Regular variation or «chaos»: The question of usus in mixed linguistic varieties — the case of Belarusian «Trasyanka».

2016. №6, 84-112

Gerd Hentschel
Carl von Ossietzky University, Oldenburg, D-26111, Germany,


Linguistic subvarieties (social dialects) in modern societies show, as is well known, a high degree of variation. At least in the European context they may often be described as mixed dialects (regiolects, urban dialects, mesolects, etc.) including linguistic traits of the standard language (superstratum) and of «old» local dialects of corresponding regions (autochthonous substrata). The contemporary mixed subvariety in Belarus, the so-called «Trasyanka», contains Belarusian as well as Russian traits. The primary sources for the Trasyanka are, first, local Belarusian dialects as autochthonous substrata and, second, Russian as the superstratum, since it is the dominating standard language in everyday life of Belarusian society. In this context Standard Belarusian plays only a peripheral role, but being taught in schools and institutions of higher education it still has a certain influence on the mixed subvariety, as an adstratum.

Many speakers of such mixed varieties can shift freely from the «standard pole» to the dialectal one. In the Belarusian landscape this means shifting between the Belarusian and the Russian poles, with a certain asymmetry favouring the Russian pole. The topic of this paper is the question of what can be seen as the usus (uncodified norm) in mixed subvarieties comprising in principle variants of all linguistic «donor» varieties spoken in the society (as well as specific variants of the mixed Trasyanka itself). Certain hierarchies are described that are based on token frequency of Belarusian and functionally corresponding Russian variants of structural variables. It is shown that, in spite of many differences in token frequency, these hierarchies are very stable in different communicational settings (family conversations and interviews), in different groups of speakers (with differences in the degree towards the Belarusian or Russian pole in the linguistic landscape of Belarus) and even in different towns. The corresponding «middle position» of the social substandard is thus to a large degree determined by typical hierarchical patterns of the quantitative distribution of variants of a vast amount of structural variables.