Academic journal article Journal on Ethnopolitics and Minority Issues in Europe : JEMIE

A Language That Forgot Itself

Academic journal article Journal on Ethnopolitics and Minority Issues in Europe : JEMIE

A Language That Forgot Itself

Article excerpt

The mystery persists. In the entry devoted to Poland in the respectable reference on the languages of the world, the Ethnologue, the number of native speakers of German living in the country is conservatively estimated at half a million.1 Until well into the 1990s German sources spoke of one million or a million and a half Germans in Poland. It is noted that the region where they live in compact areas of settlement is the countryside of Upper Silesia. But in the region the local Germans overwhelmingly communicate in the Silesian language.

Silesia Superioris, Oberschlesien, Haute-Silésie, Horní Slezsko, Górny Slask, Felso-Szilézia-it is known by so many names, as many homelands in Central Europe were before the powers-that-be minced and fitted this part of the continent into the unbecomingly tight and too-small pantyhose of national polities, each so pure, homogenous through and through, so painfully monolingual. Each, a country of a single tongue, jealously guarded against encroachment by the enemy idioms of its neighbours. Every capital loudly disavowed foreign imposters stealthily laying a claim to its national language. The nation-state's monolingual monopoly on its own language was the mantra that seized the day in the twentieth century. The gospel of cuius regio, eius lingua spread rapidly, like steppe fire, and still holds Central Europe as its enthralled captive, the Europe that ceased to be able to see further than the tip of the unquiet muscle dancing in its mouth.

I was born in Upper Silesia, or Slonsk, as the region's natives refer to their homeland. Today it lies mostly in Poland, extending from Opole to Katowice, while its southern sliver straddles the border and unrolls itself into the north-east of the Czech Republic, between Opava and Ostrava. In the depths of the 1970s, in Kedzierzyn-Kozle, I was a small boy running on the undulating pasture that began where the pine forest on the hill near Chemik Cinema stopped. It extended to the housing estate of almost-stately four-family houses built for the staff of the local power plant by the not-yet-shoddy pre-war architects of 20 years earlier. Friends called out to me; people in the street answered the polite greetings which Mum had taught me to utter. It was she who shouted her heart out calling me to come back home when night was falling. All their tongues worked on and on. We talked, or else we sulked and did not.

Never did I have a need for naming the medium through which we channelled these exchanges. It was Mr. Chylek, sunbathing on a deckchair in one of the gardens at the back of our house, who pronounced that it was my last carefree summer, and soon some strange "edukeishn" would commence and seize me for good. A word as fearsome and threatening as "riting". I realized that something was the matter when the word "school" began to pop up with increasing frequency in reference to myself, after I had turned five. In quieter moments before sleep, or after church, on a lazy Sunday afternoon, Mum would take me aside and keep telling me, "You don't say kolo but rower,2 not dej se karnonc but daj sie przejechac,3 not Oma but...".

I understood soon enough. After starting school, from one day to the next, my friends and I, who played hide-and-seek, war games, or cops and robbers, had to cease saying jo for 'I,' because in "correct Polish" it was ja. So now we knew we spoke "Polish", and had to speak it "correctly", because what we had uttered up to now was some "filthy corrupted Polish", the teacher informed us gently and convincingly. In no time our language was straightened out in our mouths, leaving us in rather straitened circumstances: "Jacek! Dej se karn..."

"What d'you want, Tomek?"

"I mean 'daj sie przejechac', gut?"4

"The teacher said we can't say 'gut', only 'dobrze', remember?" We almost stuttered. Talking in inverted commas before we were even able to write caused us difficulty. The invisible punctuation marks sliced the happy yarn of our voices into sentences and paragraphs. …

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