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Common Knowledge 10.1 (2004) 105-118



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Five Little Negroes and Other Songs
A Lesson in Political Correctness from the Former Yugoslavia

Erica Johnson Debeljak


In pet zamorckov slo je
na ta ljubljanski grad,
se eden je spotaknil
je padel v prepad.

In stiri zamorcki sli so
po Svet'ga Petra cest',
pa eden je bil lacen,
je padel v nezavest.

In trije zamorcki sli so
na ta ljubljanski tramvaj,
pa eden je razgrajal,
ga vzel je policaj.

In dva zamorcka sla sta
zvecer po promenad',
se eden je spreobrnil,
odsel je v lemenat. [End Page 105]

En sam zamorcek sel je
po sirnem bozjem svet,
tam se je ozenil,
dobil zamorckov pet.

In pet zamorckov slo je . . .


Five little Negroes
to Ljubljana Castle did go,
one tripped and stumbled,
and fell into a hole.

Four little Negroes
went to Saint Peter's Lane,
one got very hungry
and fell into a faint.

Three little Negroes
rode the Ljubljana rail,
one caused a ruckus,
and was thrown into jail.

Two little Negroes
on an evening stroll did tarry,
one felt the touch of God,
and joined the monastery.

The last little Negro
to the great wide world did go,
there he found and took a wife,
and they had little Negroes five.

Five little Negroes...

The lyrics to this Slovenian children's ditty, "Pet Zamorckov," appeared on handouts distributed to me and my fellow students by Miss Gita, the dour unsmiling language instructor with whom, ten years ago, we spent five hours per day, five days per week, month in, month out, rain or shine, for two interminable semesters. Our small group underwent this unusual torment in the old nursing dormitories located on the outskirts of the city of Ljubljana, the capital of the then-newborn Republic of Slovenia. In the same way that Slovenia (after nearly a thousand years as a subject of the Holy Roman Empire, the Habsburgs' Austro-Hungarian Empire, and finally Yugoslavia) had been immersed, suddenly and with little preparation, into the role of an independent nation-state, so too were my fellow students and I attempting to learn the Slovenian language immersion-style. [End Page 106] We swam in the environment of our new language with few buoys and no operating instructions, at least none we could understand. We did not, either in the case of this particular song or any other material, receive an English translation alongside the Slovenian original. Meaning, to the extent that we got it at all, trickled into our consciousness slowly, sometimes forming little clouds of realization in our minds and sometimes not. There were occasions when linguistic obstacles or cultural misunderstandings loomed so large that they simply could not be gotten round, and on these occasions we broke into exasperated English, a means of expression that Gita and all the students in her class had more or less in common. We would eventually resort to that desperate form of communication on the day "Five Little Negroes" was distributed, but when Gita first passed it round to us we had no clue what the word zamorcek meant, so we took it in the same ho-hum way that we took all our handouts. The calm before the storm.

Not many people study Slovenian—a perversely complex language, spoken by fewer than 2 million people worldwide—unless they have what they consider a compelling reason to do so. I prided myself that, of all Gita's students, I had the most wildly romantic reason for spending my mornings in her dingy classroom. Some months before, I had resigned from my New York banking job, rented out my Manhattan co-op apartment, and moved to Ljubljana to marry the man of my dreams—a Slovenian poet named Ales—whom I had chanced to meet at a loft party in Brooklyn. Though I possessed certain arcane and highly technical financial skills, my immediate prospects for useful activity in Ljubljana were dim. I lacked working papers and, despite my marriage to a citizen, I had little chance of...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1538-4578
Print ISSN
0961-754X
Pages
pp. 105-118
Launched on MUSE
2003-12-05
Open Access
No
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