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Tales of a Hay Hauler: In what language do children laugh and cry?

Brad Nelson Published on 03 February 2010

She and her companion were 16 years old.

They were together far from home in the land that drew them from their homeland, which they would never see again. As homesickness set in, they thought if they could find some of the foods they regularly ate back home, it would help. They found a butcher shop and in the best English they could muster, they asked to buy some headcheese. The best English they could muster was not adequate.

Try as they might to communicate what they wanted, the poor butcher thought they were asking for “old shoes.” This was the late 1800s, and the girl in the story was my grandmother. She married the son of an immigrant whose father, as she had done, came to the land of promise for the hope of finding the freedom to worship God as they saw fit. If you count starting with my grandmother, I am only a third-generation American.

We lost my grandmother to Alzheimer’s in 1958 when I was almost 12 years old. I never got to hear her tell her story. The secondhand version will have to do. The stories are “the best I can remember, of the best Dad could remember.”

The log building Grandpa used for grain storage had once been his house. Dad mentioned once that it was the house he had been born in. Grandma and Grandpa lived just across the road from us until we moved from Mink Creek, Idaho, when I was 6 years old. Their new house did not sit level. Just after they built it and moved in, a new canal was put in which ran several hundred yards above them on the hillside. The soil was not very deep in that area and the seepage from the canal caused the whole hillside to slowly slide downhill.

The house was still livable, so they stayed. That the house was not level was the reason, as Dad told the story, his mother gained some weight. “Her place at the table was on the downhill side, and the food just slid down toward her.” Before Grandma left Denmark, she had been in training to be a cook for “the high class.” She often put in the extra time and effort to serve up to her family some of the finest of the culinary treats of the kitchens of Danish royalty.

Dad said his parents always spoke English in the home. They wanted the children to know the English language as their first language. They spoke Danish to each other when they had something going on they did not want the children to know about. “That,” Dad said, “was the reason us kids picked up Danish really fast.”

Years later in Nampa, Idaho, Dad spent summers managing a housing facility owned by the local farmers’ labor association. Families following the crops would come and stay at the camp until the season was over and then return to their homes. Dad learned that most of the migrant workers owned their own homes in southern Texas, and a fair number of them sent their children to college. Dad stated that observing the differences in culture at the camp reminded him of the trials his family endured getting acquainted in this new land. It was in this time-frame that Dad pointed out to me that when children laugh or cry, English and Spanish sound the same.

One day at the camp, Dad said a handful of children came into the office. Dad said these kids spoke English almost as well as he did, but were up to no good that day. One of them addressed him in Spanish, and then said something to the others in Spanish, which made them all laugh. Dad then spoke to them in Danish for a few minutes. When it was obvious to all that no one had any idea what Dad was saying, he then asked them in English, “You speak English and also your mothers’ language. I speak English and also my mother’s language. So who is smarter?” Dad said the word must have spread, since no one did that to him again.  PD