Trilingualism in Texas: Sorbian, German, and English

University of Priština


In a small area near the Central Texas town of Giddings, some sixty miles east of Austin, there exists a trilingual ethnic group on the rapid verge of extinction: the Sorbs. The three languages involved are Upper Sorbian, German and English. An extremely small number of individuals still speak Upper Sorbian and to the best of my knowledge there are no families today in which Sorbian is the principal language of communication. The Upper Sorbian language in Texas, forced to compete with not one, but two, dominant languages, is on the verge of extinction.

The Sorbian Languages

The Slavic languages form a group of the Indo-European language family and are in turn divided into three sub-groups: the eastern sub-group (Russian, Ukrainian, White Russian) , the southern sub-group (Serbo-Croatian, Bulgarian, and Macedonian) and the western subgroup (Czech, Slovak, Polish, Kashubian, Upper Sorbian, and Lower Sorbian).

The two Sorbian languages are spoken today in the southeastern corner of the German Democratic Republic (East Germany).[1] Upper and Lower Serbian are accorded the status of separate languages; they are not merely considered dialects of one language. The language in Texas is Upper Serbian.

In English the term “Wendish” is frequently used.[2] Although the Sorbs of Texas refer to the language as “Wendish,” the preferred term among Slavists is Sorbian.

The Sorbian Immigration to Texas

The reason for the Sorbian immigration to Texas in the 19th century was the feeling that in the United States there would be greater political, economic, and religious freedom, the immediate cause of the immigration being a desire for greater religious freedom.[3]

Although a small group of Sorbs immigrated to Texas in 1853, the main immigration occurred in 1854. A group of some 600 Sorbs, under the leadership of the Reverend Johann Kilian, left Germany in September of 1854 and arrived in Galveston in December of the same year. They settled near the present-day town of Giddings. Upon the opening of a post office in 1860; Rev. Kilian named the community Serbin.

Sketch of a Texas Serbian Ideolect

The informant was Mr. Carl Mirtschin a farmer 75 years of age. He lives with his wife between Northrup and Winchester. He is one of the few remaining speakers of Sorbian in the area. His linguistic background is the following: His grandparents immigrated to Texas in the 19th century. He was reared in a bilingual home (Sorbian and German), then began to study English in school. He speaks German and English with his wife.

The following data represents merely a sketch of his idiolect. Possible causes of divergences from Standard Upper Sorbian (SUS) are mentioned.[4]

Sorbian data is given in SUS orthography:

(English approximation)

ě = I, ‘i’ as in ‘bit’

ó = U, ‘u’ as in ‘pull’

j = y, ‘y’ as in ‘yes’

ł = w[5], ‘w’ as in ‘win’

č = ch, ‘ch’ as in ‘church’

= dž, ‘j’ as in ‘judge’

š = sh, ‘sh’as in ‘ship’)

ž = zh, ‘as in ‘azure’)

c = ts, ‘ts’ as in ‘cats’)

ń = palatalized ‘n'[6]

Items of interest in the idiolect:

1. Inconsistent use of the dual number. SUS has a three-way number system: singular, dual, and plural. German and English do not.

Some examples elicited: (items of interest are underlined):

Taj dwaj holcaj pojedatej sersce. ‘Those two boys are speaking Wendish.’

Moja žona a ja so dobri čujemoj. ‘My wife and I feel good.’

Ja a moja žona jěmoj. ‘My wife and I are eating.’

Contrasted with:

Moja žona a ja sersce pojedamo. ‘My wife and I are speaking Wendish.’ SUS 1 dual suffix = – oj[7]

Tej dwaj mužej budźeja joł jutci. ‘Those two men will be here tomorrow.’ SUS 3 dual suffix = – tej

2. Inconsistent use of the case system. SUS has a seven-way case system: nominative, accusative, vocative, dative, genitive, locative, instrumental. The German and English case system, is much less complex

Some examples elicited:

Ja pi jem wodu. (accusative) ‘I’m drinking water.’

Ja sěm joł bjez mojeho nana. (genitive} ‘I’m here without my father.’

Ja sěm joł ze mojim nanom. (instrumental) ‘I’m here with my father.’

Contrasted with:

Ja mam dwaj bratraj. ‘I have two brothers.’

SUS = dweju bratrow

Ja widzim to holca. ‘I see the boy.’

SUS = toho

3. Preservation of the imperfective-perfective distinction. SUS has a system of aspect (completed versus non-completed action).

Some examples elicited:

Čera sěm ja piwo pił. ‘I drank beer yesterday.’

Ja sěm te piwo wópił. ‘I drank up the beer.’

Ja do Serbina póńdu. ‘I’ll go to Serbin.’

4. Word order. Variation between Subject – Verb – Object, and Subject – Object – Verb word orders.

Some examples elicited:

Ja pijem wodu. ‘I’m drinking water.’

S     V      O

Ja widźim to holca. ‘I see the boy.’

S      V     \    O   /

Contrasted with:

Ja mjaso kupujem. ‘I’m buying meat.’

S     O         V

Ja mojem nanej pomham. ‘I’m helping my father.’

S  \      O        /     V

Ja tebe widźim. ‘I see you.’

S     O      V


Blasig, Anne. The Wends of Texas. San Antonio: Naylor Company, 1954.

Wowčerk, P. Kurzgefasste Obersorbische Grammatik. 3rd ed. Berlin: Volk und Wissen Ludowy Nakład, 1955.


[1] The cultural centers of the Upper and Lower Sorbs are Bautzen and Cottbus respectively. All speakers of Serbian in Germany are bilingual with German as their second language.

[2] The term ‘Lusatian’ is also sometimes used.

[3] Source for the history of the Serbian immigration to Texas: Blasig (1954).

[4] The fact that an informant uses a non-SUS form is not proof of German/English interference. It may merely mean that he speaks a non-SUS dialect.

[5] The post-vocalic phonetic value of ‘ł‘ depends on the preceding vowel. Following ‘u‘ and ‘o‘ it has the value of a back glide ‘w’. Following ‘i’, it has the value of ‘u’. Following ‘i’, ‘e’, and ‘a‘, it has the value of ‘ɔ’.

[6] Palatalization is distinctive in SUS. Examples of distinctive palatalization in this idiolect:


ń  = ‘horse’

wor = ‘plow’ (participle)

rjana = ‘beautiful’

[7] Source for SUS data: Wowčerk (1955)


Review 1: Sonja Wölke

Sonja Wölke. Geschichte der Sorbischen Grammatikschreibung: Von den Anfängen bis zum Ende des 19. Jahrhunderts. (A History of the Writing of Sorbian Grammars: From the Beginnings to the End of the 19th Century.) Schriften des Sorbischen lnstituts 38. Bautzen: Domowina-Verlag, 2005. 304 pp. Paper.

Geschichte der Sorbischen Grammatikschreibung: Von den Anfängen bis zum Ende des 19. Jahrhunderts, by Sonja Wölke. Schriften des Sorbischen Instituts 38. Slavic and East European Journal 52 (2008): 339-40.

Compared to the other Slavic languages, the two Sorbian languages, Upper and Lower, have a relatively recent literary history. The first extant document in Sorbian is the Budyska Přisaha (Bautzen Burghers’ Oath] of 1532, an oath of allegiance to the Czech king. Later in the sixteenth century, religious works (translations of the Bible, catechisms, etc.), both in manuscript and printed form, began to appear in the two languages.

It was only in the seventeenth century that secular books, again in both manuscript and printed form, made their appearance. In 1650 Jan Chójnan published in manuscript form the first grammar of Lower Sorbian. Bearing the unwieldy Latin title of Linguae Vandalicae ad Dialectum Districtus Cotbusiani Formandae Aliquis Conatus, it reflected one of the terms then used for Sorbian (i.e., Vandalic) and was based on the Lower Sorbian dialect of Cottbus. Then, in 1679, Fr. Jakub Ticinus published in printed form his grammar of Upper Sorbian: Principia Linguae Wendicae.

Sonja Wölke, a researcher at the Sorbian Institute in Bautzen and one of the more prolific scholars of the younger generation of Sorabists, has written a detailed history and analysis of Sorbian grammars from the seventeenth century to the end of the nineteenth century. Her study comprises four chapters. The first three chapters are chronological: seventeenth century, eighteenth century, and nineteenth century. Not surprisingly, the section devoted to the nineteenth century is the longest of the chronological chapters, which reflects the greater output of grammars relative to the two earlier centuries. The chapter culminates in Wölke ‘s discussion of Arnost Muka’s Historische und Vergleichende Laut- und Formenlehre der Niedersorbischen (Niederlausitzisch-Vendischen) Sprache of 1891. Muka, arguably the greatest Sorbian linguist of the pre-twentieth century, and some might argue of all time, authored the most detailed of the various Sorbian grammars. Wölke’s lengthy concluding chapter treats in detail the phonology, morphology, and syntax of the grammars. Her knowledge of the structure of the two Sorbian languages is impressive and several detailed tables help illustrate the treatment of the earlier Sorbian grammarians of such things as the dual (pages 206-9).

Dr. Wölke is to be commended for taking on the task of analyzing the pre-twentieth-century grammars of Upper and Lower Sorbian. Her study should set a standard of scholarship for years to come. The amount of detail that she analyzes is impressive, and she relates it to the work not only of other leading Slavists of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (e.g., Karadźić, Jordan, and Dobrovský), but also to Sorabists of our era (Schuster-Šewc, Stone, Schaarschmidt, etc.). Although the book is in German, this should not be a hindrance, since virtually all serious Sorabists are reasonably fluent in the dominant language of the Sorbian-speaking area.

Domowina-Verlag, the leading publisher of books dealing with Sorbian, comes out each year with examples of solid scholarship dealing with these smallest of the Slavic languages. One looks forward to further titles in their excellent series. Indeed, one hopes for a further study by Wölke, particularly on Sorbian grammars of the last century.


Review 4: Walter Koschmal

Walter Koschmal. ed. Perspektiven Sorbischer Literatur. Schriften des Komitees der Bundesrepublik Deutschland zur Förderung der Slawischen Studien. 19. Köln: Böhlau, 1993. 328 pp. 78 OM (cloth).

Perspektiven Sorbischer Literatur, ed. Walter Koschmal. Slavic and East European Journal 39 (1995): 153-54

Perspektiven Sorbischer Literatur comprises a lengthy introductory essay by the editor and eighteen essays dealing with various Sorbian authors and genres of Sorbian literature. Two of the articles take the form of interviews with the Sorbian authors Jurij Brězan and Róźa Domašcyna. Most of the articles are by scholars in Germany (both German and Sorbian) and with the exception of two essays by English Sorabists, all the articles are in German.

One of the most valuable contributions is Gerald Stone’s “The Sorbian Hymn.” Stone’s article, carefully researched, deals in depth with this neglected genre of Sorbian literature. He devotes attention to hymns in the three Sorbian cultural groups: The Lower Sorbs, the Lutheran Upper Sorbs, and the Catholic Upper Sorbs. Roland Marti’s “Mato Kosyk” represents the same high standard of scholarship. Kosyk, who wrote in Lower Sorbian, constitutes with the Upper Sorbs Jakub Bart-Cisinski and Handrij Zejler, what Marti calls the Triumvirat of Sorbian poetry. Dietrich Scholze contributes two articles on Sorbian theater: “Zur Entfaltung des Sorbischen Dramas”‘ and “Sorbisches Berufstheater in der DDR.” Christiana Piniekowa devotes “Das Frauenbild in der Sorbischen Literatur”‘ to the portrayal of women in Sorbian literature. Róźa Domašcyna’s ” ‘Noli Me Tangere’ (Herta Wićazek 4.2.1819- 24.3.1885)” is a study of the first Sorbian female author. Wićazec’s poetry has recently been “rediscovered” and Domašcyna’s article is a welcome contribution to the study of this neglected author.

Koschmal is to be commended both for editing this collection of essays and for contributing two submissions himself. Perspektiven Sorbischer Literatur is a worthy contribution to Sorbian studies.