The Social and Political History of the Polish Language in the Long 19th Century

The Polish language originated as the sociolect of the Polish-Lithuanian nobility, which meant that its standardization was not steeped in a regional dialect, like that of French in the Romance dialect of Paris, or German in the language of Martin Luther’s German translation of the Bible (in other words, the Germanic dialect of the Electorate of Saxony). In the pre-written period of this language, prior to the 16th century, highly mobile nobles of various ethnic origins from all corners of the Commonwealth of the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania either contributed to this sociolect from various Slavic dialects or just adopted this coalescing social koine when they happened to be non-Slavophone. Polish continued as the sociolect of the Polish-Lithuanian nobility well into the 19th century, after the erasure of Poland-Lithuania from the political map of Europe in the late 18th century. In the early 16th century, Polish achieved the status of co-official language in the Commonwealth’s Kingdom of Poland, alongside Latin. At that time, Polish was modelled on the pre-Hussite (Catholic, ‘non-heretic’) Bohemian (Czech), both in terms of spelling and vocabulary. The Commonwealth’s political and economic might caused aspiring Orthodox boyars (nobles) from Moldavia and Wallachia (or today’s Romania and Moldova) to adopt it as a language of wider communication. In 1697 the Cyrillic-based Ruthenian (Ruski, seen today as the source of Belarusian and Ukrainian) was banned in the Commonwealth’s Grand Duchy of Lithuania, and replaced with Polish, which became the polity’s main official language, and thus consolidated the cultural Polonization of its nobility (who nevertheless persisted to identify themselves as ‘Lithuanians,’ or the Grand Duchy’s ruling elite). Specifically, the ban applied to the use of ‘Cyrillic letters’, which were ideologically associated with Orthodox Christianity (by the same token, in Muscovy – as Russia was known prior to 1721 – the Latin alphabet and language were disparaged as ‘Catholic’). Hence, Ruthenian written in ‘Polish’ or ‘Catholic’ Latin letters, with an addition of numerous Latin phrases, was perceived as Polish in Poland-Lithuania. As a result, the Polish language at that time straddled, what since the early 19th century has been imagined as, an ‘impassable’ classificatory divide between the ‘West Slavic’ and ‘East Slavic’ languages. (In observed sociolinguistic reality on the ground, both groups of languages actually belong to the North Slavic dialect continuum.)

Samuel Linde. 1807. Słownik Języka Polskiego [Dictionary of the Polish Language] (Vol 1)
Samuel Linde. 1807. Słownik Języka Polskiego [Dictionary of the Polish Language] (Vol 1)

Between 1772 and 1795 Russia’s Romanovs, Prussia’s Hohenzollerns and the Habsburgs (later of the Austrian Empire, founded in 1804) erased Poland-Lithuania from the political map of Europe in three successive partitions (1772, 1793 and 1795). In all the three resultant partition zones, the Polish-Lithuanian nobility retained their property and privileges, and remained the ruling elite. In the Prussian zone it meant Polish-German bilingualism in education and local administration. But in the Habsburg’s Galicia the situation entailed the reinstatement of Latin as the main medium of education and administration, prior to its replacement with German in 1784 across the Habsburg hereditary lands. Galicia’s official Latin-German bilingualism gave way to full German-language administration in the late 1810s, following the end of the Napoleonic Wars. In 1807-9, Napoleon constructed a rump Polish-Lithuanian polity named the Duchy of Warsaw (Duché de Varsovie) from the former Commonwealth’s territories seized by Prussia and the Habsburgs in the last two partitions. The Duchy’s official language was Polish and its ruler was the King of Saxony (then part of the Confederation of the Rhine, included within the French Empire) from the Wettin dynasty that had ruled Poland-Lithuania during the first half of the 18th century. Another consequence of the establishment of this Duchy was the transformation of Prussia from a Germano-Slavic kingdom into a predominantly Germanic polity with a substantial Slavophone minority.


The replacement of Latin with Polish as the main medium of education for Poland-Lithuania’s nobility began in 1773, when a Commission of National Education (KEN, Komisja Edukacji Narodowej) was founded in order to take over the Jesuits’ Latin-language educational system for noble sons, when the pope dissolved the Order of Jesus in the same year. KEN was the first-ever ministry of education in Europe. It decisively replaced Latin with Polish as the medium of education in elementary and secondary schools, alongside the two universities (known as ‘academies’) located in the Kingdom’s former capital of Kraków (Cracow) and in the Grand Duchy’s capital of Wilno (Vilnius). However, in the latter case the transition to Polish was completed only in the early 19th century, while Latin remained the language of education and administration in Galicia which the Habsburgs had gained in the first partition of 1772. When in 1784 the Habsburgs founded the University of Lemberg (Lviv) in the Galician capital, its language of instruction was Latin.


Although the Polish-Lithuanian nobility were highly literate in Polish, since the turn of the 18th century the language of their cultural and social achievement had been French (superseding Latin in this function). Until the 1860s nobles had preferred reading books in French, which stalled the development of the fledgling Polish-language publishing industry. During the first third of the 19th century, Dresden and Leipzig in Saxony, alongside Breslau (Wrocław), Danzig (Gdańsk) and Königsberg (Kaliningrad) in Prussia, had remained the main centers of Polish-language publishing, traditionally catering to Saxony’s and Prussia’s German(ic)-speakers who needed to master Polish for trade and to maintain political and social relations with Poland-Lithuania and its nobility. Until then, Poland-Lithuania’s nobles had used Polish mostly for writing letters, diaries and popular books of miscellanea, known as silvae rerum (Latin for ‘forests of things’). KEN and the demand it generated for Polish-language school textbooks gradually changed this trend, especially because KEN’s achievements were continued in Russia’s Wilno School District (1803-33) with the Polish-medium University of Wilno at its center. At that time, with 1,200 students per year (three times more than at Oxford University during the same period), it was Russia’s largest university. Polish remained the language of administration in Russia’s partition zone (and spread to the neighboring Russian territories, which had been seized from Poland-Lithuania in the 17th century) until after the Polish-Lithuanian nobility’s disastrous anti-Russian uprising of 1830-31, when Polish was replaced by Russian. But the cultural (though since the 1860s increasingly understood as national) Polonization of these lands carried out in education and administration between 1773 and 1832 proved hard to unmake. Until the Bolshevik Revolution (1917), Polish continued as the main language of social advancement for Slavic-, Lithuanian- and some Latvian-speakers (especially in Latgale, or Polish Livonia) irrespective of religion, from Dinaburg (Daugavpils) and Vil’na (Vilnius) in the north to Kiev (Kyiv) and Odessa (Odesa) in the south. Until 1905 the Russian administration had seen ‘White Russian’ (Belarusian) and ‘Little Russian’ (Ukrainian) as Polish dialects, often disparaging them as a ‘Polish plot.’ That is why in Russia it was forbidden to publish in these ‘dialects’ (narechia) between 1863 and 1905. The ban was also partially extended to Lithuanian, which could only be printed using the Cyrillic script, and was invariably seen by Catholic Lithuanians as an unacceptable symbol of Orthodox Christianity. Hence, Lithuanians defied this ban by smuggling hundreds of thousands of copies of Lithuanian books printed in Latin letters from East Prussia. Russian attempts at imposing Cyrillic on Polish-language publications in 1852 and 1865 were even less successful and quickly abandoned.


Following the Congress of Vienna (1815), the Duchy of Warsaw was shorn of its second partition territories and transformed into a (Congress) Kingdom of Poland (Tsarstvo Pol’skoe) in personal union with Russia. The Kingdom’s French-language constitution given by the tsar was the first-ever document overtly making Polish the official language in any polity. In this way, Russia found itself in possession of over 80 per cent of the former Poland-Lithuania’s lands, while the Polish-Lithuanian nobles living in the enlarged Russian partition zone accounted for over two-thirds of all Russia’s nobility. This socio-political configuration made it impossible to remove or diminish the elevated role of Polish in these lands, even though officially Russian replaced this language in the Congress Kingdom after the nobles’ second failed anti-Russian uprising of 1863-4. Afterward, the Kingdom was directly incorporated into Russia, its name informally changed to the Vistula Land (Privislinsky krai). Russia’s gradual annexations of Polish-Lithuanian lands since the mid-17th century, together with the uninterrupted possession of most of the former Commonwealth’s territory between 1795 and 1917, infused the Russian language with numerous linguistic loans from Polish. Initially such loans were transferred through the intervening medium of Ruthenian.


The planned standardization of Polish commenced with the first-ever multivolume authoritative Słownika języka Polskiego (Dictionary of the Polish Language, 1807–1815) published in France’s Duchy of Warsaw. It was authored by the Lutheran Polish-Lithuanian noble of Swedish origin, Samuel Linde (1771-1841), who modelled his dictionary on Johann Christoph Adelung’s (1732-1806) multivolume authoritative dictionary of German (Grammatisch-kritisches Wörterbuch der Hochdeutschen Mundart, 1774-1786). Linde had met Adelung while studying at Leipzig University. The success of Linde’s dictionary was such that it inspired Josef Jungmann’s (1773-1847) multivolume authoritative dictionary of Czech (Slovnjk česko-německý, 1835-39), which opened the standardization of this language and contributed to infusing formal Czech (spisovná čeština) with numerous Polonisms, thus making it intelligible to Polish-speakers. This partial mutual comprehensibility was also possible, thanks to the grafting of this formal Czech on the 15th– and 16th-century version of the Czech (Bohemain) language, which in turn had served as a model for the early written Polish. The second edition of Linde’s dictionary was published in Galicia (1854–60). On the basis of Linde’s dictionary, in 1861, a two-volume Słownik języka polskiego came off the press in Vil’na for popular use across Russia’s western gubernias. The first half of the 19th century saw a limited purism directed at ‘macaronisms’, or long Latin and French phrases and sentences, that earlier had typically interlaced Polish-language texts and speech. After transforming the Austrian Empire into Austria-Hungary (1867), in 1869 German was replaced with Polish as Galicia’s official language, ending the brief hiatus when after 1864 Polish had not been an official language in any polity or autonomous region.


The ban on the official use of Polish in administration and education in Russia’s Kingdom of Poland (1864) and in the Prussian partition zone (1873) after the founding of a German Empire, made Galicia into an ersatz Polish ethnolinguistic nation-state. The belief that all a language’s speakers equate to a nation stems from Ernst Moritz Arndt’s (1769-1860) poem (‘Was ist des Deutschen Vaterland?,’ 1813), in which the poet proposed that Germany extends over all the territory where people speak German, thus coining the ethnolinguistic strain of nationalism. By the second half of the 19th century, language had been accepted as the ‘natural’ basis of national projects across Central Europe. In 1861 the question about language as the measure of ‘demographic sizes’ of (postulated) nations was included in the Prussian census, in 1872 the sixth international statistical congress (held at St. Petersburg) adopted it as a norm for government administrations across Europe. Subsequently this question was asked in 1881 during the Austro-Hungarian census and in the 1897 Russian census. The subdivision of population into ethnolinguistic groups was popularized on ethnographic maps, which were used to ‘scientifically prove’ where a state for this or that postulated nation should be created.


In the wake of the two failed anti-Russian uprisings staged by Polish-Lithuanian nobles, during the last third of the 19th century ‘noble nationalism’ began to give way to Polish ethnolinguistic nationalism, now indelibly connected with the politician and ideologue Roman Dmowski (1864-1939). He equated the Polish nation with the Polish-Lithuanian nobility and Slavophone peasants as long as the latter were Catholics; but to the strict exclusion of Jews, even though those living in the Congress Kingdom had mostly adopted Polish as their preferred language of wider communication. This program meant the resignation of most of the Russian partition zone, which was to Józef Piłsudski’s (1867-1935) dislike, because he wanted a federal Poland composed of several ethnolinguistic nations that territorially would correspond to all of Poland-Lithuania, though definitively with the Poles as a primus inter pares nation.


Galicia’s full educational system with Polish as the medium of instruction (and universities in Lwów [Lviv] and Kraków), including compulsory elementary schooling for all, and full male suffrage since 1907 in the Austrian half of the Dual Empire, tentatively molded the crownland’s nobles and Slavophone Catholic peasantry into a novel entity of the Polish ethnolinguistic nation. In 1895 the first-ever peasant party of self-defined non-noble Poles (born to parents emancipated from serfdom in 1849) was founded in Galicia. At the same time, in Russia’s partition zone, many nobles – impoverished by the abolishment of serfdom (in 1861, and three years later in the Congress Kingdom), falling prices of agricultural products and by confiscations of land after the uprisings – earned a living by teaching Polish to anyone who would pay. The petty nobleman Adam Mickiewicz’s (1798-1855) popular poetry, that earned him the – to this day unrivalled – position of the Polish national poet, began swaying nobles’ reading habits away from French. A similar feat in the case of Russian readers was achieved by Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837), or Mickiewicz’s friend and compatriot, before the latter left Russia. The death of Mickiewicz (caused by an illness) in Constantinople (Istanbul) – where under Ottoman protection he sought to establish Polish and Jewish legions to fight against Russia in order to win independence for ‘Poland’ (meaning, Poland-Lithuania) – mirrors the poetic career of Lord Byron (1788-1824) and his death due to ill health while fighting against the Ottomans for an independent Greece. The legacy of multicultural Poland-Lithuania is clearly seen in the reception of Mickiewicz’s poetry in the post-Polish-Lithuanian nations. His oeuvre was swiftly translated into Belarusian, Lithuanian, Ukrainian and Yiddish, and because of the poet’s oft expressed patriotism toward the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (shared in the 20th century by the world-renowned Polish-language poet Czesław Miłosz [1911-2004]), the Belarusians, and (Yiddish-speaking) Jews perceive him as ‘their own’ national poet, frequently failing to see that a common (anational) past can yield separate presents.


Józef Ignacy Kraszewski (1812-1887) singlehandedly created the Polish novel by authoring over 300 of them, whereas earlier poetry had been the dominant genre in Polish literature. In the process Kraszewski weaned Polish-Lithuanian nobles off French-language novels and made this genre popular among non-noble members of the then coalescing Polish-speaking intelligentsia. Henryk Sienkiewicz’s (1846-1916) historical novels about the past greatness of Poland-Lithuania became runaway bestsellers, immediately translated into many European languages, and earned the author a Nobel Prize for Literature in 1905. Władysław Reymont (1867-1925) replicated Sienkiewicz’s worldwide success with immensely popular novels about peasants, emancipated women and industrialists, though he had to wait for his own Noble Prize until 1924. In observing the minutiae of peasant life Reymont emulated the Norwegian writer Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson (1832-1910), whose own peasant novels had brought him international fame during the second half of the 19th century and a Noble prize in 1903.


Since the 1870s the growing Polish-publishing industry, tolerated and active in all the three partition zones, led to the emergence of an all-Polish sphere of intellectual achievement and exchange. In Galicia, the example of the Polish-language cultural and administrative autonomy led to the rise of a Ruthenian (Ukrainian) national movement that rapidly built a full educational system and secured the use of Ruthenian (Ukrainian) in eastern Galicia’s local administration. Across the border, in Russia, the manumitted serf Taras Shevchenko (1814-61) repeated Mickiewicz’s poetic success writing in Little Russian (Ukrainian) and thus became the Ukrainians’ national poet. The model of Polish nationalism and cultural life, combined with the toxic mix of forced Russification and the Polish nationalists’ decision not to recognize Lithuanians and Belarusians as nations, caused the gradual coalescence of the respective national movements during the 1880s and especially after the 1905 Revolution that heralded the temporary liberalization of politics in the Russian Empire. At that time modern Lithuanian and Belarusian literature emerged. Žemaitė (1845-1921) was born to a Polish-speaking Polish-Lithuanian noble family who made her best to keep her isolated from Lithuanian-speaking peasant children. But she decided to write on peasants – like Reymont or Bjørnson – in Lithuanian, and became a renowned short-story writer, at first published in Germany’s East Prussia, and after 1905 in Russia. Bealrus’s national poet Ianka Kupala (1882-1942) of an impoverished Polish-Lithuanian noble family began writing poetry in Polish but in 1905 switched to Belarusian. Yet another path of literary career was chosen by Oscar Milosz (1877-1939) – a distant cousin of Czesław Miłosz – born to a Polish-Lithuanian noble father and a Jewish mother from Warsaw. He spoke Polish but wrote poetry exclusively in French, while identifying himself as a Lithuanian and representing his state in the League of Nations.


In order to emphasize their difference vis-à-vis the Poles, the Lithuanians switched from Polish-style to Czech-style orthography for writing the Lithuanian language. Catholic Belarusians followed the same orthographic path of differentiation from the Poles, although Orthodox Belarusians continued to write and publish in Cyrillic-based Belarusian. As a result, until the mid-20th century, Belarusian remained a bi-scriptural language (like Serbo-Croatian), with works printed in either, or sometimes even in both, Cyrillic and Latin letters. The frequent use of the Polish-style Latin alphabet for writing and printing in Ruthenian (Ukrainian) until the early 19th century gradually gave way to the exclusive employment of Cyrillic for this purpose, especially after the failed 1859 imposition of the Czech-style Latin alphabet on Ruthenian in Galicia. However, half a millennium of the Polish-Lithuanian commonality left Belarusian, Lithuanian and Ukrainian with a plethora of Polish linguistic loans, which is also true, though to a lesser degree in the case of (eastern). Numerous Ukrainian philologists, usually from then Russia’s Kiev (Kyiv) University (founded in 1834 with the use of the assets from the dissolved Polish-medium University of Wilno) had worked toward the compilation of a multivolume authoritative dictionary of the Little Russian (Ukrainian) language since the 1860s, despite the tsarist ban on publishing in this language, which they defied by periodically moving their activities to Austria-Hungary’s Galicia. This dictionary was published in Kiev (Kyiv) shortly after lifting the ban in 1905 (Slovar’ ukrains’koi movy, 1907-09). The Polish lexicographic tradition and Kazimieras Būga’s (1879-1924) research at St Petersburg University under the supervision of the linguist Jan Baudouin de Courtenay (1845-1929) of Polish-Lithuanian noble extraction, encouraged the former to embark on the compilation of the multivolume authoritative dictionary of Lithuanian (Lietuvių kalbos žodynas, 1924/41-2002). The philologist and ethnographer Iaŭkhim (Evfimii) Karskii (1861-1931) from Grodno (Hrodna) studied at Kiev University and served as the rector (that is, president) of the Russian-medium University of Warsaw. The crowning of his scholarly career was the three volume work on the Belarusians’ language and customs (Belorussy, 1903-22). In turn, it encouraged the codification of this language, yielding a multivolume authoritative dictionary in the second half of the 20th century (Tlumachalʹny sloŭnik belaruskaĭ movy, 1977-84).


As a result of the partitions of the Commonwealth, modern Polish absorbed numerous linguistic loans from German and Russian. This was especially true in the case of the former language, as modernity (be it civil service, technology, railways or science) was ‘translated’ into Polish from German in Galicia. On the other hand, in the Russian partition zone, both Polish and Russian served as conduits for modernity into the Russian Empire. Such a ‘transfer’ from German through Polish and Russian to Belarusian, Latvian and Yiddish occurred very intensively when during the Great War Germany occupied Russia’s northwestern gubernias where Russian was banned, while education and administration was encouraged for the first time in history in Belarusian, Latvian, Lithuanian and Yiddish. To this end a seminal seven-language polyglot dictionary was published (Sieben-Sprachen-Wörterbuch. Deutsch, Polnisch, Russisch, Weissruthenisch, Litauisch, Lettisch, Jiddisch, 1918)


The Polish nation-state with Polish as its sole official and national language was founded in 1918. Only then was compulsory elementary education in Polish for all introduced outside Galicia, but in reality the provision was not fully enforced until after 1945 with the creation of communist Poland under Soviet domination. Meanwhile, the imposition of Polish as the sole medium of instruction at universities and the rapid Polonization of education for minorities alienated interwar Poland’s five million Ukrainians who lost their cultural and administrative autonomy, enjoyed before 1918 in eastern Galicia. There were two main standards of the Polish language, one developed in Galicia and the other in Warsaw in the Russian partition zone. In interwar Poland the latter (‘Warsaw’) standard aspired to become dominant thanks to the fact that it was cultivated in the capital, and in addition it could fell back on the then latest multivolume authoritative dictionary compiled by Jan Karłowicz (1836-1903) and his collaborators (Słownik języka polskiego, 1900-1927). Both standards were finally united in 1936, though the actual implementation of this long-debated unification took place after World War II.


Meanwhile, the exclusion of Jews from the Polish nation pushed them toward Yiddish nationalism and Zionism (associated with the Hebrew language). Interwar Poland’s capital of Warsaw, uniquely, housed two PEN national organizations, for Polish- and Yiddish-language writers, respectively. Vilnius (Wilno) – seized in 1920 by the Poles from the Lithuanians who had founded their nation-state’s capital there (no one cared to consult the Belarusians who also wanted Vil’nia for their own capital) – was the city where YIVO (Yiddish Scientific Institute) was founded in 1925 and operated until 1939. YIVO’s main goal of compiling a multivolume authoritative dictionary of the Yiddish language was doomed by the Holocaust, which destroyed the vast majority of Europe’s Yiddish-speaking communities. The initial four volumes of the never completed Groyser verterbukh fun der yidisher shprakh (1961-1980) were published in New York.  Eliezer Perlman (later known as Ben-Yehuda, 1858-1922), who was born and educated in Vil’na Gubernia, emigrated to Ottoman Palestine where he codified Ivrit (Modern Hebrew) in his multivolume authoritative dictionary of this language (Thesaurus totius hebraitatis et veteris et recentioris / Milon halashon haʻivrit hayashana ve hadasha, 1908-59). His contemporary and also a Jew, L L Zamenhof (1859-1917), from the highly multilingual city of Belastok (Białystok), located in the former Poland-Lithuania’s geographical center, hoped for universal and non-conflictual communication for all humans (although at first he had limited his ambition only to a common language for Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jews). To this end, in 1887, he proposed the idea of Esperanto, which until today remains the most successful constructed language. Zamenhof settled in Warsaw and singlehandedly translated the Bible and the basic canon of European literature into Esperanto (over 50 volumes in total). Esperanto was on the way to become one of the League of Nations’ working languages, but for France’s staunch opposition that definitively blocked this possibility in 1924. Esperanto, Hebrew and Yiddish contain many Polish (Slavic) linguistic loans. On the other hand, Polish is replete with numerous Yiddish words and phrases. Intensive linguistic exchanges between these two languages, and also with Belarusian and Russian took place for the last time in interwar Soviet Belarus, where all these four languages were co-official between 1924 and 1938.


During the modern period Roma (Gypsies) – who alongside Jews or Armenians had enjoyed a regular non-territorial autonomy in Poland-Lithuania – were marginalized, exoticized and made into Central Europe’s the Other. Their language, Romani, has not been standardized to this day, while on the other hand the region’s poets and artists made Roma into a romantic stereotype of ‘a free people.’  Papusza (1908-1987) of the Polska Roma continues to be the most renowned Romani-language poet and one of the most neglected in Europe. She wrote in Romani with the use of Polish orthography. Her epic poem (‘Ratfałé jasfá. So pał Saséndyr pšegijám apré Vółyń 43 i 44 beršá,’ or ‘Tears of Blood: What Germans Did to Us in Volhynia in 1943 and 1944) on the nazi Germany’s genocide (Porajmos) of Roma remains untranslated into English or Europe’s other main languages. It was only the Polish-language poet of Jewish origin Jerzy Ficowski (1924-2006) who preserved and translated Papusza’s oeuvre into Polish.


September 2016





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