Bun di, Romansch

The October 2020 bulletin of the UK Institute of Translation and Interpreting has an interesting article on Romansch, Switzerland’s fourth language by Emma Gledhill, a translator, who lives in a Romansh-speaking village.

She describes how there are at most 60,000 speakers of Romansch in the Graubunden canton of SE Switzerland, amounting to 0.5-0.85 of the Swiss population. It is a Romance language, which has had national language status since 1938. Almost all Romance speakers are bilingual, predominantly with German.

The Swiss geography with communities in valleys separated by mountains has led to there being five dialects of Romansch (Sursilvan, Surmiran, Puter, Vallader and Jauer), some of which have sub-dialects. Some children are taught with Romansch as the medium of instruction.

From Wikipedia, I read that there have been attempts to unify the dialects although use of this unified version has not caught on in speech and has caused conflicts when used as the medium of instruction in schools, some Romansch speakers/areas preferring their own variant of the language to the unified version.

According to Emma Gledhill, Romansch is a Rhaeto-Romance language along with the Ladin language of the Italian Dolomites and Friulian in north-east Italy. According to Wiki, this link is disputed, the academic dispute being known as the Questione ladina (this dispute had political associations as Italian irredentists claimed that the three languages were all dialects of Italian. I haven’t a date for this but it was presumably before the Second World War and could be way back and I don’t know what the latest developments are on Questione ladina or whether it’s a dead issue).

Wikipedia has a very informative article on Romansch, the features of the language and its links back to the Latin spoken in the period after the fall of the Western Roman Empire as well as a long book list for those wishing to delve deeper into the language. It is Romance language but with considerable numbers of imported German words and German has taken over in what used to be Romance-speaking areas.

Active efforts have been made to keep the language alive.

There is a daily paper in Romansch called  La Quotidiana founded in 1997 with support from the Romansh news agency Agentura da Novitads Rumantscha.  

The paper is protected by a paywall but here is a description in Romansch:

La Quotidiana (LQ) è la suletta gasetta dal di rumantscha. Ella cumpara da glindesdi enfin venderdi. La gasetta appartegna a la gruppa da medias Südostschweiz ed è confessiunalmain e politicamain neutrala. En La Quotidiana vegn oravant tut rapportà davart quai che curra e passa en la Svizra rumantscha ed en la politica grischuna. La politica naziunala ha pli pauca paisa e novitads internaziunalas èn plitost raras. Il dumber d’abunents confermà tenor la WEMF munta actualmain a 4341 (l’onn 2003: passa 5000).

If this feels a bit much, one can content oneself with “Bun di” (no prizes for working out what this means).

I was pretty sure that I’d once bought a Romansch dictionary when I was at a course near Berne years ago. But I can’t find a trace of it on my bookshelves so perhaps I only looked at the book (or possibly caressed it) and the intensity of desire to own it has been transformed in my memory into a purchase.

It could be somewhere as my library is getting to the point when I need a catalogue. But I feel that if I start to shelf mark my books, it will effectively take up the bit of my life not occupied by shifting books from place to place ( I haven’t really got into taking shelvies though). I have vague memories of being given some position of trust in the English literature section of my school library and getting carried away with the stamp I was given to put gold shelf mark numbers on books and making raids across subject boundaries, struggling with feelings of mauvais foi as I did so but incapable of controlling myself  (and too sneaky to attract the attention of any external controller). So with this history of shelf mark abuse and bibliomachismo, as well as the time factor, I’d better go easy on classification.

Romansch is anyway interesting (the only possible drawback being that I am collecting languages in the same way as some people acquire cats but I can live with this faiblesse).

The Sorbs

I’d heard of Sorbian, a Slavic language spoken by a minority in what was then the GDR, while I was studying for my uncompleted PhD. But I didn’t know much about them nor exactly where they lived.

But now I’ve just been in Cottbus in Lower Lusatia (Niederlausitz), about 130 km south-east of Berlin and seen the dual language street names, which whetted my appetite to learn more.

My sole source so far is a detailed description on Wikipedia, which provides a number of additional sources that I shall investigate (almost all the information below is from that source).

The Sorbian speaking population live in Upper and Lower Lusatia, each region having its distinct Sorbian dialect, the lower Lusatian containing more imported words from German. Practically all, if not all, Sorbs speak German as well and there are now many people of Sorbian origin, especially in Lower Lusatia (the region around Cottbus), who no longer understand Sorbian. Among religious Sorbs, Lutherans predominate in Lower Lusatia and Roman Catholics in Upper Lusatia.

The pressure on the Sorbs to assimilate increased in the nineteenth century, especially after the foundation of the German Empire in 1871, reaching a peak in the Nazi period, which denied the existence of the Sorbs as a distinct Slavic people but regarded them as Sorbian-speaking Germans. According to Wikipedia, this substantially spared them from ethnic cleansing although expressions of Sorbian culture were still sharply discouraged, organisations closed down and individuals persecuted. Checking on another source about the Sorbian writer Mina Witkojc (1893 to 1975), she was prohibited from exercising her profession (berufsverbot) by the Nazis.

In the post-war period under the GDR, the Sorbs were able to re-establish the Domowina, a political and cultural organisation serving as an umbrella organisation for Sorbian associations.  However, there were points of conflict relating to resistance to collectivisation of agriculture and religious practices. Wikipedia mentions an open uprising at Blot but gives no details.

The development of open cast mining of lignite (brown coal) affected the area where the Sorbian speakers lived, leading, among other things, to the abandonment of villages.

The number of Sorbs is given as 145,000 in 1945 and 40,000 today indicating a substantial decline in the past seventy five years (although perhaps the 1945 figure should be treated with caution, given conditions in Germany at that time). I have also seen larger estimates of the number of Sorbs today up to 60,000-80,000 (presumably hard to estimate exactly as the overwhelming majority are German citizens so the numbers are an estimate of cultural and linguistic affiliation).

A long-standing demand of Sorbian organisations is for the Sorbs to be united in one administrative area, for example in one federal state. At present, they are divided between two federal states, Upper Lausatia in Saxony and Lower Lausatia in Brandenburg. This administrative division goes back at least to the Congress of Vienna (1815) when Lausatia was divided between Saxony and Prussia.

These calls have not been heeded by the German government after re-unification, regardless of the Sorbs status as a recognised national minority.

The Sorbs have also been historically known as Lusatians or Wends. I’m not sure of the exact definition of Wends but it does not seem to refer to a specific people but to be a general term referring to people of  Slavic origin living in close proximity to the German-speaking population.

The term Sorb seems to be related to the word Serb, the Serbs apparently being referred to in Sorbian as South Sorbs (I’ve not checked this).

Before the second World War, there was once a much more complicated patchwork of interspersed nationalities in Germany and Eastern Europe. However, despite the activities of the Nazi regime, there are still at least remnants of numerous groups left. I’d like to learn more about these, among others the Sorbs and the Kashubians in Poland.

There is some material available in English. Gerald Stone’s book from 2015 “Slav Outposts in Central European history” looks like a good starting point. Much more is available in German. Works by Mina Witkojc mentioned above, who has been translated from Lower Sorbian to German but also by Jan Skala, who was active in an organisation for national minorities in Germany before it was dissolved by the Nazis. There’s a book about him “Jan Skala – ein Sorbe in Deutschland” by Peter Kroh from 2009.

That was the summer

1 September and this strange summer is drawing to a close. For me the most intensively Swedish summer ever, leaving me better informed about my surroundings and reducing my exile-related feelings of dislocation and not belonging. At the same time, a feeling of being cheated, that the summer with its peculiarities doesn’t quite count, that it wasn’t enough to compensate for the cold and dark to come.  But we have to accept that too and find satisfaction in playing a bad hand well, aware that there is no guarantee that tomorrow will be like today and that the only reasonable expectation is the unexpected.