Belarusian is an Eastern Slavonic language with about 7.5 million speakers in Belarus. It is closely related to Russian and Ukrainian. Most Belarusians are bilingual in Belarusian and Russian.
The country now known as the Belarus was part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania from the mid 13th century until the end of the 18th century. An archaic form of Belarusian known as "Old Belarusian" was the offical language of the Grand Duchy and and was initially written with the Cyrillic alphabet. Due to the domination of the Greek Orthodox Church in the region, the written form of Belarusian was heavily influenced by Church Slavonic, the liturgical language of the Orthodox church.
During the 16th century a Reformation and Counter-Reformation led to the purging of Church Slavonic elements from literary Belarusian. It was also during this period that handwritten Belarusian texts started to appear in the Latin alphabet (Lacinka). The earliest known printed Belarusian text in the Latin alphabet appeared in Witanie na Pierwszy Wiazd z Krolowca do Kadlubka Saskiego Wilenskiego, a Jesuite anti-Lutheran publication published in Wilno in 1642.
The Russian invasion of 1654-1667 caused to the destruction of many Belarusian cities and the deaths of about half the population, including 80% of the urban population. By 1710, Old Belarusian was replaced by Polish as the official language of the region, however Belarusian continued to appear in writing in a limited way.
During the late 19th century, Belarusian, written in the Latin alphabet, started to emerge as a literary language closer to its modern form. It took many years for people to agree on a standard spelling system: some favoured Polish-based systems, some prefered Russian-based systems and others used systems based on the Belarusian version of the Latin alphabet. Eventually a compromise was reached which combines elements from all these systems. It was during this time that Belarusian started to be written with the Cyrillic alphabet as well.
During the early 20th century, many Belarusian publications were printed in both the Latin and Cyrillic alphabets. After the Soviet invasion of eastern Belarus in 1919-1920, the Cyrillic alphabet became the only alphabet used in official writings. Meanwhile in western Belarus, the Latin and Cyrillic alphabets continued to coexist, though after 1943 the majority of publications were printed in the Cyrillic alphabet. One notable exception was publications written by Belarusian emigrés, who favoured the Latin alphabet.
Since Belarus gained independence in 1991, efforts have been made to revive Belarus writing in the Latin alphabet. One major problem is that nobody can agree on a spelling system.
Belarusian has also been written with the Arabic script by Belarusian Tartars and with the Hebrew script by Belarusian Jews.
The letter in parenthesis was abolished by the Soviet reform of 1933, but is still used by some people.
The letters W and X are also used to write foreign names.
Усе людзi нараджаюцца свабоднымi i роўнымi ў сваёй годнасцi i правах. Яны надзелены розумам i сумленнем i павiнны ставiцца адзiн да аднаго ў духу брацтва.
Usie ludzi naradžajucca svabodnymi i roŭnymi ŭ svajoj hodnasci i pravach. Jany nadzieleny rozumam i sumleńniem i pavinny stavicca adzin da adnaho ŭ duchu bractva.
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They
are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another
in a spirit of brotherhood.
(Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights)
Details of the Latin alphabet for Belarusian (source of much of the information on this page): http://www.cus.cam.ac.uk/~np214/lacin.htm
Online Belarusian lessons
Belarusian learning software
Online resources for learning Belarusian (in Russian)
Belarusian transliteration and spell check
Online Belarusian radio