Lands of Lost Languages

The blog of late has been fairly devoted to the promotion of the farm project but, as anyone who has started their own business knows, you can’t be too eager to quit your day job. Thus I find myself after a utopian two weeks in Kafountine here in a rural part of Poland, adjacent to the borders with Czech Republic and Slovakia. Together with language researchers from all over the world, hosted by the University of Warsaw and supported from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme and the Twinning project “Engaged Humanities”, I participated in an autumn fieldschool which is centred around the documentation and revitalisation of “Europe’s Most Mysterious Language”, Wymysorys or Wymysiöeryś.

IMG_9742.jpgThe school is based at the lovely hotel Przystań nad Sołą situated in a forest adjacent to a stream. The staff of the hotel have been more than kind and accommodating to all our dietary restrictions and needs. Each morning we set out in four targeted groups to conduct field work – two in the villages, one in the schools, and one designing a museum to house the cultural artefacts and clothing that the preservers of the language also retain. Our group has been examining language attitudes. In the afternoon everyone comes back together again to share our experiences from the morning and then we have back to back presentations about creative methodologies such as game translation into endangered languages, minority language situations from equally far flung areas of the world in Mexico, China, even islands in and around the UK. In the evenings we hold the debates, performances, group work, or impromptu parties  The participants are multimodal and translators are on hand as well so everyone can express themselves.

The idea of the field school is ingenious and although I’m sure the organizers will be frazzled by  the end, I believe their efforts will pay off. The practical lessons on media recording by professional a videographer and sound engineer, interview techniques by SOAS’ own Julia Sallabank, and language documentation and data management computer software by me could be put to immediate use in a real field setting with speakers for language data and community members for language attitudes. Because there are language documenters from a variety of theoretical backgrounds working with populations, also represented, from minority languages of the world, the local community and its researchers can gain both insights and courage that they’re not alone.


The local media has also been an integral part of the field school. Not only did the sound and video experts share their knowledge, they also used it to thoroughly document our documentation, presentations (each participant gave one), performance (flute, accordion, singing, dancing), guided town tours, and public debate and celebrations. All this publicity will serve to show awareness off the language revitalization efforts. Indeed language attitudes are shifting. Much of this is due to the efforts of the language activists working in the area, one of whom is quite a star. Tymoteusz Król, otherwise known as Tymek, has been advocating for the preservation and revitalisation of the language since he was eleven years old. A group of us had occasion to visit Tymek at his home, where we found a library of old books in a multitude of  languages.


Jan Fox, 1894 – 1918/Anna Foks, 1928 – 2001

However, the efforts to maintain and revive the language are met with resistance of many forms. On the one hand, there is a national identity that sees the use of any language or culture which is not distinctly Polish as being problematic. One person remarked to us how old people speak a mixed kind of slang-like Polish yet young people speak clean Polish and how the latter was much of a relief. On the other hand, the history of the area and its relationship to both WWII and Communism are not so far in the past that they have been forgotten. The communist leaders of one village purportedly wrote a letter requesting that Wilamowice would be sent to the Siberian concentration camps, while one from other neighbouring did not. To some, just as Austrians  are considered German because that’s what they speak, so are Wilamowicians.


IMG_9722.jpgFurther, it is no secret that the village was isolated and practiced endogamy, but it was also mentioned on several occasions that the people are inbred. Their isolation was then not only due to the geographic location, but also to their refusal to integrate with the external community. Were they themselves trying to establish a pure lineage from their supposed German heritage? Many have mentioned their willingness to sign the Deutsche Volksliste when none but three families outside the village would do so, and only to avoid the alternative fate of being exiled to Siberia (incidentally, one of our group is from Buryatia. Upon telling a group of elderly people this in a care home in Wilamowice, they expressed their regret for his situation!)

Today we IMG_9751.jpgcompleted our visit of all four areas surrounding Wilamowice. Today’s visit may have been the most informative as we spoke with a historian whose wife is somewhat of a linguist so he had clear ideas of what the definition of language and dialect were. This distinction made his feelings that much more obvious when he remarked that Wymysorys is a Polish-German dialect whereas Silesian (with its one million speakers established orthography) is a language. Further he noted that each area here has its own culture and dialect so that of Wilamowice is nothing different (though apparently he amended these statements later in a more private setting after our group split up and they serendipitously encountered him later).


Being that I came to the field school from a conference in Poznań, and to that virtually directly from a visit from my family, a symposium in Jena, vacation in The Gambia and Senegal, I didn’t have the time to thoroughly investigate the situation prior to arrival (I take the life with this much movement as one journey at a time). Even though the people of the area around Wilamowice speak often and almost freely about so many of the details of The Holocaust, I had not been aware of how close Auschwitz is to Wilamowice. Today’s offer to visit there on the way to the airport took me by surprise. Even though the implications of The Holocaust on the people and their mixed language has been clearly and frequently stated (the need to switch identities in order to not be exiled or killed by the Germans on the one hand and then to be Polish enough not to be driven out, again, or worse, on the other), the fact that this, the largest of all the camps, is so close cannot be a coincidence. Not to imply that these people had something to do with its establishment; rather it seems, as I’ve postulated for the Bangande and their secret language, a means for survival. As many others and I have surrounded by being thought of as a local by the use of a language despite every apparent visual cue to suggest otherwise, languages can mask us with a cloak of in-group identity. Whoever these people once were, and whatever they were trying to protect, they’re survivors now and their way of speaking has an equal right of keeping up with them. IMG_9732.JPG

Special thanks to the organisers, Justyna Olko and Bartomiej Chromik

  • For more information about Wymysorys see,

Researching, Documenting, and Reviving Wymysiőeryś by Tomasz Wicherkiewicz and Justyna Olko in Integral Strategies for Language Revitalisation with editors Justyna Olko, Tomasz Wicherkiewicz, Robert Borges





One thought on “Lands of Lost Languages

  1. Pingback: Living and Leaving London #FF | Radio Free Africa

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