- April 16, 2013
On Facebook and on Cemeteries. Distorted surnames at one’s own request?
The issue of original spelling of surnames, like boomerang, appears during every discussion concerning Polish-Lithuanian relations. However, there is a tendency for local Poles to write their names and surnames using Lithuanian alphabet (“š”, “č” or “ž”) even if there is no legal order to do so. This is particularly true for the Internet space, but distorted surnames appears also on cemetery gravestones.
“Anywhere in public space, I mean all the agreements, surveys and any other forms the number of which is growing, a Pole in Lithuania should use the official form of the surname. And therefore such a person gradually starts to identify oneself completely with its Lithuanian graphical form and begins to use it even if there is no compulsion to do so”—explained to PL DELFI Irena Masojć, the head of the Department of Polish Studies and Didactic Methods at Lithuanian University of Educational Sciences. Is surname’s distortion at one’s own request a sign of assimilation? Or maybe it does not have any significant impact on human identity?
Entertainment and that’s all she wrote
Why do Poles use distorted names and surnames on the Internet? There are various arguments. They do so for practical reasons (so that their Lithuanian friends can find them on Facebook) or it does not matter much to them. “FB is not any serious website for me to consider which language I should use there. Entertainment and that’s all she wrote. It doesn’t matter in which language I typed my name or surname”—explained to PL DELFI a teacher from Polish school in Lithuania, who wished to remain anonymous.
“On my FB profile I entered my details not in the form which is used in my identity card—Dariuš Levicki. Fecebook displays Darius Levicki. I use Polish font, don’t I? No one can prove that letters “d, a, r, i, u, s, l, e, i, c, k” are not written in Polish. And that I used one Lithuanian letter “v”?… Actually, I am a Lithuanian citizen and something should indicate it”—explained to us Dariusz Lewicki, a student of historic preservation and cultural heritage.
“At present I use a name entered into my passport, because everybody knows my under this name. Polish friends are able to find me because they know how to spell my surname in Lithuanian; Lithuanian friends, however, cannot find me using Polish alphabet”—said Tadeusz Bejnarowicz, a student of University in Białystok.
For practical reasons the “official” spelling of his name and surname uses a graphic designer from Eisiskes, Tomasz Jundo, who presently lives abroad. “As a person who constantly lives outside Poland/Lithuania (whatever) and is usually surrounded by Lithuanian/English/Russian-speaking people I got used to using different forms of my name, starting with Tomek, Tomasz to Tomas and Tom. I accept all these forms and I even use them to emphasize or hide my background, depending on a situation—whether the nationality matters or the information contained in your name and surname is redundant in that case”—explained Jundo.
In recent years communication via Internet has radically changed the face of language. It does not only concern Polish or Lithuanian languages, but it covers the whole world. Very often SMSs or e-mails are written without diacritics and words are typed phonetically. “Undoubtedly the omission of diacritics from new means of communication—SMSs, Facebook or even e-mail correspondence—has a very negative influence on the appropriate usage of a written language. The boundary between a spoken and written language is blurred as well. We live in the era of a great stylistic revolution of the language”—reckons Irena Masojć.
Families use a regional Polish dialect
In recent years there have been made suggestions that the level of the Polish language has decreased considerably among the Polish youth living in Lithuania. Several weeks ago the dean of the Vilnius branch of the University in Białystok, Jarosław Wołkonowski, stated in an interview that students of the Vilnius branch have difficulties using Polish. During the conversation with PL DELFI Wołkonowski confirmed these words. “We have graduates of Polish schools with low or very low command of Polish. Problems begin when it comes to write dissertations. Then they have difficulties in formulating their thoughts in Polish. The lecturers from Vilnius are able to understand them, although they see mistakes. However, the lecturers from Białystok do not understand them because they [lecturers] do not use such words”—affirmed Wołkonowski. Currently the institution authorities want to introduce a revision course of the Polish language next year.
With this opinion does not fully agree Irena Masojć. In her view the expression “a level of education” is too ambiguous and different people may interpret it in various ways. “A barometer of these changes might be the Polish Linguistics and Literature Olympiad during which students are doing better and better during oral performances or discussions and not so well in written works where there is much greater discipline concerning structure, grammar and punctuation. With respect to the latest statement of prof. Wołkonowski, he probably meant the appropriate use of a written language—specifically, the use of the academic language, which is not taught in the classroom during Polish lessons because there is no room for such lessons”—presumes the head of the Department of Polish Studies. Jarosław Wołkonowski is convinced that the problem lies in the educational level of schools since his students do not have any serious difficulties with the academic language.
A great impact on the language we use has our environment. “Like every minority we are surrounded by a foreign language—in the public sphere the Lithuanian language is the dominant one. In a Polish school great emphasis is put on perfect mastery of Polish because this subject forms a part of compulsory Matura exam, the results of which determine, to a large extent, a chance of doing non-fee-paying courses at universities.”—points out Masojć. The dean of the UB Vilnius branch also agrees with this opinion.
“A national language in this context—despite public watchwords and assurances—becomes, out of necessity, of secondary importance and places a burden of responsibility for its level on Polish language teachers. A second pillar could be constituted by a family; yet… Polish families do not use standard Polish but its regional dialect with a considerable dose of Russian or Lithuanian-based words. One could attempt to outrage, moralize, appeal to patriotism; we have to, however, accept this social reality with submissiveness. Similar situation occurs among all the minority communities: both historically developed and shaped by emigration”—adds Irena Masojć.
Inscriptions on the gravestones
Contrary to popular present opinions, during the soviet times Polish names and surnames were also changed, usually Russified. Those whose parents did not want to argue with a functionary were registered as “Macejevskij” instead of “Maciejewski”, “Josif” or “Michail” instead of “Józef” or “Michał”. However, standard practice when someone passed away to “the better world” was to engrave on a gravestone a name and a surname according to the Polish grammar. Anyway only letters existing in the Polish alphabet were used because these inscriptions also contained some language errors.
In the last twenty years it can be observed that Polish surnames on the gravestones in Rudomin’s and Maisiagala’s necropolises and other localities of Vilnius Region are more and more often written phonetically, that is in the way they are entered into official documents. That is why we can encounter surnames such as “Bogdevič”, “Stefanovič” or “Gulbinovič”. It is worth noting that we do not mean surnames adjusted to Lithuanian language rules, that is with suffixes “-as”, “-ienė” or “-ytė”.
Irena Masojć, however, does not see such trends. In her view, if inscriptions on graveyards contain errors, then these are still occasional cases. “Inscriptions on memorials are the result of the mutual decision of a family and a stonemason. If a stonemason made a mistake, it is not so easy to erase it as it could be done with an inscription on paper. It might seem that there were many more incorrect inscriptions in 70s or 80s when both: a level of education among Polish families and culture of a very few stonemasons left a lot to be desired. Nowadays, the inscriptions are becoming more correct; masculine forms of surnames, such as Sławińscy or Wąsowiczowie, appears more and more often on family gravestones. Therefore, in my opinion, individual cases that shock us and are conspicuous are just some exceptions”—states Irena Masojć.
“Personally I have never encounter such a thing but I can see where this is coming from. Perhaps these are people who come from mixed families or are less educated. Maybe a stonemason decided to do so. The decision of our authorities, which forbids original spelling, certainly has an impact on the situation. I think that the situation is about to change”—pointed out Wołkonowski.
Assimilation, integration or acculturation?
Although, the usage of distorted name and surname also in private life becomes more frequent, this tendency can be hardly included in the assimilation process. Lithuanian diacritics are used by people who fully identify themselves with the Polish identity, are active in Polish organizations and vote Electoral Action of Poles in Lithuania. Anyway, if we take a closer look at EAPL’s electoral register, a large majority of candidates still bears Russified surnames.
“There is one more word—acculturation, that is an assimilation to a different culture, typically the dominant one, which is indispensable to wholesome functioning in this community. While answering this question I will try to avoid a word “patriots”, since it has a negative connotation in the contemporary context, and thus I am going to talk about—maybe with a slight exaggeration—a Polish social elite. In this case any grammatical or graphical adjustment of surnames to Lithuanian language is impermissible. Recent events show that even without a suffix -us it is possible to become a minister or a deputy minister and gain recognition for professional competence, not for the form of surname. If anyone wants to represent Polish intellectuals in Lithuania, then this person should become a role model also (or maybe mainly) within a language use. Particularly glaring thing occurs when people write Polish surname with Lithuanian font in Polish text”—explained Irena Masojć.
Jarosław Wołkonowski claims that in the Internet it is not always possible to use Polish letters, as it is in the case of e-mail addresses. However, if only possible, we should try not to distort our surname because it is not only a personal property, but also a bond with future generations. “If one resigns from this then, in my personal opinion, it is impossible to preserve the identity. Because there appears someone who does not identify with previous generations”—emphasizes the dean of the UB Vilnius branch.
Tłumaczenie Hanna Hołub w ramach praktyk w Europejskiej Fundacji Praw Człowieka, www.efhr.eu. Translated by Hanna Hołub within the framework of a traineeship programme of the European Foundation of Human Rights, www.efhr.eu.