Old Belarusian language

Old Belarusian language
Old Belarusian
Spoken in Grand Duchy of Lithuania, Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, part of the Grand Duchy of Moscow (probably)
Era developed into Belarusian
Language family
Language codes
ISO 639-3
Linguist List orv-olr (Old Ruthenian)

Old Belarusian was a historic East Slavic language, written and spoken at least in the 14th–17th century, and reported spoken as late as the very beginning of the 19th century,[2] in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and later in the East Slavic territories of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, probably in the part of Grand Duchy of Moscow.[3]

The modern Belarusian language was redeveloped on the base of the vernacular spoken remnants of the Old Belarusian, surviving on the ethnic Belarusian lands in the 19th century.[citation needed]

The denotation "Old Belarusian" for this entity is of academic origin and was introduced by Karskiy in 1893,[4] and was based on its genetical identity with the vernacular Belarusian, as it existed in the 19th century. No reliably known native contemporary name for the language is known, and there were many different denotations used by contemporaries, some of them ambiguously (see nomenclature).

In the Western linguistics nomenclature, the Old Belarusian, together with Old Ukrainian, is regarded as a part of a single umbrella entity "Ruthenian language"[5] which denotes the literary language of all of the East Slavic (and not distinctly Old Church Slavonic) texts coming from the Grand Duchy and Commonwealth in 14th—18th century (see formation).



After the breakup of Proto-Slavic about the half of the 1st millennium and after the subsequent development of the East Slavic tribes' dialects, the major event in their post-10th century development was the Baptism and the subsequent establishment of the Old Church Slavonic as the chancellery, clerical and literary language.

Subsequently, two principal processes were taking place in these lands. One was the continued development of the clerical literature in the Old Church Slavonic. Another was the evolution of the vernacular (including office and business) literacy in Cyrillic script.

Common East Slavic

Traditionally, the existence of Old East Slavic (formerly, Ancient Russian or Proto-Russian, also Common East Slavic[6]) vernacular literary language, common for all East Slavs in c.10th—14th centuries, is postulated,[7] after the breakup of which in c.14th century three East Slavic literary languages emerged, Old Belarusian, Old Ukrainian and Old Russian.

Some authors, especially in the Russian and later Soviet scientific schools, extend the concept of the Old East Slavic to the existence of the spoken language, common for all East Slavs, beginning to form in the 8th—9th centuries[8] and surviving as a sufficiently uniform entity to as far as the 13th century.[9]

Also, the terms "Ancient Russian" (Russian: древнерусский) as synonym of Old East Slavic and "Old Russian" (Russian: старорусский) as product of breakup of Old East Slavic, were virtually merged by the Russian scholars after the publishing of the "Vocabulary of Russian language in 11th—17th centuries" ("Russian: Словарь русского языка 11—17 вв."; supervised by the USSR academic S. G. Barkhudarov).[10]

Other authors,[11] while supporting the concept of pre-14th century Old East Slavic, introduce the concept of Old East Slavic literary language breaking up in 14th century into two parts, Ruthenian and Old Russian, with East Slavic spoken languages on the Belarusian and Ukrainian lands existing as a multitude of dialects until the end 18th — 19th centuries.

No Common East Slavic

However, there exists a school of thought rejecting the concept of spoken Common East Slavic stage, and, by implication, the concept of existence of common literary language, too.[12][13]

These authors postulate, when referring to the concept of West, East and South Slavic proto-languages in general, that "...there's no scientific need to introduce that kind of concept"[14] and consider spoken Belarusian in the Middle Ages to be developed directly from dialects of broken up Proto-Slavic. They point out that phonological and morphological specifics, which are common for East Slavic, and are absent from other Slavic languages, are too few, and even possibly come directly from Proto-Slavic. Also they point out that modern Belarusian contains many Proto-Slavic features absent in Russian and Ukrainian.[15]


The emergence of the Old Belarusian literary language as a separate linguistic entity and beginning of its documented development as such, are dated back to the 14th century, with further development taking place in 15th, and the "pinnacle of the development" reached in 16th century.[16] In the 2nd half 16th — 1st half 17th century, several attempts of codification of the Old Belarusian language were made. The most notable of them were grammar and elementary reading by Ivan Fyodorov (1574, 1578), grammar by Lavrentiy Zizaniy (1596) and grammar by Ivan Uzhevich[17] (1645).[18]

However, the characteristically Belarusian phonological influences are noted in local Old Church Slavonic texts dating back to mid. 11th century,[19] and the earliest known literacy artifact, showing the distinctive features of the Old Belarusian language, is the Charters of Smolensk (Belarusian: «Смаленскія граматы»), dating back to 1229.[20]

The formation of the Old Belarusian took effect under the powerful influence of the Old Church Slavonic literary tradition, and was based on the local East Slavonic dialects ("Western branch of Middle Russian dialects", as put by Karskiy), initially chiefly on those of the Polatsk—Smolensk region, with center of influence subsequently moving westwards, to the Middle Belarusian dialects, then to the dialects of Vilnia (Vilnius) region.[21]

While the literary language had gradually become, to an extent, artificial, still the vernacular language had been preserving the relative purity, with the literary language permanently drawing upon the vernacular.[22]

The major factor in the Old Belarusian development after the end 14th century was the Polonization, developing in the Grand Duchy lands, and spreading from the upper toward the middle classes, and taking strong hold in the mid. 15th century, already.[23] The Latin and German influences were also prominent in the vocabulary of the literary language. In the 1st half 17th century, certain Ukrainian influence was noticed after the Polonisation successes in Belarusian lands, and center of Orthodox printing moving to Kiev in the early 17th century

The phonology and morphology of the Old Belarusian reached stabilisation in the 16th century, including such features, which were both absent before and characteristic to the Belarusian. Among the most prominent phonological were "akanye", developed c. 14th century, and "shortening of u", developed c. early 13th century. The morphology developed sporadic Old Belarusian particularities in the 14th – 15th cent already.[24]

The syntax and lexics continued changing after the 16th century, with the literary language being strongly influenced by the Polish language, especially in the 16th–17th centuries. It is considered that the vernacular language was relatively free in that aspect, and differed in its syntax and, especially, in its lexicon.[22]


The Western linguistics nomenclature and historiographies, esp. Lithuanian and Polish, routinely refer to the Old Belarusian as a part of a collective entity named Ruthenian or Old Ruthenian. Historically, there existed many names for the Old Belarusian, some of them ambiguous:

Names both in contemporary (14th—18th century) and modern (post-18th century) use
  • Belarusian (language) — rarely in contemporary Muscovy. Also Kryzhanich. The denotation Belarusian (language) (Russian: белорусский (язык)) when referring both to the 19th century language and to the Medieval language had been used in works of the 19th century Russian researchers Buslayev, Ogonovskiy, Zhitetskiy, Sobolevskiy, Nedeshev, Vladimirov and had served as a basis for the Karskiy's denotation.
Names in modern use
  • (Old) West Russian, language or dialect (Russian: (Древний) западнорусский язык, Russian: (Древнее) западнорусское наречие) — chiefly by the supporters of the concept of the Proto-Russian phase, esp. since the end of the 19th century, e.g., by Karskiy, Shakhmatov.
  • Lithuanian-Russian (Russian: литовско-русский) — by 19 century Russian researchers Keppen, archbishop Filaret, Sakharov, Karatayev.
  • Lithuanian-Slavonic (Russian: литово-славянский) — by 19 century Russian researcher Baranovskiy.[25]
  • Russian-Polish or even Polish dialect — Shtritter, Polish researcher Samuel Bogumił Linde, Polish writer Wisniewski. Notably, the definition had been used even when referencing to Skaryna's translation of Bible.
Names in contemporary use
  • Ruthenian (Old Belarusian: руски езыкъ) — by the contemporaries, but, generally, not in contemporary Muscovy. This is an ambiguous term, which may pertain either to Old Belarusian, or to Old Ukrainian, and even to local Old Church Slavonic text.
    • Simple Ruthenian or simple talk (Old Belarusian: простый руский (язык) or простая молва) — variant of the preceding, e.g., by publisher Grigoriy Khodkevich (16th century)
  • Lithuanian (Russian: Литовский язык) — possibly, exclusive reference to it in the contemporary Muscovy. Also by Zizaniy (end 16th century), Pamva Berinda (1653).

Rise and decline

In the 14th century, the emerging Old Belarusian language had already been enjoying the wide-scale ubiquity of use in the GDL,[26] being spoken and written from the lower classes to the nobility, non-Slavonic included, to the Grand Dukes of Lithuania themselves, from the vernacular to the state documents.[27]

In the 15th—16th century, and partially in the 17th century, the Old Belarusian in the GDL had been the prevalent language of the state, diplomatic, business and private letters, the documents of the town, land, castle offices, town halls, magistrates, magdeburgies, the inventories and revisions of the estates, the indexes of the armed forces, even in the ethnic Lithuanian lands of the GDL.[28] The major part of the documents of the Lithuanian Metrica of the 15th – 16th century had been composed in Old Belarusian (see also: Denomination of office language, Languages of Lithuanian Metrica). The Royal Chancelleries of Krakow and Warsaw had been composing the official correspondence to the GDL in Old Belarusian.[20] The Codes of Law of the GDL had been written in the Old Belarusian.

The Old Belarusian became the 3rd Slavonic language, after the Czech and Polish, in which the printing had begun. The first book in Old Belarusian had been printed by Skaryna in Prague (1517). Later in the 16th century, the center of the printing activity done in the Old Belarusian had moved to the Vilnia.

The Old Belarusian had been the language of the belletrists, publicists, memoirists, religious polemics, hamiletics, angiography, etc. The Old Belarusian had seen the translations of the Western knight novels, historical chronicles and apocryphal works.[28]

After the political changes happening during the end 14th—15th century, the general decline of the Old Belarusian culture in the GDL in favour of Polish had been progressing throughout the 16th and 17th century, despite being decried and lamented by various publicists, like, e.g., by Tyapinski in the foreword to his «Scriptures» (1570) The events had taken the especially unfavourable turn in the 1570s, with the beginning and progressing of the Counter-Reformation in Commonwealth, as the Orthodox and Protestants had constituted the major part of the Old Belarusian language userbase. The Commonwealth Inquisition’s «Index of Books Forbidden» (issued since 1603) had included many of the Old Belarusian and Lithuanian publications.[29]

The 16th—17th century political opposition to the ongoing Polonisation manifested itself, e.g., in the article in the 1566 Code of Law (Statute), declaring the Old Belarusian.[30] as the only allowed language of the office in the GDL. The article had been maintained in the 1588 edition, and even in Statute's re-publication in Polish language (1614). See also: Golden age of Belarusian history.

As more and more of the upper and, following them, middle classes had been embracing the Polonisation, the effective usage of the Old Belarusian had been dwindling. By the middle of the 17th century, the only significant amount of printing in the Old Belarusian was done by Orthodox church. However, even the language of the Orthodox-written texts, in a pursuit of «attractiveness» had been by then heavily infested with Polonisms, diverting considerably not only from the vernacular language, but from the earlier Old Belarusian literary tradition as well. Notably, since 1626 all of the anti-Greek-Catholic Orthodox polemic had been published completely in Polish language.

By the 2nd quarter 17th century, the Old Belarusian (literary) language had effectively incorporated the multitude of the Polish language’s elements, and therefore had become highly artificial and partially just unfit for the real live use, losing the connection with its live vernacular foundations. The literary language of the epoch, especially after the transfer of the center of the Orthodox printing to Kiev (c.1610s), could not even be considered truly Old Belarusian anymore.[31]

In 1696, the General Confederation of Estates had decreed the cancellation of the use of the Old Belarusian language in the role of the language of office and court.

While surviving among smaller nobility and urban dwellers even in the beginning of the 19th century, effectively Old Belarusian was relegated to the role of plebes vernacular talk, with almost no printing in it happening, and with only schools using it in education being the schools run by the Basilian order.

In the 19th century, the remnants of Old Belarusian served as the basis for the developing of the Modern Belarusian language.

Clerical literature

The appearance of the Belarusian specifics in the clerical Old Church Slavonic texts dates back to the 15th century, and some authors notice Belarusian phonological specifics in the local Old Church Slavonic texts of the 11th century,[32] with prominent examples of "Chetya" (copied by "cleric's son Byarozka of Navahradak" in 1489), collection of Books of Bible, translated into Old Belarusian from Yiddish in the beginning of the 16th century, Psaltir of the 16th century and others.[33] Skaryna, while retaining the Old Church Slavonic basis in the language of his books, had introduced so much of the Old Belarusian lexics, that the language of his books had diverted considerably from the traditional Old Church Slavonic.[4]

Further steps in the closing of the gap between the language of the religious literature and the vernacular had been attempted by Budny and Tyapinskiy. The publishing of the Scriptures (1580) translated by Tyapinskiy marked the virtual supplanting of the Old Church Slavonic with Old Belarusian in the clerical literature.

Summarily, in the 16th – beginning of the 17th century, the Old Belarusian had, to a great extent, become the language of the liturgical literature printed in the GDL, in place of the Old Church Slavonic.[24]

Office language

Of somewhat separate nature is the question of classification of the office, chancellery language and its variations in Great Duchy of Lithuania (GDL). Generally, there exists a cardinal disagreement among the Slavists studying Medieval East Slavonics, whether to consider Medieval office literacy the manifestation of the appropriate literary language. In the case of Old Belarusian, Karskiy in 1900s (later, F. P. Filin in 1970s, L. M. Shakun in 1960s) had proved the sufficient extent of identity between the Old Belarusian literary language and the language of the office literacy of the GDL. However, later, various researchers (S. Kutrzeba (1914), J. Jakubowski (1912), A. Martel (1938), I. I. Lappo (1936)) had contended the thesis of Karskiy and either played up the Church Slavonic component in the language of the office literacy of the Great Duchy, or just moved the thesis of the office language just being Church Slavonic.

The propagation of such views is generally attributed to the insufficient knowledge of the foreign researchers of the live Belarusian language, overlap of the areals of the Medieval Church Slavonic and Old Belarusian, identical graphical systems, close relations in the grammars and lexics.[34]

The research of Slavist Christian Stang (1935) had distinguished several types of the office language of the Great Duchy:

  • In the 14th and early 15th century, the Southern-Volhynian, Northern-Volhynian, Polatsk-Vitsyebsk-Smalyensk types.
  • By the half 15th century ("King Casimir period" [sic]), the Southern-Belarusian and Northern-Volhynian types, with the Belarusian type prevailing, also token presence of the Southern-Volhynian type.
  • By the beginning of the 16th century, the office language (and language generally) had been reaching its more stabilised and normed, form.
  • By the half 16th century, the office language had been identical with the literary Old Belarusian, and had been closely related with the Belarusian dialects of contemporary Vilnia area, and the Polatsk type merged by then. The Southern types of office language had disappeared completely[34]

The issue of denomination of state, official and business language of Great Duchy of Lithuania remains unresolved by linguists, as of by 2000s. There exist nominations of:

  • "chancellery language of Great Duchy" (by Stang), limited to the chancellery and office documents written down in the Great Duchy, and not pertaining to all Old Belarusian literacy;
  • "simple language" ("prostaya mova", by B. A. Uspenskiy), which may, however, also pertain to the local dialect of some North-West Belarusian talks;
  • "rus'ka mova", which is very unprecise, especially because in overwhelming majority of Belarusian literacy artifacts lexeme "ruskiy" is written with no "soft sign", reflecting the phonological process completed in 12th—13th century Additionally, term "ruskiy" is very ambiguous in its use in literacy artifacts and may also pertain to text which is "East Slavic in general" or "of Orthodox persuasion" or "in Cyrillic script" or, indeed, Old Belarusian. The ambiguity of use of the term is corroborated, in a way, by the existence of the term "simple Russian language" ("prostaya ruskaya mova"[35]);
  • "Old Belarusian literary language", which by 2000s was considered commonly accepted, although hotly contended by some non-Belarusian linguistic schools.[36]

These ambiguities in the literacy artifacts provided for the ongoing disputes concerned with the Belarusian — Ukrainian delimitation of the literacy artifacts of the period, denoted as written in "simple language" ("prostaya mova"), exposed, e.g., in much-quoted[37] work of Ukrainian I. I. Ogiyenko (1935).[36]


  1. ^ The stable native name pertaining to the language in question is not reliably known. The scholar definition "Old Belarusian" was introduced by Karskiy in 1893.
  2. ^ Per [Dovnar-Zapolskiy 1926].
  3. ^ E.g., in Severskaya zemlya, per Stankyevich.
  4. ^ a b [Karskiy 1893].
  5. ^ E.g., by Daniel Buncic in "History of East Slavonic languages" (Schematic in Russian) and "Ruthenian - how many languages? The linguistic norm of Smotryc'kyj, Skaryna and their compatriots" (Abstract in German), "The Ruthenian literary language in Ivan Uževyč’s texts"(Abstract in English).
  6. ^ Term, recently proposed by M. I. Tolstoy.
  7. ^ Cf. works of Karskiy, Shakhmatov, Vowk-Lyevanovich.
  8. ^ Cf. works of Filin, Zhurawski.
  9. ^ Cf. entry on Ukrainian language in Encyclopedia Britannica.
  10. ^ [Budzko 2003] p.166.
  11. ^ E.g., Daniel Buncic.
  12. ^ Cf. works of Il'inskiy, Hujer, Buzuk, Stankyevich.
  13. ^ E.g., [Stankyevich 1927].
  14. ^ Prof. Hujer as cited in [Stankyevich 1930].
  15. ^ Cf. Hujer, [Stankyevich 1930].
  16. ^ Cf. works of Karskiy, Stankyevich, Zhurawski and others.
  17. ^ This grammar is being claimed as represent either Old Belarusian or Old Ukrainian, by Belarusian and Ukrainian philological schools, respectively.
  18. ^ [Yaskyevich 2001].
  19. ^ [Stankyevich 1954] pp.48,49.
  20. ^ a b [Zhurawski 1993].
  21. ^ Not the least because of devastating influence of wars on the Eastern lands of Great Duchy of Lithuania during the 16th century [Stankyevich 1939].
  22. ^ a b [Karskiy 1893, 1903].
  23. ^ [Dovnar 1926] Ch.5 Sec.7.
  24. ^ a b [Karskiy 1903].
  25. ^ Cited in Улащик Н. Введение в белорусско-литовское летописание. — М., 1980.
  26. ^ Some of the notable literary artefacts of the period, per [Zhurawski 1993], were: treaty of Mstislav Davydovich, prince of Smolensk, with Riga ang Goths' Coast (6 documents), charter (letter) of prince Gerden (1264), charters of Izyaslav, prince of Polatsk (c.1265), charters of Yakov, bishop of Polatsk (c.1300), charter of Riga dwellers to Mikhail, prince of Vitsyebsk (c.1300), treaty with Riga (c.1330), charter of Polish king Wladyslaw II Jagiello to prince Skirgaila (1387), translation of the Wislica Statute (1347), translation of the Code of Law of Kazimierz IV (1468).
  27. ^ [Dovnar 1926] Ch.3 Sec.3
  28. ^ a b [Zhurawski 1993]
  29. ^ [Halyenchanka 1988]
  30. ^ The modern interpretation of the word "руски", virtually undisputed in Belarusian linguistics, but attracting contention in historiography. See the problem of denomination of office language of Grand Duchy.
  31. ^ [Karskiy 1903]
  32. ^ [Stankyevich 1954].
  33. ^ [Anichenka, Zhurawski 1988], [Budzko 2003].
  34. ^ a b [Zhurawski 1978].
  35. ^ E.g., in "Spiritual talks of reverend father Makariy", Vilna, 1627, p.9.
  36. ^ a b [Budzko 2003] p.167.
  37. ^ Albeit dubious in its argumentation, per [Budzko 2003] p.167.


  • [Anichenka, Zhurawski 1988] Анічэнка У. В., Жураўскі А. І. Беларуская лексіка ў выданнях Ф. Скарыны // Францыск Скарына і яго час. Энцыклапед. даведнік. – Мн. : БелЭн, 1988. ISBN 5-85700-003-3.
  • [Halyenchanka 1988] Галенчанка Г. Я. Кнігадрукаванне ў Польшчы // Францыск Скарына і яго час. Энцыклапед. даведнік. – Мн. : БелЭн, 1988. ISBN 5-85700-003-3.
  • [Karskiy 1893] Карский Е. Ф. Что такое древнее западнорусское наречие? // «Труды Девятого археологического съезда в Вильне, 1893», под ред. графини Уваровой и С. С. Слуцкого, т. II – М., 1897. – с. 62 – 70. In edition: Карский Е. Ф. Белорусы: 3 т. Т. 1 / Е. Ф. Карский / Уступны артыкул М. Г. Булахава, прадмова да першага тома і каментарыі В. М. Курцовай, А. У. Унучака, І. У. Чаквіна . – Мн. : БелЭн, 2006. – с. 495 – 504. ISBN 985-11-0360-8 (T.1), ISBN 985-11-0359-4.
  • [Karskiy 1903] Карский, Е. Ф. Белорусы: 3 т. Т. 1 / Уступны артыкул М. Г. Булахава, прадмова да першага тома і каментарыі В. М. Курцовай, А. У. Унучака, І. У. Чаквіна. ; [Карскій. Бѣлоруссы. Т. I – Вильна, 1903] – Мн. : БелЭн, 2006. ISBN 985-11-0360-8 (Т.1), ISBN 985-11-0359-4.
  • [Stankyevich 1927] Ян Станкевіч. Беларуская Акадэмічная Конфэрэнцыя 14.—21.XI.1926 і яе працы дзеля рэформы беларускае абэцэды й правапісу (агульны агляд) [1927] // Станкевіч Я. Збор твораў у двух тамах. Т.1. — Мн. : Энцыклапедыкс, 2002. — 552 с. ISBN 985-6599-45-8 (т.1) С.223—235.
  • [Stankyevich 1930] Ян Станкевіч. Месца беларускага языка сярод іншых славянскіх языкоў і час яго ўзьніку [Вільня, 1930] // Станкевіч Я. Збор твораў у двух тамах. Т.1. — Мн. : Энцыклапедыкс, 2002. — 552 с. ISBN 985-6599-45-8 (т.1) С.223—235.
  • [Stankyevich 1939] Ян Станкевіч. Гісторыя беларускага языка [Вільня, 1939] // Станкевіч Я. Збор твораў у двух тамах. Т.1. — Мн. : Энцыклапедыкс, 2002. — 552 с. ISBN 985-6599-45-8 (т.1) С.373—375.
  • [Stankyevich 1954] Доля мовы беларускае (яе вонкашная гісторыя) у розныя пэрыяды гісторыі Беларусі [Нью-Йорк, 1954] // Станкевіч Я. Збор твораў у двух тамах. Т.2. — Мн. : Энцыклапедыкс, 2002. — 586 с. ISBN 985-6599-46-6 (т.2). С.48—60.
  • [StStankyevich 1962] Станкевіч С. Русіфікацыя беларускае мовы ў БССР і супраціў русіфікацыйнаму працэсу [1962] / Прадмова В. Вячоркі. – Мн. : Навука і тэхніка, 1994. ISBN 5-343-01645-6.
  • [Yaskyevich 2001] Яскевіч А. А. Старабеларускія граматыкі: да праблемы агульнафілалагічнай цэласнасці. – 2-е выд. – Мн. : Беларуская навука, 2001. ISBN 985-08-0451-3.
  • [Zhurawski 1978] А. И. Журавский. Деловая письменность в системе старобелорусского литературного языка // Восточнославянское и общее языкознание. – М., 1978. – С. 185-191.
  • [Zhurawski 1993] Жураўскі А. І. Беларуская мова // Энцыклапедыя гісторыі Беларусі. У 6 т. Т. 1. - Мн.: БелЭн, 1993.

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