The Polish language and culture have established a global presence, producing more than 20 Nobel Prize laureates in the realms of literature, medicine, and more. With a tumultuous history influenced by war and foreign occupation, the country of Poland has nonetheless managed to maintain an impressive purity and plays an important role in the globalized cultural, political, and scientific spheres of the world today.
Classification of the Polish Language
Closely related to both the Czech and Slovak languages, the Polish language is classified as a Slavic language within the Indo-European family of languages. In the 6th century AD, the Slav people migrated from Old Poland and settled predominantly throughout Eastern Europe.
Three primary Slavic language groups emerged in the resettling process – Eastern, Western, and Southern. Polish is believed to have originated from the Western Slavonic language group.
The Polish Alphabet
The Polish language stands out from other Slavic languages due to the fact that it is based on a modified Latin alphabet, rather than the Cyrillic alphabet.
Poland became a unified state in the 10th century, with varying tribes of peoples unifying under a single ruler. It is believed that the predominance of Roman Catholicism in the Polish state was responsible for the use of a Latin alphabet, which was the primary language utilized in written church texts in Europe at the time.
Digraphs, in which a pair of characters are used to write a single sound, and diacritics (when a glyph is added to an existing letter) are used to convey sounds that cannot be represented by a strictly Latin-based alphabet. An example of a Polish language digraph is “sz,” which sounds much like English language’s “sh” sound, while a unique Polish language diacritic is the “l,” which resembles English’s “w” sound.
Development of Written Polish
The oldest known evidence of written Polish appears in the form of proper names seen in Latin language documents from the 12th century. Examples of longer isolated Polish language writings, however, are not found until the 14th century.
The modern literary Polish that we are familiar with today is believed to have developed around the 16th century. The contemporary written Polish language has produced many renowned writers, including Czeslaw Milosz, Julia Hartwig, and Wislawa Szymborska.
As a Slavic language, spoken Polish is distinguished by the fact that it has preserved nasal vowels, which are no longer found in any other contemporary Slavic languages.
Thanks to its use of 7 vowel and 35 consonant sounds, spoken Polish is known as an extremely rich language phonetically. Polish pronunciation generally places stress on the next-to-last syllable of the word.
Polish Language Dialects
The Polish language includes many diverse dialects. Within Poland, prominent dialects in the northern area of the country include Mazovian and Great Polish, while southern dialects include Little Polish and Silesian.
Controversy surrounds the language/dialect known as Kashubian, also spelled Cassubian. Although Kashubian evolved as a separate Slavic language, many people simply consider it to be a dialect of the Polish language. Tensions as to whether Kashubian should be classified as an independent language or as a dialect of the Polish language exist to this day.
Influences on the Polish Language
Polish has largely remained a pure language, although there is evidence of loan-words borrowed from medieval German, Czech, and Latin, and in more recent times, English and French. Some Polish words, like bachor (meaning an unruly young boy or child) are borrowed from the Yiddish language, owing to the significant Polish Jewish population the country housed prior to the Holocaust.
Surprisingly, despite Poland’s close relationship with Russia throughout history, there are relatively few instances of direct borrowing from the Russian language in Polish. Most of those that do exist are internationally used, such as the word “sputnik.”
Influence of the Polish Language Today
The Polish language has influenced other Slavic languages, as well as the German language, due to Poland’s proximity to Germany and Slavic-speaking countries. Some culinary words of the Polish language have even been adopted internationally, such as the Polish word for dumplings: pierogi.
An estimated 43 million people around the world speak the Polish language. Polish serves as the official language of Poland, where it exists as the mother tongue of an estimated 38 million people. The language also is spoken by more than one million people throughout Russia and former Soviet Union countries.
At least an additional one million people in North America, primarily in the United States and Canada, also speak Polish. The spread of the Polish population and language continues to this day, mostly throughout Europe. For example, a January 2007 article in the UK newspaper The Lancashire Telegraph reported that English police officers were learning Polish in an attempt to communicate with the influx of Polish immigrants in the area.
Polish Language Culture and Literature
Despite a rocky history of occupation, war, and cultural suppression, Polish language culture has produced an impressive number of renowned artists, thinkers, and writers. Approximately 20 Nobel Prize winners, from poets to scientists, have been of Polish origin, including Czeslaw Milosz (1980 – Literature) and Lech Walesa (1983 – Peace).
In 1475, the first Polish language book to be printed in Poland was issued in Wroclaw. Since then, the Polish language has produced many globally recognized writers. The influence of humanism and religious reform in the 16th century produced what many academics consider to be a golden age in Polish literature.
The regaining of Polish independence in 1919 after years of division resulted in another highly productive period in Polish language literature, although many writers did not gain prominent recognition for their work until after World War II. Poland’s war-time experiences and relationship with Communism have proved to be prominent themes in much Polish language literature.
Polish Quick Facts
Alternate Names & Spellings: Polski, Polnisch
Language Family: Indo-European, Slavic, West, Lechitic
Official Language of: Poland
Spoken by Approximately 42,708,000 people
Also Spoken In: United States
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