A Question of Language

My mother once told me that when she was a young child, she lived in a neighborhood where all the other families were Polish, and the kids used to speak to each other in Polish just to tease her and make her feel left out. She wasn’t one to complain or criticize other people’s behavior, and I could see she was a little uncomfortable sharing this memory. I remember her generalizing this so it wouldn’t seem like she was bad-mouthing Polish people in particular. She said that kids could be cruel sometimes without meaning to be, they just didn’t know any better.

I found my mother’s family in the 1930 Census. They were living on Endicott Street in Worcester, Massachusetts, and scanning through the census record, I can see that my mother, whose parents came from Scotland, lived in the only household where English was the native language of the parents. But the rest of the street wasn’t all Polish families, as she had thought — it was about evenly divided between Polish and Lithuanian families. So maybe the kids weren’t speaking Polish to single out and exclude my mother, maybe the Polish kids and the Lithuanian kids were switching to their parents’ languages as a way of excluding each other. My mother was only seven years old when her family left that neighborhood, so it’s certainly possible that she didn’t know the difference between the sound of the two languages, and misread the social situation.

Of course, I’ll never know. But I do think it’s interesting the things you find when you examine the scanned images of documents, and get to see your family members in a larger context, along with neighbors, shipmates, witnesses, etc.

1930 Census Snippet

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