- Associated Press - Wednesday, January 12, 2011

MAISIAGALA, Lithuania | Poland and Lithuania are bonded by history, culture and Catholic faith but deeply divided over the letter w.

Used a lot in Polish, the letter doesn’t exist in Lithuanian. That and other spelling differences are irritating Lithuania’s Polish minority, who demand the right to spell their names in Polish in passports and other documents.

This linguistic row may seem trivial, but in recent months other disagreements have helped escalate it to a full-blown diplomatic standoff. Ambassadors have been summoned in Warsaw and Vilnius, and sharply worded statements are coming out of both capitals.

In the latest snub, top Polish officials declined invitations to commemorations Thursday honoring the victims of a bloody Soviet crackdown on Lithuania’s independence movement 20 years ago.

Since independence in 1991, successive Lithuanian governments have promised to give the country’s 200,000 Polish-speakers - representing 6 percent of the population - more freedom to use their native language, but little has happened.

Lithuanian language laws still require passports and street signs to be written in the Lithuanian alphabet, which doesn’t have the letters q, w and x and uses diacritical marks on the bottom of letters a, e, i and u.

Resentment is growing in the Polish-speaking east, in rural villages like Maisiagala, whose 2,000 residents celebrate New Year’s one hour after the rest of Lithuania to conform with Poland’s time zone.

“They should have amended that stupid law a long time ago and let us live in peace. This has gone on for too long,” said 60-year-old Stanislawa Monkewicz, a retired teacher. Her name is Stanislava Monkevic in Lithuanian.

Similar disputes are happening elsewhere in Eastern Europe. A Slovak language law limiting the use of Hungarian and other minority languages went into effect Sept. 1, 2009, stoking political tensions between Slovakia and Hungary and garnering criticism from EU authorities.