Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The Hungarian language & the "poetry" of my childhood

Thomas Lynch in his memoir Booking Passage: We Irish and Americans mentions his memories of the words that his grandfather repeated often after blessing the food and giving thanks at family meals. He states, "This was part of the first poetry of my life."

I enjoyed reading the impression that those words made on his life and the interesting chain of events that resulted from childhood memories of his grandfather's references to the family members still left behind in Ireland.

Thomas Lynch's idea of "the first poetry of life" is a thought-provoking one. It sparked in me the desire to remember the "poetry" or "soundtrack" of my own childhood. In the process I asked myself some questions. What were the first sounds and words that have most influenced my view of the world? Whose words do I remember most clearly from my early days, and why?

One of the strongest memories that I do have, perhaps because it stood out from the voices of other family members, was the strong accent of my great-grandmother. A native Croatian and Hungarian speaker, she and her husband spoke Hungarian to their children, but reserved the Croatian language to speak of subjects that were not appropriate for little ears. By the time I came around, no-one was left for her to share a conversation in the Croatian language, and only her children could speak Hungarian. The language was never passed down to the succeeding generations.

I loved hearing my great-grandmother speak with her strong accent, and I enjoyed listening to her childrens' pronunciations of Hungarian words. At one point in my childhood, I asked my grandmother to help me write out a Hungarian glossary of the words and phrases that she used most, pronunciation guide included. I still have the handwritten list of Hungarian words that I made that day. Unfortunately, my proficiency with the language has not gotten too far beyond that first start.

The loss of my family's link to the Croatian and Hungarian languages, woven throughout the lives of my family members just a couple of generations ago, saddens me. It is perhaps one of the reasons that I find myself drawn more and more to learning the history, culture and languages of the lands of my ancestors. I am thankful that at the very least I had a small taste of these wonderfully rich cultures as a young child in the "first poetry" of my life.

For more on the Croatian and Hungarian languages here at 100 Years in America, see:
Thanks to Loretta Murphy for recommending the book Booking Passage: We Irish and Americans via the 7th edition Carnival of Irish Heritage & Culture: Looking into the heart of Ireland.

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