“Educated people and aristocrats speak Polish, foreigners speak German, and peasants speak Lithuanian…”

This is the linguistic situation in Lithuania as seen by Balthazar Hostovinus, the Jesuit of Czech origin, who arrived in Vilnius in 1569. What was the real linguistic situation in Lithuania between the middle of the 16th century and the middle of the 17th century?

Mother tongue of the aristocrats

Lithuanian aristocracy used the Ruthenian language for written and verbal communication until the middle of the 16th century. Later on, Ruthenian was gradually expelled by the Polish language which became dominant due to strengthening ties between Lithuanian and Polish states, mutual parliamentary and military activities and marriages between the aristocrats of both nations.

The fact that King Sigismund II Augustus resided in Vilnius between 1543 and 1548 and married Barbora Radvilaitė here in 1547 was important for the consolidation of the Polish language among the Lithuanian aristocracy.

That was a decisive turn en route to Polish becoming the exemplary language worth to be learned. That stage of transformation when Polish began gradually replacing Ruthenian is clearly seen in the 1567 letter by Sigismund II Augustus to Jan Chodkiewicz, the elderman of Samogitia: “I have received three letters from Your Grace, two written in Ruthenian and one in Polish.“ At the same time, for the Radziwiłł extended family speaking Polish meant speaking their mother tongue. Mikołaj Radziwiłł the Black wrote to his son Mikołaj Krzysztof Radziwiłł the Orphan in 1564 as the latter was studying in Strasbourg and was refraining from speaking Polish there: “Do not forget your mother tongue, because if you start speaking like Paulius the shaver does after you come back, your brothers and sisters will laugh at you.” It is safe to presume that most aristocratic families in Lithuania wrote and spoke Polish after the second half of the 16th century.

Latin was a one more language used alongside the “vanishing” Ruthenian and ever more popular Polish in the 16th century. Latin was alive among clergy and in their environment. The use of Latin in the public life was rather limited as the language was used by scribes of the ruler and his aristocrats who would write letters to foreign rulers and were involved in the preparation of various treaties and contracts. Students also needed Latin for their studies.

Do You Know?

As the Polish language became dominant among the Lithuanian aristocrats (and later among the nobility), the phenomenon of the so called “macaronism” emerged in the 17th century as people began using several different languages in a single text. Some tended to include Latin words, sayings or even entire phrases into their letters written in Polish.

French was becoming popular in Lithuania since the late 17th century; letters written in French by the Radziwiłł and the Sapieha have survived.

Linguistic polyphony in the cities of the GDL

Linguistic situation was different among the nobility. Even though the Second Statute of Lithuania (1566) declared Ruthenian the official state language, the nobility was increasingly adopting the Polish language too. Most of the nobility would get the basics of Polish in parish schools where teachers were required to explain rightly the Holy Gospel and the Epistles of Paul in both Lithuanian and Polish on equal terms. However, it was not before the second half of the 16th century that the number of schools providing education and literacy to the nobility began to grow.

Lithuanian writer Mikalojus Daukša (after 1527 – 1612) has left probably the best description of the status of the Polish language among the Lithuanian nobility when he wrote in 1599: “Very few of us, especially those of higher origin, do not know Polish and are unable to read books written in Polish, but, in my opinion, the majority of other people do not understand the Polish language or cannot speak a word of it.” Daukša’ remark is more appropriate speaking of impoverished nobles, who were able only mumble in Polish.

Simultaneously, the Polish language was penetrating the lives of urban communities. In the second half of the 16th century, about 20 percent of acts produced by artisan guilds in Vilnius were in Polish, 63 percent in Latin and the remaining 17 percent were in Ruthenian. Several decades later, in the first half of the 17th century, documents in Polish accounted for 65 percent of all acts, while the remaining 30 percent were in Latin and just five percent in Ruthenian. These figures demonstrate that the Polish language has consolidated its positions among city dwellers too by the middle of the 17th century.

In addition to that, some Vilnius residents spoke other languages, because the capital city was the place where immigrants from Italy, France, Holland and other countries would settle down.

The story about Italian-born Andreas Ladino, the butcher from Vilnius, who was arrested in Switzerland in the 19th century for theft, is a good example that illustrates the multilingualism of Vilnius, because the 31-year-old told the interrogators he could speak Russian, Polish, Italian and French. In Kaunas, the city with a sizeable community of German merchants, German was a rather common language of communication. Lithuanian regions by the Baltic Sea apparently lived in a similar situation. Lithuanian city dwellers (and perhaps peasants too) who lived in northern Lithuania, on both sides of the present-day border between Latvia and Lithuania, probably could speak both German and Latvian. Whereas in Kėdainiai, where a strong Scottish community had been settled, the Scottish tongue must have not been a rarity on the streets. Karaims living in and around Trakai spoke their mother tongue. The growing Jewish communities in Lithuanian cities and towns spoke Yiddish between them.

German merchants with Samogitian accent

The vast majority of people living in Lithuania, city dwellers and peasants in the first place, spoke Lithuanian. Historians are aware of surviving oaths, sermons and other texts in Lithuanian. Lithuanian did not enjoy the status of the “official” state language at that time, but Lithuanian was taught even at the Vilnius Academy where a group of clerics learning Lithuanian formed an unofficial club. Most high-ranking officials were perfectly aware of the status of the Lithuanian language too even if they could not speak it themselves. Grigalius Massalski, a regional official in Šiauliai of Ruthenian origin, took into service in 1567 Christoph, a German from Gdansk, who was obliged to learn Polish and Lithuanian in order to be able to communicate with the local nobility and peasants. Merchants and artisans also tended to learn Lithuanian, because the language was useful in their work. For instance, German-born merchant from Klaipėda, Johann Ernst Schedewaldt, wrote several letters using the now extinct dialect of the Klaipėda region of the Samogitian language to Franciszek Rodowicz, who worked for the regional authority in Rietavas in the middle of the 18th century. The merchant spoke and wrote German fluently, he could communicate in Polish fairly well, but his knowledge of Samogitian was much better.

This means that the Lithuanian language had its value and even certain “demand” among other languages.

Do You Know?

In a sense, two groups of languages existed between the middle of the 16th and the middle of the 17th century. The first group comprised Ruthenian, Polish and Latin, the languages used for all kinds of writing and documentation and mostly used by aristocrats, wealthy representatives of the nobility, city residents and clergy. The Lithuanian language, which dominated rural areas of Lithuania, belongs to the second group. Germans, Italians, French, Scots and Jews living in towns and cities communicated in predominant local languages and in their native tongues.

Jonas Drungilas