The Prussian language and its sources.

The Prussian language represents, even for some East Prussians, mainly a slow and heavy spoken German dialect and not a Baltic language which had been spoken by its original people before they had been conquered by the Teutonic Order in the 13th century. This is not really surprising, because centuries of prohibition of using the Prussian language (which nowadays even some historians ignore), a prejudiced teaching of the real history of Prussia, mostly mixed up with the later „Brandenburg-Prussia“, have led to a nebulous picture of this native population and its Baltic language.

The language is a vital part for all people. It reflects their way of life, shows their cultural achievements and contributes to the changes in their history and leaves traces. Even if the language seems to have disappeared, personal and local names, customs, special food products and others remain in the original language if the communities can live in their homeland. In the case of Prussia (East Prussia since 1773) the destruction of Prussian expressions and pushing their culture to oblivion has been and is still today a continuous process, beginning with the Teutonic Order not tolerating the original Baltic idiom, changing of masses of topographical names which were considered to be “un-German” by the leaders of the Third German Reich when in 1938 more than 1.500 locality names were Germanized, up to the Allied Forces after 1945 when Eastern European states were allowed to expel the Prussians and renamed their villages. Not enough with these illegal actions banned by the Law of the People there were also followed by campaigns in Germany to falsify personal documents in reference to the birthplaces of the refugees. Identification marks like for the Prussian capital Königsberg which always needed the distinction (Pr.) = Prussia, because the name of Königsberg appears in Germany quite frequently, were not shown any longer and in other cases people’s personal documents were registered with the new ahistorical name given after 1945. The data of the famous philosopher Immanuel Kant would show his birthplace as Kaliningrad if he would have needed a certification now.

In spite of all this hampering many expressions taken from the Prussian origins and culture had survived in Prussia and thereafter. We know the Prussian tradition of „Schmackostern“, derived from „smagoti“, equal to a tender whipping with fresh branches which was used in springtime and later at Easter time to wake up friends and to push them to go looking for the spring season. Poems about a popular dance from Pillkallen, written in 1888, show glimpses at the typical shoe-dress „Paresken“, made from the bast of linden trees: „Dat mine Frau nich danze kann, dat moakt dat loahme Been, denn teh eck mi Paretzkes an, on danze ganz alleen.“ (That my wife cannot dance is because of her lame leg, therefore I put on my “paresken” and dance all by myself.) Many East Prussian words have Baltic Prussian roots, like „Marjellchen“ from margelis = young girl, Kaddik = juniper, Glumse = curds and so on. To-day there is no serious movement to revitalize the Old Prussian language for various reasons. After World War II almost all Prussians were expelled and dispersed all over Germany and the world. The new communities had more important tasks like accommodating the approximately 14 million refugees driven from their homes in the German East provinces than to preserve an old “non-germanic” language. The Old Prussian language is one of the oldest languages in Northern Europe, but was hurt badly by conquest and hostile rulers. In order to teach this tongue properly a scientific program would have to be established to collect the entire linguistic heritage and to reorganize the various dialects to a high Prussian language. Teachers are needed as well as students of Prussian origin or a population living in a common area to provide a basis for a meaningful Prussian future. This task is very hard to achieve. But in times of modern technologies there might be still hope that one day computer programs will be able to resolve these problems and lead to a general high Prussian language which could be used by people appreciating this Prussian treasure.

During an International Congress of minorities in Bautzen in May 2006 a hopeful project was discussed where the Swiss people of Räto-Romans who live in some ten different areas speaking in addition various dialects decided to create a high Räto-Roman to be taught in Kindergartens incorporating their parents and to be shown on radio and television. Their efforts supported by the Swiss Government have been rewarded with success.

To lead people to their origins including teaching of an old difficult language is possible, but as in most cases the beginnings are very hard and have to be thoroughly explained.
I am quite convinced that also among us the wish to find out more about the Prussian language is alive, to know the words lost during centuries, listen to the sound which sometimes distinguishes our special pronunciation even in another language or to see the construction of the individual words and sentences and to be surprised that sometimes Prussian words and expressions have entered into other languages.

No matter what age, what background or fears not to be capable to learn Prussian anymore, some words like: „Labban deinan“ – Good day or „Dinkun“ – thanks , „Etwinusna“ – Sorry, Kails“ – Hallo will stay in your memory, hopefully followed by others.
For those who show even more enthusiasm we suggest f.e. to utilize the collections of books, articles and documents which are mainly written in German, however there are others in English, Italian, Lithuanian and Russian as well. The Gallery-Museum “The First Prussians” in Am Neuen Markt 9d, D-14467 Potsdam, Germany will be helpful during its opening hours on Saturdays and Sundays.

Learning another language usually starts with searching for some useful words in dictionaries. Already here difficulties arise because the Prussian language does not follow the rules of simplicity as successfully shown in the English language. Prussian dictionaries are scarce, they are either giving wanted words only in the Prussian language with its counterpart or vice versa in another idiom. The dates of their issuance are either very old thus not really qualifying as dictionaries or they are modern being published by persons wanting to arise attention without passing the process of being checked out by others.
Another hurdle lies in accepting the various rules of the Prussian grammar which have been corrected in the past in other languages to modernize them but not in Prussian. Due to the fragmentary delivery of textual documents and the later attempts of the 16th century by Non-Prussians to hastily push through a tool to include the native population after three centuries of neglect, mainly the three catechisms by Martin Luther were taken as a basis for future use. Nonetheless some knowledge of the Prussian language can be useful for travelers to other Baltic countries. Lithuanians and Latvians use words which are identical or slightly different from Prussian expressions. Lauks – square, Alus – beer, Tauta – country or people are common Baltic words as well as proper names or topographical marks which are widely spread in the entire Baltic.
Unfortunately Baltic words used in East Prussia are too easily labeled to be Lithuanian because the knowledge of the Prussian language, once forbidden and later purposely neglected, has reached a very low level.

Another somewhat entertaining way to look for Prussian words can be taken by studying the so-called „Prussian“ dictionaries which in their early editions although not explicitly intending to point out to the Prussian language of the early inhabitants, bring many typical words which have survived the ravages of the conquerors. The explanations give a good look into the culture and way of life of the Prussians

Two interesting books can be taken as good examples:

„IDIOTICON PRUSSICUM oder Entwurf eines Preußischen Wörterbuches, darin die deutschen Redensarten und Ausdrücke, die allein in hiesigem Lande gebräuchlich sind, zusammengetragen und erörtert werden sollen“
(„IDIOTICON PRUSSICUM or draft of a Prussian Dictionary in which the German sayings and expressions, being customary only in this very country shall be gathered and discussed.”)

by Johann George Bock, Königsberg 1759
„Preußisches Wörterbuch, worinnen nicht nur die in Preußen gebräuchliche eigenthümliche Mundart und was sie sonst mit der niedersächsischen gemein hat, sondern auch manche in preußischen Schriftstellern, Urkunden, Documenten und Verordnungen vorkommende veraltete Wörter, Redensarten, Gebräuche und Alterthümer erklärt werden“ („Prussian Dictionary, in which not only the customary and peculiar dialect in Prussia and what it has otherwise in common with the lower saxon dialect but also many antiquated old words, phrases, customs and antiquities to be found in some Prussian writers. deeds, documents and decrees are being explained.”)
by G. E. S. Hennig, Königsberg 1785.
A sample of this early work, the Idioticon Prussicum reads as follow:
„Paresken – sind an statt der Schue gebraucht und von (litthauischen) Bauren, die solche in ihrer Sprache „Pareskay“ heissen, selbst verfertigt worden. Sie rissen nehmlich von den Lindenbäumen die Rinde streifenweise ab, flochten diesen Bast so wie die Körbe zusammen und bunden sie um die mit deuchten Tüchern belegten Füsse bis unter die Waden, welches ihnen warm und bequem war, siehe Lepners „Preußischen Litthauer“ an der 64. Seite, allwo man auch solcher Art Schue auf der mit Kupfer gezeichneten Tracht dieser Bauren ersehen kann. Sie kommen mit denjenigen überein, welche bereits von Alters her die preußischen Heiden getragen, wie solches das Bildniß in Hartknochs „Altem und Neuen Preussen“ ausweiset. Man kann also mit Recht sagen, dass in der großen Provinz (Preussen) nur Schuster gewohnet; wie denn auch der erste Herzog in Preussen, Marggraf Albrecht, zu schertzen pflegte, es wäre allein der Insterburgsche Sprengel so reich an Schustern, dass sie auf die 15.000 ausmachten, siehe „Wagner – de Vita et moribus Lituanorum sub districtu Insterburgensi et Ragnetensi“ in den Actis Borussisis, Tom I. pag.549.
Diese Paresken sind aber, weil durch derselben Verfertigung die Lindenbäume sehr verdorben wurden und die Wälder Schaden litten, durch ein besonderes Edict unter der Regierung König Friedrich Wilhelms vom 1. August 1724 gänzlich verboten worden.“
(„Paresken – are designated as shoes and fabricated by (lithuanian?) farmers who call them in their language “pareskay”. They tear the bark in stripes from linden trees, braid the bast like for baskets and bind them with cloth around their feet up to the calf of the leg which was warm and comfortable for them, see Lepners “The Prussian Lithuanian” on page 64, where one can also see such type of shoes with the costume worn by these farmers drawn on the copperplate. They are similar to those which were worn by the Prussian pagans as shown on a drawing by Hartknoch in “Alt und Neues Preußen”. One can therefore justly say that only shoemakers lived in the big province (Prussia) like the first Duke of Prussia, Margrave Albrecht, jokingly used to say; alone the diocese of Insterburg was so rich in shoemakers, that they counted to approximately 15.000, see „Wagner – de Vita et moribus Lituanorum sub districtu Insterburgensi et Ragnetensi“ in Actis Borussisis, Tom I. pag.549. However these paresken were completely prohibited under the government of King Friedrich Wilhelm I. by a special decree on August 1, 1724 because the linden trees were damaged to such degree by the production.)

To learn a language must not necessarily be painful, especially if there is no urgent necessity. Instead of reading a novel, a newspaper or a brochure it can be rewarding to look once in a while into a Prussian text or dictionary, reading it loudly and a couple of times in order to feel surprisingly that the words do no longer seem to be strangers.

The importance of an own language can be seen in preconditions required by the European Union which will support minorities only if the minority language is still being used. In case of the Prussians who were dispersed after WW II losing their country and all their cultural treasures new ways have to be found. At the beginning of the 21st century there are still no legislative means to furnish those minorities, who have been hardest hit when losing almost everything guiltlessly, with help and funds. Thus the stand of the Federal Republic of Germany to refuse the Prussian application for help on the ground that the Prussians no longer live in their original homeland is very questionable. For Sinti and Roma and for German refugees who had to leave Prussia as well, no such hindrance has been built up and they receive financial support. Only the Prussians are pushed back to their early day’s status of being second hand citizens.
After the application for the status of a „National Minority“ according to the agreements of the European Union in 1995 the Prussians were accused of separatism although the Prussians are a “non-germanic” nation without a state and should rightly have the right and means to preserve their special culture. As a Baltic people with a non-voluntary German passport they pay taxes without receiving any benefits for their own culture. The last seven centuries of common history when Prussians and Germans lived peacefully together are not considered. This period is presented as a solely German period although the natives counted up to 1945 proportionally for half of the East Prussian population. Thousands of years of Prussian culture impressively shown in the „Prussia Collections“ of Königsberg are forgotten. Accepting the mixture of two cultures and making it accessible would make the past of Prussia more vibrant and interesting.
„The recognition of a minority is not the attempt to separate but a contribution to show the variety of the people” was the result of the Congress of Minorities in the year 2006 in Bautzen.
The high proportion of Prussians in the province of East Prussia disproves the claim the Prussians have been exterminated. The Baltic family names show even to-day a vivid proof that the Prussians are still alive.

In the parts of East Prussia annexed by Lithuania, the Soviet Union and Poland after 1945 where native Prussians are now rare subjects some non-Prussian groups try to revive a Pseudo Prussian culture. They have no contacts to the real Prussians and try to underline their efforts by communicating in Old Prussian. Their e-mail contacts are filled with pages of Prussian phrases, many of them contain peculiar creations. Unfortunately there is no forum to discuss or to correct mistakes. A scientific counseling could possibly bring these attempts to a broader basis and might receive thereafter some support from the European Union.

The 16th century was the time of Prussian liberation but certain restrictions remained. Martin Luther encouraged the Highmaster of the Teutonic Order, Albrecht von Brandenburg, to dissolve the Order State and to establish a secular duchy in order to finally grant the same rights to all subjects in his territory. However some laws still included disadvantages for the Prussian population. The official Land Order of 1577 (Landordnung) shows clearly that equal rights still had a long way to go.

There were decrees especially written for the Prussian natives: „About Prussians who enter the cities“ (Von Preussen, so sich in die Stedte begeben) or „About the heritage of free Prussians and farmers” (Von Erbschafft der Preuschen Freyen und Pawren) or „About sorcery and offering to pagan gods” (Von Zauberey und Bockheiligung). Even in printed matters written in Prussian language which had been promoted by Martin Luther, like the „Short catechism“ (Kleiner Katechismus) there are notes to distinguish between the indigenous population marked as „un-deutsch“ (un-German) and the German settlers. It is regrettable that after three centuries of total discrimination the differences still continued. However these papers are now precious documents and give scientists ample material for the study of the Baltic language and history.

During the Nazi period party officials were checking the workers in organisations for persons with „un-German“ names which as a rule came mostly from the Prussian population. They were removed from their positions. The German Interior Ministry criticized in 1995 the Prussian representatives for not having earlier established a Prussian organisation and stated that with the conquest of Prussia the people of Prussia had ceased to exist anyway. The knowledge of continued suppression of the Prussians, knowing the entire history of this conquered land and a sense for morality seemed to be absent in this ministry.
The reasons for the decline of the Prussian language have not been sufficiently analyzed. After its renaissance in the early days of the duchy of Prussia the Prussian language lost its importance. Young Prussians who were now allowed to live in cities and to obtain education, realized that only the German language was a guarantee for success. Why so few other documents in the Prussian language have survived has not been cleared so far. There were reports that during the reign of the Teutonic Order the burning of disagreeable papers had been ordered f. e. in Braunsberg in the year 1416 by Order official Michael Kuchmeister. The following governments never showed any interest in looking back to the “un-deutsche” past. When these governments needed more settlers they looked for them in neighbouring countries and showed more friendly interest by now printing decrees in Lithuanian and Polish.
The Prussian and Lithuanian languages can be understood in a similar way like the German and Dutch languages thus any Baltic word (if Prussian or not) is considered now as Lithuanian, because Germans hardly know any Prussian or even worse they do not know that a Prussian language ever existed.

The Teutonic Order is still operating in Vienna. Applications for research projects in their archives are advised that almost all documents are now being held in Berlin, Göttingen and Thorn. In addition one should consider that at the time of the christianisation in Prussia only few natives were living in this large territory. An answer for the question why the Order had to fight 53 years to conquer this small population was not given. The Prussian land, approximately as large as The Netherlands, is as near from Berlin as Frankfurt or Munich but overseas distances have to be covered and at least three foreign languages (Lithuanian, Russian and Polish) have to be known by the Prussians traveling or looking for their cultural treasures.

The best known Prussian language monuments are “Elbinger Vokabular (Elbing vocabulary) with 802 Prussian words, the list of words written by Simon Grunau with approximately 100 words and the translations of the “Kleiner Katechismus” (short catechism) by Martin Luther in three versions, two in 1545 and one in 1561. When using the „Short Catechism“ it becomes difficult to know which of the words were taken from which dialect of three tribal areas (Sambia, Natangia, Bartia / in total 12 tribes).

V. Maziulis has studied thoroughly the three versions of the Prussian catechism of Martin Luther and published them in two versions in 1966 and 1981 in Vilnius under the title “Prusu Kalbos Paminklai” (Monument of the Pussian language).

A Prussian toast of the 16th century has been found in Basel some years ago. Marks on a Prussian war banner show alien letters and letters on spinning tools are puzzling. They contradict the declaration of Order officials that the Prussians had no knowledge of writing.

The fact that they were using the runic letters was proven by the Prussian word „runais“ which indicates “writing” or communicating. Communications with each other took place also by canes (Kriwulenstöcke) marked with signs to bring news to other communities and by knot bands.

Already in 1759 the „Entwurf eines Preußischen Wörterbuches“ (Draft of a Prussian dictionary) by Johann George Bock was published in Königsberg. Many works about the Prussian language followed in the 19th century.

We refer to some of them:

J. S. Vater, „Die Sprache der alten Preussen“ (The language of the old Prussians), 1821,

Dr.G.H.F. Nesselmann, „Über die prußische Sprache“ (About the Prussian language), 1843,
„Über altpreußische Ortsnamen“(About the old Prussian local names), 1848, „Der preussische Vocabelvorrath“(The Prussian stock of words), 1873,

H. Bopp „Über die Sprache der alten Preussen “(About the language of the old Prussians), 1854
W. Pierson „Altpreußischer Wörterschatz“ (Old Prussian word treasure), 1875.

Dr.E. Berneker „Die preussische Sprache“ (The Prussian language), 1896,

Dr. Martin Schultze „Grammatik der altpreußischen Sprache“ mit dem Zusatz: Versuch einer Wiederherstellung ihrer Formen mit Berücksichtigung des Sanskrit, des Litauischen und anderer verwandter Sprachen.“ (Grammar of the old Prussian language with the annex: Attempt to restore its forms considering the Sanscrit, Lithuanian and other related languages), 1897

In the 20th century:

R. Trautmann „Die altpreußischen Sprachdenkmäler“ (The old Prussian language monuments), 1910 and „Die altpreußischen Ortsnamen“ (The old Prussian local names), 1924.

Dr. G. Gerullis „Die altpreußischen Personennamen“ (The old Prussian proper names), 1922

J. Endzelin „Altpreußische Grammatik“ (Old Prussian grammar), 1944

V. Maziulis „Prußische Sprachdenkmäler“ (Prussian language monuments), 1966 and 1981

W.R. Schmalstieg „Eine alte prußische Grammatik“ (An old Prussian grammar), 1974,

1975-1980 in Moskau five incomplete volumes of “Prusski Jassik“ by W.N. Toporov (Prussian language),

The next century offered further works:

Matzenauer ”Beiträge zur Kunde der altpreußischen Sprache” (Works for the knowledge of the Old Prussian language), 2002 W. Smoczynski „Lexikon der altpreussischen Verben“ (Dictionary of the Old Prussian verbs), 2005

Jenny H.Larsson „Nominal compounds in Old Prussian“, 2010

T. Mathiassen “Old Prussian”, 2010

Pietro U. Dini “Le lingue baltiche” (The Baltic languages) 1997 and “A li let oes cur: linguistica baltica delle origini” (Aliletoescur : Baltic linguistic from its beginnings), 2010.

This is only a small selection of authors and works of present day scientists. Others are W. Euler, P.W. Schmid, Prof. Dr. Eckert, Günther Kraft, Palmowski and more which show that the Prussian language is not forgotten. As a precious cultural treasure we are happy that other than the political situation the scientists and the Prussians are searching and collecting all relicts that future generations will find that the Prussian language has not been buried completely. We also hope that other friends will join us and support our work in the future.

Thank you very much.

Lecture held at the Baltic Circle at the Humboldt-University Berlin by Reinhard Grunenberg-Grawde Caymis


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