Sunday, December 12, 2010

Advent Calendar Day 12 – Volunteering: Teaching Old Church Slavonic to Third Graders

For a number of years at our previous parish, my husband and I were involved in helping with the Saint Nicholas Day celebration put on by the parish’s School of Religion.

The parish is part of the Byzantine Catholic Eparchy of Passaic, and many of the members have Rusyn, Slovak, Ukrainian, and other Eastern European ancestry. During the early years of the church’s history in the United States, the liturgy was in Slavonic only, but the first English translation was done in the 1960s and since that time more and more services have been done in English. Here and there you can find a complete service in Slavonic, but for the most part Slavonic is only occasionally done for certain parts of the liturgy, such as the Our Father, or Otche Nash.

Each School of Religion class had a different performance to put on for Saint Nicholas Day. My husband taught the seventh graders and they, together with the eighth graders and high school students, put on the old skit of the Jašličkari – the Bethlehem carolers – from the Slovak and Carpatho-Rusyn part of Eastern Europe.

My job was to teach the third graders how to say the Our Father in Old Church Slavonic.

All I had to do was to teach eleven lines of a prayer in a dead language with some wicked consonant clusters to eight-year-olds who were just mastering the fundamentals of reading in English.

Only three things stood in my way: the children, their parents, and every person in the parish who grew up speaking “kitchen Slovak/Ukrainian/Rusyn“ or was a self-anointed expert in Slavonic.

The children, as you might have guessed, were the easiest part. The class size from year to year was usually around 8 to 10. This meant that all I needed to do was to find about three kids with loud voices, clear enunciation, and an ear for foreign languages. They could carry those who lacked these qualities. We practiced and practiced: all together, girls versus boys, and two kids at a time (I never asked any of the students to recite it alone). I used a few things as teaching moments: how the word for "kingdom" – tsarstvo – comes from the word tsar, which comes from an older word which evolved into kaiser and ceasar. Or, how in Slavonic, the line goes "Deliver us from the Sly One" instead of "Deliver us from evil" to show that it is not just generic "evil" from which we ask to be delivered, but a specific being.

The parents, as many of you might know from experience as volunteer teachers of Sunday School classes, were one of the biggest hurdles. They had one job: to get their children to their School of Religion classes each Sunday and to the final rehearsal on the Saturday before the Saint Nicholas program. Performance was pretty spotty on this account, and that always made the final performance a real nail-biter: How would the kids do when reciting all together, when perhaps half of the kids had only attended about half of the classes and practice sessions?

The third category, as you might have expected, was surprisingly large, vocal, and insistent on their expertise in the matter of spelling, pronunciation, and transliteration of Old Church Slavonic. (I did not mention to them that I studied Old Church Slavonic in graduate school under the man who wrote the standard handbook on it; how could he know anything about it if he didn’t grow up in a Slavonic-speaking church?) Among those who grew up hearing Slavonic in church, there was no consensus on how it should be done, but there was a consistency in their objections:

If you grew up in a Ukrainian family, you did not want to sound like a Russian.

If you grew up in a Rusyn family, you did not want to sound like a Ukrainian.

And if you grew up in a Slovak family, you did not want to sound like a Rusyn.

So, obviously, there was no pleasing all of the heritage speakers. Nor could I please the "scholars"; I still have copies of voluminous e-mails I exchanged with members of this group: why I used a system of transcription that could be comprehended by third-graders rather than one of the scholarly systems, why I let the children recite a simplified form of a consonant cluster with four consonants, why there was an extra syllable in pree-EE-det ("Listen to Father’s tape"), why I wrote "OH-cheh" instead of "OT-cheh," and on and on – no point was too minor to argue over.

But, you know, we never totally crashed and burned on Saint Nicholas Day. Some years we even sounded awesome.

Here is my (much disputed) transcription of Otche Nash; unfortunately I cannot reproduce the signs for long and short vowels that I used. Capitalized syllables are stressed.

OH-cheh nash

EE-zheh YEH-see nah neh-BES-eekh,

Dah svya-TEET-syah EEM-yah tvoy-YEH.

Dah pree-EE-det TSARST-vee-yeh tvoy-YEH

Dah BOO-det VOL-yah tvoy-YAH,

YAH-ko na neh-BES-ee, ee nah ZEM-lee.

Khleeb nash nah-SOOSHT-nee dazhd nam dnes.

Ee o-STAH-vee nam DOL-hi NAH-shah,

YAH-ko zheh ee mi oh-stav-LYAH-yem DOLZH-ni-kom NAH-shim.

Ee neh veh-DEE nas vo ees-koo-SHEN-ee-yeh,

No eez-BAH-vee nas ot loo-KAH-vah-ho.


  1. I can barely read that, but, I'll just bet it sounded beautiful. Loved this post!

  2. The Lord's Prayer is the only Slovak I can speak, drummed into my head by my grandmother. Of course she was Lutheran and would never have learned any Slavonic. Of course, then I married someone who attends a Russian Orthodox Church so Slavonic is the order of the day. Христос воскрес! - Воистину воскрес!

  3. This is the only prayer I can speak (I'd fit right in with your 3rd graders). It complements the swearing that was the only Rusyn I heard at home growing up (very rarely, of course). Such is the legacy of the 2nd generation.
    Blessings on you for braving the adults to work with the children.

  4. Greta - how cool! I said the whole thing out loud to my monitor naturally, I love learning about other languages. Thanks for sharing this!

  5. Carol - It is a beautiful language, and that was what I had to keep remembering as all the advice would pour in!

    Martin - с Рождеством Христовым! Some Russian, some Slovak, some Slavonic - an interesting combination.

    Susan - Oh, I had forgotten some of the "quaint" Bohemian (= Czech) expressions that I was told about when I lived in Texas; your mention of Rusyn swearing reminded me!