Obscure languages — Wymysorys

Today, we will explore a rather obscure language, but at a rather precarious predicament. This language has less than 20 native speakers as of 2017, most of whom are elderly, prompting several revitalisation efforts to try to revive the language. Spoken in the region of Wilamowice, Poland (Wymysoü), this language is also quite an interesting anomaly.

When one thinks about Poland’s languages, probably only one or two would commonly come to mind — Polish, and to a lesser extent, Kashubian. While Polish is the only official and predominantly spoken language in Poland, Kashubian is a recognised regional language, albeit the only recognised one. Even so, Polish and Kashubian bear a lot of similarities. Being West Slavic languages, more precisely, Lechitic, these languages are often associated with languages like Czech and Slovak. However, the language spoken in Wilamowice is not Slavic. It is a Germanic language. 

Wymysorys, Vilamovian or Wymysiöeryś is the Germanic language spoken in that small Polish town, between Silesia and Lesser-Poland. Considered the most endangered Germanic language today, it has experienced a significant decline since the 19th century. From the phasing out of Wymysorys in local schools in favour of Polish in 1875, to the banning of its use in the communist period until 1956, many have stopped speaking Wymysorys, instead turning to Polish, or for those who left Poland for Germany, German. 

Mutually unintelligible with German, along with all of its dialects, Wymysorys features a rather Germanic sound system, with borrowed sounds in Polish loanwords. The language has had major influences from Polish, even incorporating its orthography in literary works by the author Florian Besik. However, this has since been standardised, as a distinct Wymysorys alphabet. Polish influences include the letter “ł”, which represents the sound /w/ but way closer to the Polish articulation than what you might hear in Germanic languages. Current resources on Wymysorys are not always friendly to hobbyist learners like you and I, but they are still an insight to how Wymysorys works. Literary works are also rather few and far between, since the first author known to publish Wymysorys literature did so in the 19th century, around when the language started to decline. A quick web search on Florian Besik also reveals almost no online adaptations of his works, revealing a concerning circumstance of Wymysorys. However, in the 21st century, there have been movements to revitalise the declining language.

With the addition of Wymysorys to the Library of Congress register of languages in 2007, several revitalisation efforts have taken place to fight the seemingly slow decline of the language. Among these efforts, probably one name has stood out — Tymoteusz Król, who helped standardise the writing and orthography of Wymysorys, as well as compiling a dictionary, and providing private lessons to interested students. Additionally, the University of Warsaw has launched a project which aimed to provide new academic and linguistic studies or insights in Wymysorys, garnering more interest in what is colloquially known as “Europe’s most mysterious language”.

Afterword

When looking up really obscure languages to learn, Wymysorys had been presented to me as along the lines of Central Europe’s most mysterious language, and they still are. This obscurity might be drawn from its locality, or its endangerment, much like several languages which introduction posts we have published on this site. This got me interested, not in debunking the mystery, but in the features of the language, and what made it seem so special. Learning about Wymysorys has definitely made me realise that even in the most documented, well traveled, and probably well known places, there will always be small communities that speak languages that are often overshadowed by the predominantly used languages in the region or country. With other examples like Elfdalian in Sweden and Cypriot Arabic in Cyprus, the European continent definitely is more linguistically diverse than it seems to be, and that this diversity deserves to be appreciated.

Further reading

Culture.pl has covered Wymysorys in this article, covering more historical and cultural perspectives than we do here: https://culture.pl/en/article/central-europes-most-mysterious-language

Duke University also has a grammatical sketch of Wymysorys, although it may be too technical for some learners:

Andrason, Alexander; Król, Tymoteusz (2016), A Grammar of Wymysorys (PDF), Slavic and East European Resource Center, Duke University

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