Belarussians - Orientation

Identification. Belarussians are a majority in the nation of Belarus. Large groups of Belarussians also live in Russia, the Baltic states, Kazakhstan, and the Ukraine. The overall population of Belarussians in the territory of the former USSR was 10,036,000 in 1991. In Poland, the United States, Canada, Argentina, and Australia there are from 300,000 to 2 million people of Belarussian ancestry, according to different estimates. Linguistically the Belarussians belong to the East Slavic Subgroup of the Indo-European Language Family.

Location. The ethnic territory of the Belarussians occupies the westernmost part of the eastern European plain in the basin of the western Dvina River, the middle Dnieper, and the upper Neman. The peculiarities of the landscape were formed under the influence of the anthropogenic ice. Alternation of hills and plains with glacial low grounds, often covered with lakes or swamps, is typical. The peculiarities of Belarus's mild continental climate are determined by the heavy influence of air masses from the Atlantic. The average annual temperature ranges from 7.4° C in the southwest to 4.4° C in the northeast; the amount of rain and snow ranges from 52 to 71 centimeters per year. The period of vegetation is 180 to 208 days. A characteristic feature of the hydrography is the abundance of lakes (over 10,000); the largest is Narotch (79.6 square kilometers). The predominant type of soil is turf-ash (up to 60 percent), and approximately 5 percent is turf-humus with a large percentage of humus. Marshlands make up nearly 20 percent of the territory and swamps 12 percent; over 30 percent of the territory is forest. Among trees, pines are the most common (56.5 percent); broad-leaved ones (oak, hornbeam, maple) constitute almost 5 percent. The fauna are typical of the forest zone of Europe. A peculiar representative of the fauna is the relict animal bison bonasus, whose picture is often used to symbolize Belarus.

Demography. Sharp fluctuations of the population level, caused by social and political events, characterize the demographic history of Belarus. In the middle of the seventeenth century Belarus lost more than 50 percent of its inhabitants, in the beginning of the eighteenth century up to 30 percent, and in the beginning of the nineteenth century 12 to 15 percent. In the period during World War I and the civil war the population was diminished by 18 percent; the Stalin genocide and World War II took the lives of 40 percent of the population. Currently, demographic dynamics are determined by the combination of a low birth rate and a low death rate, with natural growth at 4.9 percent. The average life span is 71.7 years. Urban residents constituted 66 percent of the population in 1991. Besides Belarussians, Russians (1,342,000—13.2 percent), Poles (418,000—4.1 percent), Ukrainians (291,000—2.9 percent) and Jews (112,000—1.1 percent) live in Belarus.

Linguistic Affiliation. Seventy-one percent of Belarussians living in the territory of the former USSR, 64 percent of Poles, and 5.5 percent of Ukrainians residing in the Republic of Belarus consider Belarussian their mother tongue. Many phonetic, grammatical, and lexical peculiarities bring Belarussian close to Russian and, even more, to Ukrainian. Peculiar phonetic features include the affricates dz and is appearing in place of the soft d' and t '; nonsyllabic y in place of the etymological I and v; hard r ; proteic sounds v before labial vowels; a , i before consonant clusters; hardening of labial vowels before j and in word-final position; and lengthening of consonants before j and between vowels. In morphology, features include the alternations between c , k, and x and z, g , and s in words of feminine gender; dropping of the final t in the third-person singular present verb forms; gender distinctions in the declension of numerals; and dropping of the final y in adjectives, participles, and ordinal numerals in the nominative masculine forms. Syntactic peculiarities of Belarussian include preference for descriptive constructions over participial ones. The lexicon is composed of words of Common Slavic and Indo-European origin, Belarussian neologisms, and borrowings from Polish, Latin, German, Lithuanian, and Tatar languages.

Two main dialects of the Belarussian language can be distinguished: the Northeastern (the Polotsk and Vietbsk-Mogilev group of dialects) and the Southwestern (the Grodno-Baranovichi and Slutsk-Mozir dialects). There is also a transitional group of middle Belarussian dialects between them. Especially distinctive is the West Polesk dialect region, the dialects of which come close in many phonetic and grammatic features to the northwestern Ukrainian dialects. The modern literary language has been formed on the basis of the transitional middle Belarussian dialects, the writing system mostly on the basis of the Cyrillic alphabet. In the period between the sixteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries the Polish version of the Latin alphabet was also used.

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