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22 January 2018

Three Alphabets of the Belarusian Language

The written culture of Belarus is over 11 centuries old. Many of us correctly associate the Belarusian language with the Cyrillic alphabet. However, many texts, in both Old Belarusian and the modern literary language (1850s onwards) were originally written and published in Latin characters. The existence of these two graphic systems in the Belarusian written tradition reflects the rich and complex cultural influences the country experienced at different periods. Many people may be surprised to learn that the Arabic alphabet was also used for writing in Belarusian. For that we should be grateful to the Tatars of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.

For centuries, Cyrillic script (kirylica) was the most commonly used graphic system of the Old Belarusian language both for religious and secular literature. The oldest Belarusian book known to us is the Turaŭ [Turov] Gospel. Its only fragment, consisting of ten sheets, was discovered in 1865 in Turaŭ, a town in the south of contemporary Belarus. It is preserved in the Library of the Lithuanian Academy of Sciences  in Vilnius. The manuscript is written in the Church Slavonic language, in uncial script (ustav) - the oldest type of Cyrillic writing.

Starting from the 14th century, a more economical half-uncial script was widely used in East Slavonic manuscripts. When the first Belarusian printer, Francysk Skaryna, established his press in the early 16th century, he chose a font based on handwritten half-uncial Cyrillic script.

All three versions (1529, 1566 and 1588) of the Statutes of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania were written in Cyrillic too. There is no academic consensus regarding their language. Most Belarusian scholars call it Old Belarusian, but others refer to it as Ruthenian or Chancery Slavonic. In any case, the texts of the Statutes became important precursors of the modern Belarusian language. Unlike the first two Statutes, the version of 1588 was printed; a Cyrillic font imitating an italic script (skoropis) of that time was used. This script was used for civil publications, while religious books continued to be printed in a more elaborate half-uncial script.

BelarusianAlphabetsStatute1588(2)
Title-page of the facsimile edition of the Statute of 1588 in : Statuty Velykoho Kniazivstva Lytovs'koho (Odessa, 2002-2004), Vol. 3, book 1,  ZF.9.a.951

The organic development of the Cyrillic form of the Belarusian language was interrupted by the increased use of the Polish language in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania in the 17th-18th centuries. Polish was replaced by Russian in official use after the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and Kingdom of Poland were partitioned by their stronger neighbours at the end of the 18th century.

A civil script, grazhdanka, developed for the Russian alphabet under Tsar Peter the Great’s supervision, was adopted by newspaper and book publishers after publishing in Belarusian became legal in the Russian Empire at the beginning of the 20th century. After a short period of experimentation, the Belarusian alphabet settled into its current form. It is very close to the Russian and Ukrainian alphabets, but has its own particularities, e.g. the letter ў (ŭ) which recently acquired a mascot status for the whole Belarusian language.

BelarusianAlphabetsПомнік_літары__Ў_

A monument celebrating the character in Polack, the oldest Belarusian city and the birthplace of the first Belarusian printer, Francysk Skaryna. (Photo by Pasacern7 CC BY-SA 4.0  from Wikimedia Commons)

The Latin script (lacinka) was used widely in Belarus for writing in Latin and Polish. From the 16th century, we also have examples of Belarusian texts, usually written in Latin script using the Polish alphabet.

19th-century publications in Belarusian are dominated by lacinka: the folklorist Jan Čačot, the author Jan Barščeŭski, the poet and publisher Alexander Rypinski, the first major Belarusian playwright Vincent Dunin-Marcinkievič, and the first major national poet, Francišak Bahuševič – all wrote and published their works in the Latin script. In 1862-63, the first – illegal then – Belarusian newspaper, Mužyckaja praŭda, was published by Kastuś Kalinoŭski, also using Latin script.

BelarusianAlphabetsRypinskiTitlepageCover of Alexander Rypinski, Niaczyścik, Ballada Białoruska ... Wydanie trzecie Akcentowane ([Tottenham, 1856?]). 11585.a.56.(7)


BelarusianAlphabetsDudka Cover of the facsimile edition of Frantsishak Bahushėvich, Dudka białaruskaja (Minsk, 1990). YA.1999.a.4633

The earliest Belarusian newspapers and books published legally under the Russian Empire used both Cyrillic and Latin scripts, which they referred to as “Russian and Polish characters”. Cyrillic was used to address the Orthodox Christian population and the Latin alphabet – for Roman Catholics. The Naša Niva weekly, the main voice of the Belarusian national revival, dropped its lacinka version for the kirylica one due to costs.

BelarusianAlphabetsNashaNivaPage from a facsimile edition of Nasha Niva (Minsk, 1992). ZA.9.d.379

The Latin script continued to be widely used in the western part of Belarus, which from 1919-1939 was under Polish rule. Here, the outstanding linguist Branislaŭ Taraškievič proposed a version of the Belarusian Latin alphabet which broke away from the earlier conventions; for example, instead of digraphs common in Polish (cz, sz), letters with diacritics (č, š) were introduced. This version was quickly and widely adopted by publishers in western Belarus.

In Soviet Belarus, the possibility of adopting the Latin script was discussed only once, during the Academic Conference for Reform of the Belarusian Grammar and Alphabet in 1926. The conference agreed that such a change would be the best solution, but premature at that time. Three years later, the Bolsheviks described such views as sabotage and tearing Belarusian culture away from that of Russia. Mass purges of the Belarusian intelligentsia followed soon after.

A slightly modified version of Branislaŭ Taraškievič’s lacinka has recently been adopted by the Belarusian government for transliterating Belarusian geographic names into Latin script and recommended for use by the United Nations.

From the 14th century, Tatars from Crimea, the Volga region and the Caucasus settled in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania – some were invited to join the Duchy’s army, while others were refugees or prisoners of war. Many of their settlements survived until very recently in contemporary Belarus, and even now the small town of Iŭje is primarily known for its Tatar community. In literature, they are referred to as Lipka Tatars.

 The Tatars adopted the vernaculars of the peoples they lived among, and used them in their own manuscripts – translations of and commentaries on the Quran, prayer books and books of religious instruction. Belarusian dialects predominate in Lipka Tatar manuscripts, particularly in the oldest known to us, dating from the 17th-18th centuries. The Tatars preserved the Arabic script for writing and recorded phonetics of the language they – and people among whom they lived – spoke. These manuscripts are an important source about the development of the Belarusian language: many characteristics of the contemporary Belarusian language can be seen in Lipka Tatar writings from centuries ago.

Ihar Ivanou, Head of Learning Resources, QA Higher Education, London.

References / Further reading:

Peter J. Mayo, ‘The Alphabet and Orthography of Byelorussian in the 20th Century’, The Journal of Byelorussian Studies, 4/1 (1977), pp. 28-47. ZC.9.a.9127 .

George Meredith Owens/Alexander Nadson, ‘The Byelorussian Tartars and their Writings’, The Journal of Byelorussian Studies, 2/2 (1970), pp. 141-176.

Paul Wexler, ‘Jewish, Tatar and Karaite Communal Dialects and their Importance for Byelorussian Historical Linguistics’, The Journal of Byelorussian Studies, 3/1 (1973), pp. 41-54.

Shirin Akiner, ‘The Vocabulary of a Byelorussian Tatar Kitab in the British Museum’, The Journal of Byelorussian Studies, 3/1 (1973), pp. 55-84.

Shirin Akiner, Religious language of a Belarusian Tatar Kitab: a cultural monument of Islam in Europe (Wiesbaden, 2009). EDM.2009.a.41

Barys Sachanka, Belaruskaia mova: ėntsyklapedyia (Minsk, 1994). YA.1999.b.2123

A. Susha, ‘Turauskae Evanhelle – samaia starazhytnaia kniha Belarusi’, Belaruski histarychny chasopis, no. 8 (2015), pp. 22–32. ZF.9.b.69

 

19 January 2018

Mapping the Christmas Flood of 1717

This Christmas saw some pretty wet and windy weather, both in the UK and across the North Sea in the Netherlands, where I spent my Christmas holidays. Foul it may have been, but it was nothing compared to the storm that battered vast swathes of the Northern Netherlands, Northern Germany and Denmark for four days over Christmas in 1717. 

I must say, that I, like most of my fellow Dutchmen had never heard of this storm. Yet, it caused more casualties than the big flood of 1953. It was the biggest natural disaster in 400 years.  The Northern Maritime Museum,  located in two beautiful Medieval buildings in the centre of Groningen, is runnning an exhibition on this ‘Midwinterflood’, in collaboration with the Groninger Archieven. They are organising a conference about the flood on 20 January.

A prominent place in the exhibition is taken up by images of a map, which is by no means ‘only’ a topographical map, but tells the story of the flood in both cartographic and pictorial images and text. It is beautifully made, but that should not come as a surprise, since it was none other than the master cartographer Johann Baptist Homann who engraved it.

PHOTO1MapHomannMaps27095J.B. Homann, Geographische Vorstellung der jämerlichen Wasser-Flutt in Nieder-Teutschland, welche den 25 Dec. Aº 1717 ... einen grossen Theil derer Hertzogth Holstein und Bremen, die Grafsch. Oldenburg, Frislandt, Gröningen und Nort-Holland überschwemet hat. (Nuremberg, [1718?]) Maps * 27095.(6.)

Homann addresses us as ‘reader’ (‘Hochgeneigter Leser!’) instead of ‘viewer’, seemingly emphasising that the map is not just a topographical tool but a text to be read. 

PHOTO2MapHomannHochgLeser

 Detail from Homann’s map, with his address to the reader.

The most striking thing about the map is the green colouring which indicates the extent of the reach of the water. It immediately brings home the scale and seriousness of the disaster. At one point the water reached the gates of the city of Groningen, which lies 34 km inland from the coastal town Pieterburen. Estimates are that 14,000 people lost their lives across the whole of the northern Netherlands, Germany (10,000!) and Denmark. Homann gives a figure of 18,140 for casualties in Germany. Let’s hope that modern science is more accurate than he was.

PHOTO3MapHomanndetBericht

Homann’s account (above) and depiction (below) of the flood

PHOTO4MapHomannGronEmb 

The illustrations within the map, such as the water scoop, sluice and inundated village support the story. The putti holding up the banner with the quote from Ovid’s Metamorphoses are crying, as a sign of the scale of the human tragedy and may-be the feelings of Homann himself. 

PHOTO5MapHomannwaterscoops

Water-scoop and sluice (above) and weeping putti (below) from Homann’s map 

PHOTO7MapHomannPutti

My first thought when I saw this extraordinary map in the exhibition was: “Is there a copy in the British Library?” As soon as I could I went online to check our catalogue and indeed, I found it at the first attempt. I reserved it immediately to be ready for me to study it as soon as I was back at work. I almost could not wait. Fortunately I had the exhibition to keep me entertained. It gives a fascinating account of what happened, how it could happen, the human, material and financial costs and it also highlights the hero of the story Thomas van Seeratt, who had been appointed provincial commissioner only the year before. At first ridiculed when sounding the alarm on the sorry state of the dikes, he was tragically proven right on Christmas night 1717.

Soon after the event pamphlets such as that by Adriaan Spinneker started to appear, telling of horrible ordeals suffered by people trying to save their lives by clinging on to trees, or roof tops, barely clothed, without any drinking water or food, exposed to bitterly cold and wet weather for hours and sometimes days on end, all the while carrying loved ones on their backs or in their arms. In the end some became so exhausted and stiffened by cold that they had to let go of their children. 

Spinniker
Adriaan Spinneker, Gods Gerichten op den aarde vertoond in den ... storm en hoogen waterfloed ... in't 1717de Jaar voorgevallen, aandachtig beschouwd …(Groningen, 1718) 11557.bbb.64

Authorities did initiate a large programme of dike building, based on van Seeratt’s designs, which involved making dikes less steep, so they can absorb the shocks of the waves much better. These days Dutch national authorities and the 22 water boards are responsible for dike maintenance, rather than private landowners.  This is just as well, because without dikes to protect it, the Netherlands would look a bit more like this.  

Netherlands compared to sea level
The Netherlands compared to sea level. (Image from Wikimedia Commons)


Marja Kingma, Curator Germanic Collections.

Further reading

Gerhardus Outhof, Verhaal van alle hooge watervloeden in ... Europa, van Noachs tydt af, tot op den tegenwoordigen tydt toe ... Met eene breede beschryvinge van den zwaaren kersvloedt van 1717 ... (Embden, 1720) 1607/5565.

Johannes Velsen, De hand Gods uitgestrekt tot tugtinge over zommige provintien der vereenigde Nederlanden, bestaende in zes gedigten van de watervloed, in Kersnagt, van 't jaer 1717. (Groningen, 1718), in: Dutch pamphlets 1542-1853 : the Van Alphen collection (Groningen, 1999) Mic.F.977

 

17 January 2018

Władysław Reymont’s Revolt of the Animals

A recent Europen Studies blog post by Masha Karp examined the publication history of George Orwell’s Animal Farm  in the languages of Eastern Europe. That the book has maintained its canonical status worldwide for over 70 years is proof of its universal truth. But as Orwell sat down to write his tale – a warning against the creeping advance of Soviet Communism based on his growing awareness of its brutal reality – was he aware he was not the first modern writer to use the allegory of an animals’ revolt to capture the mad logic of revolution?

ReymontBunt2004

Cover of a recent edition Władysław Reymont’s Bunt (Warsaw, 2004) 

The question has been bugging me since I discovered Władysław Reymont’s Bunt (‘Revolt’) when it came out in Poland in 2004. While growing up in communist Poland in the 1970s I read Orwell’s Animal Farm in a samizdat edition, and while well acquainted with the rest of Reymont’s oeuvre, which was compulsory reading at school as well as being widely popular through TV and film adaptations, I never heard – and I’m sure very few in Poland at the time did – of Bunt. The similarity to Animal Farm was obvious. And another striking thing was that both stories are told as cautionary tales. I was very surprised it took the book so long to resurface, especially when its lesson seemed past its sell-by date. But apparently that’s how things are with truths and lessons.

ReymontPortrait

Władysław Reymont. Portrait by by Jacek Malczewski, painted in 1905 when Reymont was acknowledged as Poland’s foremost novelist, author of The Peasants and The Promised Land, both sweeping panoramas of late 19th-century rural and industrial Poland. (Image from Wikimedia Commons);

Bunt is a story of a revolt among farm animals who work for their master and often love him but are spurned, ruthlessly exploited and cruelly beaten in return. The revolt is initially stirred up by the dog Rex who calls on animals to rise against the landlord and follow him to the land of justice and plenty for everyone, a land that lies somewhere in the east. Sadly, the poor beasts, worn out by the never-ending quest, eventually turn against their leader and plead with a gorilla, the nearest they can find to a human, to rule over them.

Of course the two stories are different, both in detail and in tone – one is bleakly tragic the other tragically funny, but the basic idea and the narrative mechanism that delivers the moral point is essentially the same – a parable of human ideals falling victim to animal instincts, a lesson revealing the inherent fault laying at the heart of a revolution, or indeed at the heart of all power and authority, which may change hands even from the oppressors to the oppressed but nevertheless remain the same mechanism of oppression, and there is no escape from it.

ReymontBuntBLcopyTitle-page of Bunt (Warsaw, 1924). YF.2018.a.342

Originally Bunt appeared in the Polish weekly Tygodnik Ilustrowany (Mic.A.4839-4844) in 1922, and then in book form in 1924, the year of Reymont’s Nobel Prize for Literature, and just before his untimely death at 58. Despite being one of the first literary echoes of the Russian Revolution, it barely registered on the critical circuit. Reymont’s great champion, his German translator Jan Kaczkowski, a Polish diplomat hiding under the pen-name Jean Paul d’Ardeschah, felt the book, being topical as well as universal, deserved a better fate. He managed to place Bunt with a Swiss publisher in 1926 as Die Empörung: eine Geschichte vom Aufstand der Tiere. Later, after being transferred by the Polish Foreign Office to Holland, Kaczkowski instigated and oversaw a Dutch publication in 1928 as De Rebellie. That was the last the world heard of Reymont’s Bunt.

Reymont BuntGermanedition

 Cover of a modern edition of Die Empörung (Frankfurt am Main, 2017). Awaiting shelfmark

For a long while I was combing through Orwell’s biographies looking for ways he might have come into contact with Reymont’s story. Was he familiar with Reymont as a Nobel Prize winner? Could translations of Bunt have passed through his hands while he was working at Booklover’s Corner? Orwell did not speak German or Dutch, and the story was not translated into French, a foreign language Orwell knew – after all he read Zamyatin’s We  in French translation.

Another possibility were his friends who did read German – or Dutch or Polish – who were also interested in Eastern European literature and Russian Revolution. They may have discussed Reymont and brought up the story as part of the revolutionary lore and connected it with Orwell’s interest in fairy tales, which he had apparently developed during his time at BBC, just before he started working on Animal Farm. Could it be his publisher friends, Victor Gollancz or Fredric Warburg? The German-born Tysco Fyvel or the Swiss-born Jon Kimche with whom he worked at the Booklover’s Corner? Or was it Arthur Koestler with whom he discussed extensively how revolutionary logic worked? Perhaps someone – a Pole? – he had met in Spain? Perhaps, but I haven’t found a direct link yet.

And then my detective work suffered an unexpected twist. Discussing it with my friends at the BL one of them told me of another tale about an animals’ revolt, this time Russian, and written years before Bunt – in 1880 in fact! Following the new lead I discovered that Nikolai Kostomarov’s Skotskoi Bunt (‘The Revolt of Farm Animals’) was indeed written in 1880 but published only posthumously in 1917, in the popular magazine Niva, just a few issues before October Revolution consigned it forever to history. How come nobody knew of this story for so long? Could Reymont possibly have known of it and how? Could it be it was in fact Kostomarov’s story that seeped into revolutionary lore and inspired both Reymont and Orwell? It could be. But that’s another story. Or is it? Watch this space.

Wiesiek Powaga, Polish translator.
Wiesek’s most recent translation ‘Inside Red Spain’ by Ksawery Pruszynski, appeared in Pete Ayrton's anthology No pasaran! Writings from the Spanish Civil War (London, 2016; YC.2016.a.6057)