The language that my grandparents spoke did make it down to my parents – sort of. My mother’s family only spoke Slovak and lived in a Slovak-Hungarian neighborhood in Cleveland where the use of English was not required. St. Benedict’s Church had Mass in Slovak and my mother attended Slovak school in the parish.
My father being the eldest child, learned what he did by communicating with his parents. However, for the most part his parents, like so many immigrants wanted the children to be American in every way including the language, so none of his siblings learned much of it, except my youngest aunt who traveled by ship with her parents back to visit the family left in Slovakia when she was a young child.
My parents did not teach my sister and me the language, but used it between themselves to discuss things they did not wish to share with us. We traveled to Slovakia as a family group with the four of us and our two grandmothers in 1959 and my father sent my sister and I again, in 1968. On that trip my sister left all the talking and translating to me. Since English is known in part at least, all over the world, we used slang to mask anything we did not wish to share. I bought a Slovak dictionary on Wenceslas Square in Prague and when people talked, I could get the gist of what they were saying, but to respond, I often put one finger up, saying “moment, moment!” and paged through the dictionary hoping not to be too off course.
When I was twenty, upon the suggestion of my father and the help of The Nationalities Editor at the Cleveland Press for 46 years, Theodore Andrica, I found The General Stefanik Dramatic Society meeting in an old Sokol (gymnastics) hall on the west side of Cleveland and I joined the group where I enjoyed learning the songs and dances of my heritage. We performed at assorted church functions and even at the International Folk Festival in the big “Public Hall” downtown a couple of years running.
In a memoir class here in the writing festival the book Speak Memory by Nabakov was recommended and I ploughed through all of this Russian master’s lineage which was very tedious and his butterfly collection data equally not interesting to me, but what I did find was a wealth of words, many in Russian which were similar to if not exactly the same as Slovak words, like, voda – water in both languages.
He also used a word for gypsy began with tsi – when I sounded the word out and remembered the Slovak word, ciganka, I understood the Russian word.
When my children and I moved back to Cleveland and attended a local Slovak festival, I was quite disappointed in how poor the quality of the costumes was and how little they resembled the real thing. I took us back home and dressed Mika in my costume and we went back to the festival where the costume immediately drew attention and admiration, particularly from the grannies in the group who all wanted to know the county in Slovakia that the costume was from. Luckily I remembered: Nitra.
The year my son turned twelve, my father took him to Slovakia. I imagine that the trip was life changing for him, as it would likely be for any child. When he came home he said, “MOM! I didn’t know zuby was a Slovak word!” From early childhood I incorporated a few Slovak words without thinking about their origin, into my daily vocabulary saying things like “Brush those zubies!” all the time.
While he was playing with some youngsters in the river in my grandmother’s village of Drahovce, another of those words, chudatko, which means, “you poor thing” often my family used it tongue in cheek, came up after he dunked a girl. She was furious. He responded to her disdain saying chudatko! The children who knew he was American and did not speak the language were greatly amused. He didn’t say if the girl laughed too, or not.
Now that the generation before me is mostly gone, the polka music rarely heard, the language no longer in regular use, though I hear strains of it as I go through grocery stores now and then, and the old Slovak and Hungarian neighborhood forever changed, I find I really miss hearing the sounds so ever present in my childhood.