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I lived in Belarus for some time, and my wife is from there. We spoke only Russian while in the country, but most signs, public transportation announcements ("next stop", etc.) and documents were in the Belarusian language.

I've learned very basic amounts of Belarusian, and I'm wondering what the linguistic similarity (language family, etc) is between it and the Russian language. It seems to me to be more mutually understandable with Polish, but it has quite a few "Russian-sounding" words as well as a seemingly similar grammatical structure.

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I highly doubt that Belorussian mutually understandable with Polish. On the other hand it is quite mutually understandable with Russian, a little more so than Ukrainian.

The relation is following: Belorussian, Russian, Ukrainian and Rusyn belong to East Slavic branch of Slavic languages, with Belorussian, Rusyn and Ukrainian belonging to Ruthenian subbranch. So Belorussian is closer to Ukrainian than to Russian.

All three are quite far from Polish (the later being a West Slavic language), but more than that, I would say Polish is less similar to East Slavic compared to other West Slavic languages (Chech, Slovak for example) both in phonology and spelling.

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    It's interesting you say that you doubt it is mutually intelligible with Polish - while in Białystok, my wife would speak Belarusian and they would respond in Polish :) – galois Dec 15 '14 at 16:23
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    @jaska this depends on what she said actually and also whether they had any exposure to Belorussian before as a language of their geographical neighbours (and possibly a substantial ethnic minority in the city). – Anixx Dec 15 '14 at 16:25
  • but wouldn't my wife need to have had some exposure to Polish as well, to be able to understand their responses? – galois Dec 15 '14 at 16:33
  • @jaska may be, this depends on what things she was asking, actually. – Anixx Dec 15 '14 at 16:34
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    @jaska You wrote: ‘sorry, for some reason it's not letting me "@" your name at the beginning of my comments’. You do not need, for instance, @John in comment to John’s answer, he will get notification even without it. ⁂ As for your question, you should also note, that Bielorussian and Ukrainian have quite a lot of words loaned from Polish (and most of them were by turn borrowed from German). You may encounter them even among the most everyday vocabulary. E. g. biel. дзякуй ‘thanks’ ← pol. dzięk ← mid.-low-germ. dank. – Dmitry Alexandrov Dec 15 '14 at 18:53
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Belarusian is, in a sense, in between other slavic languages. Its grammar is close to that of Russian. Its vocabulary has lots of common words with all of Russian, Ukrainian, and Polish, so it's sort of mutually intelligible with all of them. Its spelling, however, is quite different from any of them. Also, it's probably the most phonetic of all, you can just read it as it's spelled and it will be correct.

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You see a lot of signs written in standard Belorussian.

As I understand, most of it was standardized in the early XX century, and the method was to try and pick words and word stems which sound unfamilliar to Russian ear. Otherwise written Belorussian would not be distinct enough from written Russian, and the goal was to set the language separate.

That explains why written Belorussian is more like Polish and less like Russian in its dictionary (compared to what its "natural speakers" would use) and why its spelling capitalizes its phonetic difference with Russian.

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    It seems to me that this answer is based on the idea that someone can construct written language and make people speak like that to create a new language ("spoiled Russian"). – Artemix Dec 18 '14 at 16:39
  • Belarusian was standardized in the 30s by the Soviets, and it almost killed the language, the method was to try and pick words and word stems which sound most familiar to Russian ear. Since then no world classics literature were printed in Belarusian. – Yellow Sky Dec 19 '14 at 9:59
  • @Artemix I'm unconvinced that people actually "speak like that" in Belorussian. However I'm not an expert. – alamar Dec 19 '14 at 18:29

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