Regarded as rather hard for foreigners to master, Polish is an Indo-European language belonging to the West Slavonic group. When the proto Slavonic tribes left their lands between the Odra and Dnieper rivers in the early Middle Ages, they settled almost the entire central, east and south Europe, reaching the Elba in the west, the Volga and Dvina in the east and the Balkan Peninsula in the south. One of the effects of this expansion was the emergence of three groups of Slavonic languages: west, south and east. The West Slavonic group also comprises Czech and Slovak and despite a variety of differences between these languages, Poles, Czechs and Slovaks can easily understand one another without an interpreter.
Polish began to emerge around the 10th century, the process largely triggered by the establishment and development of the Polish state. Mieszko I, ruler of the Polanie from Wielkopolska, united a few culturally and linguistically related tribes from the basins of the Vistula and Odra before eventually accepting baptism in 966. With Christianity, Poland also adopted the Latin alphabet, which made it possible to write down Polish, until then existing only as a spoken language. The first manuscripts, produced by the clergy, were only in Latin, but occasionally they had to contain ethnically Slavonic names. Three documents with such insertions have survived from that period. The oldest of them is the Dagome iudex, in which Mieszko I subordinated his state to pope. It was written c. 990-992 and included a description of the duke’s lands with information on his two major cities, Gniezno and Cracow. Pope Innocent IV’s bull of 1136 contained 410 Polish-sounding placenames and people’s names, while Hadrian IV’s bull of 1155 mentioned 50 such names. This intermingling of Polish and Latin led in the 13th century to the formulation of the first rules of Polish spelling, which was done by Latin-educated Polish clergymen.
The first written texts in Polish were translations of Latin prayers and sermons rendered in the vernacular so that the faithful would understand what they prayed for and to whom. A good indication of the struggles with Polish and of people’s shallow faith at that time is the Kazania ?więtokrzyskie (Sermons of the Holy Cross Monastery) from the second half of the 13th century. Another literary treasure of the Polish language dating from the same time is the Psałterz Dawida (David’s Psalter), a translation of a Bible book made to the request of Princess Kinga. Perhaps the most famous text in medieval Polish is the hymn of the Bogurodzica (God’s Mother) whose origins are shrouded in mystery. It was written down in the 15th century, but its archaic vocabulary and the fact that it had been known “from times immemorial” seem to prove that it must have been composed centuries earlier, possibly a few decades after Mieszko I’s baptism.
In the 13th century the first secular texts began to appear slowly. The earliest writings were just two sentences: one said by a peasant and the other by a ruler. Around 1200 Abbot Peter, the author of the Księga Henrykowska (Book of Henrykow), decided to quote some Boguchwal, who, on seeing his wife tired of querning for a long time, made her a generous offer, “Day ut ia pobrusa, a ti pocziwai”, which may be translated as: “Let me work now and you have some rest”. Whether the spouse’s reply was “Thank you my thoughtful husband” or “At last you’ve come to help me, you lazy wretch”, Abbot Peter did not tell us. The other historical sentence was uttered by Prince Henry the Pious on 9 April 1241, soon before his death at the Battle of Legnica, which he lost to the Mongols: Gorze się nam stało! (Misfortune befell us).
The first attempt to codify the rules of the Polish language was made around 1440 by Jakub Parkoszowic of Zurawica who wrote a Latin treatise on Polish spelling. At the same time Polish started to be used in legal documents and court books. A bit earlier, about 1400, the first secular poem in Polish, devoted to the pleasures of feasting, was written. The first Polish dictionary was compiled only four centuries later. The six-volume work by Samuel Bogumil Linde, printed in 1200 copies, was published in Warsaw between 1807 and 1814. The six hundred pages of 23 x 30cm size contained the definitions of 60,000 Polish words.
Polish is an inflected language with seven cases, two numbers, three genders in singular and two in plural. Verbs are conjugated by person, tense, mood, voice and aspect. There are nasal vowels, which is unique among Slavonic languages. Another singularity is the regular stress on the penultimate syllable – in other Slavonic languages it is shifting (Russian) or falls on the first syllable (Czech, Slovak). The so-called Polish vowel mutation is the change of e into o or a before hard front consonants. Characteristic of Polish are also word stems with several variants.
In spelling, one major difficulty for both foreigners and natives alike is the words with ż vs. rz, u vs. ó, and h vs. ch, since the pairs of sounds these letters or combinations of letters represent have identical or almost identical pronunciation. Polish grammar and punctuation abound in rules and twice as many exceptions to them. Predictably, Polish is said to be a rather difficult language to learn.
Polish has five major dialects, spoken in Silesia, Malopolska, Mazovia, Wielkopolska and Kashubia. This is a hangover from the times when every Slavonic tribe used its own language which slowly developed and changed over centuries. This process took place largely outside big urban centres, among small-town gentry and peasants. Each dialect has several varieties with characteristic and consistent linguistic phenomena. These varieties differ from standard Polish in vocabulary, syntax, pronunciation and morphology. For example, Poles from Mazovia and Malopolska tend to substitute dental stops and affricates with alveolar stops and affricates, so they pronounce syja instead of szyja (neck) and cysty instead of czysty (clean). In some areas nasal consonants are pronounced without nasal resonance (deby instead of dęby [oaks]), while in others the sound y may be nasalized (dymby instead of dęby). Inflection differences include using the zrobim form instead of zrobimy (we’ll do) or choćta instead of chod?my (let’s go). Inflection endings used in dialects have preserved some features of archaic Polish, like the -e ending in the genitive of some nouns (do piwnice instead of do piwnicy [to the cellar]). Another characteristic trait is inflection simplifications, that is reducing the number of endings (chałupów instead of chałup [of huts], polów instead of pól [of fields]). Other dialectal differences are local abundances of diminutive forms and words connected with farming which are no longer or have never been used in standard Polish.
Some dialects, like Kashubian, are considered to be separate languages.
An interesting phenomenon that started after 1954 is the emergence of new, mixed dialects in the north and west of the country where thousands of people moved after the war.
Polish also has many borrowings from other languages, notably from English, French, German, Latin and Russian. These influences have been caused by various factors ranging from fascination with other cultures (borrowings from French) to historical processes such as the partitions (borrowings from German and Russian) or accepting Christianity (borrowings from Latin).
Latin started to influence Polish in the Middle Ages. When Polish statehood and Christian order were established, the language incorporated religious and liturgical vocabulary, often via Czech and German (e.g. anioł [angel], msza [mass]). Today this influence is limited mainly to scientific jargon.
Words of German origin were borrowed particularly in the 19th century as a result of the policy of Germanization. It would be difficult to imagine modern Polish without such obvious lexical calques as czasopismo (magazine, after the German Zeitschrift), dworzec kolejowy (railway station, after Bahnhof) and owiatopoglšd (world view, after Weltanschauung).
At the same time and for the same reasons Polish borrowed many words from Russian. Another great wave of Russian borrowings, such as kolektyw (collective body), kołchoz (kolkhoz) and gułag (gulag), came after the Second World War when Poland became the so-called people’s democracy, vassalized by the Soviet Union.
For French, the period of the greatest impact was the 18th century when it was spoken by virtually everyone who wanted to be regarded as educated and world-travelled – at that time French was in Europe what English is today. Gallicisms can be found in all spheres of life: makijaż (make up), mansarda (mansard), koniak (cognac), apaszka (neckerchief).
The post-war decades have been dominated by English. Since the late 1960s the number of borrowings from that language has increased steadily and in 1990s Polish became virtually flooded by loanwords from English.
Poles abroad (polish languages)
Fourteen to seventeen million Poles are estimated to live abroad, mainly in the USA (6-10 million), Germany (about 1.5 million), Brasil (about 1 million), France (about 1 million), Canada (about 600,000), Belarus (400,000-1 million), Ukraine (300,000-500,000), Lithuania (250,00-300,000), the United Kingdom (about 150,000), 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).
This immense number of Polish expatriates and foreigners who declare themselves of Polish descent (17 million is equivalent to about 40 percent of Poland’s current population) is a result of complex historical processes which started in the late 18th century when Poland disappeared from Europe’s maps, partitioned by its three powerful neighbours: Russia, Austria and Prussia. Poles, who never accepted the loss of their statehood, staged numerous but unsuccessful uprisings. Those led to the first great wave of emigration, mainly for political reasons. The ex-confederates of Bar (1768-1772), followed by the participants of the successive uprisings in 1794 (Kosciuszko Uprising), 1830-1831 (November Uprising) and 1863-1864 (January Uprising), fled to France, Belgium, Britain, Germany and America to seek refuge from the regimes they fought against. In their new homelands, they often continued political activity or even joined the local freedom fighters, as did Tadeusz Kosciuszko and Kazimierz Pulaski who became heroes of the American War of Independence. Tens of thousands of other Poles were forcibly deported by Russians to Siberia.
The second great wave of emigration, started in the second half of the 19th century, was largely caused by economic backwardness and poverty. People left the partitioned country for Germany, America and Brazil to seek work and a better life. The United States alone had admitted as many as 944,000 Poles by 1910. When the second generation was born, they totalled 1.7 million. By 1914, 63,000 Poles had emigrated to Brazil, while 600,000 lived in Siberia, either deported or attracted by job opportunities in the region’s mines and factories.
The next two emigration waves were due to the First and Second World War. In 1914 some 800,000 people fled from Galicia before the advancing Russian army and another 600,000 fled from the Russian partition before the German army. Between 1939 and 1941 about two million citizens of Poland were resettled deep in the Soviet Union, while by 1944 a further 2.5 million had been deported to Germany for forced labour. Out of five million Poles who were outside the country in 1945, 4.5 million decided to return, while 500,000 chose to live as expatriates. Immediately after the lost campaign in September 1939, tens of thousands of people got through Hungary, Romania, Lithuania and Latvia to West Europe and the Middle East. Many of them were soldiers who did not want to surrender and continued their fight against the Nazis in the allied countries’ armies on all fronts of the war. Polish government in exile was constituted in France and then, after the country’s defeat, evacuated to Britain. It continued to function until 1991, never recognizing the communist governments of the Polish People’s Republic.
The last great wave of emigration hit Poland after the Second World War, when the country became ruled by Moscow-backed communists. Despite limited contacts with the free world, deliberately hindered by the authorities through such measures as restrictions in issuing passports, between 1956 and 1980 about 800,000 people left for the USA and West European countries. Some of them emigrated for political reasons, opposing the communist regime; others simply sought a better life. In the 1980s, some 270,000 Poles left the country. The first group comprised mainly Solidarity emigrants: independent trade unionists and social activists who were expelled when the martial law was imposed in 1981; the second group was those who emigrated of their own will when, following the suspension of the martial law, the country sank into deep economic crisis.
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