There’s discussion of one of my favorite obscure historical entities, the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth (Rzeczpospolita), in a couple of LH threads from 2005 (here and here); I’m now (finally) reading a birthday present I got last year, The Reconstruction of Nations: Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Belarus, 1569-1999, by Timothy Snyder (thanks, bulbul!), and finding lots of meaty discussion of that part of the world and its complicated history. Snyder has no truck with modern nationalist simplifications, and he warms my heart by referring to each town and region by the name appropriate to the period under discussion, with a “gazetteer” to help orient the confused reader (Vilnius = Wilno = Vil’nya, Lviv = Lwów = Lemberik = Lemberg, Volhynia = Volyn’ = Wolyń = Wolynien, and so on). I’ll quote some of his fascinating discussion of language in what’s now Lithuania. At the start of Chapter 1, “The Grand Duchy of Lithuania (1569-1863),” he says:
For half a millennium before 1991, Lithuanian was neither the language of power in Vilnius nor the language spoken by most of its inhabitants. Before the Second World War, the language spoken in a third of its homes was Yiddish; the language of its streets, churches, and schools was Polish; and the language of its countryside was Belarusian. In 1939, almost no one spoke Lithuanian in Vilnius. In that year, the city was seized from Poland by the Soviet Union.
Then, on pages 19-20, he surveys a wider area:
The last grand duke to know the Lithuanian language was apparently Kazimierz IV, who died in 1492. When Kazimierz IV confirmed the privileges of Lithuania in 1457, he did so in Latin and Chancery Slavonic; when he issued law codes for the realm, he did so in Chancery Slavonic. During Kazimierz’s reign the printing press was introduced in Poland; Cracow publishers published books in Polish and Church Slavonic, but not in Lithuanian…. In the early sixteenth century we also find biblical translations into the Slavic vernacular, Ruthenian, though not in the Baltic vernacular, Lithuanian. Unlike Skaryna’s, these involved direct translations of the Old Testament from the Hebrew. These Old Testament translations were apparently executed by Lithuanian Jews, who knew Hebrew and spoke Ruthenian. …
As early as 1501 legal texts in Chancery Slavonic are penetrated by Polish terms and even Polish grammar. The introduction to the Grand Duchy’s 1566 Statute records that the Lithuanian gentry was already using Polish in practice. The acts of the 1569 Lublin Union, which created the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, were recorded in Polish only. The position of the Polish language in Lithuania was not the result of Polish immigration, but rather of the gradual acceptance of a political order developed in Poland and codified for a new Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1569. …
As the Polish vernacular was elevated to the status of a literary language in Poland, it superseded Chancery Slavonic (and vernacular Ruthenian) in Lithuania. The Polish and Lithuanian nobility came to share a language during the Renaissance, facilitating the creation of a single early modern political nation. That said, there was a pregnant difference between the Latin-to-Polish shift in Poland and the Chancery Slavonic-to-Polish shift in Lithuania. In the Polish Kingdom the vernacular (Polish) dethroned an imported literary language (Latin). The elevation of Polish to equal status with Latin was an example of a general trend within Latin Europe, which began with the Italian “language question.” In the Grand Duchy of Lithuania an import (Polish) supplanted the native language of politics and law (Chancery Slavonic), and forestalled the further literary use of the local vernacular (Ruthenian). As we have seen, the Baltic Lithuanian language had lost its political importance long before.
I love this kind of analysis, and I’m looking forward to the rest of the book with great anticipation.