The Sorbian language: Where is it spoken?

The Sorbian language: Where is it spoken?

by Laura Jones

Updated November 10, 2023

The Sorbian language is part of the West Slavic group of languages. Comprising two major dialects, Upper Sorbian (hornjoserbšćina) and Lower Sorbian (dolnoserbšćina), the language is primarily spoken in Germany’s Lusatian region. Approximately 50,000 people speak at least one of the Sorbian dialects today, and they preserve their language through festivals, literature and cultural institutions. 

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The history of the Sorbian language

The Sorbian language is closely related to the Czech-Slovak and Lechitic languages (the latter of which includes Polish). All of these languages belong to the West Slavic group. 

Some linguists mighte say Sorbian languages because there are two major dialects, Upper and Lower Sorbian. The first written records of Sorbian are from the 15th century, though the dialects probably began to diverge in the 13th century. 

Where is Sorbian spoken?

Sorbian is primarily spoken in the Lusatian region of Southeast Germany, near the borders with Poland and Czechia. 

The region is divided into Upper and Lower Lusatia. Upper Lusatia is primarily located in the Bundesland of Saxony, and Lower Lusatia is in Brandenburg. The largest city in Lower Lusatia is Cottbus, known in Sorbian as Chóśebuz. In Upper Lusatia, Bautzen (Budyšin) is the biggest population center. 

Upper Sorbian is spoken in Upper Lusatia, while Lower Sorbian is spoken in Lower Lusatia. These dialects, while closely related, differ in vocabulary and pronunciation and are thus not entirely mutually intelligible. About 40,000 people speak Upper Sorbian, while around 10,000 speak Lower Sorbian. 

Though spoken far less commonly, the Sorbian language enjoys an equal status with German in the Bundesländer of Saxony and Brandenburg. Sorbian has been taught in schools since 1948. But nearly all Sorbian speakers also speak German and use it in their daily lives, and Lower Sorbian, in particular, is in danger of dying out.

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Examples of the Sorbian language

EnglishUpper SorbianLower SorbianCzech

The Sorbian culture

Several distinct examples of Sorbian culture survive today. 

The Osterreiten (Easter ride) is a famous festival in which men dressed in black ride horses from one village to the next, declaring the news of Jesus’s resurrection. Another is the custom of Zampern. This festival in Lower Lusatia takes place on Shrove Tuesday and sees groups of people in fancy dress go from house to house asking for gifts. 

Sorbian literature also has a rich tradition. Poets, writers and playwrights have contributed significantly to the preservation and development of the language. There are even several media publications in the Sorbian language, such as the newspapers Serbske Nowiny in Upper Sorbian and Nowy Casnik in Lower Sorbian. 

Cultural institutions also promote the Sorbian language. The Bautzen German-Sorbian Peoples Theater is proudly bicultural and trilingual (German and Upper and Lower Sorbian). And if you want to try some Sorbian food, head to Wjelbik, a restaurant in Bautzen serving specialties like Sorbische Rinderroulade (Sorbian beef roulade) and Sorbisches Hochzeitsessen, a dish made with ox. 

Discover the Sorbian language

To hear the Sorbian language, visit Germany’s Lusatian region. While Cottbus might be the larger town, Bautzen is where you’re more likely to find speakers of Sorbian. You can also go to Sorbian restaurants there and even see a show at the theater. Easter is a great time to visit the Lusatian region and experience some Sorbian traditions. 

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Laura Jones

Laura is a freelance writer and was an ESL teacher for eight years. She was born in the UK and has lived in Australia and Poland, where she writes blogs for Lingoda about everything from grammar to dating English speakers. She’s definitely better at the first one. She loves travelling and that’s the other major topic that she writes on. Laura likes pilates and cycling, but when she’s feeling lazy she can be found curled up watching Netflix. She’s currently learning Polish, and her battle with that mystifying language has given her huge empathy for anyone struggling to learn English. Find out more about her work in her portfolio.

Laura Jones
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