Today Polish is the official language of Poland; it is spoken by most of the 38 million inhabitants of Poland (census 2002). There are also native speakers of Polish in western Belarus and Ukraine (see: Kresy), as well as in eastern Lithuania (in the area of Vilnius), southeastern Latvia (around Daugavpils), northern Romania (see: Polish minority in Romania), and northeastern part of Czech Republic (see: Zaolzie). Because of emigration from Poland in various periods, millions of Polish-speakers may be found in countries such as Germany, France, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, Israel, Brazil, Canada, the United Kingdom, United States, etc. The estimated number of Poles who live beyond the borders of Poland is 10 million. It is not clear, however, how many of them can actually speak Polish – the estimates range from 3.5 to 10 million. This puts the number of native speakers of Polish worldwide at between 40 and 48 million. According to Ethnologue, there are about 43 million first language speakers of Polish worldwide.
Polish has the second largest number of speakers among Slavic languages after Russian. It is the main representative of the Lechitic branch of the West Slavic languages. The Polish language originated in the areas of present-day Poland from several local Western Slavic dialects, most notably those spoken in Greater Poland and Lesser Poland. It shares some vocabulary with the languages of the neighboring Slavic nations, most notably with Slovak, Czech, Ukrainian, and Belarusian.
The precursor to the Polish language is the Old Polish language.
Polish was a lingua franca from 1500-1700 in small parts of Central and large portions of Eastern Europe, because of the political, cultural, scientific and military influence of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The West Slavs suffered different fates; the Lusatians and Veleti were absorbed by German expansion, the Czechs and Moravians merged to form the nucleus of the Czech Kingdom.
Polish is mainly spoken in Poland. Poland is one of the most homogeneous European countries with regard to its mother tongue; nearly 97% of Poland’s citizens declare Polish as their mother tongue, due to the WWII German expulsions. After the Second World War the previously Polish territories annexed by the USSR retained a large amount of the Polish population that was unwilling or unable to migrate toward the post-1945 Poland and even today ethnic Poles in Lithuania, Belarus, and Ukraine constitute large minorities. It is by far the most widely used minority language in Vilnius County (26% of the population, according to the 2001 census results), but it is also present in other counties. In Ukraine, Polish is most often used in the Lviv and Lutsk regions. Western Belarus has an important Polish minority, especially in the Brest and Grodno regions.
There are also significant numbers of Polish speakers in Argentina, Andorra, Australia, Austria, Azerbaijan, Brazil, Belgium, Bulgaria, Canada, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Faroe Islands, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Israel, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Luxembourg, Mexico, The Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, Sweden, Peru, Romania, Russia, Serbia, Slovakia, Spain, UAE, the UK, Uruguay and the United States. Polish language.
In the U.S. the number of people of Polish descent is over 11 million, see: Polish language in the United States, but most of them cannot speak Polish. According to the United States 2000 Census, 667,414 Americans of age 5 years and over reported Polish as language spoken at home, which is about 1.4% of people who speak languages other than English or 0.25% of the U.S. population.
Main article: Dialects of the Polish language
The 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 east was annexed by the Soviet Union in 1939, during World War II.
“Standard” Polish is still spoken somewhat differently in different regions of the country, although the differences between these broad “dialects” are slight. There is never any difficulty in mutual understanding, and non-native speakers are generally unable to distinguish among them easily. The differences are slight compared to different dialects of English, for example. The regional differences correspond mainly to old tribal divisions from around a thousand years ago; the most significant of these in terms of numbers of speakers are Great Polish (spoken in the west), Lesser Polish (spoken in the south and southeast), Mazovian (Mazur) spoken throughout the central and eastern parts of the country, and Silesian spoken in the southwest. Mazovian shares some features with the Kashubian language (see below).
Some more characteristic but less widespread regional dialects include:
1. The distinctive Góralski (highlander) dialect is spoken in the mountainous areas bordering the Czech and Slovak Republics. The Górale (highlanders) take great pride in their culture and the dialect. It has some cultural influences from the Vlach shepherds who migrated from Wallachia (southern Romania) in the 14th-17th centuries. The language of the coextensive East Slavic ethnic group, the Lemkos, which demonstrates significant lexical and grammatical commonality with the Góralski dialect, bears no significant Vlach or other Romanian influences.
2. In the western and northern regions that were largely resettled by Poles from the territories annexed by the Soviet Union, the older generation speaks a dialect of Polish characteristic of the Eastern Borderlands.
3. The Kashubian language, spoken in the Pomorze region west of Gdańsk on the Baltic sea is closely related to Polish, and was once considered a dialect by some. However, the differences are large enough to merit its classification as a separate language — for instance, it is not readily understandable to Polish speakers unless written. There are about 53,000 speakers according to the 2002 census.
4. Poles living in Lithuania (particularly in the Vilnius region), Belarus (particularly the northwest), and in the northeast of Poland continue to speak the Eastern Borderlands dialect which is more “musical” than standard Polish, hence easy to distinguish.
5. Some city dwellers, especially the less affluent population, had their own distinctive dialects. An example of this is the Warsaw dialect, still spoken by some of the population of Praga, on the eastern bank of the Vistula. (Praga was the only part of the city whose population survived World War II somewhat intact.) However, these city dialects are now mostly extinct due to assimilation with standard Polish.
6. Many Poles living in emigrant communities, e.g. in the USA, whose families left Poland just after World War II, retain a number of minor features of Polish vocabulary as it was spoken in the first half of the 20th century, but which sound archaic to contemporary visitors from Poland.