Polish is a West Slavic language of the Lechitic group. It is spoken primarily in Poland and serves as the native language of the Poles. In addition to being an official language of Poland, it is also used by Polish minorities in other countries. There are over 50 million Polish-language speakers around the world and it is one of the official languages of the European Union.
Polish is written with the standardized Polish alphabet, which has nine additions to the letters of the basic Latin script. Among the major languages, it is most closely related to Slovak and Czech, but differs from other Slavic varieties in terms of pronunciation and general grammar. In addition, Polish was profoundly influenced by Latin and other Italic languages like Italian and French as well as Germanic languages, which contributed to a large number of loanwords and similar grammatical structures. Polish currently has the largest number of speakers of the West Slavic group and is also the second most widely spoken Slavic language.
Historically, Polish was a lingua franca, important both diplomatically and academically in Central and Eastern Europe. Today, Polish is spoken by over 38.5 million people as their first language in Poland. It is also spoken as a second language in Northern Czech Republic and Slovakia, western parts of Belarus and Ukraine as well as in Central-Eastern Lithuania and Latvia. Because of the emigration from Poland during different time periods, most notably after World War II, millions of Polish speakers can be found in countries such as Canada, Argentina, Brazil, Israel, Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States.
HistoryPolish began to emerge as a distinct language around the 10th century, the process largely triggered by the establishment and development of the Polish state. Mieszko I, ruler of the Polans tribe from the Greater Poland region, united a few culturally and linguistically related tribes from the basins of the Vistula and Oder before eventually accepting baptism in 966. With Christianity, Poland also adopted the Latin alphabet, which made it possible to write down Polish, which until then had existed only as a spoken language.
is the earliest document to include a sentence written entirely in what can be interpreted as Old Polish - Day, ut ia pobrusę, a ty poziwai meaning "let me grind, and you have a rest" highlighted in red
The precursor to modern Polish is the Old Polish language. Ultimately, Polish is thought to descend from the unattested Proto-Slavic language. Polish was a lingua franca from 1500–1700 in Central and parts of Eastern Europe, because of the political, cultural, scientific and military influence of the former Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth. Although not closely related to it, Polish shares many linguistic affinities with Ukrainian, an East Slavic language with which it has been in prolonged historical contact and in a state of mutual influence. The Polish influence on Ukrainian is particularly marked in western Ukraine, which was under Polish cultural domination.
The Book of Henryków, contains the earliest known sentence written in the Polish language: Day, ut ia pobrusa, a ti poziwai, written around 1270.
The medieval recorder of this phrase, the Cistercian monk Peter of the Henryków monastery, noted that "Hoc est in polonico".
Polish, along with Czech and Slovak, forms the West Slavic dialect continuum. The three languages constitute Ausbau languages, i.e. lects that are considered distinct not on purely linguistic grounds, but rather due to sociopolitical and cultural factors. Since the idioms have separately standardized norms and longstanding literary traditions, being the official languages of independent states, they are generally treated as autonomous languages, with the distinction between Polish and Czech-Slovak dialects being drawn along national lines.
Geographic distributionPoland is one of the most linguistically European countries; nearly 97% of Poland's citizens declare Polish as their first language. Elsewhere, Poles constitute large minorities in Lithuania, Belarus, and Ukraine. Polish is the most widely used minority language in Lithuania's Vilnius County and is found elsewhere in southeastern Lithuania. In Ukraine, it is most common in western Lviv and Volyn Oblasts, while in West Belarus it is used by the significant Polish minority, especially in the Brest and Grodno regions and in areas along the Lithuanian border. There are significant numbers of Polish speakers among Polish emigrants and their descendants in many other countries.
In the United States, Polish Americans number more than 11 million but most of them cannot speak Polish fluently. According to the 2000 United States Census, 667,414 Americans of age five years and over reported Polish as the language spoken at home, which is about 1.4% of people who speak languages other than English, 0.25% of the US population, and 6% of the Polish-American population. The largest concentrations of Polish speakers reported in the census were found in three states: Illinois, New York, and New Jersey. Enough people in these areas speak Polish that PNC Financial Services offer services available in Polish at all of their cash machines in addition to English and Spanish.
According to the 2011 census there are now over 500,000 people in England and Wales who consider Polish to be their "main" language. In Canada, there is a significant Polish Canadian population: There are 242,885 speakers of Polish according to the 2006 census, with a particular concentration in Toronto and Montreal.
The geographical distribution of the Polish language was greatly affected by the territorial changes of Poland immediately after World War II and Polish population transfers. Poles settled in the "Recovered Territories" in the west and north, which had previously been mostly German-speaking. Some Poles remained in the previously Polish-ruled territories in the east that were annexed by the USSR, resulting in the present-day Polish-speaking minorities in Lithuania, Belarus, and Ukraine, although many Poles were expelled or emigrated from those areas to areas within Poland's new borders. To the east of Poland, the most significant Polish minority lives in a long, narrow strip along either side of the Lithuania-Belarus border. Meanwhile, the flight and expulsion of Germans, as well as the expulsion of Ukrainians and Operation Vistula, the 1947 forced resettlement of Ukrainian minorities to the Recovered Territories in the west of the country, contributed to the country's linguistic homogeneity.
DialectsThe Polish language became far more homogeneous in the second half of the 20th century, in part due to the mass migration of several million Polish citizens from the eastern to the western part of the country after the Soviet annexation of the Kresy in 1939, and the annexation of former German territory after World War II. This tendency toward homogeneity also stems from the vertically integrated nature of the Polish People's Republic. In addition, Polish linguistics has been characterized by a strong strive towards promoting prescriptive ideas of language intervention and usage uniformity, along with normatively-oriented notions of language "correctness".
The inhabitants of different regions of Poland speak Polish somewhat differently, although the differences between modern-day vernacular varieties and standard Polish appear relatively slight. Most of the middle aged and young speak vernaculars close to standard Polish, while the traditional dialects are preserved among older people in rural areas. First-language speakers of Polish have no trouble understanding each other, and non-native speakers may have difficulty recognizing the regional and social differences. The modern standard dialect, often termed as "correct Polish", is spoken or at least understood throughout the entire country.
Polish has traditionally been described as consisting of four or five main regional dialects:
- Greater Polish, spoken in the west
- Lesser Polish, spoken in the south and southeast
- Masovian, spoken throughout the central and eastern parts of the country
- Silesian, spoken in the southwest
Many linguistic sources about the Slavic languages describe Silesian as a dialect of Polish. However, many Silesians consider themselves a separate ethnicity and have been advocating for the recognition of a Silesian language. According to the last official census in Poland in 2011, over half a million people declared Silesian as their native language. Many sociolinguists assume that extralinguistic criteria decide whether a lect is an independent language or a dialect: speakers of the speech variety or/and political decisions, and this is dynamic. Also, research organizations such as SIL International and resources for the academic field of linguistics such as Ethnologue, Linguist List and others, for example the Ministry of Administration and Digitization recognized the Silesian language. In July 2007, the Silesian language was recognized by ISO, and was attributed an ISO code of szl.
Some additional characteristic but less widespread regional dialects include:
- The distinctive dialect of the Gorals occurs in the mountainous area bordering the Czech Republic and Slovakia. The Gorals take great pride in their culture and the dialect. It exhibits some cultural influences from the Vlach shepherds who migrated from Wallachia in the 14th–17th centuries.
- The :pl:Gwara poznańska|Poznanski dialect, spoken in Poznań and to some extent in the whole region of the former Prussian Partition, with noticeable German influences.
- In the northern and western regions where Poles from the territories annexed by the Soviet Union resettled after World War II, the older generation speaks a dialect of Polish characteristic of the Kresy that includes a longer pronunciation of vowels.
- Poles living in Lithuania, in Belarus, and in the northeast of Poland continue to speak the Eastern Borderlands dialect, which sounds "slushed" and is easily distinguishable.
- Some city dwellers, especially the less affluent population, had their own distinctive dialects - for example, the Warsaw dialect, still spoken by some of the population of Praga on the eastern bank of the Vistula. However, these city dialects are mostly extinct due to assimilation with standard Polish.
- Many Poles living in emigrant communities, whose families left Poland just after World War II, retain a number of minor features of Polish vocabulary as spoken in the first half of the 20th century that now sound archaic to contemporary visitors from Poland.
Vowels and consonantsPolish has six oral vowels and two nasal vowels. The oral vowels are , , , , and . The nasal vowels are and .
The Polish consonant system shows more complexity: its characteristic features include the series of affricate and palatal consonants that resulted from four Proto-Slavic palatalizations and two further palatalizations that took place in Polish and Belarusian. The full set of consonants, together with their most common spellings, can be presented as follows :
- stops , , , , , , and the palatalized forms , , and
- fricatives , , , , , , , , the alveolo-palatals and , and and
- affricates , , , , ,
- nasals , ,
- approximants , ,
Neutralization occurs between voiced–voiceless consonant pairs in certain environments: at the end of words, and in certain consonant clusters. For details, see Voicing and devoicing in the article on Polish phonology.
Most Polish words are paroxytones, although there are exceptions.
Consonant distributionPolish permits complex consonant clusters, which historically often arose from the disappearance of yers. Polish can have word-initial and word-medial clusters of up to four consonants, whereas word-final clusters can have up to five consonants. Examples of such clusters can be found in words such as bezwzględny , źdźbło , , and krnąbrność . A popular Polish tongue-twister is .
Unlike languages such as Czech, Polish does not have syllabic consonants – the nucleus of a syllable is always a vowel.
The consonant is restricted to positions adjacent to a vowel. It also cannot precede i or y.
ProsodyThe predominant stress pattern in Polish is penultimate stress – in a word of more than one syllable, the next-to-last syllable is stressed. Alternating preceding syllables carry secondary stress, e.g. in a four-syllable word, where the primary stress is on the third syllable, there will be secondary stress on the first.
Each vowel represents one syllable, although the letter i normally does not represent a vowel when it precedes another vowel. Also the letters u and i sometimes represent only semivowels when they follow another vowel, as in autor , mostly in loanwords.
Some loanwords, particularly from the classical languages, have the stress on the antepenultimate syllable. For example, fizyka is stressed on the first syllable. This may lead to a rare phenomenon of minimal pairs differing only in stress placement, for example muzyka 'music' vs. muzyka - genitive singular of muzyk 'musician'. When additional syllables are added to such words through inflection or suffixation, the stress normally becomes regular. For example, uniwersytet has irregular stress on the third syllable, but the genitive uniwersytetu and derived adjective uniwersytecki have regular stress on the penultimate syllables. Over time, loanwords become nativized to have penultimate stress.
Another class of exceptions is verbs with the conditional endings -by, -bym, -byśmy, etc. These endings are not counted in determining the position of the stress; for example, zrobiłbym is stressed on the first syllable, and zrobilibyśmy on the second. According to prescriptive authorities, the same applies to the first and second person plural past tense endings -śmy, -ście, although this rule is often ignored in colloquial speech. These irregular stress patterns are explained by the fact that these endings are detachable clitics rather than true verbal inflections: for example, instead of kogo zobaczyliście? it is possible to say kogoście zobaczyli? – here kogo retains its usual stress in spite of the attachment of the clitic. Reanalysis of the endings as inflections when attached to verbs causes the different colloquial stress patterns. These stress patterns are however nowadays sanctioned as part of the colloquial norm of standard Polish.
Some common word combinations are stressed as if they were a single word. This applies in particular to many combinations of preposition plus a personal pronoun, such as do niej, na nas, przeze mnie, all stressed on the bolded syllable.
OrthographyThe Polish alphabet derives from the Latin script, but includes certain additional letters formed using diacritics. The Polish alphabet was one of three major forms of Latin-based orthography developed for Slavic languages, the others being Czech orthography and Croatian orthography, the last of these being a 19th-century invention trying to make a compromise between the first two. Kashubian uses a Polish-based system, Slovak uses a Czech-based system, and Slovene follows the Croatian one; the Sorbian languages blend the Polish and the Czech ones.
The diacritics used in the Polish alphabet are the kreska in the letters ć, ń, ó, ś, ź and through the letter in ł; the kropka in the letter ż, and the ogonek in the letters ą, ę. The letters q, v, x are used only in foreign words and names.
Polish orthography is largely phonemic—there is a consistent correspondence between letters and phonemes. The letters of the alphabet and their normal phonemic values are listed in the following table.
in Polish, 1599 print. The letters á and é were subsequently abolished, but survive in Czech.
The following digraphs and trigraphs are used:
|Digraph||Phonemic value||Digraph/trigraph||Phonemic value|
Voiced consonant letters frequently come to represent voiceless sounds ; this occurs at the end of words and in certain clusters, due to the neutralization mentioned in the Phonology section above. Occasionally also voiceless consonant letters can represent voiced sounds in clusters.
The spelling rule for the palatal sounds,,, and is as follows: before the vowel i the plain letters s, z, c, dz, n are used; before other vowels the combinations si, zi, ci, dzi, ni are used; when not followed by a vowel the diacritic forms ś, ź, ć, dź, ń are used. For example, the s in siwy, the si in siarka and the ś in święty all represent the sound. The exceptions to the above rule are certain loanwords from Latin, Italian, French, Russian or English—where s before i is pronounced as s, e.g. sinus, sinologia, do re mi fa sol la si do, Saint-Simon i saint-simoniści, Sierioża, Siergiej, Singapur, singiel. In other loanwords the vowel i is changed to y, e.g. Syria, Sybir, synchronizacja, Syrakuzy.
The following table shows the correspondence between the sounds and spelling:
Digraphs and trigraphs are used:
|Phonemic value||Single letter/Digraph||Digraph/Trigraph||Single letter/Digraph|
Similar principles apply to,, and, except that these can only occur before vowels, so the spellings are k, g, h, l before i, and ki, gi, hi, li otherwise. Most Polish speakers, however, do not consider palatalisation of k, g, h or l as creating new sounds.
Except in the cases mentioned above, the letter i if followed by another vowel in the same word usually represents, yet a palatalisation of the previous consonant is always assumed.
The letters ą and ę, when followed by plosives and affricates, represent an oral vowel followed by a nasal consonant, rather than a nasal vowel. For example, ą in dąb is pronounced, and ę in tęcza is pronounced . When followed by l or ł, ę is pronounced as just e. When ę is at the end of the word it is often pronounced as just.
Note that, depending on the word, the phoneme can be spelt h or ch, the phoneme can be spelt ż or rz, and can be spelt u or ó. In several cases it determines the meaning, for example: może and morze.
In occasional words, letters that normally form a digraph are pronounced separately. For example, rz represents, not, in words like zamarzać and in the name Tarzan.
Notice that doubled letters represent separate occurrences of the sound in question; for example Anna is pronounced in Polish.
There are certain clusters where a written consonant would not be pronounced. For example, the ł in the words mógł and jabłko might be omitted in ordinary speech, leading to the pronunciations muk and japko or jabko.
GrammarPolish is a highly fusional language with relatively free word order, although the dominant arrangement is subject–verb–object. There are no articles, and subject pronouns are often dropped.
Nouns belong to one of three genders: masculine, feminine and neuter. A distinction is also made between animate and inanimate masculine nouns in the singular, and between masculine personal and non-masculine-personal nouns in the plural. There are seven cases: nominative, genitive, dative, accusative, instrumental, locative and vocative.
Adjectives agree with nouns in terms of gender, case, and number. Attributive adjectives most commonly precede the noun, although in certain cases, especially in fixed phrases, the noun may come first; the rule of thumb is that generic descriptive adjective normally precedes while categorising adjective often follows the noun. Most short adjectives and their derived adverbs form comparatives and superlatives by inflection.
Verbs are of imperfective or perfective aspect, often occurring in pairs. Imperfective verbs have a present tense, past tense, compound future tense, subjunctive/conditional, imperatives, an infinitive, present participle, present gerund and past participle. Perfective verbs have a simple future tense, past tense, subjunctive/conditional, imperatives, infinitive, present gerund and past participle. Conjugated verb forms agree with their subject in terms of person, number, and gender.
Passive-type constructions can be made using the auxiliary być or zostać with the passive participle. There is also an impersonal construction where the active verb is used with no subject, but with the reflexive pronoun się present to indicate a general, unspecified subject. A similar sentence type in the past tense uses the passive participle with the ending -o, as in widziano ludzi. As in other Slavic languages, there are also subjectless sentences formed using such words as można together with an infinitive.
Yes-no questions are formed by placing the word czy at the start. Negation uses the word nie, before the verb or other item being negated; nie is still added before the verb even if the sentence also contains other negatives such as nigdy or nic, effectively creating a double negative.
Cardinal numbers have a complex system of inflection and agreement. Zero and cardinal numbers higher than five govern the genitive case rather than the nominative or accusative. Special forms of numbers are used with certain classes of noun, which include dziecko and exclusively plural nouns such as drzwi.
Borrowed wordsPolish has, over the centuries, borrowed a number of words from other languages. When borrowing, pronunciation was adapted to Polish phonemes and spelling was altered to match Polish orthography. In addition, word endings are liberally applied to almost any word to produce verbs, nouns, adjectives, as well as adding the appropriate endings for cases of nouns, adjectives, diminutives, double-diminutives, augmentatives, etc.
Depending on the historical period, borrowing has proceeded from various languages. Notable influences have been Latin, Czech, Italian, French, German, Hungarian and Turkish. Currently, English words are the most common imports to Polish.
The Latin language, for a very long time the only official language of the Polish state, has had a great influence on Polish. Many Polish words were direct borrowings or calques from Latin. Latin was known to a larger or smaller degree by most of the numerous szlachta in the 16th to 18th centuries. Apart from dozens of loanwords, its influence can also be seen in a number of verbatim Latin phrases in Polish literature.
During the 12th and 13th centuries, Mongolian words were brought to the Polish language during wars with the armies of Genghis Khan and his descendants, e.g. dzida and szereg.
Words from Czech, an important influence during the 10th and 14th–15th centuries include sejm, hańba and brama.
In 1518, the Polish king Sigismund I the Old married Bona Sforza, the niece of the Holy Roman emperor Maximilian, who introduced Italian cuisine to Poland, especially vegetables. Hence, words from Italian include pomidor from "pomodoro", kalafior from "cavolfiore", and pomarańcza, a portmanteau from Italian "pomo" plus "arancio". A later word of Italian origin is autostrada.
In the 18th century, with the rising prominence of France in Europe, French supplanted Latin as an important source of words. Some French borrowings also date from the Napoleonic era, when the Poles were enthusiastic supporters of Napoleon. Examples include ekran, abażur, rekin, meble, bagaż, walizka, fotel, plaża and koszmar. Some place names have also been adapted from French, such as the Warsaw borough of Żoliborz, as well as the town of Żyrardów.
in Polish is called a torba, a word directly derived from the Turkish language. Turkish loanwords are common as Poland bordered the Ottoman Empire for centuries
Many words were borrowed from the German language from the sizable German population in Polish cities during medieval times. German words found in the Polish language are often connected with trade, the building industry, civic rights and city life. Some words were assimilated verbatim, for example handel and dach ; others are pronounced the same, but differ in writing schnur—sznur. As a result of being neighbours with Germany, Polish has many German expressions which have become literally translated. The regional dialects of Upper Silesia and Masuria have noticeably more German loanwords than other varieties.
The contacts with Ottoman Turkey in the 17th century brought many new words, some of them still in use, such as: jar, szaszłyk, filiżanka, arbuz, dywan, etc.
From the founding of the Kingdom of Poland in 1025 through the early years of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth created in 1569, Poland was the most tolerant country of Jews in Europe. Known as the "paradise for the Jews", it became a shelter for persecuted and expelled European Jewish communities and the home to the world's largest Jewish community of the time. As a result, many Polish words come from Yiddish, spoken by the large Polish Jewish population that existed until the Holocaust. Borrowed Yiddish words include bachor, bajzel, belfer, ciuchy, cymes, geszeft, kitel, machlojka, mamona, manele, myszygene, pinda, plajta, rejwach, szmal, and trefny.
The mountain dialects of the Górale in southern Poland, have quite a number of words borrowed from Hungarian and Romanian as a result of historical contacts with Hungarian-dominated Slovakia and Wallachian herders who travelled north along the Carpathians.
Thieves' slang includes such words as kimać or majcher of Greek origin, considered then unknown to the outside world.
In addition, Turkish and Tatar have exerted influence upon the vocabulary of war, names of oriental costumes etc. Russian borrowings began to make their way into Polish from the second half of the 19th century on.
Polish has also received an intensive number of English loanwords, particularly after World War II. Recent loanwords come primarily from the English language, mainly those that have Latin or Greek roots, for example komputer, korupcja etc. Concatenation of parts of words, which is not native to Polish but common in English, for example, is also sometimes used. When borrowing English words, Polish often changes their spelling. For example, Latin suffix '-tio' corresponds to -cja. To make the word plural, -cja becomes -cje. Examples of this include inauguracja, dewastacja, recepcja, konurbacja and konotacje. Also, the digraph qu becomes kw.
Loanwords from PolishThe Polish language has influenced others. Particular influences appear in other Slavic languages and in German — due to their proximity and shared borders. Examples of loanwords include German Grenze, Dutch and Afrikaans grens from Polish granica; German Peitzker from Polish piskorz ; German Zobel, French zibeline, Swedish sobel, and English sable from Polish soból; and ogonek — the word describing a diacritic hook-sign added below some letters in various alphabets. ":pl:Szmata|Szmata," a Polish, Slovak and Ruthenian word for "mop" or "rag", became part of Yiddish. The Polish language exerted significant lexical influence upon Ukrainian, particularly in the fields of abstract and technical terminology; for example, the Ukrainian word панство panstvo is derived from Polish państwo. The extent of Polish influence is particularly noticeable in Western Ukrainian dialects.
There is a substantial number of Polish words which officially became part of Yiddish, once the main language of European Jews. These include basic items, objects or terms such as a bread bun, a fishing rod, an oak, a meadow, a moustache and a bladder.
Quite a few culinary loanwords exist in German and in other languages, some of which describe distinctive features of Polish cuisine. These include German and English Quark from twaróg and German Gurke, English gherkin from ogórek. The word pierogi has spread internationally, as well as pączki and kiełbasa. As far as pierogi concerned, the original Polish word is already in plural, yet it is commonly used with the English plural ending -s in Canada and United States of America, pierogis, thus making it a "double plural". A similar situation happened with the Polish loanword from English czipsy —from English chips being already plural in the original, yet it has obtained the Polish plural ending -y.
The word spruce entered the English language from the Polish name of Prusy. It became spruce because in Polish, z Prus, sounded like "spruce" in English and was a generic term for commodities brought to England by Hanseatic merchants and because the tree was believed to have come from Polish Ducal Prussia. However, it can be argued that the word is actually derived from the Old French term Pruce, meaning literally Prussia.