Central Europe's Most Mysterious Language
Located between Bielsko-Biała and Oświęcim, Wilamowice may seem like a regular southern Polish town lost somewhere in the hilly landscape of Małopolska. And yet to some, Wilamowice may be the most fascinating place on the map of Europe – the linguistic map of Europe, that is.
All of this is because of a group of approximately 20-25 people, prevalently elderly, who among themselves speak a language that has made linguists scratch their heads. A couple of examples why: der arpuł (‘potato’), dy ȧjsomer (’fridge’), s’błimła (‘flower’), der dźjada (‘grandpa’), der oduł (‘eagle’), der śiłer (‘teacher’), der śpjelik (‘sparrow’), dy böśtowatöwuł (‘keyboard’). Asa means ‘to eat’ and kuza ‘to speak’. And how about this: ny ołys ej gułd, wos zih fynklt, glanct oba łiöeht?’ * Any ideas?
The language is called Wymysorys (Wymysiöeryś), but has been also known as Vilamovian or Wilamowicean. In fact, the population of Wilamowice (or Wymysoü) has been speaking it for the last eight centuries. And while linguists today are generally inclined to consider it one of the variety of West German dialects – and possibly the smallest micro-language belonging to the Germanic language group – the Wilamowiceans themselves have been consistent in descending their pedigree from Flemish colonists.
In fact, it is this ‘Flemish’ identity, as vague and unverifiable as it is, that may have helped the community to survive some of the most vicious events of history, including the times of inter-war Germanization, the atrocities of WW2, and the subsequent Communist persecution. So what is Wymysiöeryś?
A Linguistic Enclave
The story goes back to the 13th century, when Wilamowice was settled by colonists coming on the invitation of the local ruling dynasty of Silesian Piasts, explains Bartłomiej Chromik, a teacher of Wilamovian at the Warsaw’s Faculty of Artes Liberales, himself a native of the nearby town of Kęty.
The colonisation of Wilamowice was part a bigger wave of colonists coming from Western Europe to help to rebuild and revive the vast areas of Małopolska and Silesia deserted and ruined following the Mongol/Tatar invasion. But while many of the colonists eventually dissolved into the local population and started speaking Polish, some stuck to their mother tongues.
This goes especially for the whereabouts of the towns of Bielsko and Biała, an area once called by linguists the ‘Bielsko-Biała language enclave’ (Pol. bielsko-bialska wyspa językowa, or Bielitz-Bialaer Sprachinsel – find out more here). Here, in a handful of towns and villages around Bielsko and Biała the majority of the population retained their German identity and spoke standard German until World War II.
The exception were the towns of Starobielsko (Altbielitz) and Hałcnów (Alzen) – which today are both districts of Bielsko-Biała, whose inhabitants spoke a strange variety of German, mostly incomprehensible to users of standard German. Still, they considered themselves German. In fact, for the nationally biased German population living in Bielsko and Biała in the inter-war period (many of them sympathizers of the Nazi Jungdeutschpartei fuer Polen), the speakers of these strange ancient dialects became the bearers of the Ur-German national spirit, who survived in the surrounding sea of the Polish ethnic element, explains Bartłomiej Chromik.
The same attitude was applied to the inhabitants of nearby Wilamowice, another town in the enclave. Only in this case there was one little problem – the Wilamowiceans never considered themselves Germans. In fact, throughout history they consistently and emphatically claimed non-German ethnicity – a fact that may have contributed to the ultimate survival of Wilamowiceans and Wymysorys, whereas other German-speaking inhabitants of the enclave disappeared.
Flemish, Austrian, Wilamowicean… anti-Herderian
As Chromik suggests, this peculiar self-identification of the Wilamowicean community goes back to at least 19th century but is embedded in even earlier legends and traditions.
One of the most powerful legends or myths the Wilamowiceans have been telling about themselves is the myth of their Flemish, Frisian or even Anglo-Saxon descent. According to one popular tale which in its epic scope may invoke the founding myths of Greeks and Romans, the ancestors of today's Wilamowiceans lived once in the Southern regions of the Elbe river. Forced by the Danes to move to England they engaged in military actions there, but had to leave following the battle of Hastings and the defeat of King Harold, whom they had supported. The Norman invasion forced them to resettle again in the Netherlands. But it wasn’t until the great flood that struck this area that the community embarked on the new journey, one that would eventually end in what is today known as Wilamowice.
But, as Bartłomiej Chromik explains, with their Flemish self-identification, Wilamowiceans, rather than making a declaration of their ethnic or national identity, were above all saying simply: ‘We are foreigners’, which meant ‘We are different.’ In saying so, they were defying the classical Herderian view that establishes the relationship between the language spoken by a group and the idea of a nation. Matter of fact, this Vilamovian self-imposed identification was, according to Bartłomiej Chromik, to a much extent pre-nationalist in character. Quoting Neal Ascerson he says:
[...] If we listen to the voices of inhabitants of Wilamowice from that period (some of them are written down), an image of a phenomenon, which is very rare nowadays, of a pre-nationalistic community, would emerge. Despite the fact that people from Wilamowice were conscious of the distinctness of their language and some of their cultural features, the statement ‘we are’, which did not entail any political aspirations, was of much greater importance to them than the answer to the question ‘Who are we?’. More
This is also why, in the course of their history, they could have considered themselves Austrian, Polish, or Flemish depending on circumstances, and in spite of the pressure coming from the Germanisers, the scholar concludes.
Wilamowiceans in hell
The myth of Flemish descent was perpetuated in the founding piece of Vilamovian literature, Uf jer wełt, written in the early 20th century by Florian Biesik. Its author was a native of Wilamowice who, however, spent much of his life in Triest working as the director of a local post office. It was there, inspired by Dante’s Commedia Divina, that this Austro-Hungarian civil servant wrote his opus magnum.
Fylón yr wełt an ganc ałłán
ząs ych óm mjer óf hóhym śtán;
der mond kąm raus hyndróm gybjég,
szłyfyt myjch áj, wi s kynt yr wig.
These were the opening lines of the poem, designed to play the similar role as Dante’s piece had played for Italian literature: becoming a founding work of Wilamowicean literature and establishing the linguistic standard.
This was only partially successful. The work has never had any real popularity, even among the Wilamowiceans, which is not so surprising considering that Biesik placed many of the town’s inhabitants in the different regions of the Wilamowicean Purgatorio and Hell.
Nevertheless it was Biesik who may have helped to codify the Wilamowicean myth of their Flemish descent. How important this issue was is best illustrated by the conflict between Biesik and his brother Hermann, a doctor, social activist, and proponent of the German hypothesis in regard of the origins of the Wymysorys. The issue became a bone of contention, Hermann ended up changing his last name to Mojmir, and the two never got over it.
Being (non-)German during WW2 (and after)
No matter, whether correct or wrong, this possibly fantastic self-identification, enabled the Wilamowiceans to survive.
During World War II Wilamowice was considered a German colony which meant that there was an obligation to sign the Volksliste. Around 70 percent of the population did sign up, which entailed being drafted into the Wehrmacht. Those who didn’t sign the list were put in camps, in the aftermath of which some 20 people died.
This was a diabolical alternative where both choices could cause them death, explains Chromik.
It had also its dire consequences after the war, when the new Polish Communist authorities were engaged in re-settlement policy vis-a-vis the German populations.
This had obvious ideological reasons but, as Chromic explains, there was also another factor, namely, greed. Local Communists were keen on taking over the wealthy households of Wilamowiceans, and often engaged in aggressive takeovers.
This could have ended in the total annihilation of the Wilamowicean ethnic element, as many were re-settled to such remote destinations as Siberia or the Urals, and others were relocated to labour camps (notably, the nearby Auschwitz concentration camp turned into a camp for enemies of the Communist state).
If not for the efforts of one man, the story of Wymysorys could have ended right then and there. Fortunately, Józef Putek, who was at the time the Communist Minister of Post and Telegraph, and who had spent much of his early life in the nearby Wadowice, had connections with the high authorities and didn’t hesitate to use them, arguing for the rights of Wilamovians and emphasising their distinct, non-German identity.
All this time the Wymysorys language was banned (the same goes for material culture and traditional outfits). Intimidated by the authorities, Wilamowiceans ilamovians almost stopped speaking their language publicly, children who were raised during the war and didn’t know Polish were sent away and hidden with relatives.
In fact, it’s these post-war years that may have been the biggest trauma in the long history of Wilamowiceans, says Chromik. He adds:
People were simply scared. They stopped speaking and teaching Wymysorys to their children. It’s also the reason why today the language is spoken by only some 20-25 people.
However, in recent decades much in Wilamowice has changed.
Tymoteusz Król's story
In the late 80s, a manuscript of Florian Biesik’s poem was found in Wilamowice thank to the efforts of Tomasz Wicherkiewicz, the author of pioneering linguistic research on the Wymysorys.
In one of his books, Wicherkiewicz predicted that the language would naturally die out in the first decades of the 21st century. The probability that it would was indeed high. In 2001 Wilamowice had an estimated 80-100 native speakers, a number which has gone down to 20-25 people today. However, something has changed in between.
Tymoteusz Król was a boy when he heard about the inevitable demise of Wymysorys. It happened to be the language spoken to him by his grandmother, who was raising him. At that moment Tymek Król, then a prudent ten-year-old, decided he would not allow this to happen.
It proved a turning point in his life. He started documenting the language by talking to the elderly Wilamowiceans and recording their speech (amounting today to the 800 hours of invaluable audio material). When he was 13 years old, he wrote a letter to the Library of Congress demanding that Wymysorys be acknowledged as a language, a wish that was fulfilled several years later. Król went on to become a Wymysorys teacher and activist engaged in the revitalisation of Wymysoryś in Wilamowice. It is much thanks to his individual efforts, and those of other local activist Justyna Majerska, that the language is today once again taught and spoken in the schools of Wilamowice.
And Wilamowicean may be even extending beyond its original range. Starting this winter the language will also be taught in Warsaw as part of the courses offered by the Artes Liberales faculty, a department of Warsaw University.
The faculty has been running several programmes aimed at revitalizing the legacy of Wymysorys. One of them is the Endangered Languages programme. Comprehensive models for research and revitalization project which focuses on working out models and strategies for revitalizing languages such as Wymysorys, but also Lemko and Nahuatl. The final goal is reversing the processes of language erosion and bringing endangered languages back into use in their speech communities. More about revitalization...
But as Bartłomiej Chromik underlines, revitalizing a language like Wymysorys is a delicate task, and it is crucial that it be carried out responsibly. This is why the project also focuses on creating long-term conditions conducive to language development, like supporting cultural tourism in Wilamowice. And in recent years one can indeed observe growing interest.
The results of popularising Wymysorys can be seen already. In late February 2016, thanks to the efforts of Artes Liberales team, Teatr Polski in Warsaw hosted the premiere of J.R.R Tolkien’s The Hobbit staged in Wymysorys. The performance, organized as part of the celebration of International Mother Language Day, was prepared by the children studying the language in Wilamowice. The title: Hobbit. Hejn ȧn cyryk. And that's only the beginning.**
*All that glitters is not gold
**In September 2016, Wilamowice will become the seat of an international field school organised by the University of Warsaw's Artes Liberales Faculty as part of the European Commission's ENGHUM programme (Engaged humanities in Europe: Capacity building for participatory research in linguistic-cultural heritage). The field school will combine workshops for scholars with meetings with a conference for members of linguistic minorities. It’s probably the only time when one will be able to hear in Wilamowice not only Polish or Wymysorys, but also other endangered languages, like Lemko, Nahuatl or even Manx. To find out more click here.
Author: Mikołaj Gliński, 15 March 2016