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Languages You Never Knew Existed

Mikołaj Gliński
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While the biggest ethnic minorities in Poland include Silesians, Germans, Belarusians and Ukrainians, there are also ethnicities and languages nothing short of surprising. Lemko, Cashubian, Roma, and Wymysorys: all of these languages are still spoken today in Poland.

A German (or is it Flemish?) language spoken by 70 elderly people in a small town in Silesia, a Ruthenian dialect spoken today thousands kilometers away from where it originated, as well as the extinct language spoken by Poland's only historical Islamic minority now being revived in Eastern Poland. A taste of linguistic diversity of contemporary Poland.

For the historical languages spoken in this part of Europe see Poland Didn't always Speak Polish: The Lost Linguistic Diversity of Europe

1. Cashubian

2. Silesian

3. Wymysiöerys

4. Tatar

5. Lemko

6. Roma


1. Cashubian

csb. kaszëbsczi jãzëk, pol. język kaszubski, ISO 639-2 csb, Native speakers: 106,000 

Cashubian is the only official regional language in Poland today. This means it can be used as an auxillary language in governmental offices in the Polish Pomeranian voivodeship. (See map). According to the 2011 census, over 106 thousand people in Poland speak Cashubian, but is it a language at all?

Over the years there has been much debate whether or not Cashubian is a language. Some linguists have argued that it should be considered a dialect of Polish language rather than a distinct language (in fact, ethnolect may be the best description). The basic facts are that Cashubian is definitely a Slavic language (with a significant amount of loan words from German, and historical influence from Low German, as well as Old-Prussian and Polabian, both extinct), and the only descendant of the once vibrant so-called Pomeranian dialects (another extinct language in this category is Slovincian).

This makes Cashubian closely related to Polish. However, to the Polish ear Cashubian sounds totally incomprehensible. This is due to the altogether different phonology – obvious when looking at the Cashubian alphabet which developed special letters like ã (nasal a), é, ô, ò ([wɛ]), ù (IPA: [wu]) or the famous Cashubian shva ë [ə] (something between "e" and "a") – all of them obscure to speakers of official Polish.

You'll find a sound excerpt from the Cashubian national epic The Life and Adventures of Remus (Żëcé i przigòdë Remùsa) here. The book was written in 1938 by Aleksander Majkowski, and is considered the most perfect example of Cashubian literature. It was translated into Polish and English.


  2. Silesian

szl. ślōnskŏ gŏdka, pol. etnolekt śląski, ISO 639-3 szl, Native speakers: 529 000

Silesians (pol. Ślązacy) are considered the biggest minority group in Poland. According to the 2011 census, over 800 thousand people declared Silesian as their nationality and of those, (most of them in Silesian Voivodeship), and this sense of identity has been growing in recent years.

The Silesian language or ethnolect is actually a group of several subdialects spoken today mostly in Upper Silesia. Historically these dialects have been influenced by literary Polish, Czech, and German languages, as well as Slovakian and Schlaesisch (a dialect of German spoken in Lower Silesia before 1945). However, since most of the language's structure is Polish (most reminiscent of Old-Polish), Silesian is usually referred to as a Polish dialect.

Silesian language and Silesian identity have been gaining importance in recent years. In 2002 only 56,6 thousand people declared using Silesian at home, but by 2011 the number had risen almost ten times and is estimated at 529 thousand.


  3. Wymysorys, called also Vilamovian

wym. Wymysiöeryś, pol. język wilamowski, ISO 639-3 wym. Native speakers: 70-100

This language is spoken only by a handful of elderly people living in the small town of Wilamowice, close to Bielsko-Biała in Southern Poland. Most linguists acquainted with the micro-language spoken by 70-100 inhabitants of Wilamowice argue that the language derives from 12th-century Middle High German, and is therefore a dialect of German. However, native speakers of Wymysiöeryś claim otherwise. In fact, they consider their language to be a variety of Flemish. Wherever truth may lie, it is generally considered that the inhabitants of the town are descendants of German, Flemish and Scottish settlers who arrived in Poland during the 13th-century and have been living there ever since. (Up to WWII there also existed another community in the nearby town of Hałcnów, part of Bielsko-Biała today, speaking a similar West Germanic language - See Map).

Here's a short fragment of a Wymysorys lullaby written in Vilamovian alphabet (note that the 'ś' is equivalent to English 'sh', 'ł' denotes the "w" sound, and 'j' is 'y')

Śłöf maj buwła fest! 

Skumma fremdy gest, 

Skumma muma ana fettyn,

Z' brennia nysła ana epułn,

Śłöf maj Jasiu fest!

[Sleep, my boy, soundly!

Foreign guests are coming,

Aunts and uncles are coming,

Bringing nuts and apples,

Sleep, my Johnny, soundly!]

In 2009,Wymysiöerys was granted endangered language status by UNESCO. This was to a large extent realized through the effort of one man, Tymoteusz Król. In the early 2000s Król, a teenager growing up in Wilamowice, started to study the language which he heard in his surroundings, and then wrote a letter to the Library of Congress in which he described it. His letter was officially recognized by the International Organization for Standardization, which put Wymysiöerys on the language map as wym (ISO 639-3). Here's Tymoteusz Król monologuing in Wymysorys.


  4. Tatar language

tat. Tatarça, pol. Język tatarski, ISO 639-1, tt, Native speakers: 0

During migrations of the Golden Horde, Tatars started to settle in Poland and Lithuania as early as the 14th century. They have played an important role in the Polish-Lithuanian military, and became known because of their role in the battle of Tannenberg. Very soon Tatars ceased to use their native tongue - a Kipchak language of the Turkic language group - and started speaking the Slavic languages of their neighbours instead (mostly Belarusian and Polish). They did however preserve their Islamic religion (with liturgy in Arabic) - thanks to this the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was one of the few countries in Europe to have a consistent Islamic minority for over 600 years.

Now the Tatar language is taught again in Podlasie, home of the Tatar settlement. Tatar classes have been introduced in the small town of Sokółka in 2013, and since this year the project has been receiving funds from the Polish Ministry of Administration and Digitization. Interestingly enough, the language is studied not only by ethnic Tatars but also by other inhabitants of the town and those interested in understanding the culture of their historical neighbours. The vairety of Tatar taught in Sokółka is a Kazan-based dialect.


5. Lemko, known also as Rusyn and Ruthenian

rusyn. lemkovska/rusynska besida, pol. język łemkowski, ISO 639-3, rue

The history of Lemko people and their language is perhaps one of the saddest of post-war Poland. Lemko language is best described as a periphery dialect of Ukrainian spoken until 1947 in the Polish and Slovakian mountainous region of Beskid Niski [map]. Along with such closely-related ethnicities like the Huculs and Boykos, they are sometimes referred to as Carpathian Ruthenians. Squeezed in between the Polish and Slovak communities, Lemkos developed many traits similar to these languages (eg. stress on the penultimate syllable).

The centuries old traditional Lemko culture was almost fully destroyed in the years following WWII when the entire Lemko population in Poland was forced to leave their homes and resettle into Western lands, newly incorporated into Poland after WW2 (Silesia, Pomerania). It is estimated that in the process of three resettlements (the most famous of them being Akcja Wisła in 1947) 105-120 thousand people were resettled against their will, leaving behind their houses and villages. In the ensuing years the region became desolate and to this day remains one of the most sparsely populated regions in Poland.

Fortunately, especially after 1956 the Lemkos have been allowed to return, and some of them did. Others preserved some of their culture in the West, with Szczecin and Wrocław becoming new centers of Lemko intelligence. Today the Lemko language is spoken again in the villages of Lemkovyna, like Gorlice. It is estimated that around 10 thousand Lemkos returned, another 50 thousands live in Western and Northern Poland.

Famous Lemkos include artists like Nikifor Krynicki, Jerzy Nowosielski and... Andy Warhol, born Andrei Varhola, whose parents emigrated to the US from the small Slovakian village of Mikova. See Map


  6. Romani language

rom. romani ćhib, pol. język romski, ISO 639-2 rom

One of the most mysterious languages spoken in Poland today is the language of the Polish Roma. This ancient language can be traced back to ancient Indian dialects, as can be observed in many Roma words of Sanskrit roots. However, over many years of journeying and wandering – it is thought that the Roma left their Indian homeland around 1000 AD - the language spoken by the Roma in Europe carries the influences of many different languages.

For over 500 years of Roma presence in Poland, their culture and language remained isolated and obscure. One of the few people to ever penetrate and get to know Roma culture first hand was Jerzy Ficowski, Polish poet and scholar, who started traveling with the Polish Roma immediately after WWII. That was one of the last moments to experience the traditional lifestyle of the Roma traveling in their carts through different lands. Ficowski learned Romani and even translated into Polish the poems of the Romani poet Papusza, introducing for the first time the Romani poetry into Polish literature. This took an unfortunate turn when the members of the conservative Roma community accused her of giving away the secrets of Roma culture and language. Papusha was ostracised and suffered a serious mental breakdown.

In his monumental book on Roma culture in Poland Ficowski differentiated between 4 major dialects of Polish Roma, namely that of the Bergitka Roma (Polish Highland Roma), Polska Roma (Polish Lowland Roma), Kalderasha and Lovari, all of them mutually comprehensible only within certain basic vocabulary. According to the National census from 2011 there are around 17 049 Roma living in Poland today, but the number of Roma speakers may be way bigger – according to the "Ethnologue" it may oscillate at around 35 000. 

Author: Mikołaj Gliński, 20.03.2014

Language & Literature
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