• July 22, 2016
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Geben: Vilnius Youth Don’t Say “Mabiłka” Anymore

“Is there a danger of the death of the Polish language in Lithuania? No. The dialect will survive. Especially the closeness of the Polish border makes the death of the Polish language in Lithuania rather unlikely. It will not die!” says Kinga Geben PhD of the Centre of Polish Studies, Vilnius University, when interviewed by zw.lt.

Ewelina Mokrzecka: You’re doing research on the youth slang – the language of students from the primary school to university. What are their peculiarities?

Kinga Geben PhD: First of all, I’m dealing with the standard Polish language, and not with the typical jargon, so the language that the youth should speak, that they’ve been taught at school, that they speak in an official situation or one that’s close to such, or when communicating with a public person. By the way, it’s been proved that young people are diglossic, so they know the standard language and dialect. I mean both the dialect brought from home, the so-called Vilnius dialect, and the sociolectal one, jargon, or in other words – the youth or student slang.

Does the language of the Vilnius region youth stand out somehow?

This language is above all multi-layered.

What does it mean?

It means that the youth know the general Polish language and the slang. Currently, I’m observing the John Paul II Secondary School in Vilnius and I dare say that the youth know the general language well, make use of it proficiently in classes, but at the same time they know the slang, which they use in non-official conversations. This language really exists. We can observe it both on the Internet and in the communication between students.

So the language we use in the Vilnius region, where we alter endings, throw in distorted words, speak with a different accent, just like Poles from the Educational Society speak sometimes, can be called a language?

The thing that’s most prominent is the phonetic layer, so speaking with a different accent, the thing that everyone stresses. But in fact we speak the same Polish language. We use Polish proficiently. Both we, who are older, and the youth, which is very important in the context of other Poles living beyond the borders of Poland. Let’s compare here, for example, Poles living in Ukraine or Belarus, who don’t speak Polish at all or don’t do it proficiently in any form. They take courses in Polish and cannot say “Nazywam się XY” [My name is XY]. In the Vilnius region plenty of people speak the Polish mother tongue proficiently.

Therefore, what we hear in the Vilnius region can be called a language?

For sure. The standard language in Lithuania functions indeed. I don’t speak here of the literary language, but of the language of communication, so the standard one.

The only form of the Polish language that Lithuania lacks is the Polish formal language. We can say that there’s the Polish literary language, Polish colloquial language, but there is not the formal one, and so various official forms are not known. Perhaps on some lesson the students will write CV, learn what “reklamacja”, “zadośćuczynienie”, “zażalenie” is [respectively, complaint (about a product), compensation, complaint (the act of complaining); translator’s note], but they’ll forget about it because they don’t hear it on an everyday basis. Besides, they won’t make use of it anywhere on an everyday basis. We can forget a language. Just like we do when it comes to a foreign one that students learn for twelve years. Some of them know it very well, but most just forget it.

So what’s then the difference between a language and a dialect?

A dialect is confined to a certain territory or environment. It differs mainly in the group of characteristics that are different from those in the Polish language but that do not negate its system of meaning. What decides on the belonging of a dialect to the language is the fact that the words have the same meaning. And the fact that the phonetic layer of the dialect is a little bit different or that endings are different is just a distinguishing feature of the dialect.

The Vilnius dialect belongs to the Polish language because it’s a language of Polish people that’s close to the general language, just contains some deviations. What’s important, we can’t apply the category of error to a dialect, so we won’t say that, for example, an older woman from the Jašiūnai village speaks with errors. She doesn’t speak with errors but speaks the dialect.

Coming back to the youth slang, what words appear in it most often?

Words and expressions that are used most frequently are, among others, “nadojadło mnie takie życie”, “ona zazłuła się”, “schodzić do sklepu”, “otkryć drzwi”, “kryszka”, “maszyna”, “razetka”, “spytać na konto”, “idzie deszcz”, and other typical Russianisms.

Have you noticed any changes that have occurred in this language over the years?

It’s hard to speak of some change over a period of 20 years. However, it’s a long-lasting process. Some things die away and others replace them. As an example of words and expressions characteristic of the dialect that are going out of use I’ll give “chodzić na cypkach” and “cacki”. What’s interesting, even Russianisms are disappearing. “Marszrutka”, “mabiłka” – we don’t talk like that anymore. New Lithuanisms are appearing, however, for instance “akcja”, “widziałem akcję na masło w sklepie”. There are also online media, which have a great influence on young people. “Sziejp” is a popular word, contracted to “sjp” in the written form, which would be incomprehensible for the Poles from Poland, just like the “krc” abbreviation for “karoczie”, “cj” for “cziuju”, “żeb”, and so on. The sentence syntax is undergoing a change as well, “co wy skarżyciś?, “izza ciebie”, popular “tylko ciebie”, “krasawa”, so completely new phenomena, which weren’t there  only ten years ago, and that’s what’s different about the Internet language of the Polish youth in the Vilnius region. We’re fighting today for the Polish letters spelling, the letter “w” among others, whereas the youth don’t use it deliberately. What’s more, instead of Polish “ch” they use the Russian character “x”, and the digraphs “sz” and “rz” don’t occur in the online communication either.

But maybe it’s just about the so-called linguistic economy and the principle of least effort?

Of course, the use of the simplified variant of pronunciation or spelling is easier, but the use of the dialect is not caused by the economy of effort. Using the youth slang gives the sense of belonging to a group, determines its members, and takes place under pressure from that community.

Is speaking the dialect a shame? Is it a positive or rather negative phenomenon? What do teachers, Polonists think about it?

As Polonists, we think that use of the jargon outside the youth group is inappropriate, just as speaking the dialect during a sermon wouldn’t be proper. The youth have to be aware of the necessity of using the standard variant of each language if they speak or write to people from outside the members of their group, so as to follow the principles of society functioning.

The research that you carried out in 2011 shows that 99 percent of Poles living in Lithuania understands Russian, 98 percent Lithuanian, and 96 percent Polish, so we know Polish and understand it not so badly…

First of all, these are declarations, and if we asked our friend or neighbour without any research how they assess their command of languages, they would certainly say that the one they know best is Russian, Lithuanian also is not so bad, and Polish causes them some problems, despite its being their mother tongue.


The self-assessment concerning Russian is very good mainly because they don’t have contact with the correct Russian language in use – always when we’re on a trip in Russia, Russians see we’re not from Russia, as the Russian language differs from the one we speak. On the other hand, inhabitants of the Vilnius region are aging, the majority of elderly people know Russian really well from the Soviet times, from Russian schools, and perhaps that’s why this percentage of the declaration isn’t falling. However, we should pay attention to the fact that there are less and less young people and the Polish society structure is upset. We’re aging and that’s why the percentage of people speaking Russian is declining, and that of people speaking Polish is not increasing. And neither is the population of the Polish society.

Sometimes I’m under an impression that Russian is more popular among the Poles in Lithuania than Polish. This year’s secondary school graduates in the Šalčininkai and Vilnius regions at the Matura exam in a foreign language took Russian, not English…

It’s a pity indeed that it wasn’t English. I deplore it much, as only the exam in one of the European languages, English, French, or German, passed within the Matura gives the possibility of admission to higher education institutions; the exam in Russian, however, is not accepted and makes studying at universities for free impossible.

Students know about it, and still they choose Russian. Sometimes this language is their mother tongue, sometimes the second mother tongue. As for attachment, the Polish language is on the first place in Poles’ lives, and on the second is Russian. Many people are attached to Polish at the same level as they are to Russian. We should not generalise, however, because the situation in the Vilnius City is different from that in Šalčininkai or in Trakai.

The average Pole uses 1,000-1,500 words daily, a more educated one uses up to 10,000. What about the youth? Is Polish in the Vilnius region as much developed, or is it poorer?

So far we haven’t conducted such a study, but, basing on intuition, I can say that this language in the Vilnius region is poorer indeed, but it’s sufficient for communication. Is this communciation disturbed somehow? It’s not. Any gaps are being filled by insertions from other languages. It’s not that the youth cannot name something.

In what way can we make the Polish language in the Vilnius region more attractive?

A good question, but it’s a challenge also for the media. Why is Russian so attractive? Because the Russian media is attractive. It could be the same with Polish after all. If we had the whole Polish TV available and free, the proficiency in Polish would certainly increase. Also if we watched contemporary films on the Internet with the Polish dubbing and not with Russian. I think the viewership of the Polish TV would be considerably higher than the viewership of TVP Polonia is now.

I’ll stress once more – the Polish society is growing old all the time. What do the Poles read? Russian newspapers aimed at elderly people. Let’s notice that the Russian press is invariably present at every Polish home in the Vilnius region, be it “Пенсионер” or “Экспресс неделя”. Why? Probably because of the habit of reading in this language the information contained there.

What media then do the Polish youth refer to at present?

I have a research concerning the Internet. It shows that 70 percent of students use the Internet in Lithuanian, a little less do so in Russian, and about 50 percent use it in Polish. Admittedly, the sample wasn’t big; however, it points to a higher percentage of students than adults, out of whom only one-fourth visits Polish websites.

In the view of scientists, education in the minority’s language is part of identity preservation. In the last 20 years we’ve been able to see that the number of students in Polish schools has been falling, or, for instance, basing on the case of Vandžiogala, can we hypothesise that the Polish language in Lithuania will vanish within 30-50 years?

When it comes to Vandžiogala, the Polish language teaching was reduced there in the prewar period. Let’s mark that at the same time in the Vilnius region the number of Polish schools increased rapidly. So there the oldest generation – let’s assume it was the one of our great-grandparents – would not complete a Polish school already. Besides, most Poles from the Kaunas region were sent to Siberia or repatriated themselves to Poland. However, about the activity of those who remained we can read at www.vandziogala.eu.

When it comes to the death of the language, however, the researcher of this phenomenon David Crystal has written that the natural death of a language would occur along with the death of its users as a result of a cataclysm or as a result of voluntary renunciation of the language. Which of these threaten us? Is there a danger of death as a result of a cataclysm? Maybe, but we don’t expect it in the nearest future. Will the voluntary renunciation of the language occur? It would have to be voluntary, because the enforced renunciation would never meet these conditions. The voluntary assimilation is the most dreadful fact, which can cause the death of the language. Does it threaten us? No. The dialect will survive. Especially the closeness of the Polish border makes the death of the Polish language in Lithuania rather unlikely. It will not die!

Kinga Geben PhD completed Polish Philology at Faculty of Polish Studies, University of Warsaw. At present, she is a research and didactic worker at Centre of Polish Studies, Vilnius University.

She conducts classes in linguistic subjects. Her research interests focus around sociolinguistics, the Polish language culture, and lexicology. Her academic output includes, among others, the monograph “Świadomość i kompetencja językowa a warstwy leksykalne w idiolektach młodzieży polskiego pochodzenia na Wileńszczyźnie” (Warsaw, 2003) [“Linguistic Awareness and Competence in Relation to Idiolects of the Youth of Polish Origin in the Vilnius Region”], a Polish language textbook for Polish schools in Lithuania, the academic course book “Kultura języka polskiego. Zmiany słownikowe w polszczyźnie mówionej na Litwie” (Vilnius, 2013) [“The Polish Language Culture. Lexical Changes in the Spoken Polish Language in Lithuania”].

Translated by Karolina Katarzyńska within the framework of a traineeship programme of the European Foundation of Human Rights, www.efhr.eu.

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