Poland's Silesian minority finds its voice and broadcasts it


Ethnic minorities in Poland have for years had little access to media in their own languages or dialects. While the Hungarian minority in neighboring Slovakia had a round-the-clock service in their native language, the Belarusian minority in eastern Poland could only listen to short broadcasts in Belarusian a couple of times a week. But now things seem to be changing. In Silesia, southern Poland, more and more media are launching programmes in Silesian - a dialect of the most distinct ethnic minority in Poland.

Radio Piekary, one of the most popular radio stations in the region, introduced programmes in Silesian already in the 1990s. As Anna Oleskiewicz of Radio Piekary says, most of its broadcasts today are aired in this dialect:

"Our radio slogan is in Silesia, about Silesia, in Silesian and our speakers have this unique ability to talk in Silesian. We have a great variety of native spoken programmes about Silesian tradition and history. It is to give people what they really need - the simplicity of important news, the sense of humour which speakers can give their listeners, and what's the most important, to give the sense of identity. People in Silesia are proud of their dialect and very happy that they are able to listen in their own language, native dialect."

Little wonder that noon is signaled on Radio Piekary not with the bugle-call from the Mariacki Church in Krakow, but with the sound of the bells of the local Cathedral of the Holy Mother of Piekary Slaskie, which is the major destination of Silesian pilgrims.

The Silesian dialect differs to a large extent from standard Polish in terms of pronunciation, intonation and vocabulary, of which a significant part has German roots. Danuta Berlinska, university lecturer from Opole, Lower Silesia, explains how the Silesian variety of Polish should be treated:

"Silesians treat their own Silesian, I mean Slavic dialect, as a language, because they strive to be recognized as a nation. However, according to linguistic research Silesian is a dialect. This dialect has some structural and lexical similarities to Polish. But over the centuries this dialect developed under the great influence of the German language and earlier Moravian dialect or Czech language."

Language is just one form of expressing ethnic identity. And where is the Silesian one rooted?

"Silesians did not share history with Poles from the 14th century, and Silesia belonged to the Czech Kingdom, then Austria, then Prussia. And Upper Silesia was divided after the First World War. And finally, after the Second World War the whole region was joined to Poland. And Silesians have a specific identity with some kind of conviction that they are an inferior group humiliated by Poles, particularly during the communist system and some kind of oppressions make group bonds much stronger."

Silesian language and traditions are cultivated in hundreds of thousands of families of southern Poland. Moreover, in the 2002 national census as many as 173,000 residents of Silesia described their nationality not as Polish but as Silesian. As of next month, access to Silesian media will be wider as the regional centre of Polish State TV in Katowice, the capital of Upper Silesia, is launching regular programmes in Silesian following the success of a number of pilot ones.