The Big Central European History of a Little Tail (Ogonek)

Tomasz Kamusella
University of St Andrews

Is Hot Air Mightier Than States?

Central Europe is a curious part of the world where states are created literally on the basis of the puff of hot air. In this corner of the continent, people believe that a given language they happen to speak – let us name it Q – binds them into a nation Q. And in turn, the territory compactly inhabited by the speakers (speech community) of the language Q has to be made into a nation-state Q. This normative insistence yields the following tripartite socio-political equation: Language = Nation = State, which is the gist of the ideology ethnolinguistic nationalism. Hence, for instance, speakers of the Slovenian language constitute the Slovenian nation, which must be housed in its own Slovenian nation-state. Therefore, after the Great War, and subsequently after World War II, and the recent breakups of Czechoslovakia, the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, the established historical frontiers were serially destroyed across central Europe by a variety of such hot puffs of air, which we dub ‘languages.’

Although it is a fallacy, people popularly maintain that writing is part of language. In reality writing is a technology of graphic (and rather sketchy) recording of language (that is, speech). Hence, the relationship between a printed book page and a language is such as that between a photograph of a person and this person. The vast majority of central Europe’s inhabitants would just laugh out loud at the preposterous suggestion that a photograph of a person is this very person. However, they take offence if a linguist disabuses their unwavering faith in the myth that writing is identical with a language. This unreasonable assertion is the measure of the normative hold of ethnolinguistic nationalism on the socio-political imagination of central Europe’s inhabitants at large.

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Fitting Languages and Nation-States to One Another

With so much collective emotion lavished on writing, the choice of a script (writing system) for recording a language is not a neutral issue. Often violent passions surround such selections of a graphic recording technology, leading to political strife, military conflict, and even genocide. The multifold fracturing of Yugoslavia during the 1990s amply illustrates this point. Not only this polity, but also its official language of Serbo-Croatian split in accordance with the requirements of ethnolinguistic nationalism, or present-day central Europe’s sole ideology of statehood creation, legitimation, maintenance and destruction.

This ideology provides that a legitimate nation-state must be designed for a single nation speaking the same language, which is not shared with any other state or nation. In federal Yugoslavia, four of its republics – that is, Bosnia, Croatia, Montenegro and Serbia – did share the Serbo-Croatian language as official and national. To add insult to injury, Serbo-Croatian was officially biscriptural in its character, meaning, that it enjoyed two equal and legally enshrined scripts. A Serbo-Croatian-speaker was free to choose whether to write this language with the employment of Cyrillic or Latin letters. Likewise, readers were provided with editions of the same popular Serbo-Croatian-language novels in both scriptural versions.

Nowadays, the four post-Yugoslav nation-states of Bosnia, Croatia, Montenegro and Serbia have their own unshared post-Serbo-Croatian national languages. Croatian is written exclusively in the Latin alphabet in contrast to Serbian with Cyrillic as its sole official language. Bosnian, like Croatian, is also jotted down in Latin letters. This necessitated the development of different spelling conventions in order to make both languages more distinctive vis-à-vis each other. For example, coffee is kahva in Bosnian but kava in Croatian. On the other hand, promoters of Montenegrin as a language in its own right decided to take over the abandoned biscripturality of Serbo-Croatian. What is more, they added two brand-new letters to the Montenegrin Cyrillic and Latin alphabets, which do not occur either in the Serbian Cyrillic or in the Latin alphabets of Bosnian and Croatian.

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The Religious Wars and a Heretic Spelling

A similar power of making the Polish language distinctive from central Europe’s other languages is entrusted to the seemingly insignificant diacritic ogonek [˛], which literally means ‘little tail.’ Cyrillic was employed for writing Slavic languages from the late 9th century, first in Bulgaria, then in Rus’, or today’s Belarus, Russia and Ukraine, and shortly afterward in the western Balkans, or in present-day Bosnia, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia. Due to the Great Schism of 1054, the countries and territories where the Slavic languages were written in Cyrillic became associated with Orthodox Christianity. Other Slavophone countries and areas of central Europe sided with Roman Catholicism. Until the Counter-Reformation, the papacy strenuously prescribed Latin as the sole language of the Catholic world, to be employed in all ecclesiastical and secular contexts. Therefore, the first full-fledged Slavic language to be written in Latin letters emerged only in the 15th century, namely, Bohemian, nowadays known as Czech. There are more distinctive ‘sounds’ (phonemes) in Slavic than in Latin, which necessitated the use of two Latin letters (diagraphs) for some Czech (Bohemian) phonemes, for instance, [cz] for the sound /tʃ/, or [rz] for the voiced alveolar fricative /r/.

The Lands of the Czech Crown (within the Holy Roman Empire) in 1648 – source Astrokey44 / CC BY-SA 3.0 (Wikimedia Commons)

In the course of the Hussite Wars in the first half of the 15th century, a new form of spelling (orthography) made an appearance, a proposed by the religious and linguistic reformer, Jan Hus, in his work De orthographia bohemica. In the Hebrew writing system, at times the same letter denotes two different phonemes, as for example, the letter Shin [ש]. When the sound /s/ is intended this letter is dotted at the left side of its top [שׂ], otherwise the undotted letter Shin is pronounced as [ʃ]. Should a need be, the right dotted Shin may also be used [שׁ] to emphasize that in this case this letter denotes the phoneme [ʃ]. The Hebrew use of diacritics for modifying letters was an inspiration for Jan Hus and his supporters (Hussites). They agreed that all the phonemes of the Czech language should be rendered with single letters of the Latin alphabet, modified with a diacritic, when necessary. As a result, the Old Czech digraphs [cz] and [rz] were replaced with the New Czech (Hussite) single diacritic letters [č] and [ř], respectively. With time, Hus’s use of the Hebrew-style diacritic of a single dot [·] evolved into several different New Czech diacritics, namely, the acute accent [´], háček (‘little hook’) [ˇ], and overring [˚], as for instance, in the Czech letters [á], [ě] and [ů]. After prolonged warfare against Catholics, the Hussites’ effective rule got limited to Bohemia, entailing that this New Czech (Hussite) orthography was employed only in this kingdom. Meanwhile Catholic rulers and nobilities of the Margravate of Moravia and the Duchy of Silesia stuck to the Catholic (Old Czech) spelling. This political-cum-orthographic divide splintered Czech into the Hussite language of Bohemian and the Catholic one of Moravian(-Silesian).

The system of diacritic letters for Bohemian (Czech), as originally presented by Jan Hus in his De orthographia bohemica (Source: Wikimedia Commons,

The orthographic Hussite (Protestant)-Catholic cleavage was bridged in the 18th century, or about 50 years after the memorable year of 1648. This date marked the end of the genocidal Thirty Years’ War and the period of two and a half centuries of religious wars in central Europe. In the hereditary lands of the Catholic Habsburgs (or the Austrian Empire after 1804), the reconciliation between Catholics and Protestants was also signaled in spelling by the adoption of the Hussite orthography for publishing in Czech.

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Meanwhile, in the 16th century another Slavic language written in Latin letters emerged, namely, Polish. Despite its legally enshrined toleration for a variety of religions and their faithful, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was ruled by Catholic monarchs. Hence, it was impossible to adopt the Hussite spelling for writing Polish, because then this orthography was still denigrated as ‘heretic’ and ‘anti-Catholic.’ Playing it safe, the first Polish-language scribes and literati went for the Old Czech (Catholic) spelling with its numerous digraphs. As a result, to this day, the Polish phonemes /tʃ/ and /ʒ/ are written as [cz] and [rz], respectively.


The Question of a Little Tail

In Polish nasal vowels are retained to this day, though they disappeared from other Slavic languages long ago. So when Polish-language texts began to be put to paper on a gradually growing number of occasions in the 16th century, an acute need appeared to represent this not insignificant ‘nasal’ peculiarity in writing. Neither the Catholic nor Hussite Czech orthography provided any solution, because no nasal vowels occur in the Czech language.

The Commonwealth of the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania before the Union of Lublin (1569) (Source: Wikimedia Commons,–Lithuanian_Commonwealth#/media/File:Poland_and_Lithuania_in_1526.PNG)

Until the Union of Lublin contracted in 1569, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania accounted for more than two-thirds of the territory of the entire Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The Grand Duchy emerged in the 13th century on the ruins of Rus’, destroyed by the Mongol invasions between the 1220s and 1240s. This Grand Duchy’s territory overlapped with the western half of former Rus’. Unsurprisingly, scribes in the Grand Duchy’s chanceries employed local Slavic written in Cyrillic as the polity’s official language. It became known under the name of Ruthenian and was the predecessor of today’s languages of Belarusian and Ukrainian. The Grand Duchy’s three Lithuanian Statutes were written in Ruthenian, and constituted the basis of the polity’s legal system.

The frontispiece of the Third Lithuanian Statute, 1588 (Source: Wikimedia Commons,

The majority of the early scribes in the Grand Duchy professed Orthodox Christianity, like the overwhelming number of the country’s inhabitants. Hence, apart from Ruthenian employed for secular purposes, the population revered and kept (Old Church) Slavonic as their preferred language of Orthodox liturgy. Like in Czech, nasal vowels also disappeared from Ruthenian. However, vowels of this type remained in the antiquated Orthodox liturgical language of (Church) Slavonic, which Saints Cyril and Methodius had devised in the mid-9th century.

In Church Slavonic two letters are used for denoting nasal vowels, namely, the Little Yus [ѧ] and the Big Yus [ѫ]. Most probably they were pronounced as /ɛ̃/ and /ɔ̃/ (nasal /e/ and /o/), respectively. The graphic similarity of the Little Yus (that is, [ѧ], including its upper case form [Ѧ]) to the Latin upper case letter [A] seems to have yielded the Polish letter [Ą, ą] for denoting the Polish nasal vowel /ɔ̃/. In the process of adopting this Cyrillic letter for the Polish variety of the Latin alphabet, the ‘middle leg’ of [ѧ] was transformed into the diacritic ogonek (‘little tail’) [˛]. This graphic similarity offers an explanation why the Latin letter [ą] came to be employed – quite confusingly – for denoting the nasal vowel /ɔ̃/ in Polish. Logically, the letter earmarked for this purpose should be [ǫ] (or [o] with the ogonek [˛] added below it), while [ą] ought to represent the nasal vowel /ã/ (though this sound does not occur in Polish).

For better or worse, in the 16th century, the diacritic ogonek was established for signaling the nasality of vowels in the Polish variety of the Latin alphabet. So when this diacritic was added to the letter [e], the Polish diacritic letter [ę] was created for denoting the Polish nasal vowel /ẽ/. This usage was given a sheen of official approval, when the influential Polish-Lithuanian noble poet, Jan Kochanowski’s, treatise Orthographia polska (Polish Orthography) was published posthumously in 1592, and then again in 1594. Kochanowski included [ą] and [ę] in the inventory of letters prescribed for writing and publishing in Polish.

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Jan Kochanowski’s Polish alphabet (Source: Google Books,

As it is often the case, accidents, personal preferences, dislikes of scribes and literati, mistaken beliefs regarding the historical development of writing systems, and arbitrary political decisions (be them secular or ecclesiastical) have time and again shaped the scripts employed for writing and publishing today. As a result, much cultural and historical heritage is encoded in such a mighty ogonek, which indeed is a veritable big little tail. Since the 16th century this little tail of Cyrillic origin has continued wagging Latin alphabets of numerous languages. In the 20th century, the ogonek was adopted for the Latin alphabet-based writing systems of quite a few North American languages (Cayuga, Dogrib, Gwichʼin, Mescalero-Chiricahua, Navajo, Tutchone, and Winnebago), or for the Romanization and parallel Latin alphabets of various Caucasian languages (Abaza, Abkhaz, Adyghe, Archi, Kabardian, Karachay-Balkar, Shapsug and Ubykh). Also the recently developed Latin alphabet of Sweden’s minority Germanic language of Efdalian employs this little tail, alongside the scholarly Romanizations of Church Slavonic and Old Norse.

In central Europe, apart from Polish, the ogonek makes an appearance only in the Baltic language of Lithuanian. It is attached to as many as four Lithuanian letters, namely [ą], [ę], [į] and [ų]. This is a fitting homage to the diacritic, which emerged from the Cyrillic-Orthodox-Latin-Catholic cultural milieu of the early modern Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Nowadays, this Grand Duchy’s capital of Vilnius continues as the capital of present-day Lithuania, and on top of that both polities share the very same name. Furthermore, until the Holocaust, Vilnius used to be known as ‘Jerusalem of the North.’ Catholics, Jews and Orthodox Christians lived together in the Grand Duchy and created its unique multicultural character. Symbolically and poignantly, a lingering apparition of this Grand Duchy and its multiculturalism is preserved in this inconspicuous big little tail.

When modern-style publishing commenced in Lithuanian during the 1880s, the first Lithuanian-language authors and publishers employed the Old Czech spelling system of the Polish language, best characterized by its numerous digraphs, such as [cz] or [sz] for the sounds /tʃ/ and /ʃ/, respectively. Because Polish literati and publishers opposed the development of literacy and publishing in Lithuanian, around 1901, most Lithuanian-language writers and publishing houses switched to the New (Hussite) Czech spelling. As a result, for instance, [cz] and [sz] were replaced with [č] and [š], respectively. The inconspicuous ogonek is the very last remnant of the Polish writing system in the present-day form of the Lithuanian variant of the Latin alphabet. And not only does the story of the Lithuanian-Polish national antagonism lurk in this little tail’s looming shadow, but also the older tale of the Hussite wars, the Reformation, or the Counter-Reformation.

This proves that it is well worth trying to peer harder at ubiquitous diacritics, which we take for granted without bothering to give them a second thought. Like the ogonek, any other diacritic constitutes a useful and frequently unexpected angle from which to observe the past and interpret it more incisively. So many fascinating stories wait to be told hidden in the diaeresis [¨] or perispomene [͂].

September 2019

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