Languages You Never Knew Existed
#language & literature
default, Languages You Never Knew Existed, Silesian fan day by the Spodek in Katowice, photo: Maciej Jarzębiński / Forum, silesian-forum.jpg
While the biggest ethnic minorities in Poland include Silesians, Germans, Belarusians and Ukrainians, there are also ethnicities and languages nothing short of surprising. Lemko, Kashubian, Roma and Wymysorys: all of these languages are still spoken in Poland today.
A German (or is it Flemish?) language spoken by 70 elderly people in a small town in Silesia, a Ruthenian dialect spoken today thousands of kilometres 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. The linguistic diversity of the past maybe have changed, but here's a taste of the tongues of contemporary Poland.
Poland Didn't Always Speak Polish: The Lost Linguistic Diversity of Europe
ksb. kaszëbsczi jãzëk, pol. język kaszubski, ISO 639-2 csb, native speakers: 106,000
Kashubian is the only official regional language in Poland today. This means it can be used as an auxilliary language in governmental offices in the Polish Pomeranian voivodeship. According to the 2011 census, over 106,000 people in Poland speak Kashubian, but is it really a language?
Over the years, there has been much debate whether or not Kashubian is a language. Some linguists have argued that it should be considered a dialect of the Polish language rather than a distinct language (in fact, 'ethnolect' may be the best description). The basic facts are that Kashubian 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).
How to Identify Any Slavic Language at a Glance
A sign in Kashubian in a restaurant on the shores of a bay, photo: Andrzej Bogacz/Forum
This makes Kashubian closely related to Polish. However, to the Polish ear, Kashubian sounds totally incomprehensible. This is due to the altogether different phonology – obvious when looking at the Kashubian alphabet which developed special letters like ã (nasal a), é, ô, ò ([wɛ]), ù (IPA: [wu]) or the famous Cashubian schwa 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 Kashubian literature. It has been translated into both Polish and English.
Exotic, Endangered, Near-Extinct... 5 Languages You Can Study in Warsaw
Photo from a 'Slonski Godkomat' event organised by the Stowarzyszenie Slonsko Ferajna, Katowice, 2016, photo: Maciej Jarzebinski/Forum
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 800,000 people declared Silesian as their nationality (most of them in the 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 Schlesisch (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.
The Silesian language and Silesian identity have been gaining importance in recent years. In 2002, only 56,600 people declared using Silesian at home, but by 2011, the number had risen almost tenfold and is estimated to be around 529,000.
3. Wymysorys (also known as Vilamovian)
What Is Silesia?
Tymoteusz Król, promoter of the Wymysorys language and Wilamowicean culture, photo: Tomasz Fritz / Agencja Gazeta
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 the 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. (Until WWII, there also existed another community in the nearby town of Hałcnów, part of Bielsko-Biała today, speaking a similar West Germanic language).
Here's a short fragment of a Wymysorys lullaby written in the Vilamovian alphabet (note that the 'ś' is equivalent to English 'sh', 'ł' denotes the 'w' sound, and 'j' is 'y')
|Śłöf maj buwła fest!
||Sleep, my boy, soundly!
|Skumma fremdy gest,
||Foreign guests are coming,
|Skumma muma ana fettyn,
||Aunts and uncles are coming,
|Z' brennia nysła ana epułn,
||Bringing nuts and apples,
|Śłöf maj Jasiu fest!
||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 recognised by the International Organisation for Standardisation, which put Wymysiöerys on the language map as 'wym (ISO 639-3)'. Here's a clip of Tymoteusz Król monologuing in Wymysorys.
4. The Tatar language
Central Europe's Most Mysterious Language
Tatar prayerbook from the 19th century from the History Museum in Białystok's collection, the largest Tatar collection in Poland, photo: Anatol Chomicz/forum
tat. Tatarça, pol. język tatarski, ISO 639-1 tt, native speakers: 0
During the 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 Grunwald (also known as Tannenberg). It wasn't long after that the Tatars ceased using 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.
Today, the Tatar language is being taught again in Podlasie, home of the Tatar settlement. Tatar classes were introduced in the small town of Sokółka in 2013, and the project has been receiving funds ever since from the Polish Ministry of Administration and Digitisation. 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 variety of Tatar taught in Sokółka is a Kazan-based dialect.
5. Lemko (also known also as Rusyn or Ruthenian)
In the Footsteps of Poland's Only Muslim Minority
rusyn. lemkovska/rusynska besida, pol. język łemkowski, ISO 639-3 rue
The history of the Lemko people and their language is perhaps one of the saddest of post-war Poland. The Lemko language is best described as a periphery dialect of Ukrainian spoken until 1947 in the Polish and Slovakian mountainous region of the Lower Beskids. 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 (such as a 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 of Poland was forced to leave their homes and resettle in the western lands that were newly incorporated into Poland after WWII (Silesia, Pomerania). It is estimated that over the course of three resettlements (the most famous of them being Akcja Wisła in 1947), 105-120,000 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, after the Stalinist era ended in 1956, the Lemkos were allowed to return, and some of them did. Others preserved some of their culture in the West, with Szczecin and Wrocław becoming new centres of Lemko culture. Today, the Lemko language is being spoken again in the villages of Lemkovyna, like Gorlice. It is estimated that around 10,000 Lemkos returned, with another 50,000 living 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.
6. Romani language
The Lost Homeland and Lasting Identity of the Lemko People
Don Vasyl, a Roma music star, at a Roma music festival in Łódz, photo: Grzegorz Gałasiński/East News
the polish language project
Regions of the Great Heresy and Environs - Jerzy Ficowski
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 the many Roma words that have 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.
Over the 500 years of a 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, a Polish poet and scholar, who started travelling with the Polish Roma immediately after WWII. That was one of the last moments one could experience the traditional lifestyle of the Roma travelling in their carts through different lands. Ficowski learned Romani and even translated into Polish the poems of the Romani poet Papusza, introducing Romani poetry into Polish literature for the first time. 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. Papusza was subsequently ostracised and suffered a serious mental breakdown.
In his monumental book on Roma culture in Poland, Ficowski differentiated between four 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 a certain basic vocabulary. According to the 2011 national census, 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
Papusza by Joanna Kos-Krauze and Krzysztof Krauze - Image Gallery