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Trasianka or trasyanka (Belarusian: трасянка) refers to a mixed form of speech in which Belarusian and Russian elements and structures alternate in rapid succession. There is a similar phenomenon in Ukraine, an Ukrainian–Russian language mixture that is called surzhyk.
In Belarusian the word literally means low quality hay, when indigent farmers mix (shake: трасуць, trasuts) fresh grass with the yesteryear's dried hay. The word acquired the second meaning ("language mixture of low quality") relatively recently, in the second half of the 1980s, when a series of publications in the literary newspaper “Litaratura i mastactva” criticized developments in the use of the Belarusian language under Soviet rule. Zianon Pazniak is often said to be the one who has popularized the use of the word for the Belarusian-Russian language mixture (see Pozniak, 1988). For the Belarusian-Russian borderland it has been reported that the phenomenon usually referred to by the term "trasianka" is called "meshanka" instead (this information is based on an interdisciplinary research carried out in the district of Horki and Drybin in 2004).
Mixed speech in pre-Soviet and early Soviet era
In the area of present-day Belarus the mixing of speech has a relatively long history. This is because the Belarusian (and, similarly, Ukrainian) territories were for a long time borderlands in which local dialects contacted with closely related socially dominant languages (Polish , Russian). Whether such older forms of mixing Belarusian with Russian should be referred to as “trasianka” is arguable as there was no intergenerational transfer of speech in those times. A literary example for this kind of mixing can be found in the 19th-century play by Wincenty Dunin-Marcinkiewicz The Gentry of Pinsk (see the 1984 edition). Although it is a piece of art and not a record of everyday speech, it can be assumed that it reflects real language use (in certain situations with certain types of people) of that time. A first academic and journalistic debate on Belarusian-Russian mixed speech took place in the 1920s.
After World War II
The phenomenon referred to as “trasianka” since the 1980s has its origins in the fundamental socio-demographic changes which took place in Soviet Belarus after World War II, in eastern parts of Belarus partially already before World War II. The industrialization of Soviet Belarus led to a massive labor migration from villages to towns. While in 1959 31% of the population lived in towns, in 1990 the share was already 66%. At the same time ethnic Russians from other parts of the Soviet Union migrated to Soviet Belarus and, in many cases, took on leadership tasks in Belarusian communist party, administration and state companies. Consequently, the language use of former Belarusian villagers - and new town dwellers - had to accommodate from (mostly dialectal) Belarusian to standard Russian, a target which was reached seldom though. As a result of this struggle for linguistic accommodation, the so-called trasianka in its contemporary form emerged, and, moreover, children of its speakers were raised in this mixed Belarusian-Russian variety.
Due to the negative connotation of the word “trasianka” it has been suggested to abandon it in the linguistic debate and use the term “Belarusian-Russian mixed speech” instead. The scientific discussion on the Belarusian-Russian mixed speech has begun in the first half of the 1990s. Influential Belarusian scholars have pointed out the spontaneous, individual, “piecemeal” or even “chaotic” fashion of Belarusian-Russian speech mixing. These ‘early’ debates were based mainly on informal observations though, due to a lack of text bodies in the mixed speech. A first empirical case study on the phenomenon has been undertaken only in the early 2000s in the capital Minsk. In the years 2008-2013 a research project carried out by linguists and social scientists at the University of Oldenburg (in cooperation with partners from the Belarusian State University in Minsk) has created two bodies of oral texts in the mixed speech . The linguistic results of the mentioned research project attested the older view that Belarusian-Russian mixed speech could yet not be classified as one relatively stable, homogenous fused lect all over Belarus. On the other hand, on all levels of the linguistic structure several country-wide relatively stable patterns could be observed which the mixed speech shares with one or both of its “donor” languages (Belarusian and Russian) or which, respectively, make the mixed speech differ from both donor languages. Russian elements and traits clearly dominate in the lexicon as well as in morphosyntax. The inflectional morphology is obviously hybride, and even the pronunciation is influenced by Russian. All in all, the Belarusian-Russian mixed speech in its current stage is classified as a complex of regional social dialects. Other studies keep on describing the Belarusian-Russian mixed speech as a "chaotic" and "spontaneous" phenomenon of language mixing.
Sociology of mixed speech use
The sociological and sociolinguistic component of the above-mentioned research project on mixed language use in Belarus showed, inter alia, the following results: Asked about their ‘native language’, roughly 38% of around 1200 respondents named the Belarusian-Russian mixed speech, 49% Belarusian and 30% Russian (more than one answer was allowed). As their ‘first language’ roughly 50% declared the mixed speech, 42% Russian and 18% Belarusian (again more than one answer was allowed). Finally, as their ‘primarily used language’ roughly 55% named Russian, 41% the mixed speech and 4% Belarusian. The results of the research project contradict the popular opinion that the use of Belarusian-Russian mixed speech is an indicator for a poor education level and a lack of proficiency in Russian or Belarusian standard language. The mixed speech is widespread among Belarusians from all educational levels and age groups and used alongside the standard language, which in most cases is Russian. The degree to which individuals tend to approximate ‘their’ mixed speech use to Russian or, respectively, to Belarusian depends on such factors as interlocutors, conversation place, topic etc. Among young Belarusians the relative weight of mixed speech use decreases in favour of Russian.
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