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Gottscheer Relief Association, New York

Language

What To Do About Our Old Language  (by Martha Hutter, from the Gottscheer Relief Association Winter Jahresbrief/Newsletter 2003)

          When on rare occasions the subject of the spoken language of Gottschee and what to do about it in the face of its demise is raised among fellow Gottscheers, the usual reaction is an uneasy silence.  With this sense of helplessness prevailing among us, it is no wonder that this topic rarely gets discussed.  But our old language deserves better.  Evolved over centuries among just a handful of people that were our ancestors, our native tongue is said to be one of the oldest of the German dialects in the Alpine region.  Our language is not just one more trait that has set the Gottscheer people apart from others; it is historically our most noted distinction.

          Already hundreds of years ago does the native tongue of Gottschee startle the scholars of the day.  In 1561 one chronicler named Lazius believes to see traces of the “ancient tribe of the Sueben” in its vocabulary.  In 1612 the lithographer Merian writes that the area’s inhabitants “live amidst the Wendish people but use a German language”.  Both point out the archaic nature of the dialect.  The historian Valvasor in 1689 describes the Gottscheer tongue to be a dialect that “a German would have difficulty understanding, a Krainer (Slovene) however, would not understand a word.”  Valvasor refers to the dialect of the Gottscheer people as the language of their “ancient forebear”.

          Thus our göttscheabarisch (go-TSHEAH-bah-rish) is in the 17th century already seen as archaic.  It is said to resemble some Low German dialects, yet is difficult to understand by other German tribes, while Gottscheers themselves have no problem with the formal High German; and it is known to be in use universally throughout the district, so much so that folks who do not step out into the Slovene environs do not get to learn that language.

          In the 19th century, study of the dialect is taken up by linguists in their attempt to establish the origin of the Gottscheer people.  Samples of it appear in professional journals, along with suggestions that this be essentially a Bavarian dialect, with some Wendish (Slovene) input.  A Lutheran priest named Elze living in Laibach is the first (1861) to thoroughly study the dialect and collect its vocabulary.  He believes the language of the Gottscheer people to be a valuable but widely undiscovered source for Germanic studies, one that “not only would enrich our knowledge of German dialects, but help our understanding of the Medieval German languages…”

          Two scholars of the late 19th century, Schröer and Hauffen, add significantly to the linguistic data.  Both come to the conclusion that göttscheabarisch belongs to the family of Bavarian/Tyrolean (Upper German) dialects, with an older input of Middle and Low German including Swabian.

          Then in 1908, the Gottscheer Hans Tschinkel publishes the first textbook for grammar.  Tschinkel also points out deviations in the dialect resulting in six regional versions.  (The six regions are the central valley of Gottschee called “Land”, the “Hinterland” around Rieg, “Walden” around Altlag, “Moschnitze” around Tschermoschnitz, “Untere Seite” at Unterdeutschau, and “Suchen” at Suchen.)  He notes that because of the isolation of each of these regions, the dialect developed differently in their local tongues.

          The most extensive and professional study of our old language was actually done after the homeland succumbed to the two World Wars and the language appeared to be doomed.  Work done by Kranzmayer, Walter Tschinkel, Hornung, Lipold and others underscores the relationship of our native tongue with the dialects of, specifically, upper Carinthia and East Tyrol, as well as some former linguistic islands in the South Alps (today located in northern Italy and Slovenia).  These scholars issued a number of excellent books that preserve knowledge of our language in the German speaking countries.

          Gottscheers who came to America since the 1870’s brought the old language to this country.  Those who came before the Second World War did rather well in preserving the traditional tongue within their small communities and in passing it to their children; there are, even today, old-timers out there who never saw Gottschee yet speak the old language quite well.  Those of us who came after the second war were more inclined to stress among our children the learning of the formal German language, possibly at a cost to our own dialect.  A certain disregard for the old tongue has its roots in practical considerations, which were already apparent in the homeland:  Letting children learn and speak the old tongue was often seen as a roadblock in their way of becoming successful individuals in the outside world.

          For the growing number of English speaking Gottscheer descendants, there is very limited material available that is specifically suited to introduce them to the language of their forebears.  Yet, in our clubs and communities and even via the internet one encounters a certain interest in our old tongue among the new generations, a curiosity about this aspect of their heritage, that will likely persist into the future.  Some are asking for information beyond what is currently at hand.  Although they may see it as a mystifying and incomprehensible tongue, they appreciate the fact that it is a fundamental part of their Gottscheer heritage.

          We regularly honor our members who have served the organizations and clubs well; we have celebrations for them that we call “Ehrenabend” or similar.  Can we have a celebration in honor of our old language?  It may surprise many how enlightening such an affair could be.  To talk about the language, to discuss it as part of an agenda at club meetings and other gatherings or among friends and kin, does not mean that we now expect a new generation to learn and speak it.  It would simply be our way of giving our native language the place of honor it deserves as our culturally most distinguishing trait.  To do so is not a concern of only those who still master the tongue, but of all who come from families that once spoke it

           What, dear Reader, do you think?

 (Source of historical data:  Hugo Grothe, “Die deutsche Sprachinsel Gottschee in Slowenien.”)

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