& Company


The Power of Childhood Language

by Matthew-Daniel Stremba


We would never have thought of calling our grandmom anything but "Baba" when we—my sibs and I—were just kids. In fact, I'd wager, none of us really knew the term "grandmother" till we made friends with boys and girls beyond our territory, i.e. with the children of Anglo and German and Irish ancestors, also immigrants but on American shores much longer than ours. These new friendships began in Reading-Pennsylvania's elementary schools where the King James Bible, daily recitation of the Protestant "Our Father," Alice and Jerry readers, and the tutelage of spinster teachers, all in combination fostered wider horizons.

It wasn't till much later I learned that "baba" in Carpathian mountain villages (where you can find Lemkos) also means "old woman." And so there's Baba Yaha (or in the East Slavic of Muscovy: Baba Yaga), who's no one's sweet grandma. The same double meaning is true of Russian, where a "babushka" (stress on first syllable: BA-bush-ka) is both "grandmother" and "old woman." Which meaning came first? and which is derived? Well, in a pre-modern culture, I suppose, every old woman had to be someone's grandmother.

I had only one living baba, my mother's mother. Baba, a wiry old-country lady, sat straight, stood straight and walked straight, never learned English, talked a rapid village dialect occasionally gesturing with hands marked by years of hard work. Though she rarely smiled, and despite stories of her strict parenting and stern conduct with door-to-door salesmen, somehow she related to us grandkids (we were not fluent in any Slavic language beyond our prayers), related in a way that made us feel warm. Sometimes we even encouraged pronouncements from Baba that we knew would run counter to our Mom's dicta on, say, what was allowed and not allowed during periods of abstinence. We looked forward to her visits—and were sorry to see her depart for her home in Schuylkill County's coal region, where she'd endured America since arriving at the end of the 19th century.

Does every child yearn for such a warm grandma?


Hadicha, our dear friend in Uzbekistan, never got to see her nanay, which is what Tatar children call their grandmothers. Her mother's mother lived a considerable distance from Tashkent—in a region of Russia that had been the Bashkiri Tatar homeland before it was ever Russia—and that distance made all the difference.

Hadicha as a very young child

In grade school—Hadicha recently told me—she used to hear classmates talking about their grandmoms. Children in the school yard were of various ethnicities—not only Uzbek and Tatar and Tajik, but also Korean, Armenian, Jewish, Russian, Ukrainian. Tashkent, then the fourth largest city in the USSR, offered Hadicha a much more international experience than my sibs and I could ever have enjoyed in Pennsylvania. But, similarly, the talk of Tashkent school-kids was in the language promoted by the education system. Where I and my Slavic peers were having our language purged of easy terms like "kapusta," "holubtsi," "kovbasa," and—yes— "baba," Hadicha and her non-Slavic classmates were schooled in proper Russian vocabulary. And when kids at her school were talking about their grandmoms, even those who didn't have a drop of Russian or Ukrainian blood, they were talking about their babushki, who lived nearby, and often lived with them in extended family arrangements.

Hadicha, having no news to share with them about her distant grandmom, listened attentively to all this babushka talk. And then—mmm, what was that she heard? —she caught a different word circulating in the school yard. There was yet another Russian term for grandma: "babulya." Pronounced ba-BOOL-ya. Sweeter than "babushka"—don't you think? "Babulya." You Russian scholars, correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't think "babulya" can mean anything but "grandma."

Anyhow, "babulya" captivated the Tatar-Uzbek girl. The very sound of it. And she longed to join in the recess chatter and say something about her own Babulya. But what could she ever tell about Babulya far away up there in the north country, way across the wide Kazakh steppes, to the west of the Urals? When could she ever experience what seemed normal for all kids—nudging up close to their Babulya?

Hadicha as an older child

Babulya. Babulya. And then came writing.

It wasn't long before Hadicha's teacher began the lessons in writing, step by syllabus-step. No Soviet school kid was allowed to print. Pocherk is cursive, script, and Hadicha, like kids everywhere, labored through the handwriting exercises over and over and over again.

Over and over and—then a moment of joy! One hand spread at the top of a sheet of clean paper. In her other, the pencil. Hadicha remembers guiding that pencil, fashioning Cyrillic script to form—

writing exercise: babulya

In that word the hard work of writing became something of art. And in time—yes! —she could write to her distant grandma—

writing exercise: babulya dorogaya

Sending postcards was the closest Hadicha would ever get to grandma. The music of the word itself— "babulya"—issued from her pen, rose up off the paper, filled the void: "babulya."

devushka Hadicha with Avtoruchka


It wasn't long before it was the music of poetry that captivated her. She memorized Ivan Krylov's poem "The Quartet," and was chosen to recite it before a Soviet audience, some of whom remarked: "Imagine! An Uzbek girl declaiming Russian verse!"

[For Krylov's Russian poem and a translation, see]

Then into her life came the folksongs of all the peoples making up the USSR; and then Russian romantsy; and the operas of Europe. In Tashkent she sang the role of La Traviata's Violetta. She embraced the national anthem of independent Uzbekistan. And welcomed Negro spirituals and German hymns and Taize chants. Even American popular songs: all those time-zones to the East, and she was dancing to Roy Orbison and Elvis Presley. Varied sounds—they all found a home in her soul.

I'll wager that Hadicha's early fascination with the sound of "babulya" was an index, a predictor, foreshadowing the love of music that would form the story of her adult life. O, that every child could start out with such an experience: babulya.

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