The Polish side of the family

Summary

Language sets the community of Wilamowice in southern Poland apart from the rest of their country. Although linguists are divided, residents firmly believe that its unique language, called Vilamovian, stems from the founding of the town in medieval times by Flemish colonists. The language has slowly been dying out, but both young and old are determined to preserve the culture of their ancestors.

A Polish speaker of Vilamovian (centre) welcomes two Flemish women
 
A Polish speaker of Vilamovian (centre) offers a warm welcome to two Flemish women, who visited the town with linguist Rinaldo Neels and took the opportunity to don traditional Polish dress

Speakers of a wholly unique language in a southern Polish village believe its roots lie in Flanders

Language sets the community of Wilamowice in southern Poland apart from the rest of their country. Although linguists are divided, residents firmly believe that its unique language, called Vilamovian, stems from the founding of the town in medieval times by Flemish colonists. The language has slowly been dying out, but both young and old are determined to preserve the culture of their ancestors.

Flemish historian and linguist Rinaldo Neels was warmly welcomed in Wilamowice, when he paid a visit to the municipality for his PhD thesis at the University of Leuven: “The imminent language death of Vilamovian, a Germanic language island in South Poland”. While some members of the folklore association dressed up in traditional clothing, others related stories on the Flemish roots of their hometown.

According to these tales, a group of about 100 weavers and farmers from the Low Countries settled in southern Poland at the end of the 13th century. Wilamowice was named after the community leader, Willem. “Historical documents confirm that the Polish monarch of that time gave a certain Willem, coming from the West, permission to establish themselves in the area,” says Neels. “The lands were ravaged by the Mongols around the middle of the 13th century, and the Polish monarchy was happy to have migrants come and help revive the country.”

German or Dutch?

After six centuries of an oral tradition, a local poet, Florian Biesik, put Vilamovian into print. Having left the region, Biesik wrote nostalgic poems in the 1920s about his birthplace. His example soon inspired scholars to compile Vilamovian dictionaries and grammar books.

Biesik declared his conviction that colonists from the Low Countries were responsible for the Vilamovian culture and saw similarities in the clothing and hard-working mentality of the two regions. Linguists are still discussing the origin of the Vilamovian language, which could also be linked to German-speaking territories.

“The grammar includes many elements of High German languages,” explains Neels. These were used mainly in medieval Germany, Austria, Liechtenstein, Switzerland and Luxembourg. “Wilamowice was a prosperous trading town with many contacts in important trading centres like Bremen and Vienna.”

Contacts with Flemish merchants could similarly explain the influence of Low Franconian and Middle Dutch, which was spoken in medieval Flanders. “There are a lot of ‘German colonies’ in southern Poland,” says Neels, “but nowhere else do people feel related to Flemish ancestors. It seems unreasonable to consider this collective memory of 700 years a fantasy.”

He notes that it can hardly be a coincidence that classic Flemish nursery rhymes such as I Saw Two Bears Making Sandwiches and Sleep, Baby, Sleep are popular in Wilamowice.

The loss of a language

The medieval colonisation of southern Poland was not unusual, as many immigrants fled overpopulation in Western Europe in search of land in the East. The majority of the resulting language clusters in Eastern Europe disappeared centuries ago, but Vilamovian was spoken in the households of Wilamowice until the Second World War. “Most people mastered Polish and German as well – Polish for administrative reasons and German for the prestige. But in the daily life of their homes, shops and cafes, the townspeople spoke their own tongue.”

The decline of the Vilamovian language inevitably set in. Some children attended secondary schools outside Wilamowice, where they only spoke Polish. More and more inhabitants found their future spouses outside of their birth place. The townspeople did not object to switching languages.

This pragmatism also prevailed during the Second World War. “The Nazis considered them a Germanic people and offered inhabitants the chance to register as ethnic Germans so they could avoid forced labour,” says Neels. “Four out of five people accepted.”

During Communist rule post-1945, those who had accepted the deal were punished by a commission investigating collaboration. “Around 70 people were sent to Siberia, and many others lost their possessions,” Neels relates. “To prove its loyalty, the community decided to speak only Polish.” When the Stalinist terror subsided around 1956, this decision stuck. It seemed more practical and ensured future career prospects for young people.

Today only 70 of the town’s 2,800 inhabitants speak Vilamovian, and most of them are in their 80s. While the language is irreversibly dying, the community has not abandoned its identity. A survey carried out by Neels shows that three out of four inhabitants would like more financial support from the municipality to preserve the cultural legacy, and more than half of the population think that children should acquire basic knowledge of Vilamovian in primary school.

There are also two folklore associations in the town, with more than 100 members, which teach Vilamovian to children. “And a new grammar book is on its way,” says Neels. “The language is becoming a museum piece, but a carefully maintained one".

The Polish side of the family

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