Number of Speakers: 43 million
Key Dialects: Wielkopolska, Malopolska, Mazovia, Silesia
Geographical Center: Poland
Polish is spoken by about 43 million people of whom some 36.5 million speakers live in Poland, where it is the official language. Another 2.5 million live in the USA, 1 million in Ukraine, and 100,000 or so in each of the former Czechoslovakia, Germany, Israel, and Canada; lesser numbers are in Australia and Romania.
Polish is a Slavic language and belongs to the West Slavic subgroup, which also includes Czech, Slovak, Cassubian (spoken in the Baltic coast region in northern Poland), Sorbian (Saxony and Brandenburg, Germany), and Polabian, now extinct.
Slavic languages–together with the Baltic languages, Latvian and Lithuanian–form a branch of the Indo-European family. Other Slavic subgroups are South Slavic (Old Church Slavonic, Slovene, Serbian, Croatian, Bulgarian) and East Slavic (Russian, Ukrainian, Belarusian).
Dialect variation corresponds to historical-geographical regions in Poland. The main dialects include: Wielkopolska (Great Poland) in western Poland including the cities of Poznan and Bydgoszcz; Malopolska (Little Poland) in southeastern Poland including the cities of Lódź, Lublin, Krakow and Rzeszow; Mazovia in northeastern Poland including Warszawa; and Silesia in south central Poland. The regions in the western and northern parts of Poland which were settled since 1945 are areas of “mixed dialects.” Cassubian is sometimes treated as a distinct language, but within Poland it is felt to be a dialect of Polish.
Polish uses a Latin-based alphabet, introduced in the tenth century with Christianity. It contains numerous diagraphs, and uses diacritics on certain consonants and vowels. Some variation exists in the spelling of some sounds.
Polish is a richly inflected language like other Slavic languages. Nouns which are feminine, masculine, and neuter are declined in four declensions, and adjectives agree in number, gender, and case. Number (singular and plural) is distinguished as is gender by inflectional endings on stems. The seven inflectional cases are nominative, accusative, genitive, dative, instrumental, locative, and vocative. Polish also marks an animate/inanimate distinction where nominals referring to humans and animals are distinguished inflectionally within the case system from nouns and adjectives that are not. Another distinction in the case system is between masculine personal and non-masculine personal nouns and adjectives.
Verbs have four conjugations distinguishing first, second, and third persons, singular and plural; thus independent personal pronouns are used only for emphasis. There are, however, honorific second person pronouns which are used with third person forms of the verb.
In syntax, main verbs agree in person and number with their subjects. Adjectives agree in person, gender, and case with the noun they modify. One of the prominent features of the system of agreement is a high degree of redundancy: the same gender and number information may be repeated several times in the sentence.
Word order is grammatically free with no particular fixed order for constituents marking subject, object, possessor, etc. However, the neutral order is Subject-Verb-Object. The inflectional system takes care of keeping clear grammatical relations and roles. Pragmatic information and considerations of topic (what the sentence is about, or old information) and focus (new information conveyed by the sentence) as in other Slavic languages, is important in determining word order. Topics precede constituents that are in focus.
Modern Polish has seven vowel phonemes, two of which are nasalized, and a rich consonantal system of thirty-five phonemes. Characteristic is the three sets of affricates and double consonants. Voiced consonants at the end of words are devoiced. Stress is on the penultimate syllable in most Polish words; exceptions are usually loans from Latin and Greek.
Polish has borrowed extensively from German and Yiddish, and there is some borrowing from East Slavic languages. Other languages contributing lexis have been Latin, Czech, Lithuanian, French, and Italian.
ROLE IN SOCIETY
After the end of WWII with readjustment of borders, Poland became more linguistically and ethnically homogeneous; over 98% of the population speaks Polish. Of groups speaking minority languages, those with viable linguistic communities are the Germans in Silesia, Ukrainians throughout Poland and Belarusians in northeastern Poland. These groups in some cases have their own schools, cultural associations, and publications. The smaller communities of Lithuanians, Slovaks, Macedonians, Tartars, Gypsies, and Jews for the most part have preserved their minority languages with some knowledge of Polish.
Standard Polish, or variants which closely approximate the standard, is the variant spoken by most urban dwellers. It is the official language of government, media, administration, and education. In rural areas away from large urban areas local dialects are the norm in casual social interaction; in more formal situations code-switching between rural modes and the standard forms of speech is common. Nevertheless, nonstandard features have low prestige, but in a few areas ( Silesia and Cassubia) localisms are often cultivated by higher status speakers.
In schools, English and German are the more popular of the foreign languages being taught; Russian is still the more widely available choice although no longer compulsory.
The earliest evidence for Polish comes from various sorts of names for persons, places and tribes recorded in medieval Latin documents going back to the ninth century. From then until the fourteenth century other attestations can be found in other Latin texts, but these are mostly single lexical items. In the fourteenth century whole texts in Polish begin to appear, the earliest being religious in nature, for example, a collection of sermons and a translation of the Psalms. Medieval Polish is well attested through court depositions where reported speech is recorded in Polish. Portions of the Bible were translated by the middle of the fifteenth century. Some of these early texts exhibit a rudimentary standardization process. Printing arrived in 1513 and with it greater standardization of spelling. The sixteenth century–the Golden Age of Polish literature–saw the first printing of dictionaries, grammars, and spelling guides. Poland was first partitioned in 1772 and with it the language entered a crisis period with different occupying powers, Germany and Russia primarily, attempting to replace Polish with their own languages. Austria was more benign and permitted some role for Polish in its territories. In the other polities, survival depended on clandestine language instruction; bilingualism in Russian or German was common. Also during this period regional dialectal differences were accentuated After the WWI the Polish state and language was restored.
Campbell, G. L. 1991. Compendium of the World’s Languages, Vol. 1 -2. London and New York: Routledge.
Comrie, B. 1987. “Slavonic Languages.” In B. Comrie, ed. The World’s Major Languages, pp. 322-328. New York: Oxford University Press.
_____. 1992. “Slavic Languages. In W. Bright, ed. International Encyclopedia of Linguistics, Vol. 3:452-455. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Grimes, B. F., ed. 1992. Ethnologue, Languages of the World. Dallas, TX: Summer Institute of Linguistics.
Guild, D. G. 1994. “Polish.” In R. E. Asher, ed. The Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics, Vol. 5:3205-3206. Oxford: Pergamon Press.
Linguistic Society of America. 1992. Directory of Programs in Linguistics in the United States and Canada. Washington, D.C.: Linguistic Society of America.
Mazur, B. W. 1994. ” Poland: Language Situation.” In R. E. Asher, ed. The Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics, Vol. 5:3200. Oxford: Pergamon Press.
Rothstein, R. A. 1993. “Polish.” In Comrie, B. and G. G. Corbett, eds. The Slavonic Languages, pp. 686-757. London and New York: Routledge.
Ruhlen, M. 1987. A Guide to the World’s Languages, Vol. 1: Classification. London: Edward Arnold.
Stone, Gerald. 1987. “Polish.” In B. Comrie, ed. The World’s Major Languages, pp. 348-366. New York: Oxford University Press.