Svoja.org » Artykuły » A Creative Potential Unclaimed or The Trilingual Belarusians of Podlachia*
A Creative Potential Unclaimed or The Trilingual Belarusians of Podlachia*
Natisnuti, kob pobôlšyti...
Jan Maksymiuk
2005
Annus Albaruthenicus

The 2002 Census in Poland — Four Important Conclusions

In mid-2002 Poland held a national census. For the first time in the country's post-war history, a question about the ethnicity (narodowość in Polish) of respondents was included. On a nationwide scale, Belarusian ethnicity was declared by 48,700 people, the overwhelming majority of which (46,400) reside in the country's northeastern Podlasie province (Podlachia) and represent 95 percent of Poland's Belarusians. The number of „officially attested” Belarusians in Poland is significantly lower than the optimistic estimates (150,000-250,000) voiced in various public forums of the 1980's and 1990's by activists of Poland's Belarusian minority, but notably higher than the most pessimistic figures (10,000-20,000) made by the very same activists privately, in their own minority circles. Regardless of all these „statistical discrepancies” however, when we compare the situation of Polish Belarusians with other ethnic and linguistic minorities in Europe, we can see that Poland's Belarusians live a normal „minority life” and continue to resist — sometimes successfully, sometimes not — their assimilation by the Polish majority. One thing is clear: Poland's Belarusians, even if their actual number is below 50,000, are showing no signs of the ethnic "death throes” or "degeneration” that might presage a descent into oblivion. This is the first essential conclusion of the 2002 census.

An analysis of the census broken down by gminas (Poland's basic administrative units) in Podlachia, elicits the following important information: 37,000 Belarusians (nearly 80 percent of their total number in the province) belong to a subgroup known as Padlashy (Podlachians), who live in the center and south of the province. In their everyday life, Podlachians use a language that is markedly different from the one used by Litsviny (Litsvins), the subgroup of Belarusians living in the northern part of the province. While the latter speak a form of literary Belarusian (or its dialectical variants), the Podlachians’ language — in terms of phonetics and morphology — is more akin to Ukrainian. Despite this, and the aggressive „ukrainianization” efforts of the province's Union of Ukrainians, language has not become a decisive factor in the Podlachians’ ethnic self-determination. The unimpressive results of a 20-year ukrainianization campaign in Podlachia (i.e. only 1,400 people, or 2.8 percent of Podlachia's Belarusians declared Ukrainian ethnicity in the census) — allows us to assert that efforts at ukrainianization will have no significant influence on the further development of Belarusian ethnic consciousness in the Bialystok region. This is the second essential conclusion from the 2002 census.

An analysis of the dynamics of the „polonization” of Belarusians in Podlachia (a study of the Belarusian-Orthodox community was made by communist authorities in 1945-46) unambiguously shows that Litsvins are assimilated by the Polish ethnic milieu two to three times faster than Podlachians. This observation leads us to a third conclusion drawn from the 2002 Polish census: The future of the Belarusian minority in Poland will be increasingly shaped by its Podlachian demographic component — territorially centered in a quadrilateral with vertices in Zabludow in the north, Hajnowka in the east, Bielsk in the west, and Czeremcha in the south. It is perhaps not accidental that in the middle of this quadrilateral we have the Czyze gmina, where 82 percent of inhabitants claim Belarusian ethnicity (i.e. the highest ratio of registered Belarusians among all the gminas in Podlachia). So, while one may assert that the „brain” of the Belarusian ethnos in Podlasie province lies in the provincial capital of Bialystok — Litsvins’ territory, its vascular, respiratory, and motor systems are undoubtedly found between the Narew and Bug rivers — the habitat of the Podlachians. Thus, preserving the Belarusian ethnic identity of Podlachians in the province's Hajnowka and Bielsk districts is tantamount to ensuring the survival of the Belarusian minority in Poland as a whole.

The overwhelming majority of the province’s Belarusians — Podlachians, speak Polish and their own language, which has so far not been given any generally accepted name...

The fourth conclusion of the 2002 census ensues from a question concerning the language (or languages) that people commonly use at home. Belarusian as a language of domestic communication was declared by 39,900 people in Podlasie province, or 82 percent of the total number of Belarusians in the province. This means that approximately 30,000 Belarusians belonging to the Podlachian subgroup officially identified Belarusian as their domestic language. From a political or an emotional point of view, this was a fully justifiable identification. However, linguists and some others may have some justifiable arguments against such an identification, as well. The Belarusians of Podlachia are in fact a trilingual community. Whereas Litsvins speak Polish and/or Belarusian (or its dialectal variants) at home, the overwhelming majority of the province’s Belarusians — Podlachians, speak Polish and their own language, which has so far not been given any generally accepted name. This actual trilingualism of Belarusians of the Podlachia province was not registered by the 2002 census — or at least no such data has been made public.

The remainder of this text will focus on the third language used by Polish Belarusians of the Podlachian subgroup. We will tentatively refer to it as Svoja mova („one’s own language”) or Svoja for short, because when you ask Podlachians what language they speak at home, the most frequent answer is: We speak our own language (po-našomu or po-svojomu)**.

The Purpose of This Text

The primary purpose of this text is to publicize a recent initiative to create a written, literary variant (or variants) of Svoja, and introduce it to wider use. It is also an appeal to all those who see the need for such a literary variant to join in the attempt to create one. This text substantiates, from a sociological and cultural point of view, the need for a literary standard of Svoja, and maps out tasks and priorities in order to achieve it.

Svoja Exists Almost Exclusively as a Spoken Language

So far, nobody in the Belarusian minority in Poland has analyzed why Svoja — the mother tongue of the overwhelming majority of Polish Belarusians — has remained in the „rural underground,” being nothing more than an unpromising set of „unwritable” and „unlettered” local dialects, doomed to perish in the period of urbanization and rapid development of the global communication sphere. We do not aspire in this text to identify all or even the main reasons for such a situation — but we will try to make some suppositions.

Half a century ago, when the Belarusian minority in Poland set up the Belarusian Social and Cultural Association (BHKT) under circumstances of the post-Stalin political thaw, there could be no discussion of the trilingual idiosyncrasy of Belarusians in the Bialystok region. The erstwhile authorities would not have allowed Podlachians to promote their own language, even if there had been a distinct demand from their side.

The „ukrainianization syndrome” was successful in paralyzing „strategic thinking” in the Belarusian movement to such a degree that nobody raised the issue of Svoja in a public forum for the next 20 years...

The political and psychological situation of Polish Belarusians changed in the early 1980s, when students of Belarusian ethnic origin in Poland organized the Belarusian Association of Students (BAS), led primarily by activists from the Podlachian group. This period provided a good opportunity to „rehabilitate” Svoja and elevate its status to that of another written language of Polish Belarusians and, in so doing, overcome the psychological alienation of a large number of Belarusian students who perceived the Belarusian literary language as something strange or not completely their own. It proved impossible, however, to implement such a hypothetical plan with regard to Svoja due to the ukrainianization campaign undertaken by a group of BAS activists who wanted to redefine their identity as Ukrainian and split the dynamic movement of young Belarusians from within. Attempts to disorganize the movement of Belarusian students in Poland continued for some two or three years in the first half of the 1980s, until the BAS eventually expelled the Ukrainophile activists within its ranks and broke all social contacts with them. Still, the „ukrainianization syndrome” was successful in paralyzing „strategic thinking” in the Belarusian movement to such a degree that nobody raised the issue of Svoja in a public forum for the next 20 years. It was apparently believed that any initiative in this direction would only contribute to the ukrainianization of the Podlachians. As the 2002 census proved, such an apprehension was quite exaggerated, if not altogether groundless.

There had however been some attempts to publish texts in Svoja in Podlachia in the past century, even if they were on a statistically insignificant scale. In the 1970s, for example, the Belarusian-language weekly „Niva” in Bialystok published a number of poems in Svoja by Zosia (Zoja) Sačko. Subsequently, the Belarusian Literary Association „Biełavieža” published three of Sačko’s books of poems in Svoja: Pošuki (1982), Nad dniom pochilana (1991), Šče odna vesna (1995). Furthermore, in 1981, „Niva” published a long poem in Svoja by Ira Borovik, Čas, kotory umiraje and, in 2002, „Biełavieža” published a book of Svoja poems by Viktar Stachvijuk, Bahrovy tiêń. Although not abundant in number, the literary accomplishments of Sačko, Borovik, and Stachvijuk clearly stand out in comparison with other authors of the Bialystok region, rendering direct evidence of the potentially large creative capabilities of the Podlachian community in their mother tongue. (It might also be noted that Podlachians have copious proof of their creativity in the Belarusian language proper. Such names as Nadzieja Artymovič, Jan Čykvin, and Viktar Šved are the most representative in this context.)

Also noteworthy is the publishing initiative of Doroteusz Fionik from Bielsk, who has published the periodical „Bielski Hostineć” for the past seven years. „Bielski Hostineć” publishes texts in three languages — Polish, Belarusian, and Svoja — and includes, among other materials, reminiscences of Bielsk district residents written in Svoja. Since the periodical has no literary ambitions, it does not raise the issue of a literary standard for Svoja.

What Can and Must Be Done for Svoja

By giving Svoja the status of a „public” language in the printed and electronic media available to the Belarusian minority in Poland, we will considerably slow down their assimilation...

Belarusians of Podlachia must realize that if the Podlachians do lose their own language, then the Belarusian ethnic minority in Poland will have been completely assimilated by Poles. While it is possible that the assimilation of an ethnic community as small as the Belarusians in the Podlachia province is historically unavoidable, one shouldn’t be indifferent to such a denouement — were it to come 50 or 100 years from now. By giving Svoja the status of a „public” language in the printed and electronic media available to the Belarusian minority in Poland, we will considerably slow down their assimilation. Simultaneously, we can open unforeseen possibilities of artistic self-fulfillment for those potential authors among the Podlachians who feel themselves equally „uncomfortable” in the Belarusian and Polish languages. Furthermore, we can relieve Podlachians of the stigma of linguistic „inferiority” or „second-rateness” — particularly in relation to their Litsvinian compatriots, who were historically lucky to have developed a full-fledged literary language.

In theory, the simplest way to begin the „rehabilitation” of Svoja is to start using it in the Belarusian-language media, where Podlachians account for no less than 50 percent of the workforce (at such publications as „Niva,” „Czasopis,” and „Pravincyja,” and at the Belarusian desks of Polish Radio and Television in Bialystok). Print media should begin publishing reader letters and editorials in Svoja, and stimulate and encourage original literary pieces written in the language. Radio and television journalists in Bialystok should more frequently air interviews conducted in Svoja with local residents.

At present, Belarusian-language journalists in Podlachia shouldn’t be particularly concerned about the standardization of Svoja. It is well known that the central and southern Podlachia is home to a mosaic of local dialects that, hypothetically, can, but do not have to, serve as the basis for developing a single standard variant of the language, or perhaps even several variants. During the first stage in this process, the principal task should be to examine „public supply and demand” regarding the transition of Svoja to written-language status. It is essential to create a „corps of texts” — as extensive as possible — in Svoja local dialects, which could later be used as the basis for future Svoja grammatical handbooks and dictionaries.

The dialects of Svoja can be classified and identified according to different phonetic and morphological features. Belarusian linguist Khvedar Klimchuk (an expert in East Slavonic dialects of Podlachia in particular, and of the Western Palesse region of the Republic of Belarus in general), proposed a very elegant classification in this regard. According to Klimchuk, Svoja dialects in Podlachia can be divided into three groups, depending on how the consonants d and t behave before the etymologic e and i. Thus, in the first group of Svoja local dialects we have deń, teper, choditi (choďiťi); in the second — deń, teper, chodyty; in the third — deń, teper, chodzici.

From a purely theoretical point of view, we can assume that on the path toward a single, unified literary variant of Svoja, it will be necessary to pass through an interim stage, in which three literary subvariants may be standardized to reflect the above-mentioned three groups of local dialects...

From a purely theoretical point of view, we can assume that on the path toward a single, unified literary variant of Svoja, it will be necessary to pass through an interim stage, in which three literary subvariants may be standardized to reflect the above-mentioned three groups of local dialects. The passage through such a transitional stage is the rule rather than the exception for even lesser known „micro languages.” In Switzerland, for example, some 60,000 people declare the Swiss Rheto-Romansh language (Rumantsch) as their native tongue. Rumantsch exists in five dialectal variants, each with its own normalized written form — and as a supra-regional Rheto-Romansh language (Rumantsch grischun), which was artificially synthesized in 1982 on the basis of the five aforementioned dialects. All these tongues in general and each of them in particular are referred to by the same name — Rumantsch. On the other hand, Rusyns (better known in Poland as „Lemkos”), who have been trying to create a Rusyn language for the past 15 years, have not yet managed to agree on a single supra-regional variant. They continue to work simultaneously on four varieties characteristic of the regions of their residence — in Poland, Slovakia, Ukraine, and Serbia.

„Pravincyja” Magazine’s Promotion of Svoja

Bialystok’s literary journal „Pravincyja,” a trailblazer and champion in the fight to bring life to yet another East Slavonic literary language — Svoja, will soon publish translations of contemporary Danish and Swiss authors into Svoja. In so doing, „Pravincyja” will attempt to expand the vocabulary and syntax of Svoja so that it might not only serve the communication requirements of Belarusians in the Bialystok region, but also satisfy their aesthetic needs as readers and authors***.

Since the circle of active users of Cyrillic script among Belarusians in Podlachia is unavoidably shrinking, the editors of „Pravincyja” have adapted the Latin alphabet to reproduce the sounds of Svoja in written form. From a purely practical point of view, using Latin letters for writing in Svoja seems to be much more promising than adapting the Cyrillic alphabet for this purpose. „Pravincyja” editors have made it clear, however, that they will not require a change in script from those authors who supply Svoja texts written in the „traditional” Cyrillic form.

*This is a re-edited version (with two footnotes added) of the article that originally appeared in „Annus Albaruthenicus”(Poland) in 2005.
**This website, while using the term Svoja sporadically, promotes the term Podlachian as the name for the standardized version of this language.
***The magazine „Pravincyja” folded somewhere in 2004, without actually assuming the role of a trailblazer and champion in the promotion of Svoja.