Lithuanians and Poles bicker over spelling of names

  • 2002-04-18
  • Geoffrey Vasiliauskas

Lithuania and Poland have been engaged in heated discussions for more than five years on how Lithuania and Poland should handle their vocal respective minorities. Now national passions have erupted over a seemingly insignificant issue - how to write names and surnames in passports.

Lithuanian Prime Minister Algirdas Brazauskas is refusing to visit Poland's new Prime Minister Leszek Miller, having postponed a scheduled trip to Warsaw by saying there were still technical details to be worked out in the implementation of a treaty on the issue.

Sources close to the prime minister said there were still linguistic issues to be considered, and that the Polish side was acting aggressively.

"Surnames are an important issue, partly because it involves the prestige of the Polish language," said Valdemar Tomasevski, a Lithuanian Polish Electoral Action Party MP. "But it is not among the most urgent issues Poles face in Lithuania. We have lived here for centuries, and in line with international standards we have the right to use Polish in parallel with the state language."

Unfortunately, the law disagrees. In official documents like passports, the Lithuanian language dominates, and the letters unique to the Lithuanian language must be adhered to.

Lithuania's linguistic laws demand that all foreign proper names, from people to places to imaginary kingdoms in fantasy novels, be spelt phonetically, that is, rendered according to their sound using the Lithuanian alphabet.

The alphabet uses Roman letters plus several home-grown vowels with curly-cues, and "c," "s" and "z" with macrons over them to represent the sounds of "ch," "sh" and "zh."

This means Polish surnames turn into something not always recognizable in Poland.

Officially, Lithuania is arguing against Polish pressure to alter its strict language law by saying it would take many years before word-processing and printing equipment can be changed to work in parallel with Polish fonts.

Meanwhile, the Polish Interior Ministry reported software was ready for use in Polish administrative institutions that would allow 77 additional characters to be used in official documents - including the Cyrillic alphabet, Lithuanian symbols and Arabic.

Ethnic Poles make up 7 percent of the Lithuanian population, making it the country's second-largest minority. Most live in the capital and the south-east of the country, areas occupied by Poland in the inter-war period.

The number of Lithuanians in Poland is far fewer. Those living in eastern Poland's Suwalki region, in and around the town of Punsk, are concerned with effective schooling for their children, and procuring Lithuanian- as well as English-language materials.

Many Lithuanians in Poland don't want their names written in the Lithuanian orthography, saying it would only cause them additional hassles.

Likewise, Lithuania's Poles have by and large also focused on education for their children, including knowledge of the Lithuanian language.

The Bialystok, Poland newspaper Kurier Poranny called the dispute an idiotic war in an editorial this week. "Ethnic minority activists on both sides of the border who have tried to raise artificial problems decided many years ago it would be a good thing to write names and surnames in their native language," it wrote.

The Polish newspaper claimed that only several dozen Lithuanians in Poland and several hundred Lithuanian Poles actually wanted their names written in their native forms, and that fewer still would pay the amount required to change their passports, driver's licenses and property titles.

Grazina Bortkewicz, a Pole living in Vilnius with a degree in Lithuanian history, said allowing Polish orthography was a good idea. It would help in avoiding mistakes, she said, to use the original form of Polish surnames. She added she might consider changing her passport if the possibility ever arose, but that no one else in her family wanted to.