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Old Prussian and Polabian

The last dated references to the survival of people who knew the Old Prussian language are in texts of1679 and 1684 by Christoph Hartknoch, professor of history successively at Konigsberg, in eastern Prussia, and at Thorn, in western Prussia.[1] The former states that people who know the language are to be found in several locations; the latter, perhaps reflecting a changing situation, states that there is not a single village where Old Prussian is understood by everyone, but that there are said to be a few old people here and there who understand the language.[2] The reference to old people suggests the accuracy of the observation, for, as John Ray observed of Cornish, a language is dying when it is no longer spoken by the young.

The circulation of Old Prussian wordlists in the seventeenth century, as the language died, was not the work of native speakers, and the wordlists themselves were based on the work of the previous century. As we saw above, although the Old Prussian language was already moribund in the sixteenth century, a hundred-word Old Prussian-German vocabulary was written down by the chronicler Simon Grunau as part of a demonstration that Old Prussian was different from any other language, and variants of this vocabulary had already started to circulate independently from Grunau’s chronicle by the end of the century, as attested by its survival in a German-Old Prussian variant of that period. Another variant of the vocabulary, this time Old Prussian-Latin, is preserved in a manuscript collection of materials bearing on the history of Prussia (and its botany, for it includes a treatise De sucino, alce, et herbis in Prussia nascentibus by Johannes Wigand, the Lutheran bishop of Pomesania in eastern Prussia), which was completed and prepared for print before 1725, but never printed; it is now at Helsinki. This collection was meant to have included a three-column parallel-text edition of the two Old Prussian catechisms of 1545 with a Lithuanian catechism.[3] Whereas Grunau had written that Old Prussian was scarcely intelligible to speakers of Lithuanian, the editor of the Helsinki collection annotated his text with a statement that this was false, the distance between the two language varieties being comparable to that between two varieties of German, namely Swabian and Saxon. The parallel-text catechisms would have confirmed the resemblance of Old Prussian and Lithuanian.[4] Making this point would have emphasized the affinity of Old Prussian with a widely spoken European language, and would hence have emphasized that the speakers of Old Prussian, who had largely been suppressed by the Teutonic kinghts, had been members of a significant linguistic and cultural community rather than obscure barbarians.

Grunau’s vocabulary finally became available in print in the seventeenth century, in the work of Christoph Hartknoch. As a historian, Hartknoch

attributed the historical development of a country’s political institutions to its national character and the customs of its people. To study these traditions, he roamed the Prussian and Cashubian countryside looking for information on the ancient Lithuanian and Prussian tribes,

their language, pagan idolatry and customs____he travelled the Baltic coast to collect amber in

the fashion of the ancient Pruzzi.[5]

In this engaging picture of the wandering antiquary, there are affinities with the research journeys of John Ray and of his English contemporaries such as John Aubrey, who collected information on pagan survivals in English folklore—and there is of course an affinity with Simon Grunau’s interest in Old Prussian paganism. Hartknoch, like Grunau, took an interest in the Old Prussian language as a guide to the historical distinctiveness of the Prussian people. In the Dissertatio historica de originibus Prussicis, a Konigsberg dissertation of 1675 defended with Hartknoch as praeses, the Old Prussian language was already adduced as evidence for the history of its speakers: the hypothesis of a Greek origin for people and language was disproved by setting the Greek texts of the Lord’s Prayer and Apostles’ Creed together with texts in Old Prussian (from one of the printed catechisms) and Lithuanian.[6] In 1679, Hartknoch reprinted Grunau’s wordlist in a dissertation on Old Prussian appended to his edition of Peter von Dusburg’s Chronicon Prussiae, ‘so that from it, we can draw a fuller knowledge of the Old Prussian language, which even now survives, though indeed now it is almost extinct’.[7] He followed it with comments on the evident relationship of Old Prussian and Lithuanian in the same spirit as that of the compiler of the Helsinki manuscript, arguing that the speakers of different dialects of the same language do not always understand each other easily.[8] In 1684, he gave the wordlist another outing, this time in his German-language Alt- und neues Preussen, where it is followed by a number of short comparative wordlists designed to explore the relationships of languages.[9]

For Hartknoch, Grunau’s wordlist was a precious, tenuous connection between the present and the most distant past. The fact of the decline of Old Prussian was itself significant: in places where it had once been spoken, and which had once been well populated, the Teutonic Knights had devastated the land and virtually exterminated the people.[10] So although Hartknoch’s interest in the Old Prussian language had a compar- ativistic element, it was also political, of a piece with his own migration from Hohenzollern-ruled Prussia, the successor state of the regime of the Teutonic Knights, to the more urban, less feudal, Polish-ruled Prussia.

As Old Prussian ceased to be spoken, another language was dying on the other side of German-speaking Europe. This was Polabian, a Slavonic language spoken far to the west of its closest relatives, in lower Saxony, by a community surrounded by German- speakers. The Germans called them Wends and their language Wendish (these words were also used of other Slavonic-speaking communities); their part of lower Saxony is still called the Hanoverian Wendland.

The early study of their language was associated, like the study of many other European languages (for instance Breton: the wordlist and grammar of Julien Maunoir were by-products of his exceptional mission activity), with the expansion of Christian activity.[11] The Wends were by no means pagans, but like the people of the quieter parts of Lower Brittany, they were, from the point of view of energetic churchmen, backward and superstitious. A lively report on this subject was drawn up in the course of an ecclesiastical visitation of the Hanoverian Wendland in 1671, and what appears to be the first extant wordlist of Polabian is associated with it. It is a German-Polabian classed list of about three hundred and seventy entries.[12] It begins with the word for ‘God’, but then moves directly to conversational formulae—‘Good day . . . Where are you going? . . . Good health . . . Many thanks!’—and intersperses other phrases among the core vocabulary items it registers.[13] Like Arnold von Harff in the fifteenth century, its compiler had an entry for ‘Would you like to sleep with me?, but this time the addressee is plural, so the words are those of an innkeeper or the like.[14] Later in the list is ‘There are a lot of fleas here, and later still, ‘Do you want to eat?’ and ‘Have you had a drink?’[15] Here, Polabian is being presented as a living language, almost certainly from oral elicitation. Its maker was curious enough about Polabian to make a long wordlist;

he may have been a pastor, but he was not particularly interested in religious, or for that matter juridical, vocabulary. The wordlist is not part of the visitation report, but was copied, together with the report, in a manuscript of1719 or later, the copyist of the wordlist being Johannes Andreas Bortfeldt, formerly the pastor in Luchow. The manuscript was at one time owned by Michael Richey, the compiler of the Idioticon Hamburgense (Luchow is only seventy-five miles from Hamburg), before passing into a Danish aristocratic library.[16]

Other versions of the same wordlist also circulated. One, alphabetized and demonstrably independent of Bortfeldt’s transcript, was printed in Hamburg in 1744.[17] Another was, before 1704, available to Johannes Friedrich Pfeffinger, inspector of the Ritterakademie in Luneburg, forty miles from Luchow but under the same rule, that of Leibniz’s employers, the dukes of Braunschweig-Luneburg. In 1704, Pfeffinger wrote to Leibniz enclosing a number of manuscripts, among them ‘a pastor’s account of the old customs of the Wends of the area’ and ‘a little Wendish classed wordlist, which I gathered myself, three years ago, by interviewing some of the oldest and most fluent living speakers of Polabian.[18] [19] (The emphasis on old speakers recalls the observations of Ray and Hartknoch.) The ‘pastor’s account’ is no doubt the report of the visitation of 1671. As for the classed wordlist (which is French-Polabian, French being the language in which Pfeffinger, who was from Alsace, corresponded with Leibniz), although Pfeffinger says explicitly that he gathered it himself, and some of its content is indeed independent, it did have two written sources: a wordlist related to the one copied by Bortfeldt, and a version of the wordlist of Christian Hennig of Jessen, to which we shall return. The manuscript of Pfeffinger’s list is extant, and a version of the same list was printed in 1711, in the informative Historia studii etymologici linguae Germanicae hac- tenus impensi (Account of the etymological study to date of the German language) of Leibniz’s former assistant Johann Georg von Eckhardt, whom we last saw admiring Sparwenfeldt’s Lexicon Slavonicum.19 In the chapter in which he printed Pfeffinger’s list, Eckhardt pointed out the importance of the Slavonic languages to students of German: not only do they still co-exist with German in certain areas (he included the Hanoverian Wendland), but they explain the etymology of place-names in other areas where only German is now spoken, a point which recalls the interest of Camden and others in the Celtic etymologies of place-names of the British Isles, including Englishspeaking areas.[20]

Pfeffinger’s wordlist was not the only Polabian vocabulary in Leibniz’s possession. In January 1697, the theologian Gerhard Meier, who had undertaken a dictionary of Low German at Leibniz’s instigation, wrote him a letter in which he copied the first entries of an alphabetized German-Polabian wordlist.[21] Meier must then have decided to send Leibniz the full list, either as a last-minute enclosure to his letter or under separate cover, for Leibniz thanked him for it at the end of March.[22] It registers 140 words and short phrases, and is apparently independent from previous work; it is still extant in manuscript at Hannover, and was printed in Leibniz’s Collectanea etymologica in 1717.[23] One point which it has in common with the list copied by Bortfeldt and also with the work of Pfeffinger is the presence of a phrase in which beer is mentioned: Bortfeldt’s list has ‘the beer is good, Pfeffinger’s has ‘the beer is rubbish’, and the list sent by Meier has ‘give me a pot of beer’.[24] As in the case of some of the earliest wordlists of Romani, the elicitation of Polabian vocabulary appears to have been done over a drink.

Much more extensive than its contemporaries was the German-Polabian Vocabularium Venedicum of Christian Hennig, who had been born at Jessen near Wittenberg, and had come to Wustrow as a pastor in 1679.[25] He made his dictionary between 1705 and 1711.[26] It ran to about two and a half thousand words in the longer of its two recensions, with a scholarly preface followed by a short comparative wordlist of German, Polabian, Sorbian, Polish, and Czech before its main alphabetical sequence. It includes a number of observations on the Wendish way of life: farming practices, superstitions, ball games, and so on.[27] The entry for schnapps, for instance, notes that it is even given to infants, and that it is a preferred medicine for young and old; when schnapps does not effect a cure, the people fall to their prayers rather than trying other remedies.[28] As well as collecting words and folk practices, Hennig wrote down the text and music of a Polabian folksong, which appears at the end of the Vocabularium. He communicated the song to Eckhardt, who printed it in his Historia studii etymologici linguae Germanicae; Eckhardt called it a

cantilena, the word which Busbecq had used for the three lines of song in Crimean Gothic which he appended to his wordlist.[29] Hennig’s dictionary was not printed as a whole, but it had a significant manuscript circulation: two copies of the longer recension and five of the shorter are extant, and others are known to have been lost.[30]

The last Polabian wordlist to be made from direct observation of the spoken language is of extraordinary interest, because it was made by a native speaker recording the language of his own people, rather than by an outsider.[31] His name was Johann Parum Schultze. He was born in 1677, in the village of Suthen near Luchow, where his father was the Dorfschulze or village mayor, and lived there all his life. He wrote one book, which was preserved in a single manuscript until a transcript was made in 1794; the original has since been lost, as has the first leaf of the transcript. It is not clear whether the book ever had a title, but a printed excerpt also made in 1794 calls it Schultze’s Chronik, and that sums up much of its contents: it includes dated annalistic entries, personal and local memoranda, and a German-Polabian list of words and phrases, running to about six hundred and fifty items, which Schultze wrote down in 1725. He introduced the wordlist with the remark that ‘I am a man forty-seven years old. When it is all over with me and with three other people in our village, nobody will rightly know what the name for a dog is in Wendish.’[32] No European writer had ever before given such clear expression to the experience of being one of the last speakers of a dying language. Schultze died fifteen years after writing these words; Emerentz Schultze, the widow of Johann Schultze of Dolgow, a lady who was reputed to be the last person who could speak and sing Polabian perfectly, died in 1756.[33]

Johann Parum Schultze’s list is roughly subject-ordered. It begins with parts of the body, indicated clearly by a heading, and has other vocabulary groups which are not as clearly indicated, for instance clothing, animals (‘dog’ is pijahss), trees, and feastdays. Some sequences of words are not united by any semantic similarity. Schultze had evidently used dictionaries, at least the small subject-ordered kind which were used in schools, and was trying to emulate them, but he was not used to arranging information. One technique which helped him to find and deploy words was to write little sequences of dialogue. There is one passage in which a guest is being pressed to sit at the table and eat and drink, suggesting, touchingly, that Schultze was remembering hospitable exchanges from the past. ‘You have a big hairy beard’ begins another exchange, the reply being ‘If I am hairy, so are other people, to which the first speaker replies ‘thorns could grow in your beard’.[34] This too may be a remembered dialogue. Remembered or invented, it is an example of one of the striking features of Schultze’s wordlist, its fine-grained imaginative attention, sharpened no doubt by the elegaic mood of the introduction, to how ordinary people really used to speak. After Schultze’s wordlist came a hiatus of more than three quarters of a century; the next wordlist of Polabian to be produced was a printed Polabian-German dictionary of 1809, compiled from earlier manuscript records of the dead language by the physician and natural historian Johann Heinrich Jugler of Luneburg.

The story of the lexicography of Polabian contrasts with that of another Slavonic language spoken by a community surrounded by German-speakers, namely Sorbian. Some Sorbian words were documented in Megiser’s Thesauruspolyglottus. Thereafter, apart from the work of the pastor and historian Abraham Frencelius, who produced an unfinished series of etymological studies of Sorbian in the 1690s (he sought to demonstrate its Hebrew origins) and a glossary of Sorbian toponyms in a collection of largely historical texts relating to the area in which the language was spoken, published in 1719, the only significant Sorbian wordlist before the 1780s was a Vocabularium Latino-Serbicum (Latin-Sorbian, not Latin-Serbian), published in the Sorbian cultural centre of Bautzen (Budysin) in Saxony two years later.[35] The reason for this was not that Polabian had more speakers than Sorbian, but the reverse: wordlists were made of Polabian because it was a dying language. The aged widow Emerentz Schultze was brought before the King of Hannover when he visited his hunting lodge at Gohrde to the north of the Wendland, so that he could hear the language in the mouth of its last speaker: language death was a curiosity to the king and his courtiers.[36] It was more than a curiosity to her; and the wordlist of her husband’s namesake Johann Parum Schultze speaks for her, and for the group of ageing speakers of Polabian of which she was the last survivor.

  • [1] For him, see Friedrich, The Other Prussia 96-108.
  • [2] Kortlandt, Baltica & Balto-Slavica 213; Hartknoch, ‘Dissertationes’ 84 ‘non in uno, sed in pluribusadhuc pagis passim reperiuntur hujus lingvae gnari’; Hartknoch, Alt- und neues Preussen 91, ‘es ist itzt keineintziges Dorff mehr ubrig / in welchem alle Leute die Alt-Preussische Sprache auch nur verstehen solten:sondern hier und dort sollen noch einige alte Leute seyn / so dieselbe verstehen’.
  • [3] Kiparsky, ‘Schicksal eines altpreufiischen Katechismus’ 220 (catechism and botanical treatise), 221-2(text of wordlist).
  • [4] Quoted Kiparsky, ‘Schicksal eines altpreufiischen Katechismus’ 222: Grunau’s words are translated as‘Ex eo cognosci potest, peculiarem linguam Prussicam esse, ex qua Polonus nihil, Lithuanus parum (*)intelligat’, and keyed to a note ‘(*) De Lithuano falsum est. Veluti si dicam Suevum a Saxone parumintelligi.’
  • [5] Friedrich, The Other Prussia 103.
  • [6] Hartknoch and von Nettelhorst, Dissertatio historica de originibus Prussicis sigs. B2r-B3r.
  • [7] Hartknoch, ‘Dissertationes’ 89-90 ‘ut eo pleniorem de veteri lingva Prussica, quae jam jam animamagit, imo propemodum jam extincta est, inde cognitionem hauriamus’.
  • [8] Hartknoch, ‘Dissertationes’ 91-9, esp. 94, ‘Ne turberis autem Lector Benevole, quando audis, Lithvanospauca ex Prussica idiomate intelligere. Notum enim est, unius etiam Lingvae homines se invicem ali-quando non intelligere, ob dialectum diversam.’
  • [9] Hartknoch, Alt- und neues Preussen 95-6 (Grunau’s wordlist), 100 (Old Prussian-Polish-German),101 (Old Prussian-Latin-German), etc.
  • [10] Hartknoch, Alt- und neues Preussen 85.
  • [11] For Maunoir as missionary, see Constantine, Breton ballads 36.
  • [12] Fontes linguae Dravaenopolabicae minores 5-21 (report), 22-8 (wordlist); a page of the wordlist isPlate 8.
  • [13] Fontes linguae Dravaenopolabicae minores 22 ‘Gott, Busatz | Guten Tag, Dreisbuck | Wo gehet ihr hin?Gums hen? | Eure Gesundheit, Tsiol | Grofien Dank, Dans ko.’
  • [14] Fontes linguae Dravaenopolabicae minores 24 ‘Wolt ihr bey mir schlaffen? Jus nitz sobot’
  • [15] Fontes linguae Dravaenopolabicae minores 25 ‘Es gibt viele Flohe hier, Oizang wile blocha jang’; 27‘Wolt ihr efien? Jadsa sang hayd kay jeday? | Habt ihr getruncken? Jus pola ninna.’
  • [16] For Bortfeldt, see Olesch, ‘Zur Quellenforschung’; for the subsequent history of the manuscript,Olesch, in Fontes linguae Dravaenopolabicae minores 258.
  • [17] Fontes linguae Dravaenopolabicae minores 29-34 (text), 260-2 (commentary).
  • [18] Pfeffinger, letter to Leibniz of 10 April 1704 in the latter’s Samtliche Schriften 1.23: 255-6, ‘la relationd’un Pretre des anciens coutumes des Vandales du voisinage, avec une petite nomenclateur Vandale, quej’ay cueilli moy meme, il y a 3 ans, que j’ay ete voir mes amys de Luchaw et Wustrow ... qui mont fait venirdes plus anciens, et des plus habiles Vandales, qui soyent en vie, pour communiquer avec eux’; the wordlistis in Fontes linguae Dravaenopolabicae minores 35-49 (text), 263-8 (commentary, with a transcript ofPfeffinger’s letter at 265).
  • [19] Eckhardt, Historia studii etymologici linguae Germanicae 275-305.
  • [20] Eckhardt, Historia studii etymologici linguae Germanicae 259-61.
  • [21] Gerhard Meier, letter to Leibniz of 12 January 1697 in the latter’s Samtliche Schriften 1.13: 485-94 at 493.
  • [22] Leibniz, letter to Meier of 22 March 1697 in his Samtliche Schriften 1.13: 676-9 at 678, ‘Pro SclavicisLuneburgicis Gratias ago’ glossariis being understood (the previous sentence was ‘Glossarii Guelfebytaninon memini, inquiram tamen’). This letter replied to Meier’s of 12 January and also to a note of Meier’s of19 February, ibid. 1.13: 591; the latter makes no reference to the Polabian wordlist.
  • [23] For the manuscript, see Fontes linguae Dravaenopolabicae minores 58-61 (text), 277 (commentary);the printed text is in Leibniz, Collectanea etymologica 2: 346-52.
  • [24] Respectively, Fontes linguae Dravaenopolabicae minores 28 ‘Das Bier ist gut, peiwi Smaka gut’ (followed shortly by four wine-related entries); 47 ‘La bierre ne vaut rien Peiwd nitz doga ou degna ou Tepeiwdne doga'; 58 ‘Gebt mir einen Krug bier Tjem Croispoywi.
  • [25] Hennig, Vocabularium 5-37 (preface); 40-55 (comparative wordlist); 67-384 (main wordlist); 386-9(song), all but the preface in facsimile; for an edition of the wordlist and the song, see Rost, Sprachreste87-176.
  • [26] R. Olesch in Jugler, VollstandigesLuneburgisch-Wendisches Worterbuch (1962) 280-1.
  • [27] Hennig, Vocabularium 79-80 (s.v. Aufbersten, on farming), 117-20 (s.v. Creutz-Baum, on superstition), 205 (s.v. Holle, on ball-games); transcribed Rost, Sprachreste 90, 100, 124.
  • [28] Hennig, Vocabularium 108-9, transcribed Rost, Sprachreste 98: ‘Brandtewein, barvin . . . wovon dieWenden sehr viel halten. Sie gewehnen die kleinesten Kinder von 1. 2 Jahren darzu: Und wenn jemandkranck ist, er sey alt oder jung, so ist der Branntewein mit Syrup ihre Arzeney. Will das nicht helffen, habensie zu anderen Mitteln schlecht Vertrauen, es mufite denn Messen, Pausten, Segnen und Boten seyn.’
  • [29] Eckhardt, Historia studii etymologici linguae Germanicae 269-71.
  • [30] R. Olesch in Jugler, Vollstandiges Luneburgisch-Wendisches Worterbuch (1962) 252-71.
  • [31] Fontes linguae Dravaenopolabicae minores 111-218 (text; wordlist at 166-83), 317-31 (commentary;Schultze’s biographical details at 317-18, manuscripts 319).
  • [32] Fontes linguae Dravaenopolabicae minores 165, ‘Jch bin ein Mann von 47 Jahren. wenn mit mir unddenn noch drey Personen es vorbey ist in unserm Dorf, alsdann wird wohl niemand recht wissen, wie einHund auf Wendisch genant ist.’
  • [33] Fontes linguae Dravaenopolabicae minores 318; R. Olesch in Jugler, Vollstandiges Luneburgisch-Wendisches Worterbuch (1962) 300, quoting the register of deaths of Wustrow, ‘die letzte von denen dieperfect Wendisch hat sprechen und singen konnen.
  • [34] Fontes linguae Dravaenopolabicae minores 174 (hospitable conversation), 175 ‘du hast einen grofienBart mit vielen Haaren tau mohss wiltje wungss zaa viel vlassa | habe ich, so habe ich so wie andere Leutemohm johss vlassa, tidje mohm tock hack daauje laudey | auf deinem Bart kann wohl Dorn wachsen nohtuhe wungss muhse hist drehn ruhst.
  • [35] Stankiewicz, Grammars and Dictionaries 63-4; for the published parts of Frencelius’ work, see W. J.Jones, German Lexicography item 616, and for an appreciation of the whole and a list of the unpublishedparts, Eckhardt, Historia studii etymologici linguae Germanae 261-4.
  • [36] R. Olesch in Jugler, VollstandigesLuneburgisch-Wendisches Worterbuch (1962) 300, quoting the register of deaths of Wustrow, ‘Diese alte Wittwe ... vor Ihre Konigl. Maj. unserem allergnadigsten Landesherrnzur Gorde hat erscheinen mufien, um diese Sprache aus ihrem Munde zu horen.’
 
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