Which Written and Spoken Languages Did the non-Christian Communities of the GDL Use?

Non-Christian communities within the Grand Duchy of Lithuania lived far from their native territories and used considerably altered languages, therefore all members of these communities were at least bilingual, while some of them used more languages with greater or lesser success. That led to the multilingualism of the communities and helped expand the spectre of languages and vocabularies used throughout the GDL. Hebrew, Yiddish, Karaim and Arab languages were used alongside Polish, Ruthenian and Lithuanian, the former four also served as written languages. Jews, Karaims and Tatars not only spoke their own languages; for writing they used Hebrew and Arabic vocabularies that remained unfamiliar and unreadable for the majority of the society. In fact, Christian residents of the GDL were able to recognise Hebrew characters visually but usually failed to identify the language: ‘written in Jewish script’. Theology students at Vilnius University were able to learn the basics of Hebrew because it was taught alongside Latin and Greek as an important language for Scripture studies. (The Department of Theology included a division of the Hebrew language.) Adomas Kulvietis taught Hebrew at the University of Königsberg; in the episode about his childhood in his memoires, nobleman Teodoras Jevlašauskis refers to the Hebrew word abba (father) as the first word he has uttered; texts by a radical Arianist, Symon Budny, feature quotes in Ashkenazi, the dialect characteristic to Jews living  in the Polish and Lithuanian Commonwealth that no one was using in written form at that time. Budny termed it the “Polish” Hebrew language. Some people in Western Europe in the 17th century wished to get acquainted with the Karaim language (Hebrew characters were used for its written form when the GDL existed); the interest in Karaims was spurred by the idea that identified them as “righteous Jews” who have renounced the Talmud (one such expedition was led by Gustav Peringer, the professor of Orientalism at the University of Uppsala). There is no reliable information about the knowledge of the Arabic, the language sacred to all Muslims of the GDL.

Polish in Arabic script

The question concerning the languages used in everyday life by non-Christian communities of the GDL is not an easy one. All the three communities had their sacred religious languages alongside the ones they used for everyday communication. Jews had Hebrew, the tongue of the Bible (Karaims of the GDL also used it in religious rites), while Muslim Tatars had Arabic. Very few members of the communities, however, were able to read, write and speak those languages. The situation was especially tricky in the Tatar community. The Tatars had arrived in the GDL from different khanates where different dialects of the Turkic language were used. Arabic was considered the language of the Koran and the religion, but it was not used as a spoken tongue. Tatars, who did not have a single language that could unite their community, went through the linguistic assimilation early and began speaking Ruthenian or Polish between themselves. (Frequent marriages with local Christian women was an important factor behind the assimilation.)

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Tatars have adopted the Arabic vocabulary according to their own phonetics in order to be able to write in Polish and Ruthenian (by adding several letters borrowed from the Persian language denominating sounds of Slavic languages to the 29-letter Arabic vocabulary); Tatars have subsequently began recording both religious and secular texts using the Arabic script. This is how they managed to preserve the sacrality of the Arabic language (or, rather, its vocabulary) and to create more favourable conditions for the Muslims of the GDL who could not speak or write Arabic.

Manuscripts of Lithuanian Tatars, written in local languages yet using the Arabic vocabulary, is a recognized phenomenon of the written legacy of the GDL.

The manuscripts that we know about today were written between the 17th and 19th centuries. Just several families of Tatars living in the GDL have preserved the use of Turkic and Arabic languages; representatives of some of these families worked for the chancellery of grand dukes as “Arabian scribes” or were hired as interpreters to accompany the diplomatic mission of the GDL heading to the Golden Horde. In fact, their knowledge of Turkic and Arabic languages must have been insufficient, while the language they used probably was old-fashioned, because some documents provide complaints about the “Arabian scribes” who wrote letters in the language that nobody was able to understand.

“Litvish,” the dialect of Lithuanian Jews

Jews of the GDL spoke Ruthenian in the 15th and 16th century, including testimonies during court hearings and communication with local Christians. As a minority in all territories they lived, Jews could speak local languages too, although with different success, as they were vital for their economic activity. When more Jews arrived in the GDL from Central and Eastern Europe, Yiddish took the position of the spoken language of the Jewish community. (The High German language was the foundation for Yiddish which has also incorporated elements of Hebrew and Aramaic.) The loss of linguistic roots was behind the emergence and subsequent alterations of Litvish, the local dialect of Yiddish.

Jews of the GDL began using a lot of Slavic words; later they also adopted a number of Lithuanian words too.

Just as it was the case with Tatars, Jews have adjusted the sacred vocabulary to write in Yiddish using the Hebrew script. There are several known instances throughout the GDL when Jews used the Hebrew script when they were writing in Polish. Even though such examples are not abundant, the privilege granted to the Jewish community of Ukmergė is one of them; the text in the book of notes of the local Kahal is in Polish yet written in Hebrew symbols.

The translation of five books from the Old Testament (the Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes, the Book of Esther, the Book of Ruth and the Book of Proverbs) from Hebrew to Ruthenian in the 16th century in today’s Belarus points to close cultural and linguistic contacts. Translators have preserved the combination of different languages as the parts of the Bible that originally were in Aramaic have been translated to the Church Slavonic language, while the texts originally in Hebrew have been translated to Ruthenian. The translators were Jews who spoke local languages fluently and used the Jewish Bible as their primary source. (There are a number of episodes in the abovementioned five books where texts in the Jewish Bible and the Christian one are different.) It is thought that the translations were used by the Orthodox Christians propagating Judaism in certain regions of the GDL.

Jurgita Šiaučiūnaitė-Verbickienė