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.

More Rusyn

In Fall 2005 I wrote a post about Rusyn, that little-known Slavonic language of the Carpathians. Oddly, that post brings more visitors to this weblog through Google searches than any other. It seems that there is more interest in Rusyn out there than one might expect.

In addition to his Rusyn textbook from the 1970s, Paul R. Magocsi recently edited A New Slavic Language is Born: the Rusyn literary language of Slovakia (Columbia University Press, 1996). Though the process of Ukrainianization has already been carried out well-nigh to the end across the border, it’s a pleasure to see that in Slovakia the language has a chance of survival.

One thing I’m puzzled about, however, is how much continuity there is between old native speakers of Rusyn and the new proponents of a literary language. In his textbook, Magocsi writes that Rusyn was so dead in the Carpathians that the only reliable informants were elderly immigrants in the U.S. A historical grammar from the very first attestations through to the norms set down by those who would revitalize the language for literature is sorely needed.

Let’s speak Rusyn

Curious about the minority Slavonic language spoken along the Carpathian mountains in Slovakia, Poland, Hungary, and Ukraine I obtained a copy of Paul R. Magocsi’s Let’s Speak Rusyn (Prešov edition). How amusing what one can learn about the language just by considering its Rusyn title Бісідуйме по-руськы. For the verb ‘to speak’ Rusyn continues to use OCS бесѣдовати which, before it was muscled out in most places by говорити, was the customary term among Slavs, as in Byzantine emperor Michael III’s words to St. Cyril before sending him to Moravia, солѹнѣне вьси чисто словѣньскъi бесѣдѹѭтъ ‘the inhabitants of Thessaloniki all speak perfect Slavonic.’ With its ending -уйме, it preserves the 1st person plural imperative of OCS (which in turn comes from the PIE optative). Among innovations, its reflex of yat as /i/ is striking.

The World Academy of Rusyn Culture has a fairly in-depth presentation of the Rusyn people.