The Changing Lattice of Languages, Borders, and Identities in Silesia

  • Tomasz Kamusella


Since Enea Silvo de’Piccolomini (later, Pope Pius II) mentioned in his 1458 treatise, De Europa (On Europe), the Oder (Odra) River as the dividing line between those Silesian territories inhabited by Germanic- and by Slavic-speakers (Lubos 1995: 68), language difference has become part and parcel of the region’s history. However, until the rise of ethnolinguistic nationalism across Central Europe in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars, it had been a minor element of a person’s identity; the main socio-political cleavage was that between members of the estates (that is, nobility, clergy, and, to a lesser degree, richer burghers) and serfs. The legally imposed social and spatial immobility of the serfs also kept the language boundary stable from the late Middle Ages into the Early Modern period. On the other hand, when the need arose, the divide was easily straddled by specialists mediating among members of an immobile peasantry and (though to a lesser extent) of burgher communities. These specialists included clergy and nobility (usually landowners) who were literate in Latin and German (or rather a German, meaning a chancery variety of what today we, anachronistically, tend to dub the unambiguously unitary German language). Within this group one can also include (law court) scribes, inn-owners, itinerant craftsmen, and merchants. In the eighteenth century, French (or the Romance dialect of Paris) joined Latin and German, having become a specific sociolect of the European nobility and bourgeoisie, and it retained this role until immediately after World War II.


Eighteenth Century Official Language Slavic Language German Nation Interwar Period 
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