Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Linguistically speaking

"The Arabs learn Arabian with the speed of summer lightning; the Hebrews learn it backwards, which is absolutely frightening!"

~ Professor Higgins in My Fair Lady

Actually, it's more enlightening than frightening. Learning a language, that is.

My great-grandfather, Ferencz Ujlaki, is said to have spoken seven languages. These included Hungarian, Croatian, Polish and English, among others. Today, according to a current resident of his birthplace of Donja Dubrava, Croatia, only the older folk in the neighboring town of Legrad can still speak Hungarian. The younger residents of Donja Dubrava, which has moved in the 21st century a little faster than Legrad, consists of Croatian speakers who live just across the border from Hungary yet don't speak Hungarian.

And then there are Ferencz' American descendants.

Well, we speak English, of course.

Sadly, just English.

The first Croatian phrase that we should all learn is, "Ja ne razumijem. Ne govorim hrvatski." That means, "I don't understand. I don't speak Croatian."

It turns out that my great-grandmother and her generation used the Croatian language to speak secretively in front of their children without them knowing what they were saying. Their family discussion was carried out in Hungarian. A generation later, my grandmother and her sisters may have used Hungarian in the same way that their mother used Croatian to keep little ears from listening. The younger generations had no such "language of secrecy", and we remain primarily English speakers (with the occasional German and Spanish thrown in - learned from travels, college courses, etc.).

Inspired partly by my great-grandfather's linguistic abilities and partly by the desire to learn anything and everything about the world he and his family lived in, I checked out a Pimsleur language audio course on Croatian. I have fond memories of my grandmother speaking with her mother, Ilona, and her sisters, Wilma and Helene, in Hungarian. The language and vocabulary that they used was like a time-capsule version of Hungarian, since Ilona had left her home country back in 1909. To me, the sound of a native Hungarian speaker evokes fond childhood memories. I wondered what Croatian would actually sound like.

What an interesting surprise to hear the language via the Pimsleur audio CDs, especially after learning a few words and phrases in the language.

"Kako ti se svidja hrvatski?" means "How do you like Croatian?"

(Found that phrase thanks to the printable Single-serving.com miniature Croatian phrase booklet.)

I'm not sure that I'll ever have the chance to become even close to fluent in Croatian or Hungarian (surely it won't be with the speed of summer lightning if I do), but it sure is fun to get a glimpse into the world that my ancestors lived in through the language that they spoke daily.

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