Rare Languages #3: Lower Sorbian and Upper Sorbian

By | March 5, 2023
Bilingual town sign in Bautzen, the cultural center of the Sorbs. Image: Frank Weiner

The Sorbian language is an endangered Slavic language spoken in Germany, particularly in the region of Lusatia. Lusatia (in German: Lausitz) is a historical region located in eastern Germany and western Poland. There are two main varieties of Sorbian, Upper Sorbian and Lower Sorbian, both of which are mutually intelligible. Despite being similar, these two languages have distinct differences in grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation.

Upper Sorbian is spoken in the southern part of the Lusatia region, mainly in the state of Saxony, while Lower Sorbian is spoken in the northern part of Lusatia, primarily in the state of Brandenburg. The city of Bautzen (Upper Sorbian: Budyšin) is traditionally the political and cultural center of the Sorbs. Lower Sorbian has around 8,000 speakers, while Upper Sorbian has about 40,000 speakers.

In the 17th century, there were over 300,000 Sorbian speakers. In the 1900 census, a total of 93,032 inhabitants of the German Empire stated “Wendish” as their mother tongue, but the actual number of speakers was likely higher. In the past, the term “Wendish” was used to refer to both Upper and Lower Sorbian, as well as other Slavic languages. However, today the term is only used for Lower Sorbian and is considered derogatory by most Upper Sorbs. Since the mid-1960s, Sorbian education was no longer mandatory, leading to a sharp decline in student numbers. Only in a few rural areas has Sorbian survived as an everyday language beyond the 20th century, particularly in the Catholic part of the settlement area along the Klosterwasser river in Upper Lusatia, where assimilation and language loss were limited compared to the larger Protestant area and Lower Lusatia.

It is a West Slavic language, closely related to Polish, Czech, and Slovak. Upper Sorbian shows more similarities to Czech, while Lower Sorbian shows more similarities to Polish. Despite its long history and rich cultural heritage, the Sorbian language is facing a serious threat of extinction. Despite its historical and cultural significance, Sorbian is facing several challenges that put its future in jeopardy. One of the biggest obstacles is the declining number of speakers. According to the latest estimates, there are only about 20,000 Sorbian speakers left, most of them living in rural areas. Younger generations are increasingly abandoning their language in favor of German, the dominant language in the region.

Sorbian is officially recognized as a minority language and thereby receives funding by the government for its preservation and promotion. Howevery, many Sorbian cultural institutions, such as theaters, museums, and publishing houses, struggle to stay afloat due to a lack of resources. Many people believe that Sorbian does not receive enough support from the government. Despite these challenges, there are still efforts to preserve and promote Sorbian language and culture. There are Sorbian language schools, radio and television programs, and newspapers. There are also organizations that work to document and preserve Sorbian traditions, such as folk songs, dances, and costumes. The Institut za sorabistiku (Institute of Sorbian Studies) at the University of Leipzig is the only university institution that deals with the Sorbian language.

Furthermore, the Sorbian language has a unique literary tradition. Many notable Sorbian writers have contributed to Sorbian literature, including Jurij Brězan, Handrij Zejler, and Jakub Bart-Ćišinski. Their works range from poetry and prose to plays and essays, and they serve as a testament to the richness and diversity of Sorbian culture.

The Sorbian language is a valuable part of the cultural heritage of Europe, and it is worth preserving. The Sorbian language is a unique and beautiful example of the diversity of human expression, and it deserves to be celebrated and cherished.

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