Polish is the native and official language of Poland, and it’s the sixth-most spoken language in the European Union. As well, Polish is a common language throughout the Polish diaspora across the world, resulting in over 50 million speakers of this fascinating language!
Just under 3% of Americans and somewhere between 1.2% and 1.5% of British people are either Polish immigrants or people of Polish descent. A large number of these speak Polish at home, and therefore knowing a little about this language is imperative to knowing more about not only the world, but our own homelands.
A Few Facts about Polish
1. Polish is a significant minority language in several countries
It maintains official native minority language status in Germany, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Lithuania, areas of Latvia, the Borderlands region of Western Ukraine, and in Western Belarus.
In the UK, it’s the second most spoken language after English in England, and the third after English in Welsh in the UK overall.
2. There are 32 letters in the Polish alphabet as well as several diagraphs and trigraphs
The main alphabet (the abecadło) is similar to the Latin alphabet but with several diacritic marks indicating different sounds. The main diacritic markings used are:
- The kreska or acute accent (ń)
- The kropka or overdot (ż)
- The ogonek or tail (ą)
- The stroke (ł)
Q, V, and X are only used in foreign words and don’t appear in Standard Polish. They’re often replaced in writing with Kw (quiz -> kwiz), W (video -> wideo), and Ks (xeno -> kseno).
The most common diagraphs or trigraphs are:
|Diagraph or trigraph||Sounds like||Diagraph or trigraph used before a vowel||Sounds like|
|ch||Loch||Ci||Similar sound to dź|
|cz||Similar to watch||dzi||Similar sound to dź|
|dz||Similar to think||Gi||Palatized g, similar to gold|
|dź||Similar to jack||(c)hi||Palatized version of ch|
|dż||Similar to Django||Ki||Palatized k, similar to king|
|rz||Similar to measure (harder zh sound)||Ni||Similar to canyon|
|sz||Similar to sharp||Si||Similar to stew (British English, shtew)|
3. Polish borrowed heavily from a number of languages thanks to immigration from and to the country
Some languages which feature heavily in the vocabulary of modern Polish are:
- Yiddish (from the high Jewish population up until the Second World War)
- Latin (official language until the 18th century)
- Czech (mutual immigration in the 14th and 15th centuries)
- Mongolian (thanks to wars with Genghis Khan and descendants)
- Italian (from the Italian queen of King Sigismund I of Poland in 1518)
- French (from the 18th century French renaissance in Europe AND from the Napoleonic wars, where Poland politically aligned with Napoleon)
- German (high mutual immigration from medieval times onward and through being bordering countries. Often used in business, trade, and travel words, and also several Polish phrases are direct calques of German phrases)
- Turkish (17th century contact with the Ottoman Empire)
- Hungarian and Romanian (southern Polish contact with Slovakia and Wallachia)
- Greek (used in Thieves’ Slang as it was considered unknown at the time)
- Russian (from the second half of the 19th century)
- English (especially since WWII, highly used for new innovations in technology and scientific research as well as business and trade)
4. Polish also loaned several words to other languages
Words originating in or simply lifted from Polish exist in:
- Several more Slavic languages
5. Until 966, Polish was only a spoken language
After Christianity came to Poland, it brought the Latin alphabet with it for records.
6. 97% of Polish people speak Polish as their first language
This is one of the biggest homogenous first-languages in a given country anywhere in the world.
7. There are a number of dialects in Polish separated by geographic region, and each has several subdialects.
Almost all of the subdialects also have subdialects of their own (not included in the table below, as there are too many!). Some dialects are even considered their own distinct language.
Each of these dialects ultimately descended from a different historical tribe of Poland and, while most are mutually understandable, there are some significant differences between each of them. The Kashubian language is heavily associated with Polish, but general linguistic consensus is now that it is its own language.
|Greater Polish||Polans (Warta River Basin)||Krajna (gwara krajniacka)|
|Tuchola (gwara tucholska)|
|Kociewie (gwara kociewska)|
|Chełmno-Dobrzyń (gwara chełmińsko-dobrzyńska)|
|Cuyavian (gwara kujawska)|
|Chojno (gwara chazacka)|
|Mazovian||Mazovians (Northeastern Poland/Mazovia)||Białystok (gwara białostocka)|
|Suwałki (gwara suwalska)|
|Warmia (gwara warmińska)|
|Kurpie (gwara kurpiowska)|
|Masurian (gwara mazurska)|
|Malbork-Lubawa (gwara malborsko-lubawska)|
|Ostróda (gwara ostródzka)|
|Near Mazovian (gwara mazowsze bliższe)|
|Far Mazovian dialect (gwara mazowsze dalsze)|
|Lesser Polish||Vistulans (Carpathian Mountains and beyond) and Lędzianie (East Lesser Poland)||Łowicz (gwara łowicka)|
|Sieradz-Łęczyca (gwara sieradzko-łęczycka)|
|Holy Cross Mountains (gwary świętokrzyskie)|
|Grębów (gwara lasowska)|
|Orawa (gwara orawska)|
|Spisz (gwara spiska)|
|Podhale (gwara podhalańska)|
|Silesian1||Silesians (Lower Silesia)||Cieszyn Silesian|
|Lach (when counted as Czech)|
|Northern Kresy||Lithuanian and Belarusian Polish minorities||Wilno (gwara wileńska)|
|Southern Kresy||Derived from Old Polish and Old Rutherian||Lwów (gwara lwowska)|
There are also several important but unclassified dialects including those based on city residency (i.e, the Warsaw dialect, now mostly extinct), social group (school student dialect), emigrant status (US Polish dialect, etc.), circumstantial dialects (grypsera dialect, spoken by long-term prison inmates), and foreign-influenced dialects (gwara poznańska), heavily influenced by German).
As a very highly-spoken language worldwide, some knowledge of Polish is virtually required in today’s global culture. A fusion of Slavic, Germanic, and Romance languages, Polish offers an insight into linguistic development and the bridges between languages from which we will continue to learn for generations to come.