There is the village Wilamowice, in southern Poland, where the oldest inhabitants still speak the language they call „Wymysoojs”, originating in a West Germanic language with the same roots as Flemish and Dutch. Their predecessors had settled down in Poland in the 13th century. Wymysoojs was presumed to be one of the 800 languages going to die, but there is however, hope for its renessaince.
Below we present excerpts from two articles published in de NRC Handelsblad (Dutch daily evening newspaper) in 2012 and 2016: “Restjes ‘Nederlands’ in Polen”, “Hoe de bijna dode Poolse taal Wymysoojs weer populair werd”. Publication with the consent of the NRC (thanks!).
‘DUTCH LEFTOVERS IN POLAND
By Berthold van Maris, July 21, 2012
To see how a language dies we do not have to go far from home. One of these dying languages, namely, is a West Germanic language, which is directly related to Dutch and German. This “Wymysojer” was for seven centuries an everyday speech in the southern Polish city of Wilamowice (see map). Its inhabitants say they are descendants of the settlers from the Low Countries. If this is true, their language is descended from Middle Dutch.
In its heydays the language was spoken by two thousand people. – The town Wilamowice was founded in the 13th century – says Neels [Rinaldo Neels, a French historian and linguist – rg]. – It is mentioned in historical documents that a certain William with a group of people from the West got the rights from, the then Polish, prince to settle in that area. To this William the town got its name: Wilamowice originates in Wymysoj “William’s eye”.
Note by PvN:
In Dutch Wilamowice = Willemsoog, while “oog” in Dutch = eye. There are few similar names with the “oog” in the Netherlands, like Schiermonnikoog – one of the islands in the north of the Netherlands. Schier (older Dutch – means grey); monnik means monk and oog means eye. So the name means from the old times “under control (eye) of the grey monks”. Another Island is called Rottemeroog, and has the same name structure. That is why the name Willemsoog could originate in old Dutch.
Another theory dates it back to a group of Dutch monks who in 1175 founded near Wilamowice a kloster Libiąż. The Cistercians were from the area now called Gelderland.
In the first half of the 13th century southern Poland was pretty wild and desolate. Polish monarchs saw some advantages to allow settlers stay there, on favorable terms, and so to bring empty land under cultivation. Because it makes no sense to reign as monarch over a desolate landscape.
Thus, there had been many colonization in Central Europe – especially from German-speaking Western Europe. But Flemish and Dutchmen also were present. – This is a historical fact – says Neels. – Until the 18th, 19th century there were in this Slavic-speaking area foreign (especially German) language islands. How it come that Wymysojer lasted until the 21st century? – Wilamowice was relatively prosperous – says Neels. – With agriculture, textile industry and trade. The market there was in an intensive contact with major trading cities such as Berlin, Vienna and Trieste. The inhabitants often had family in those cities. Almost all of them spoke good Polish, and some spoke German. It was a very flexible, pragmatic community, making them richer than many municipalities around it. That surely brought a certain pride in themselves.
Another factor was that until the First World War only few mixed marriages happened in Wilamowice. – In one way or another, there was a tradition to marry someone from their own town. Also, in order to keep the power and possessions within the community.
Even the Wilamowians therefore strongly believe that their ancestors came from Holland and Flanders. Can it still be seen in their language? There is much debate about, says Neels. The Wymysojer still today more ‘German’ or ‘Dutch’. “Ho fergoso daj nomo” for example more like “Ich habe deinen Namen vergessen” than “Ik ben je naam vergeten”. But for Germans the language is too different to think about it as an ordinary German dialect. Some sentences should also see some more Dutch from “Ido cuntogt trynk ych a floss wajn”’: “iedere zondag drink ik een fles wijn”.
Neels: – The most important linguistic argument for a Dutch origin is the High German sound shift. That has taken place in the German language and not in Dutch, Wymysojer seems to be in between.
By which sound shift has become known in German as ‘p’ of a horse ‘pf’ (Pferd), and the ’t’ (time) a ‘ts’ (Zeit). ‘That’ became the German ‘das’, Ik ‘I’ became ‘ich’, ‘apple’ was ‘Appel’, and so on.
- Maj bow ej ydy hum / Mijn vrouw is thuis.
- Ym bojm ej a fögunostta. / In (de) boom is een vogelnestje.
- Dor bekier hot gutus brut. / De bakker heeft goed brood.
Many words in the Wymysojer have the sound shift too, but not all of them. There are plenty of examples of everyday words which, like in Dutch, still have the original Old Germanic consonants. Like ‘paoter’ that ‘priest’ means (‘Father’) and does not begin with ‘pf’ like the German ‘Pfarrer’. Apple is ‘Apel’ and not ’Apfel’. ‘Copper’ is ‘koper’ and not ‘Kopfer’. And time is indeed ‘tsait’ but – says Neels: – When one speaks quickly that sounds as ‘tait’.
A possible explanation is that Wymysojer had originally no soundshift, just as the Middle-Dutch, and that all these German-sound forms there crept slowly in by centuries because of the closer contact with the German language. That could indicate a Dutch origin. It is not absolutely certain, because the dialects of northern Germany (Low German) have not participated in the High German sound shift. The Wymysojer could therefore have a northern German origin. And further, says Neels, it is “at least remarkable” that the infinitive of a verb in Wymysojer has an ‘a’ ending: get is ‘kuma’. In Dutch it is quite common to drop away the ending ‘n’ – in German it is not.
(More words comparison in: European cultures – PvN)
The story goes that the Wilamowians after World War II collectively decided not to speak their language. Neels: – Even around 1900, when Southern Poland still belonged to Austria, there begins a kind of germanization campagne which tries to make them believe that they are actually Germans. After that the Nazis in Wilamowice have conducted an aggressive cultural campaign, in which they tried to show that Wymysojer is a German dialect.
Traditional clothes from about 1909
In World War II they were given the opportunity to register themselves as ethnic Germans. That was a big dilemma. Finally eighty percent of them did it. Twenty percent refused and was then forced to work as slave laborers. That eighty percent received privileges that brought severe chagrin to the surrounding community, of course.
After the war they all had to be inquired by a special committee which investigated collaboration. – The Wilamowian community then decided to speak, in public, no longer the Wymysojer language, thus showing that they were loyal to Poland. Moreover, under the German regime there was a group of children arised which learned German only at school and therefore they had a significant backlog in the Polish language. The parents, who spoke Polish well, therefore decided to speak only Polish with their children.
Which, according to Neels, again shows how pragmatic they were. After 1956, when the repression in Poland became less intensive, the Wymysojer became no longer a problem. But the children didn’t know the language anymore. And when the children do not speak it, a language is lost. Thus the pragmatic trilingualism of the 19th century (Wymysojer, Polish and German) ultimately gave place for the modern European ideal of the monolingual state (Poland).
How the almost dead Polish* Vilamovian language became popular again
by Pieter van Os & Roeland Termote, March 25, 2016
[* to be precise the Vilamovian language is not a Polish language, is a language used in Poland – rg]
Justyna Majewska (23) remembers when they first believed it could well go to work. It was at the evening shortly before Christmas. In the town of Wilamowice teenagers sat around tables and started talking to each other in the Wymysoojs. That was “her” language, declared recently as clinically dead. When singing carols Majerska tried to stop her tears.
Tymotheusz Król is a cheerful person in his twenties with a full, black beard. A few years ago Król began a struggle against the destruction of “his” language. He started language lessons for local children. They were popular, despite the resistance of Polish-speaking parents, raised in a country where Germanic accent does not count as an advantage. Occasionally a teenager disappeared from the classroom. Król: – Never because a student did not want to, but always because parents did not allow him.
Król translates contemporary lyrics and books that are popular with students. Also, Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” now exists in Wymysoojs. Król learned the language of his, last year, deceased grandmother. Together they constructed words for new objects. Like ‘ajskosta’ for refrigerator, bykjemasin for vacuum cleaner and CD spejler for, yes hello: CD player.
Król has, at this moment, 800 hours of recorded conversations in Wymysoojs. And thanks to the University of Warsaw he gets now occasionally, after having worked years for free, money for typing of conversations and sharing his knowledge.
Folk band “Wilamowianen”
Last year  there was great news from Warsaw. Professor Justyna Olko got funds for the endangered languages of Poland. That ended abruptly with two election victories in a row by the National Catholic PiS. A bill that would make Wymysoojs an official language, like Frisian in the Netherlands, was removed from the table. Wicherkiewicz [a linguist]: – The national Catholics [ruling in Poland since October 2015 – rg] donot like Minorities much.
What thinks Tymoteusz himself, has Wymysoojs been saved? He hesitates. – For me it was an intolerable thought that I would take the language with me into my grave, so I could not rest but get started. You ask me now whether I will save the language, but that’s like asking if I will save myself. On such a question no one knows the answer.
SUPPLEMENT BY PvN
In 2000 Wilamowice had been visited by the then Dutch ambassador, Mr Justus J. de Visser with his wife. In his comment for PvN from February 2020 he recalls this visit in the following way:
In 2000 as a Dutch ambassador I made an official visit with my wife in Wilamowice. We were warmly welcomed with the welcome ingredients of “bread and salt” that are common in the Slavic world. For our part, we had brought some bottles of gin, which turned out to be a great success. We were allowed to enjoy local folk dances and the like, were offered a grand buffet and listened all the time to how wymysoojs were being talked to us. Our discussion partners were convinced that their ancestors with Willem came from the Netherlands, Belgium or Friesland. It was all rather vague, but it became clear that the Netherlands and Belgium coincided with Friesland. For them, Friesland was still the large area along the coast of the early Middle Ages. We understood just enough to understand what it was about (listening is easier than reading), while our conversation partners understood our Dutch just as rudimentally. We all cheerfully accepted the inevitable misunderstandings. It turned out to be a hilarious afternoon, which we look back on with pleasure.
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