Van Gogh, Still Life Potatoes in a Yellow Dish
By Olga Shafran
I was born and grew up in Minsk, and my husband is originally from St. Petersburg. We both speak Russian with the same level of fluency. Which is precisely why I was confused as to why he stood, paralyzed and confused when a drunk man outside a gastronom[Supermarket] in Minsk approached him and asked him to share the juice he was carrying. It turned out, after I pulled him away, that out of the man’s simple request, “Плесни мне трохи соку”(“pour me a little juice,”) my husband only understood the word “мне,” for me. He could have probably deciphered the phrase with more context clues (the man was shakily extending a tin cup in my husband’s direction), but I pulled him away before he had a chance. That was how I learned that трохи is a Belarusian word and not a Russian one.
Belarus is located between Russia, Ukraine, and Poland. So Belarusian is grammatically and lexically similar to the other East Slavic languages – Russian speakers can understand Belarusians, and vice-versa. However, in my experience it is easier for Belarusian speakers to understand Russian than vice versa. The overlap of Belarusian with West Slavic languages, such as Polish, is also greater than that of Russian even though the West Slavic languages do not use the Cyrillic alphabet. Knowing Belarusian helped me right after I moved to the United States, because it allowed me to communicate and become friends with all the Polish kids in my ESL class long before I learned English. I started speaking to them in Belarusian and slowly changed my vocabulary to match theirs. However, after I switched schools and learned English, I forgot most of both languages. I can still understand, but I am too embarrassed to attempt speaking.
Belarusian is not my native language. I grew up in a Russian-speaking home in the capital city of Belarus. We had some books in Belarusian at home (and I especially loved the poem Alesya by Yanka Kupala), but everybody I ever met in the city spoke only Russian. In fact, in the UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, which categorises 2,473 languages into five levels of endangerment: vulnerable, definitely endangered, severely endangered, critically endangered and extinct, Belarusian is listed as vulnerable. In 1988 when I was in second grade, my school implemented a mandatory Belarusian language class. This was a time period close to the collapse of the Soviet Union and there was a nationalist movement toward Belarusian independence. Promoting the native language of the country made sense. Outside of school, however, most people still regarded the language as rural and not one to be used by the intelligentsia. I really only heard it spoken naturally by older people in villages. Whenever I slipped into it, my parents corrected me and reminded me that I’m not in a village. Still, I guess they weren’t vigilant enough.
Once I moved to the US and met other ex-Soviet immigrants from different parts of the old country, I realized that although we all spoke Russian, some words our families used were not Russian words. I also learned that using these words is looked down upon by True Russian Speakers the same way one might look down upon someone for using “your” instead of “you’re”. My husband would laugh at me when I said драники for potato pancakes or бурак for beets.
With a great deal of effort on the part of us and our families, our children are growing up bilingual, although it is too early to tell if they will retain their Russian into adulthood. For their sake I’ve switched to calling beets by their proper Russian name: свекла. I accept that this means my kids might have a harder time traveling through Eastern Europe or that one day they might be visiting Belarus and not understand if someone asks them for a bit of juice. But I had to draw the line somewhere, and so my husband now calls potato pancakes драники.