Hebrew and Hungarian
On the Red Line this evening a youngish couple got on the train with me and yakked all the way to Harvard Square in loud, amiable Hebrew.
Hebrew was my mother's native language, and this was the first time I'd heard more than a couple of words since she died. I don't speak
it, really. I can understand a few words. I could tell they were talking about a female acquaintance and her mother. The woman said 'ima shela
a lot, which means "her mother".
Although I can't have a conversation in it, the language will always sound like home to me. Its rhythms are completely familiar; I can recognize it just from intonation even when I can't make out any words. I know enough grammar to recognize which are the verbs. I felt strangely voyeuristic, even though I was not invading their privacy at all.
Yesterday on the bus home, I sat next to a young woman who was reading a book in Hungarian. She was very impressed that I recognized the language. She is not from Hungary, but from Transylvania, a part of Rumania that has a large Hungarian-speaking population. We talked about the political situation there.
It was hard to explain to her how it was possible that I could recognize written Hungarian and even read it slowly from the page, without actually knowing what any of it meant. I tried to explain about studying linguistics. I don't know how much she understood but she was very sweet about it.