholic Church encouraged the Latin script. During WWII, first, the Soviets banned the Latin script for writing Belarusian, and during the German occupation (1941-44), Cyrillic was banned again. Obviously, after 1945, when all of Belarus was incorporated to the USRR, the Latin script became illegal. Nowadays, some nationally-minded Belarusians disagreeing with Minsk’s Russifying line, encourage the parallel use of both scripts (not unlike the Montenegrins) to make Belarusian graphically equidistant from Polish and Russian.

  10. Tomasz Kamusella says

    An even more detailed and wider survey of languages in Central and Eastern Europe is offered by the invalubale:
    Sprachenlexikon. Okuka M. (Hg.) 2002: Lexikon der Sprachen des europäischen Ostens. Klagenfurt (= Wieser Enzyklopädie des europäischen Ostens 10).
    At EUR180 it’s quite expensive, but strangly, all the texts in the volume are also available on the net at: www2.uni-klu.ac.at/eeo/index.php/Sprachenlexikon

  11. Wow, excellent—thank you Tomasz!

  12. I add my thanks! Here‘s the direct link.

  13. Tomasz,
    may the forces of evil become confused on the way to your house.
    Which is my way of saying (in George Carlin’s words) ‘thank you so much’.

  14. Oh yeah. In July I spent 2 weeks digging for Triassic fossils in Poland and learned that “skull” is czaszka in Polish. The same word in Russian means “cup” as in “cup of tea”.

    You’re being facetious there, yeah?
    English “Cup” and German „der Kopf“ ‘head’ are related, and “cup” never meant “head”, in case anyone else didn’t pick up on that.

  15. michael farris says

    I don’t know if czaszka and the Russian word are cognates, but Slavic languages are full of cognates that make you go “huh?”
    One of my favorites
    Polish : zachód – west
    Czech : záchod – toilet
    I think what they both have in common is the idea ‘go behind’ za = behind, chod = go

  16. Tomasz Kamusella says

    Polish ‘czaszka,’ Russian and Ukrainian ‘chashka,’ or Romanian ‘ceasca’ (all pronounced in the same manner) are cognate. With the exception of the Polish word, all of them mean ‘cup,’ or ‘small bowl.’ In Polish czaszka meant the same until the early 19th c., then it acquired its current, exclusive meaning of ‘skull.’The origin of this meaning goes back to the 16th century.
    All the above-mentioned words are the diminutive of the all-Slavic word ‘chasha’ (‘czasza’ in Polish, ‘cise’ in Czech) for ‘chalice, drinking-bowl.’ The word ‘czasza,’ though old-fashioned, is still used in Polish.
    It is proposed that all-Slavic ‘chasha’ was derived from Old Slavic ‘*chesati’ for ‘scratching, cutting’ a bowl out of a piece of wood.
    See: Bańkowski, Andrzej. 2000. Etymologiczny słownik języka polskiego [Vol 1]. Warsaw: PWN, pp 217-218; and Boryś, Wiesław. 2006. Słownik etymologiczny języka polskiego. Cracow: WL, pp 91-92).
    Sorry for the absence of diacritics in the quoted Czech and Romanian words, and for not using Cyrillic for Russian and Ukrainian words.

  17. 2 Tomasz Kamusella:
    Never heard about Cyrillic script being banned under German occupation during WWI. It definitely wasn’t banned during WWII. In “Polish Belarus”, AFAIK, neither authorities, nor Catholic Church did specifically encourage any writing in Belarusian; both scripts were used because each of them had its own audience. Speaking about Soviet Belarus, it’s unclear what it means to be “banned”; it seems that Latin script simply wasn’t used, but its use, if any, didn’t inflict any penalty.

  18. Tomasz Kamusella says

    During WWI, in the Land Ober Ost, Russian and Cyrillic were banned (I don’t know ehether formally or not), but the dictionary of co-official languages used on this territory (Sieben-Sprachen-Wörterbuch. Deutsch-Polnisch-Russisch-Weißruthenisch-Litauisch-Lettisch-Jiddisch. 1918. Presseabteilung des Oberbefehlshabers Ost and Leipzig: Verlag Otto Spamer) prescribed exclusively the Latin script for writing in Belarusian.
    Because during WWII, all official books in Belarusian in the Reichskommissariat Ostland were produced in the Latin script, I presume the situation was similar.
    Truly speaking, it remains to uncover how formal or not was the German ban on the use of Cyrillic to write Belarusian. To decide it I tried to reach Ober Ost and Ostland Amtsblätter in the Library of Congress, but no luck. I’ve heard they may be in the Skaryna Belarusian Library in London.
    In interwar Poland 12% of Belarusian books were printed in Latin characters in 1921 and 54% in 1938. (See: Turonek, Jerzy. 2000. Książka białoruska w II Rzeczypospolitej, 1921-1939 (Ser: Prace Slawistyczne, Vol 109). Warsaw: SOW and Instytut Slawistyki PAN)It was not only due to Warsaw’s official Polonizing pressure, but due to the efforts of the Catholic Church (mainly, Franciscans) to attract Orthodox Belarusians to the Greek Catholic fold.
    It seems that various language and culture planning policies as directed at the Belarusians between 1914 adn 1945, remain an under-researched field.

  19. David Marjanović says

    You’re being facetious there, yeah?

    Given that I already knew the German example* and the Romance “bowl” words, I wasn’t really surprised.
    * And some people reportedly still say body part vocabulary isn’t borrowed! Hah! Cuppa is Latin.

    All the above-mentioned words are the diminutive of the all-Slavic word ‘chasha’ (‘czasza’ in Polish, ‘cise’ in Czech) for ‘chalice, drinking-bowl.’ The word ‘czasza,’ though old-fashioned, is still used in Polish.

    Ah. I only knew it in Russian (again “cup”, but when you have two synonyms available, one of which is a diminutive, you use the diminutive!), and had no idea the development had occurred so late in Polish. After all, czaszka is now the technical anatomical term.


    Wow. I had thought the septilingual dictionary found in the ruins of Ugarit was unique.
    How much one can learn in a single blog comment thread…

  20. David Marjanović says


  21. Septemlingual is seen, but septilingual fits the canonic pattern better: uni-, bi-, tri-, quadri-, quinqui- or quinque-, sexi-. The lubricious-sounding sexilingual might raise an eyebrow, or worse. And monolingual (a stand-out with its Greek prefix) is much more common than unilingual.

  22. Oh, ok. This explains why my family, which consists of Muscovites of Belarussian extraction, denies the existence of a real Belarussian language despite their anti-Communism: it was because the kind of speech my dad would have overheard visiting his village in the ’70s was essentially not at all Belarussian.
    I guess that same prejudice underlay a comment I made in an AskMe thread many months back, for which I still feel pretty guilty.

  23. I know how you feel — I used to make snide remarks about Belarusian myself. It’s hard even recognizing biases you’ve absorbed without realizing it.

  24. 2 Tomasz Kamusella:
    About WWII, here is [the?] catalogue of Belarusian books published under German occupation:
    Almost all of them are in Cyrillic. I don’t see why the situation should be different during WWI. Could you please provide a source for your information? The Sieben-Sprachen-Wörterbuch, imho, could scarcely have any normative power.
    Greek Catholics normally use Cyrillic script, thus conversion of Orthodox Belarusians to Greek Catholicism shouldn’t result in rise of number of Latin-scripted publications (note that such conversions didn’t happen on a mass scale anyway). Besides, it seems strange why Franciscans, being Roman Catholics, should try to convert anybody into Greek Catholicism, rather than Roman. I guess Turonek should also suggest some other factors that contributed to this change.
    I fully consent with your last paragraph.
    Thank you for the dictionary link.
    2 David Marjanović:
    (bibliography only)
    (full-text PDFs)

  25. Tomasz Kamusella says

    Dear Miram,
    Thank you for the link to the most useful catalog of Belarusian books published under German control. I wish I knew it before. I am not a specialist in matters Belarusian, and only aspire to compare language planning policies in Central and Eastern Europe. I had only circumstantial evidence that German occupation adminsitrations banned the use of Cyrillic for Belarusian books during WW I & II.
    Now it seems that these German occupation administrations, like the Poles in the interwar period, allowed for the printing of Belarusian books in Cyrillic, but actively sought to encourage publication of more titles in the Latin script. (I wonder then if the German plan was to replace Cyrillic with the Latin script eventually?) This seems to have stood in opposition to Soviet Belarus, where (once again acc. to my circumstantial evidence) Belarusian books were published exclusively in Cyrillic before and after WW II.
    Do you think that my conclusion is correct?

  26. Dear Tomasz,
    It can be assumed that there were a plan like this – Latin script was being actively introduced in elementary schools, seems like there were no Cyrillic textbooks for pupils who went to the first grade during the German occupation.
    But most of the printed production – books, newspapers, magazines – was still Cyrillic.
    What was banned is official use of Russian and Polish – you can find appropriate directives in Amtsblätter in Skaryna Library.

  27. Tomasz Kamusella says

    Dear Craoltoir ,
    Thank you for the tip. That was my gut feeling, but I had problems to get references. I must go to the Skaryna Library again when I am in London. I guess, you refer to the WWII period? I presume that a similar drive to the imposed use of the Latin script for Belarusian existed in Ober Ost during WW I. By the way of paralel, the Austro-Hungarian authorities actually banned in 1915 the use of Cyrillic for writing Serbo-Croatian within the empire.
    However, I am mystified by your remark that Polish was banned along with Russian in Belarus during WWII. According to my circumstantial evidence, Polish was used as one of co-official languages in Ober Ost, and the German occupation authorities employed this language in Belarus during WWII after the outright ban of Russian. Basically, there were not enough administrators and clerks with the adequate knowledge of Belarusian, esp. in western Belarus, which had belonged to Poland before 1939.

  28. Noetica: monolingual vs. unilingual:
    My impression is that monolingual is more likely to be used in reference to persons and unilingual for things, for instance Most Americans are monolingual in English but The Webster dictionary is unilingual.
    As for other prefixes to -lingual, apart from bi- and tri- the others seem speculative, so X is trilingual but Y speaks 4, 5, etc languages (in which case Y is plurilingual rather than any of the other proposed terms – but Y might be living in a multilingual society).

  29. Marie-Lucie:
    That does seem right for monolingual and unilingual, doesn’t it? But for what it’s worth OED is innocent of the distinction, having for unilingual only this:

    1. Pertaining to one language only; knowing or employing only one language. Hence, in recent use, unilingualism.

    And this:

    2. absol. as n. = monoglot n. rare.

    The entry for monolingual does not link to unilingual, and the entry for unilingual has monolingual in a citation only.
    As for other prefixes to -lingual, apart from bi- and tri- the others seem speculative,…
    Mostly, I suppose. But I checked them by Google and they are found from “respectable” writers. Interesting about plurilingual. Again OED is not abreast of contemporary usage, it seems, having this in the entry for the prefix pluri-:

    pluri’lingual a. and n. = multilingual a. and n., polyglot a. and n.; hence pluri’lingualism.

    (One day we can talk about areal studies of the definite article and the like. Time is the enemy!)

  30. but The Webster dictionary is unilingual.
    I don’t think I’ve ever seen this usage; it’s certainly not standard. Googling gives 20,000 hits for {dictionary, unilingual} versus 500,000 for {dictionary, monolingual}.

  31. Dear Tomash,
    I seem to agree with you except for the clause about Germans “actively [seeking] to encourage publication of more titles in the Latin script”. Still no evidence of such intentions.

  32. David Marjanović says

    Besides, it seems strange why Franciscans, being Roman Catholics, should try to convert anybody into Greek Catholicism, rather than Roman.

    Because the only difference is in rite. The creed is completely identical. So they left people all their culture and merely told them to accept the primacy of the Pope and the word filioque.
    Thanks for the link!

    I used to make snide remarks about Belarusian myself.

    I think that’s a rather common reaction of people more used to an Abstandsprache criterion. Polish, Czech, and Slovak are all mutually intelligible most of the time. I can have a conversation with a Tyrolean when each speaks his own dialect, but that’s it. When the Swiss speak, I understand about half, and then I’m cheating (knowing to a large extent what sound correspondences to expect, and knowing Standard German which has vocabulary overlapping those of both dialects). I don’t know how far into Germany I’d understand people if (an entirely speculative scenario) I didn’t know Standard German… maybe halfway to the North Sea.

  33. Tomasz Kamusella says

    Dear Miram,
    Thank you for the comment. Thanks to your tip about the Turonak’s book and using my bookshelf, I did a bit of calculations.
    Between 1921 and 1939, In Poland 120 (26%) Belarusian-language books were published in the Latin script and 346 (74%) in Cyrillic. Between 1941 and 1944, in occupied Belarus, the Germans published 99 (85%) Belarusian-language books in Cyrillic and 18 (15%) in the Latin script. That is granted that the percentage of Latin-script books was lower during WWII, but, it should be remembered that the Germans produced the books for entire Belarus, including Soviet Belarus, where, during the interwar period, as far as I know, no Latin-script Belarusian books were published at all. Crucially, the Germans published school textbooks for Belarusian schools (revived after their closure in Poland and gradual Russification in Soviet Belarus) in Latin characters.
    I wonder whether these facts could be interpreted that the German occupation administration encouraged the use of the Latin script for writing Belarusian? What do you think?

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