Saturday, November 10, 2012

On Polish and Church Slavonic

This morning I sat beside a Bulgarian. As every linguist knows, Old Bulgarian is the closest you come as defining the spoken language on which Sts Cyril and Method based the written language Church Slavonic.

And Bulgarians to this day pronounce Church Slavonic with a Bulgarian sound to the letters. An Ukranian or a Russian or a Serb would pronounce the same letters of the same prayers or Bible texts slightly differently, but Bulgarian was the original phonetic counterpart of those letters.

He knew that and was proud of that, and I am very fine with that.

He also said that Polish was a peasant language. Uncoath, rough.

As a very huge fan of Jan III Sobieski* (I was born in Vienna, which he, under the Blessing of the Blessed Virgin Mary, saved from the Turks) I have a pretty obvious ulterior motive not to agree to this.

But let us see if I can reason through this prejudice.

Any language will be talked by peasants, whether it has or has not a king or a priest to talk it too. Some languages have for centures been talked "by peasants only" - not meaning that every man in town, in monastery or at court ignored it, but that when they spoke it they considered themselves to be speaking a language of these other people who were the peasants. That was for instance the case for Latvian and Estonian for a few Centuries, when the fine language was a German dialect (they were colonised by the Sword Bearing Knight's, by the Ensiferi, who were, like the Teutonic Knights, recruited among German speakers mainly) and administration in Livonia made no difference between a peasant talking Latvian in the South or talking Estonian in the North. But the finest languages ever are either talked by peasants still or have at least been talked by peasants in the past. Latin was talked by farmers when Cincinnatus returned to farming after serving his term. Classic Attic was talked by farmers in Attica before Alexander the Great made a variety of it a World Language. If Sanskrit as such was always a polished language, its ancestor variety Vedic was very probably identic to a language spoken by farmers some time. And the Bulgarian dialect spoken by burghers in Thessaloniki when Sts Cyril and Method studied it was very probably identic to the Bulgarian dialect spoken by some farmers or peasants just outside Thessaloniki.

It is not surprising news to anyone that Polish has also been spoken by peasants.

But it is simply not true that Polish has been a peasant-only language like Latvian. Under Russian administration of the partitions (between late XVIIIth C. and WW-I), like in Warszawa, Polish was looked down upon like a deteriorated dialect of Slavonic or Russian. That is a bit like saying that Homer's Ionic or the scientist's Doric is a deteriorated Attic. It is simply not true. It is also true that if you wanted to be anyone under the Czars, Russian was more opportune than Polish. But such was not quite the case in the Austrian partition, in Kraków.

And before the partitions, it is true that the aristocracy of the Polish Kingdom spoke Latin rather than Polish, but equally true that the aristocracy of the Lithuanian Grand Duchy (in personal union with the Kingdom, a Royal-Grand Ducal double Monarchy called the Republic) spoke Polish rather than Lithuanian or Ukranian or Bielorussian or even Russian or the other languages spoken there. Wilno was more of a Polish city than a Lithuanian Vilnius, for some time.

St Cyril and Method went to Greater Moravia as missionaries. But a century later Bohemia and Moravia were parts of the Holy Roman Empire of Germanic nation, starting when emissaries from Bohemia submitted to an Emperor in Ratisbonn. Now, what I am going to suggest might wound Bulgarian ears, have patience: since West Slavonic (of which Polish and Czech are the main dialects) is further away from East and South Slavonic than these are from each other (Bulgarian is South Slavonic), they might have been different already then and the Moravians might have preferred a Latin liturgy to one in a close but not identical language to theirs.

You see, when two languages are close but not identical, someone talking the one language and hearing the other, may very easily find it funny and more proper for peasants than for noble things. I talk Swedish and German from childhood. These languages are so different (though both are Germanic) that they do not interfere. But Danish and Dutch sound funny and rough in my ears - and I know that Dutch think the same of German and Danes think the same of Swedish.

I have a feeling Latin sounded less funny and more proper for religious purposes than Bulgarian to the West Slavs. To me neither Latin nor Polish nor Church Slavonic sound funny - but I do not hear the Polish with Bulgarian ears, nor the Bulgarian with Polish ears. Nor the Latin with the ears of a Sabine or a Samnite or any of the peoples who would rather say Pompe than Quinque for five. Those languages by the way were extinct before the Greek Liturgy of Ancient Rome (not to be confounded with the Greek Liturgy of Byzantium) was translated to Latin. So, when Latin became a Liturgic language that problem was no longer an issue. But when St Jerome did translate the Bible to Latin again (there were already Latin translations of either Testament), he tried to make it posh. Really fine Latin, he wanted it to be. He might have used some words that were no longer current. One night he dreamt that angels beat him up with the words "you are no Christian, you are a Ciceronian" - and he woke up with bruises, I think.

What were you saying about Polish again? That it was not posh enough?

Hans-Georg Lundahl
BpI, Georges Pompidou
St Martinsmass' Vigil
and St Andrew Avellino

*"Król jest tylko jeden" ... "Being a King is only for one," roughly.


Gaspares said...

The 'peasant Polish' is not (or: was not) that far from the East Slavic languages. The co-existence of Old Ukrainian, Old Bielorussian and Polish for some centuries in a common state must have had impact on each other and you may sense it not only analysing the vocabularies but also some syntactic and morphological structures.

Hans Georg Lundahl said...

That much is certain.

However, the traits which make Ukrainian East Slavonic are other than the ones it shares with Polish.

It is even possible that originally all East Slavonic had traits now only found in Russian and that they were removed from Ukrainian and Bielorussian, by Polish influence.

That said, Polish is West Slavonic, Old Slavonic is South Slavonic writing adapted by East Slavonic speakers.

As for the main conflict, the Bulgarian had said that Church Slavonic was Bulgarian and Polish was a peasant language and my response remains:

Any language will be talked by peasants, whether it has or has not a king or a priest to talk it too.

It does not always remain that way, like Classical Latin and Church Slavonic is not very typically used by peasants among themselves, but once upon a time they were.

And Polish did not remain a "peasant only" language.