When Christmas days are gone, all the new year parties are over, and the dark and cold winter days are here, Sorbian people start their own festive season. A village festival in the middle of snowy January in an unheated barn? No problem!
The Sorbs are an ethnic minority who inhabit the Lusatia region of eastern Germany. Divided into the Upper Sorbian and Lower Sorbian people, they speak two distinct Slavic languages—both of which are endangered.
In the Upper Lusatian village of Nuknicy (or Nucknitz in German), hundreds of people pile on blankets, scarves, and thick coats for Jolka, a celebration each January full of singing, dancing, and a lineup of Sorbian-language programs prepared by their relatives, friends, and neighbors. Throughout the region, children eagerly await another event known as Ptači Kwas or “Bird Wedding” on January 25. Kindergartners dress up in the Sorbian national costumes of a bride, groom, and braška (wedding emcee) and reenact a wedding procession, singing traditional songs for their mothers, fathers, and grandparents. Later in the season, to drive out the winter, Lower Sorbian women dust off their traditional dresses and prepare for the big village carnival party called Zapust.
After immersing ourselves in Sorbian language revitalization studies for so many months, we wanted to be there. We wanted to understand why Lower Sorbs so passionately uphold cultural traditions but do not extend the same effort to use of the Lower Sorbian language. Sorbs shifted to German because Lower Sorbian was openly and heavily oppressed, especially during the Nazi regime. Later, the language was symbolically protected but in practice ignored by the communist East German Republic.
Most families stopped speaking Lower Sorbian with their children between the 1930s and 1950s. A new generation was raised without knowing their mother tongue—but they did carry on other Sorbian traditions. Festival and holiday traditions persisted, even during the years of the persecution of Lower Sorbian speakers and the indifference during the years that followed. Today, through costumes and customs, children know their heritage and culture. And now the language is the object of revitalization efforts, mainly through primary education, and we want to understand how the community’s attitude toward language is changing.
In the village of Strjažow (Dissen-Striesow), we met four generations of women from the same family preparing for Zapust. It brought us closer to understanding the complicated fate of the Lower Sorbian language. For them, what makes Zapust special are the traditional dresses with huge coifs—a source of pride for Lower Sorbian women. In the twentieth century, this Spreewaldtracht coif was well known in nearby Berlin, where many Lower Sorbian nurses went to work. The “Wendish costume” with its lace apron and iconic nursing hat stood for down-to-earth quality. Today, many hours before the celebration, women gather to get dressed with the help of the older ladies. It takes several hours and hundreds of needles to prepare the dresses properly. For us, this was an excellent opportunity to talk with some of the women.
The oldest woman was born before World War II—we’ll call her Grandmother. She is “the master of needles,” and she was skeptical about our interest in the Sorbian language.
“My grandmother still spoke Sorbian, but our mother was afraid to speak it,” she explained. “She raised us in High German, and it is good like that.”
She seemed to find our questions about the language problematic, so she answered them quietly, in German, as if she were still ashamed of the language of her origins. She did express, however, her pride in helping to keep the Lower Sorbian traditions alive.
Her daughter, whom we’ll call Mother, was the chief organizer of the Zapust celebration in her village. She admitted she could not speak Sorbian and had never been interested in learning it, but protecting the Sorbian community and preserving their traditions and costumes have always been essential for her.
The younger woman, the Daughter, in her late twenties, is a Lower Sorbian language teacher. She wanted to introduce some Lower Sorbian language elements into the Zapust celebration.
“I studied Sorbian to make my grandmother proud of me,” she joked. “Grandmother does not want to speak with me in Lower Sorbian. Grandfather neither, but he uses some Sorbian words when I speak it.”
When studying in Leipzig, the Daughter discovered that Upper Sorbian still serves as a medium of communication in daily life. She feels this would not be possible in Lower Lusatia, as even for her it is difficult to speak Lower Sorbian all the time.
“This aim is utopic, but we want to maintain it in a way.”
She speaks mainly German with her daughter, mixing in some Lower Sorbian words and children’s songs. Nevertheless, she is proud of her knowledge of the language and speaks a great deal of how important it is to maintain it. She persisted in reading the welcoming text in Lower Sorbian at the central moment of the Zapust celebration.
The Granddaughter does not speak yet. She is only nine months old and recently started attending the Lower Sorbian nursery. As a participant in the Witaj project, which has been leading revitalization efforts through education initiatives for twenty years, she is destined to become a new speaker of Lower Sorbian.
All the people from the village met that afternoon. Accompanied by an orchestra, they formed a procession comprised of more than one hundred pairs in traditional costumes. After taking a photo of all the couples and listening to a bilingual speech in German and Lower Sorbian by the Daughter, the procession walked through the entire village, stopping only to dance and drink—all this at ten degrees Fahrenheit! And the traditional women’s dress is sleeveless, light fabric. There is no coat. Their shoes are traditional dancing shoes, and women wear a knee-length skirt with nylon tights. We wondered how they could bear the cold when we could hardly stand it in our warm winter clothes. The event ended with a whole night of dances in the village inn.
During the celebration, the role of the Sorbian language was only symbolic. The Daughter was the only person speaking it. There were no conversations, no songs sung in Sorbian. The language trauma experienced by the Grandmother is still prevalent in the village—and in all of Lower Lusatia. Reinvention of Lower Sorbian traditions, represented by the Mother, reinforces community identity, and the presence of traditional costumes makes the atmosphere more Sorbian.
The success of Lower Sorbian language revitalization is now in the hands of the Daughter’s generation: whether they will use the language openly, speak it with their children, and send them to Sorbian schools. This is the only way the language will take root with the newest generation of Lower Sorbs. And the winter gives way to a new Sorbian spring.
Nicole Dowoły-Rybińska and Cordula Ratajczak are the principal investigators for the Sorbian languages case study of the SMiLE project of the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. Dowoły-Rybińska is a professor at the Polish Academy of Science. Ratajczak, a new speaker of Upper Sorbian, works at the Sorbian Institute.
SMiLE Research Awards are sponsored by the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage with funding from Ferring Pharmaceuticals Inc.