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serbšćina, serbsce (Upper Sorbian)
serbšćina, serbski (Lower Sorbian)
Native speakers
c. 20,000
Linguistic classificationIndo-European
ISO 639-2 / 5wen
  The Sorbian-speaking area in Germany

Sorbian is classified as Definitely Endangered by the UNESCO Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger (2010)

The Sorbian languages[1] (Upper Sorbian: serbska rěč, Lower Sorbian: serbska rěc) are the Upper Sorbian language and Lower Sorbian language, two closely related and partially mutually intelligible languages spoken by the Sorbs, a West Slavic ethno-cultural minority in the Lusatia region of Eastern Germany.[1][2][3] They are classified under the West Slavic branch of the Indo-European languages and are therefore closely related to the other two West Slavic subgroups: Lechitic and Czech–Slovak.[4] Historically, the languages have also been known as Wendish (named after the Wends, the earliest Slavic people in modern Poland and Germany) or Lusatian.[1] Their collective ISO 639-2 code is wen.

The two Sorbian languages, each having its own literary standard, are Upper Sorbian (hornjoserbsce), spoken by about 20,000–25,000[5] people in Saxony, and Lower Sorbian (dolnoserbski), spoken by about 7,000 people in Brandenburg. The area where the two languages are spoken is known as Lusatia (Łužica in Upper Sorbian, Łužyca in Lower Sorbian, or Lausitz in German).[1][2][3]


Limes sorabicus: the Sorbian settlement area bordering East Francia on a map of medieval Germany (Germanische und slavische Volksstämme zwischen Elbe und Weichsel, 1869)

After the settlement of the formerly Germanic territories (the part largely corresponding to the former East Germany)[3] by the Slavic ancestors of the Sorbs in the 5th and 6th centuries CE,[2] the Sorbian language (or its predecessors) had been in use in much of what was the southern half of Eastern Germany for several centuries. The language still had its stronghold in (Upper and Lower) Lusatia,[2] where it enjoys national protection and fostering to the present day.

For people living in the medieval Northern Holy Roman Empire and its precursors, especially for the Saxons, the Wends (Wende) were heterogeneous groups and tribes of Slavic peoples living near Germanic settlement areas, in the area west of the River Oder, an area later entitled Germania Slavica, settled by the Polabian Slav tribes in the north and by others, such as the Sorbs and the Milceni, further south (see Sorbian March).

The exact origin of the Sorbian language is uncertain. While some linguists consider it to be a transitory language between Lechitic and other non-Lechitic languages of West Slavic languages, others like Heinz Schuster-Šewc consider it a separate dialectical group of Proto-Slavic which is a mixture of Proto-Lechitic and South Slavic languages. Furthermore, while some consider it a single language which later diverged to two major dialects, others consider these dialects two separate languages. There exist significant differences in phonology, morphology, and lexicon between them. Several characteristics in Upper Sorbian language indicate a close proximity to Czech language which again are absent in Lower Sorbian language. According to some researchers the archaeological data cannot confirm the thesis about a single linguistic group yet supports the claim about two separated ethno-cultural groups with different ancestry whose respective territories correspond to Tornow-type ceramics (Lower Sorbian language) and Leipzig-type ceramics (Upper Sorbian language),[6] both derivations of Prague culture.[7]

Outside Lusatia, the Sorbian language has been superseded by German. From the 13th century on, the language suffered official discrimination.[4] Bible translations into Sorbian provided the foundations for its writing system.

Geographic distribution

In Germany, Upper and Lower Sorbian are officially recognized and protected as minority languages.[8] In the officially defined Sorbian settlement area, both languages are recognized as second official languages next to German.[9]

The city of Bautzen in Upper Lusatia is the centre of Upper Sorbian culture. Bilingual signs can be seen around the city, including the name of the city, "Bautzen/Budyšin". To the north, the city of Cottbus/Chóśebuz is considered the cultural centre of Lower Sorbian; there, too, bilingual signs are found.

Sorbian was also spoken in the small Sorbian ("Wendish") settlement of Serbin in Lee County, Texas, however no speakers remain there. Until 1949, newspapers were published in Sorbian. The local dialect was heavily influenced by surrounding speakers of German and English.

The German terms "Wends" (Wenden) and "Wendish" (wendisch/Wendisch) once denoted "Slav(ic)" generally;[citation needed] they are today mostly replaced by "Sorbs" (Sorben) and "Sorbian" (sorbisch/Sorbisch) with reference to Sorbian communities in Germany.[citation needed]

Endangered status

The use of Sorbian languages has been contracting for a number of years. The loss of Sorbian language use in emigrant communities, such as in Serbin, Texas, has not been surprising. But within the Sorbian homelands, there has also been a decrease in Sorbian identity and language use. In 2008, Sorbs protested three kinds of pressures against Sorbs: "(1.) the destruction of Sorbian and German-Sorbian villages as a result of lignite mining; (2.) the cuts in the network of Sorbian schools in Saxony; (3.) the reduction of financial resources for the Sorbian institutions by central government."[10]

A study of Upper Sorbian found a number of trends that go against language vitality. There are policies that have led to "unstable diglossia". There has been a loss of language domains in which speakers have the option to use either language, and there is a disruption of the patterns by which the Sorbian language has traditionally been transmitted to the next generation. Also, there is no strong written tradition and there is not a broadly accepted formal standardized form of the language(s). There is a perception of the loss of language rights, and there are negative attitudes towards the languages and their speakers.[11]

Linguistic features

Both Upper and Lower Sorbian have the dual for nouns, pronouns, adjectives, and verbs; very few living Indo-European languages retain this as a productive feature of the grammar. For example, the word ruka is used for one hand, ruce for two hands, and ruki for more than two hands. As with most Slavic languages, Sorbian uses no articles.


The Sorbian languages are declined in six or seven cases:

  1. Nominative
  2. Accusative
  3. Genitive
  4. Dative
  5. Locative
  6. Instrumental
  7. Vocative (Upper Sorbian only)
Case nan
  Upper Sorb. Lower Sorb. Upper Sorb. Lower Sorb. Upper Sorb. Lower Sorb.
Nom. nan nan štom bom wokno wokno
Acc. nana nana
Gen. štoma boma wokna wokna
Dat. nanej nanoju štomej bomoju woknu woknoju, woknu
Loc. wo nanje wó nanje na štomje na bomje na woknje na woknje
Instr. z nanom z nanom ze štomom z bomom z woknom z woknom
Voc. nano štomo
Case ramjo
shoulder, armpit
woman, wife
  Upper Sorb. Lower Sorb. Upper Sorb. Lower Sorb. Upper Sorb. Lower Sorb.
Nom. ramjo ramje žona žeńska ruka
Acc. žonu žeńsku ruku
Gen. ramjenja ramjenja žony žeńskeje ruki
Dat. ramjenju ramjenjeju, ramjenju žonje žeńskej ruce
Loc. wo ramjenju wó ramjenju wo žonje wó žeńskej w ruce
Instr. z ramjenjom z ramjenim ze žonu ze žeńskeju z ruku

Vocabulary comparison

The following is selected vocabulary from the two Sorbian languages compared with other Slavic languages.

English Lower Sorbian Upper Sorbian Serbo-Croatian Macedonian Bulgarian Slovene Czech Polish Polabian Kashubian Silesian Slovak Russian Ukrainian Belarusian
person clowek/luź čłowjek човек / човјек
(čovek / čovjek)
човек (čovek) човек
človek člověk człowiek clawak człowiek czowiek človek человек
людина (l'udyna) людына (ljudyna)
evening wjacor wječor вече / вечер
(veče / večer)
вечер (večer) вечер
večer večer wieczór vicer wieczór wieczōr večer вечер
brother bratš bratr брат
брат (brat) брат
brat bratr brat brot brat brat brat брат
day źeń dźeń дан
ден (den) ден
dan den dzień dôn dzéń dziyń deň день
hand ruka ruka рука
рака (raka) ръка
roka ruka ręka ręka rãka rynka ruka рука
snow sněg sněh снег / снијег
(sneg / snijeg)
снег (sneg) сняг
sneg sníh śnieg sneg sniég śniyg sneh снег
summer lěśe lěćo лето / љето
(leto / ljeto)
лето (leto) лято / лето
(ljato / ljeto)
poletje léto lato ljutü lato lato leto лето
sister sotša sotra сестра
сестра (sestra) сестра
sestra sestra siostra sestra sostra szwestra sestra сестра
fish ryba ryba риба
риба (riba) риба
riba ryba ryba raibo rëba ryba ryba рыба
fire wogeń woheń огањ
оган (ogan) огън
ogenj oheň ogień widin òdżin ôgyń oheň огонь
water wóda woda вода
вода (voda) вода
voda voda woda wôda wòda woda voda вода
wind wětš wětr ветар / вјетар
(vetar / vjetar)
ветер (veter) вятър / ветер
(vjatər / veter)
veter vítr wiatr wjôter wiater wiater vietor ветер
winter zyma zyma зима
зима (zima) зима
zima zima zima zaima zëma zima zima зима

See also


  1. ^ a b c d "Sorbian languages". Encyclopædia Britannica. Edinburgh: Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. 21 November 2013 [20 July 1998]. Retrieved 5 December 2022. Sorbian languages, also called Lusatian, or Wendish, closely related West Slavic languages or dialects; their small number of speakers in eastern Germany are the survivors of a more extensive medieval language group. The centre of the Upper Sorbian speech area is Bautzen, near the border with the Czech Republic, while Cottbus, near Poland, is the centre for Lower Sorbian. The oldest written record of Sorbian dates from the 15th century, although the languages, differing mostly in their sound systems, are known to have begun to diverge around the 13th century. Upper Sorbian enjoyed a considerable amount of prestige in Saxony, while the Kingdom of Prussia attempted to suppress Lower Sorbian. Although all Sorbs today also speak German, both Upper and Lower Sorbian have been taught in the schools of the Sorbian areas since 1948.
  2. ^ a b c d Yèche, Hélène (2013). "Les Sorabes: Une minorité invisible?". Belgeo: Revue Belge de Géographie (in French). 3 (Les minorités nationales et ethniques: Entre renouvellement et permanence). Bruxelles: National Fund for Scientific Research and the Fondation Universitaire/Universitaire Stichting. doi:10.4000/belgeo.11570. ISSN 2294-9135.
  3. ^ a b c Sanguin, André-Louis (1996). "Les Sorabes de l'ex-R.D.A. après la fin du communisme: La recomposition territoriale du plus petit des Peuples Slaves". Revue des Études Slaves (in French). 68 (1). Paris: Institut d'Études Slaves: 55–68. doi:10.3406/slave.1996.6307. ISSN 2117-718X. JSTOR 43270317.
  4. ^ a b About Sorbian Language, by Helmut Faska, University of Leipzig
  5. ^ "Seltenes Studienfach: Entschuldigung, sprechen Sie Sorbisch?" -
  6. ^ Sedov, Valentin Vasilyevich (2013) [1995]. Славяне в раннем Средневековье [Sloveni u ranom srednjem veku (Slavs in Early Middle Ages)]. Novi Sad: Akademska knjiga. pp. 191–205. ISBN 978-86-6263-026-1.
  7. ^ Paul M. Barford (2001). The Early Slavs: Culture and Society in Early Medieval Eastern Europe. Cornell University Press. pp. 64–65, 77–78, 104–105. ISBN 9780801439773
  8. ^ "Full list". Treaty Office. Retrieved 2019-02-06.
  9. ^ Sparrow, Thomas. "Sorbs: The ethnic minority inside Germany". Retrieved 2022-01-14.
  10. ^ p. 154. Mieczkowska, Małgorzata. "Protestdemonstrationen der Sorben–eine Form der politischen Kommunikation." LĚTOPIS. Zeitschrift für sorbische Sprache, Geschichte und Kultur. Časopis za rěč, stawizny a kulturu Łužiskich 2 (2009): 16-28.
  11. ^ De Meulder, Maartje, Eduard Werner, and Danny De Weerdt. "Comparing Minority Languages-a Case Study of Flemish Sign Language and Upper Sorbian." Europäisches Journal für Minderheitenfragen 10, no. 3-4 (2017): 285-321.

Relevant literature