Polish Language

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Polish is a Slavic language that belongs to the West Slavic subgroup. The Western branch of Slavic languages, which are most closely related to Polish, comprises the following:

  • Kashubian -spoken by an estimated 100 to over 200 thousand people living west of Gdansk, near the Baltic Sea;

  • Lower Sorbian, used by about 20-30 thousand people in the Cottbus region (Germany);

  • Upper Sorbian (closer to Czech), spoken by 60-90 thousand inhabitants of the Bautzen region (Germany);

  • Czech;

  • Slovak.


History of the Polish language

In the early Middle Ages the proto Slavonic tribes left their original lands between the Odra and Dnieper rivers and settled in almost the entire central, eastern and southern Europe. They reached the Elba in the west, the Volga and Dvina in the east and the Balkan Peninsula in the south. This expansion resulted in the emergence of three groups of Slavonic languages: west, south and east.

The Polish language started to develop around the 10th century. It was a process parallel to the establishment and development of the Polish state by Mieszko I, who united a number of culturally and linguistically related tribes from the basins of the Vistula and the Odra. After Mieszko I had accepted baptism in 966, the Latin alphabet was adopted for the Polish language making it possible for Polish to be written, as until that time the language had existed only in the spoken form.

Polish literature began in the 14th century with written texts in Polish as translations of Latin prayers and sermons. The most famous texts in medieval Polish are Kazania Swietokrzyskie (The Swietokrzyskie Sermons) and the hymn of Bogurodzica (God's Mother). Bogurodzica was written in the 15th century, but its archaic vocabulary and the fact that it had been known for a long time indicate that it must have been composed centuries earlier.

The first secular texts began to appear in the 13th century. The first attempt to codify the rules of the Polish language was made around the 15th century, at the same time as Polish started to be used in legal documents and court books. The Polish language acquired literary status through the work of individual writers in the 16th century, and in the 17th-18th centuries it was recognized as a language of education, science, public debate, etc. The first Polish dictionary was not compiled until the beginning of the 19th century. The six-volume work by Samuel Bogumil Linde was published in Warsaw and gave the definitions of 60,000 Polish words.


Further development and influence from other languages

Through the centuries Polish has been influenced by contact with other languages, mostly Latin, German, Czech, French, Italian, Russian and English.

Poland was christianized by missionaries from Czech lands and so the Polish language incorporated many Czech loan words. Latin borrowings came later, more through the influence of scholars and the humanities than for religious reasons. Today the Latin influence is evident mainly in scientific terminology.

German influences began in medieval times when its speakers pushed eastwards into Polish territories. The German defeat at Tannenberg in East Prussia in 1410 ended this episode, although the German language continued to play an important role in Poland.

French made its greatest impact during the 18th century, when it was spoken by the aristocracy and those who wanted to be regarded as educated and well-travelled.

During the period of Poland's partition (1795-1918) between Russia, Prussia and Austria, the policies of Germanization and Russification led to Polish borrowing many words from these languages. Another wave of Russian borrowings came after the Second World War when Poland became a vassal state of the Soviet Union.

Despite the Russian influence, the Polish language in post-war decades has been dominated by English. From the late 1960s the number of English borrowings increased steadily, while in the 1990s Polish became flooded with loanwords from English.


There are several dialects of the Polish language, the most notable being Great Polish (in the northwest, dialect of Gniezno), Little Polish (in the southeast, dialect of Krakow), Mazovian (dialect of Warsaw) and Silesian.

The distribution of dialects is a residual feature of the time when every Slavonic tribe was using its own language. Over the centuries the languages of certain tribes have been developing and changing. Each dialect has several varieties which differ from the standard Polish language in vocabulary, syntax, pronunciation and morphology. To give some examples, in several dialects of Poland such as Silesian, nasal consonants are pronounced without nasal resonance, while in others the sound may be nasalized (e.g. Mazovian dialect); the inflectional endings used in certain dialects have preserved some of the features of archaic Polish (e.g. the Little Polish dialect); there is also a tendency to simplify inflections and reduce the number of endings. Other special dialectal features are local words connected with farming which are no longer or never have been used in standard Polish.

An interesting feature arose as a consequence of the mass migration process after 1945. Poles from the eastern territories annexed by the Soviet Union moved to the western and northern part of Poland, bringing with them a dialect characteristic of the former eastern provinces. Furthermore, due to the socialist government policy aimed at suppressing the development of local communities, thousands of people were forced to move within the country. This process of mixing various communities has resulted in the emergence of new, mixed dialects and has led to a greater degree of homogeneity in standard Polish. Contemporary standard Polish, based mainly on the Warsaw variant of the language, is spoken or at least understood throughout the country.

Geographical distribution

Polish is spoken by about 43-60 million people of whom some 37 million speakers live in Poland, where it is the official language.

Fourteen to seventeen million Poles are estimated to live abroad. The five largest communities of Polish emigrants are in the United States (6-10 million) Germany (about 1.5 million), the United Kingdom (about 1.2 million), Brazil (about 1 million), France (about 1 million) and Canada (about 600,000). A strong Polish minority remains in Lithuania (250,000), western Belarus (400,000- 1 million) and the Ukraine (300,000-500,000), where until the 18th century Polish was the language of the elite. There are smaller numbers of Polish emigrants in Australia (130,000-180,000), Argentina (100,000-170,000), Russia (about 100,000), the Czech Republic (70,000-100,000) and Kazakhstan (60,000-100,000).



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