The Sorbian district of Lusatia lies in Saxony (Upper Lusatia) and Brandenburg (Lower Lusatia). Of 489,000 people living in the area, there are an estimated 60,000 Sorbs, two-thirds of whom live in Saxony and one-third in Brandenburg (2004). Estimates of Sorbs with a good command of the Sorbian language range from 15,000 to 35,000 speakers. The main Sorbian-language areas are around the towns of Bautzen, Hoyerswerda, Weißwasser, Spremberg and Cottbus. Sorbian is a West Slav language. In Upper Lusatia it is closer to Czech, while in Lower Lusatia it is closer to Polish, but the language also has many Germanisms. There are five Sorbian districts: Lower Lusatia (the largest), Hoyerswerda, Schleife (the poorest), Bautzen and Wittichenau. The latter two are farming regions, and the first three have been dominated by brown coal open-cast mining industry. The use of the Sorbian language and culture is stronger among Roman Catholics in Upper Lusatia than Lutheran Protestants in Lower Lusatia, but both faiths provide church services, education and broadcasting in Sorbian. There are an estimated 15,000 Roman Catholic Sorbs, mostly based in rural areas.

Historical context

Slav tribes known as the Lusici settled Lusatia from the sixth century. Centuries of turmoil followed but the Slavic community maintained their cultural integrity and became known by the Germanic settlers of the Middle Ages as the Wends. They converted to Christianity. The territory was divided in 1815 between Saxony and Prussia. From then on the Sorbian language area decreased, while assimilation into Germany increased.

One of the oldest Sorb associations is the academic society Maćica Serbska, which was founded in 1857. The nationalist organization Domowina, was founded in 1912, and after the First World War there were calls for an independent Lusatia, or for the territory to be incorporated into Czechoslovakia. Germanization became an overt form of repression under the Nazis, who refused to recognize Sorbs as anything but Slavic-speaking Germans. Maćica Serbska was banned in 1937 and revived only in 1991. There was renewed action for separation after the Second World War, but this was denied.

The right of the Sorbs to equality and their culture was written into the constitutions of Saxony and Brandenburg in 1948. The governments put up bilingual signs and financed Sorbian language schools.

Many Germans expelled from territories annexed by Poland were resettled in Sorb lands and the proportion of Sorbs consequently decreased. The decline of agriculture and rural communities further contributed to the erosion of Sorb culture - so did reunification of East and West as rising unemployment caused many Sorbs to leave their homeland.

The German Unification Treaty of 1990 upheld Sorb rights, including their right to use their language in court. However, legislative texts and legal documents are not published in Sorb. In 1991 the governments of Saxony and Brandenburg passed schools acts providing uniformity in their approach to The two state governments set up departments of Sorb Affairs. In 1991 the Foundation for the Lusatian Sorb Nation was set up with the support of the federal and state governments to help prevent the decline of the culture.

The Roman Catholic Church has played a major role in keeping Sorbian language and culture vibrant in the post-war years.

Current issues

There is currently more interest among the younger generation of Sorbs in learning Sorbian. There is also a growing interest in other parts of Germany and among speakers of other Slavic languages in Eastern Europe. There is strong support for the culture from the two state governments. However, Sorbian is not a business language and its use in business is confined to local communities.

Access to Sorbian-language education is provided from nursery level to higher education and teacher training. In A list schools Sorbian is the main language of instruction, whereas in B list schools it is optional and taught as a foreign language. Instruction about Sorbian culture is now given at some adult education centres. The University of Leipzig has an Institute of Sorbian Studies which offers undergraduate and masters degrees in Sorbian. Sorbian is taught elsewhere in Germany at the universities of Saarbrucken and Hamburg, and abroad at the universities of Praque and Lvov.

Some radio programmes are broadcast in Sorbian. The programmes are funded by the state governments. There is one daily newspaper - as well as other periodicals and weeklies - which publish partly or fully in Sorbian. Domowina publishes books in Sorbian.

The state governments also subsidize theatre productions in Sorbian as well as cultural and musical events in Lusatia and elsewhere in Germany. Their main organization for promoting Sorb culture is the Foundation for the Sorbian People - Zalozba za Serbski LVD, based in Bautzen.

In public administration Sorbian is used by Sorbs and others involved in Sorbian affairs at the federal level and state levels. In local administration, the use of Sorbian depends on the proportion of Sorbian-speakers in the relevant administrations. There is no use of Sorbian in the law courts because most Sorbs speak German and legal and commercial documents are not routinely issued in Sorbian.

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