The languages of Czernowitz and old Bucovina

From my acquaintance with the life and work of Paul Celan – not to mention passing through on several occasions and seeing traces of its imperial past – I was aware that the former Austro-Hungarian town of Czernowitz was once home to a remarkable ethnic diversity, later erased as the surrounding province of Bucovina was ceded to Romania – whereupon it gained the name Cernăuți – and then the USSR and Ukraine for which it is now known as Chernivtsi. I was happy to discover Gregor von Rezzori’s memoir Blumen im Schnee (in English translation as The Snows of Yesteryear) which sheds much light on the changing demographics of the town. In reminiscing on his childhood nanny Cassandra, hired out of some remote village in the Carpathians, Rezzori makes the following comment on the languages that he heard spoken in his childhood:

She spoke both Romanian and Ruthenian, both equally badly—which is not at all unusual in the Bukovina—intermixing the two languages and larding both with bits from a dozen other idioms. The result was that absurd lingua franca, understood only by myself and scantily by those who, like her, had to express themselves in a similarly motley verbal hodgepodge. Even though it may be questioned whether I was actually fed at Cassandra’s breast, there can be no doubt that linguistically I was nourished by her speech. The main component was a German, never learned correctly or completely, the gaps in which were filled with words and phrases from all the other tongues spoken in the Bukovina—so that each second or third word was either Ruthenian, Romanian, Polish, Russian, Armenian or Yiddish, not to forget Hungarian and Turkish. From my birth, I heard mainly this idiom, and it was as natural to me as the air that I breathed.

How much things have changed in a century. Yiddish disappeared from Czernowitz with the genocide of its Jewish population in World War II. As Rezzori observes, German was already on the wane right after Trianon. From my experiences walking the streets of the city, it’s pretty much down to just Ukrainian, Russian and Romanian now. And while the intermixing of languages was simply accepted as a fact of life back then, today in at least southern (Romanian) Bucovina, the observation that a word in Romanian is of foreign origin is often taken as an insult.

The decline of German (and French) as languages of culture

In his book Fractured Times: Culture and Society in the Twentieth Century, the late Eric Hobsbawm writes on the decline of Mitteleuropa as a sociocultural phenomenon. This remark on the disappearance of German as a language of pan-European culture struck me, being in line with some anecdotal musings that I have had for some time:

Equally, and perhaps even more significant, is the end of German linguistic hegemony. German is no longer the lingua franca of the educated from the Baltic to Albania. It is not merely that a young Czech meeting a young Hungarian or a Slovene will most probably use English to communicate with him or her, but that none of them can any longer expect the other to know German. It is that nobody who is not a native German speaker is now likely to use Goethe and Lessing, Hölderlin and Heine as the foundation of educated culture, let alone as the way from backwardness into modernity.

European literary culture has been massively affected by the change of the European lingua franca to English and increasingly nothing but English. I have always thought it remarkable how many European intellectuals born in the 1920s and 1930s were fond of Hölderlin, participating in his 20th-century resurgence even if they were from outside German-speaking countries proper. Hungarians and Italians upheld him as a poet to know. Now, a few decades on, Hölderlin may well be of interest only to those working in Germany, Austria or Switzerland.

It is not just German. I wonder if Samuel Beckett’s novels (namely the trilogy) have fallen so drastically into obscurity compared to his plays because the former were usually read on the continent in their original French, and now people are less likely to know French or at least read it for pleasure.