I was tired, but not so tired that my only aim was sleep.
Rather, I wanted a beer.
It was my first night in Belarus, and after having a wander through the neighborhood, I was ready to relax in my hotel room. Fortunately, there was a bar in the reception area, and the young woman working the counter spoke English.
“I’d like a beer. Could you recommend something?”
“You want something local?” she asked, well knowing the tourist’s answer would be yes. I nodded. “Light or dark?”
Either? Both? Yes? I do like light beers, so long as we’re not talking low-calorie — were we talking about low calorie? — and I do like dark beers. But for my first foray into this new country’s beers, how about…light? So long as “light” meant something like lager, pilsner, hefeweizen. By “light,” did she mean something like lager, pilsner, hefeweizen?
Shrugging, I committed. “Light.”
The server nodded. Then she complicated things: “Filtered or unfiltered?”
Um. Either? Both? Yes? What even did she mean? Immediately, I felt as though I should understand her question — I have toured a lot of breweries and listened to eleventy explanations of the beer-making process — but the truth was: she was saying words in English to me, and she obviously expected I would know what she was talking about, yet I was baffled. A veteran of beer ordering, a native speaker of the language we were using, I was completely lost in this conversation.
Seeking clarification, I asked: “I don’t know. What’s the difference?”
Responding to my question exceeded the limits of the server’s English; she looked panicked as she gestured roughly in the direction of the refrigerator and sputtered, “One is filtered, and one is not.”
Punting, I decided an unfiltered beer might have, uh, “stuff” floating in it while filtered beer would be more clear, so I veered towards a potential visual display: “Unfiltered, please.”
Later, I would order a filtered beer and neither see nor taste a difference. Even now, five months into my stay in Belarus, I am randomly following impulse when I answer this question that has been so firmly trained into service staff around the country.
Filtered? Unfiltered? Uh, sure. Whatever. This isn’t how we order beers in the United States, where decisions are based on type rather than color or filterage. It’s not that the English words used in Belarus are wrong; it’s just that their application isn’t what I’m used to.
So much about my time in Belarus has been surprising and overwhelming, in particular the way I have been made to feel not only welcome but “special.” The “special” comes from being a native speaker of English, a prized commodity in a country that has been largely closed off from the West. Because they are professionals who are invested in accuracy and quality, English teachers in Belarus crave interaction with native English speakers and seek out every opportunity to have even a short conversation. Even more, students are urged to pursue the opportunity to practice with native speakers whenever possible. At first, all this attention threatened to knock me over. But eventually, I realized: those who study English in Belarus are aware that the information in textbooks doesn’t necessarily align with actual usage. It’s only through contact with native speakers that they can weigh “textbook” against “real life” and tune their fluency.
As the resident native speaker in my city, I have fielded daily questions about English, and more of than not, the questions take me by surprise. I’ve had fellow teachers open the English textbooks they use in class, point to page 39, and ask me why the first example sentence demonstrating a grammatical rule I’ve never heard of is constructed one way while the next example sentence follows an entirely different pattern. I’ve had fellow teachers text me error-riddled sentences from the EU Educational Committee, sentences they are tasked with translating from English into Russian, to ask, “Are these correct sentences in English?” No, they are not. Before you translate those nonsense sentences into Russian, we’re going to need to clean up that English. I am asked about slang, verb tenses, idioms — and invariably, the questions make me consider things about my own language that have never registered with me before.
At one point, I fell down a rabbit hole after filming a video of various phrases for the language center when I felt compelled to research the verb “catch” and subsequently realized it is rarely intransitive; probably 90% of the time, it’s transitive — as in, it’s followed by a direct object (something receiving the action of the verb). It was only when I was asked to read aloud “I’m sorry, I didn’t catch?” from a prepared script that this interesting quirk of “catch” became obvious to me. As a native speaker, I knew the sentence wasn’t right; I knew I needed to add something like “that” or “what you said” after the verb. But before that moment, I had never caught this nuance of my own language.
Naturally, many of the usage issues that my brain flags are easily explained: Belarusians study British English, so it’s common to hear lift instead of elevator, lorry instead of truck, flat instead of apartment, marks instead of grades. However, over the past few months, I have realized there are some consistent uses of English in Belarus that are neither British nor American. They are uniquely Belarusian English — Belarenglish. The hallmark of these Belarenglish constructions is this: they are real English words, and technically they fit the context of the sentence, so the listener understands the intent. Yet, at the same time, the native English speaker’s mind hitches in a quick glitch — filtered or unfiltered? — before relaxing into comprehension.
Eventually, after quietly schooling a few visitors from the States whose eyes crossed as they tried to connect the words they were hearing with what the speaker was trying to communicate, I started making a list of these words and phrases. It wasn’t difficult. After all, I’d reached the point of speaking Belarenglish; by Month Four, I’d become so accustomed to the following usages that I’d adopted them myself.
- Territory instead of land (For a native English speaker, territory implies a massive amount of land rather than, say, an acre.)
- Belarenglish: The collegium was established in 1581. These buildings have occupied this territory for hundreds of years.
- Native English: The collegium was established in 1581. These buildings have occupied this land for hundreds of years.
- Hostel instead of dormitory (When I first arrived in Belarus and heard that many students live in hostels, I imagined a bunch of privately owned youth hostels, like cheap hotel accommodations; it was only after questioning that I realized these are university-owned and -run buildings: dormitories.)
- Belarenglish: I lived in the hostel nicknamed The Bastille my first year at university.
- Native English: I lived in the dormitory nicknamed The Bastille my first year at university.
- Excursion instead of tour (For native English speaker, excursion implies a trip to a place, probably involving a vehicle and at least a few hours whereas a tour is a guided walk through or around a sight.)
- Belarenglish: Can we arrange an excursion at the museum this afternoon?
- Native English: Can we arrange a tour of the museum this afternoon?
- Exposition instead of exhibition or exhibit (Does anyone else remember when there was a thing called a “World Fair” that was also tagged as an exposition? I feel pretty sure my family attended the 1974 World’s Fair — also known as Expo ’74 — in Spokane, Washington, but I’m also pretty sure that’s the last time I saw or heard expo or exposition used. Technically, according to Google, an exposition is a large public exhibition of art or trade goods. But when it comes to smaller displays within museums, English goes with exhibit rather than exposition)
- Belarenglish: This exposition shows the artifacts found by archeologists on the territory of the university.
- Native English: This exhibit shows the the artifacts found by archeologists on university land.
- Faculty instead of department (Okay, this one is British English, I believe, but I want to highlight it as confusing for American English speakers; faculty for Americans means the individuals who teach while department means all the faculty who teach in a common discipline.)
- Belarenglish: There are three faculties located at the campus in Polotsk.
- Native English: There are three departments located at the campus in Polotsk.
- Canteen instead of cafeteria (To an American English speaker like me, canteen harkens back to WWII as a place of dining and entertainment for soldiers; when it comes to the place where college or university students eat meals, native speakers use cafeteria or even dining hall.)
- Belarenglish: I had some soup in the canteen between classes today.
- Native English: I had some soup in the cafeteria between classes today.
- Tormented to death instead of tortured to death (We saw this one on a sign in the Great Patriotic War Museum in Minsk. It’s not a usage I have seen or heard elsewhere, but since it’s permanently placed in the biggest city’s most-famous museum, it seems worth noting that torment can result from torture, but torture is what kills. Either way, it’s awful.)
- Belarenglish: The prisoners of war were tormented to death.
- Native English: The prisoners of war were tortured to death.
- Sanitarium (British spelling: sanitorium) instead of health spa or resort (To the native English speaker, the word sanitarium means a place for recovery from a medical problem, such as tuberculosis or mental illness, rather than a place one retreats to for rest and relaxation.)
- Belarenglish: Our family goes to a lovely sanitarium at the lake for New Year’s.
- Native English: When her test came back positive, Charlotte was sent to a sanitarium to recover and to keep her illness from spreading.
- Marinated instead of pickled (When Granny preserves food from her garden in jars for the winter, these foods are then described in Belarusian English as marinated. A native English speaker would use the word pickled for the process these vegetables have undergone.)
- Belarenglish: My mother makes too many jars of marinated squash every year; we can’t eat them all!
- Native English: My mother makes too many jars of pickled squash every year; we can’t eat them all!
- Write a test instead of take a test (This usage is another one where we Americans in Belarus initially thought it might be British English; for me, write a test is definitely something I have heard in my lifetime, but it seems old-fashioned. After checking with British friends, though, we discovered that write a test is not a phrase in common usage there, either.)
- Belarenglish: I’m nervous today: I have to write a test in my math class.
- Native English: I’m nervous today: I have to take a test in my math class.
- Variant instead of option or choice (I hear variant used frequently here, in any situation where there is a choice to be made. For a native English speaker, variant implies there are at least two things that are different from each other, such as sanitorium versus sanitarium, where one is the American variant and the other is the British variant. In Belarus, though, variant is used for any of the options when there is a choice.)
- Belarenglish: We will look at flats to rent today. I have lined up five variants for you to consider.
- Native English: We will look at flats to rend today. I have lined up five options for you to consider.
- Hometasks instead of homework (I’ve talked about this usage with other Americans who have lived and taught in Eastern Europe, and here is what my friend Sidney explains: “. . . hometask is a word originating as a direct translation from Russian and therefore linguistically specific to the Russian-speaking community.” Some of us here thought perhaps hometasks was a British usage, but Brit friends assure us it’s not. It’s very specifically a term used by native Russian speakers who learn English. Native English speakers use homework!)
- Belarenglish: Your hometask for tonight is to read the next chapter and answer the discussion questions.
- Native English: Your homework for tonight is to read the next chapter and answer the discussion questions.
The thing about Belarenglish is that it’s not exactly wrong. It’s just not completely natural. And it’s the space in between those points that a native speaker can help.
My second night in Belarus, I had a companion: another American Fulbrighter had arrived. Liz and I had dinner together that evening, and when we got back to the hotel, I offered to buy her a beer.
As we perched on tall stools, the server launched in to her script. When she asked “Filtered or unfiltered?” I was deeply gratified to see confusion flit across Liz’s face. Turning to me, she whispered, “What does that mean? What is a ‘filtered’ beer? What the hell is ‘unfiltered’?”
Speaking a language: it’s about more than using the words.