The Sorbian Languages in the New Germany: Language Maintenance and Ethnic Nationalism

Charles Wukasch, Prairie View A&M University

The two Sorbian languages, Upper and Lower, have the smallest number of speakers of the Slavic literary languages. Confined to a small area in the southeastern part of Germany, the long–range outlook for the two Sorbian languages is not promising. The momentous changes which occurred in Eastern Europe as the result of perestroika and glasnost were a mixed blessing for the Sorbs. Whatever its other faults, the German Democratic Republic did at least guarantee equal rights for the Sorbs and provided funding for Sorbian educational and cultural institutions. However, Barker has adduced evidence which challenges the claim of the supposedly progressive role which the SED (Socialist Unity Party — the Marxist party which governed the GDR between the end of World War II and the reunification of Germany at the beginning of the final decade of the twentieth century) played vis–à–vis the Sorbs (Slavs in Germany: The Sorbian Minority and the German State since 1945).

As with many minority languages, Sorbian has been faced with extinction for centuries. This is true not only for the language, but indeed for the culture as well. The outlook for Lower Sorbian is especially dim. However, it is not a simple case of Upper Sorbian vs. Lower Sorbian. One can posit a three–way breakdown of Sorbian: Lower Sorbian, Catholic Upper Sorbian, and Lutheran Upper Sorbian. (Virtually all Lower Sorbs are Lutherans.) This possibly makes Upper Sorbian a unique case, at least among the Slavic languages, because of the interplay between religion and language.

This paper will also apply the findings of other researchers on minority language maintenance to the Sorbian situation. Examples of recent work on minority languages include Colin H. Williams' observations on declining linguistic minorities ("Linguistic Minorities: West European and Canadian Perspectives" in Linguistic Minorities, Society and Territory) and Paul White's typology of ten types of minority language communities ("Geographical Aspects of Minority Language Situations in Italy" in Linguistic Minorities, Society and Territory). Further, Joshua Fishman's excellent anthology of recent work on bilingualism is of value (Handbook of Language and Ethnic Identity). The paper will also examine the interrelationship of culture and language. Might a situation eventually arise whereby the Sorbs preserved their culture while losing their language? What role could the German government and/or the international community play in furthering the rights of the Sorbs to their language and culture? Has Germany's ratification of the European Charter on Regional or Minority Languages and/or the EU's Mercator Project had any impact on the maintenance of the Sorbian languages?