Not dying, are you?

18. August 2014 § Hinterlasse einen Kommentar

24 hours spent in the fascinating sphere of the little-known language Sorbian could hardly make up for the nearly half a million hours I lived without knowing about it. I had written to the Serbski Institut in Bautzen, Saxony, Germany (or rather: Budyšin) to ask for a meeting with someone in the know. It was Dr. Jana Schulz who kindly agreed to see me for an hour or so just before her holidays. Oddly, we had been corresponding once about matters of second language acquisition, but neither of us remembered the names and exact circumstances. I felt flattered as she was just correcting the proofs of a book she’s about to publish in which she cites from a textbook I co-authored and of which she said it was her favourite book. Well, there are few better ways to make you feel welcome than that.

The facts about Sorbian, a west-slavic language, can easily be gathered on the web. What was intriguing about the meeting was the spin given to them. There remains a tiny core area in the Oberlausitz where many if not most families use Sorbian on a daily basis, that is, as long as mother and father are Sorbian speakers and do not belong to the lost generation, sons and daughters of people who were adults under the Nazis, who tried to suppress the language at any cost. There are about 10’000 such speakers left, or fewer, as the director of the institute later told me. I did check up for myself, and as I was walking through Crostwitz/Chrósćicy on my way from a church service, I heard voices through a kitchen window which sounded Sorbian. The Catholic church is one of the institutions that is crucial in preserving the language; the young altar servers spoke it, the adults sang in it, and the old lady wearing her traditional costume whispered in it so loudly in the pre-service silence that her pious daughter had to continuously shush her. And it was the Chrósćicy priest, who, in 1939, had encouraged his flock to identify themselves as Sorbian (or Wenden, as they also called themselves) in the Nazi government’s census. In the graveyard, the majority of tombstones were inscribed in Sorbian, but none in two languages although all Sorbians are bilingual.

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Jana Schulz introduced me into the work of the institute, the state-subsidised publisher and the work of the radio and TV station MDR, which broadcasts a daily three hours of Sorbian news and programmes. A big tome, a Sorbian cultural encyclopedia, has recently been published after umpteen years of work, and of course, the institute’s staff network with other representatives of minority languages. Not only through work, as Jana assures me, who spends her skiing holidays in South Tyrol where she can peek into the Ladin language. She is particularly engaged in bilingual schooling, or rather in the Sorbian pre-school, which is obviously key to the survival of the language. Today, the Witaj Language Institute employs 15 people who develop and publish school books and media. That is an enormous investment of one of the less rich federal states of Germany.

Ironically, most of the Sorbian support institutions were created by the German Democratic regime after 1945 and Jana Schulz is convinced that they did contribute to the strengthening of the cultural identity of the people e.g. in comparison with the Friesians, who didn’t have such resources. At one time, 10’000 pupils were enrolled in bilingual schools. The population in addition was much less mobile than their Western counterparts. The ideological undercurrents of these endeavours did of course not tie in well with the thrust of the church.

Today, the young keep the institute busy by circulating such Sorbian un-words as ‚simswać’, from German youth slang ‚simsen’ (sending an sms or text message) and the Slavic verbal ending. What should the linguists do? Accept the bastard word in the official dictionary, probe Polish and Czech for better alternatives or do something as sober as English and go for a neutral compound such as ‚text message’ in good Sorbian?

It looks as if Lower Sorbian is likely to disappear in what could be less than a generation, while Upper Sorbian might survive a bit longer. The protestants are doing a bad job, Jana suggested, the parson usually marries a German-speaking woman and is too busy to get his own children to learn Sorbian. But neither of us uses the verb „aussterben“ (die out) for the language, and we agree that it’s not a matter of life and death for the people concerned. There is no war, and human rights are respected around here. As I leave the institute, a glance over my shoulder tells me that a bunch of happy linguists and pedagogues have their work cut out for some years to come.

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