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Polish language

Polish (j zyk polski, polszczyzna) is a language of the Lechitic subgroup of West Slavic languages,[1] used throughout Poland (being that country's official language) and by Polish minorities in other countries. Its written standard is the Polish alphabet, which has several additions to the letters of the basic Latin script.

Despite the pressure of non-Polish administrations in Poland, who have often attempted to suppress the Polish language, a rich literature has developed over the centuries, and the language is currently the largest, in terms of speakers, of the West Slavic group. It is also the second most widely spoken Slavic language, after Russian and ahead of Ukrainian.[2][3]


Geographic distribution

Poland is one of the most linguistically homogeneous European countries; nearly 97% of Poland's citizens declare Polish as their mother tongue. Elsewhere, ethnic Poles constitute large minorities in Lithuania, Belarus, and Ukraine: Polish is the most widely used minority language in Lithuania's Vilnius County (26% of the population, according to the 2001 census results); in Ukraine it is most common in the Lviv and Lutsk regions, while in Western Belarus it is used by the significant Polish minority especially in the Brest and Grodno regions.

There are also significant numbers of Polish speakers among Polish emigrants and their descendants in many other countries, including Argentina, Andorra, Australia, Austria, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, the Faroe Islands, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Israel, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Kazakhstan, Latvia, LebanonLuxembourg, Mexico, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, Sweden, Peru, Romania, Russia, Serbia, Slovakia, Spain, Turkey, Ukraine, the UAE, the UK, Uruguay and the United States.

In the United States, Polish Americans number more than 11 million (see: Polish language in the United States) but most of them cannot speak Polish fluently. According to the United States 2000 Census, 667,414 Americans of age 5 years and over reported Polish as the 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. The largest concentrations of Polish speakers reported in the census (over 50%) were found in three states: Illinois (185,749), New York (111,740) and New Jersey (74,663).[4]

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 (91,810 speakers).[5]

The geographical distribution of the Polish language was greatly affected by the border changes and population transfers that followed World War II. 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 which 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. Meanwhile the flight and expulsion of Germans, as well as the expulsion of Ukrainians and resettlement of Ukrainians within Poland, contributed to the country's linguistic homogeneity.


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 Soviet annexation of the Kresy in 1939, and the acquisition of former German territory after World War II. This tendency toward a homogeneity also stems from the vertically integrated nature of the authoritarian People's Republic of Poland.

The inhabitants of different regions of Poland speak "standard" Polish somewhat differently, although the differences between these broad "dialects" appear slight. First-language speakers of Polish never experience any difficulty in mutual understanding; however, non-native speakers have difficulty distinguishing regional variations. The differences are slight compared to the variety of dialects in English.

The regional differences correspond to old tribal divisions from around a thousand years ago; the most significant of these in terms of numbers of speakers relate to:

Some more characteristic but less widespread regional dialects include:

  1. The distinctive Podhale dialect (G ralski) occurs in the mountainous area bordering the Czech and Slovak Republics. The Gorals (highlanders) take great pride in their culture and the dialect. It exhibits 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 people, the Lemkos, which demonstrates significant lexical and grammatical commonality with the G ralski dialect and Ukrainian, bears no significant Vlach or other Romanian influences. Most urban Poles find it difficult to understand this very distinct dialect.[6]
  2. The Kashubian language, spoken in the Pomorze region west of Gda sk on the Baltic Sea, a language closely related to Polish, has seemed like a dialect to some observers. However, it exhibits sufficient significant differences 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.
  3. The Silesian language, or dialect, is spoken in the Silesia region west of Katowice. There are about 60,000 speakers according to the 2002 census.
  4. The Poznanski dialect, spoken in Pozna and to some extent in the whole region of the former Prussian annexation (excluding upper Silesia), with characteristic high tone melody and notable influence of the German language.
  5. In the northern and western (formerly German) 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 Eastern Borderlands which resembles Ukrainian or Rusyn especially in the "longer" pronunciation of vowels.
  6. Poles living in Lithuania (particularly in the Vilnius region), in Belarus (particularly the northwest), and in the northeast of Poland continue to speak the Eastern Borderlands dialect which sounds "slushed" (in Polish described as zaci ganie z ruska, 'speaking with a Russian drawl'), and is easily distinguishable.
  7. 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. (Praga remained the only part of Warsaw where the population survived World War II relatively intact.) However, these city dialects are mostly extinct due to assimilation with standard Polish.
  8. Many Poles living in emigrant communities (for example in the USA), 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, however, to contemporary visitors from Poland.


Polish has six oral vowels (all monophthongs) and two nasal vowels. The oral vowels are (spelt i), (spelt y), (spelt e), (spelt a), (spelt o) and (spelt u or ). The nasal vowels are (spelt ) and (spelt ).

The Polish consonant system shows more complexity: its characteristic features include the series of affricates 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 (although other phonological analyses exist):

  • plosives (p), (b), (t), (d), (k), (g), and the palatized forms (ki) and (gi)
  • fricatives (f), (w), (s), (z), (sz), ( , rz), the alveolo-palatals ( , si) and ( , zi), and (ch, h) and (chi, hi)
  • affricates (c), (dz), (cz), (d ), ( , ci), (d , dzi) (these are written here without ties, for browser display compatibility, although Polish does distinguish between affricates as in czy, and stop+fricative clusters as in trzy)
  • nasals (m), (n), ( , ni)
  • approximants (l), (j), ( )
  • trill (r)

Neutralization occurs between voiced voiceless consonant pairs in certain environments: at the end of words (where devoicing occurs), and in certain consonant clusters (where assimilation occurs). For details, see Voicing and devoicing in the article on Polish phonology.

The stress falls generally on the penultimate (second-to-last) syllable of a polysyllabic word, although there are exceptions.


The Polish alphabet derives from the Latin script, but includes certain additional letters formed using diacritics. The Polish alphabet was one of two major forms of Latin-based orthography developed for Slavic languages, the other being Czech orthography. Slovak uses the Czech-based system, as do Slovene and Croatian; Kashubian uses a Polish-based system, while Sorbian blends the two.

The diacritics used in the Polish alphabet are the kreska (graphically similar to the acute accent) in the letters , , , , and through the letter in ; the kropka (superior dot) in the letter , and the ogonek ("little tail") in the letters , . The letters q, v, x are often not considered part of the Polish alphabet; they are used only in foreign words and names.

Polish orthography is largely phonemic there is a consistent correspondence between letters (or digraphs and trigraphs) and phonemes (for exceptions see below). The letters of the alphabet and their normal phonemic values are listed in the following table.

A a M m
, , N n
B b ()
C c O o
D d () P p
E e R r
, , , S s
F f
G g () T t
H h U u
I i , W w ()
J j Y y
K k Z z ()
L l ()

The following digraphs and trigraphs are used:

Digraph Phonemic value(s) Digraph/trigraph
(before a vowel)
Phonemic value(s)
ch ci
cz dzi
dz () gi
d () (c)hi
d () ki
rz () ni
sz si

Voiced consonant letters frequently come to represent voiceless sounds (as shown in the tables); 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 , , , d , are used. For example, the s in siwy (pronounced / iwy/ - "grey-haired"), the si in siarka (pronounced / arka/ - "sulphur") and the in wi ty (pronounced / wi ty/ - "holy") all represent the sound . Similar principles apply to , and , except that these can only occur before vowels, so the spellings are k, g, (c)h before i, and ki, gi, (c)hi otherwise.

Except in the cases mentioned in the previous paragraph, the letter i if followed by another vowel in the same word usually represents .

The letters and , when followed by plosives and affricates, represent an oral vowel followed by a nasal consonant, rather than a nasal vowel. For example, in d b ("oak") is pronounced , and in t cza ("rainbow") is pronounced (the nasal assimilates with the following consonant). When followed by l or (for example przyj li, przyj y), is pronounced as just e. When 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 or rz, and can be spelt u or . In several cases it determines the meaning, for example: mo e ("maybe") and morze ("sea").

In occasional words, letters that normally form a digraph are pronounced separately. For example, rz represents , not , in words like zamarza ("freeze") and in the name Tarzan.

Notice that doubled letters represent separate occurrences of the sound in question; for example Anna is pronounced in Polish (the double n is often pronounced as a lengthened single n).

There are certain clusters where a written consonant would not be pronounced. For example, the in the words m g ("could") and jab ko ("apple") might be omitted in ordinary speech, leading to the pronunciations muk and japko or jabko.


Polish is not taught in many Western universities. However, Polish grammar is similar in most respects to that of Russian, and those who have studied Russian will find its grammar much easier to grasp. Polish is a highly inflected language, with relatively free word order, although the dominant arrangement is subject verb object (SVO). There are no articles, and subject pronouns are often dropped.

Nouns may belong to 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-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 (like j zyk polski, "Polish (language)"), the noun may come first. Most short adjectives and their derived adverbs form comparatives and superlatives by inflection (the superlative is formed by prefixing naj- to the comparative).

Verbs are of imperfective or perfective aspect, often occurring in pairs. Imperfective verbs have a present tense, past tense, compound future tense (except for by "to be", which has a simple future b d etc., this in turn being used to form the compound future of other verbs), subjunctive/conditional (formed with the detachable particle by), imperatives, an infinitive, present participle, present gerund and past participle. Perfective verbs have a simple future tense (formed like the present tense of imperfective verbs), past tense, subjunctive/conditional, imperatives, infinitive, past gerund and past participle. Conjugated verb forms agree with their subject in terms of person, number, and (in the case of past tense and subjunctive/conditional forms) gender.

Passive-type constructions can be made using the auxiliary by or zosta ("become") with the past participle. There is also an impersonal construction where the active verb is used (in third person singular) with no subject, but with the reflexive pronoun si present to indicate a general, unspecified subject (as in pije si w dk "vodka is drunk" note that w dka appears in the accusative). A similar sentence type in the past tense uses the past participle with the ending -o, as in widziano ludzi ("people were seen"). As in other Slavic languages, there are also subjectless sentences formed using such words as mo na ("it is possible") together with an infinitive.

Yes-no questions (both direct and indirect) 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 ("never") or nic ("nothing").

Cardinal numbers have a complex system of inflection and agreement. Numbers higher than five (except for those ending with the digit 2, 3 or 4) govern the genitive case rather than the nominative or accusative. Special forms of numbers (collective numerals) are used with certain classes of noun, which include dziecko ("child") and exclusively plural nouns such as drzwi ("door").

Borrowed words

Polish has, over the centuries, borrowed a number of words from other languages. Usually, borrowed words have been adapted rapidly in the following ways:

  1. Spelling was altered to approximate the pronunciation, but written according to Polish phonetics.
  2. 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, diminutives, augmentatives, etc.

Depending on the historical period, borrowing has proceeded from various languages. Recent borrowing is primarily of "international" words from the English language, mainly those that have Latin or Greek roots, for example komputer (computer), korupcja (corruption) etc. Slang sometimes borrows and alters common English words, e.g. lukn (to look). Concatenation of parts of words (e.g. auto-moto), which is not native to Polish but common in English, for example, is also sometimes used. When borrowing international 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 (inauguration), dewastacja (devastation), konurbacja (conurbation) and konotacje (connotations). Also, the digraph qu becomes kw (kwadrant = quadrant; kworum = quorum).

Other notable influences in the past have been Latin (9th-18th century), Czech (10th and 14th-15th century), Italian (15th-16th century), French (18th-19th century), German (13-15th and 18th-20th century), Hungarian (14th-16th century) and Turkish (17th century).

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 (rzeczpospolita from res publica, zdanie for both "opinion" and "sentence", from sententia) were direct calques from Latin.

Many words have been borrowed from the German language, as a result of being neighbours for a millennium, and also as the result of a 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 (trade) and dach (roof); others are pronounced the same, but differ in writing schnur - sznur (cord). The Polish language has many German expressions which have become literally translated.

The regional dialects of Upper Silesia and Masuria (Modern Polish East Prussia) have noticeably more German loanwords than other dialects. Latin was known to a larger or smaller degree by most of the numerous szlachta in the 16th to 18th centuries (and it continued to be extensively taught at secondary schools until World War II). Apart from dozens of loanwords, its influence can also be seen in somewhat greater number of verbatim Latin phrases in Polish literature (especially from the 19th century and earlier), than, say, in English.

In the 18th century, with the rising prominence of France in Europe, French supplanted Latin in this respect. Some French borrowings also date from the Napoleonic era, when the Poles were enthusiastic supporters of Napoleon. Examples include ekran (from French cran, screen), aba ur (abat-jour, lamp shade), rekin (requin, shark), meble (meuble, furniture), baga (bagage, luggage), walizka (valise, suitcase), fotel (fauteuil, armchair), pla a (plage, beach) and koszmar (cauchemar, nightmare). Some place names have also been adapted from French, such as the Warsaw borough of oliborz (joli bord=beautiful riverside), as well as the town of yrard w (from the name Girard, with the Polish suffix - w attached to refer to the owner/founder of a town).

Other words are borrowed from other Slavic languages, for example, sejm, ha ba and brama from Czech.

Some words like bachor (an unruly boy or child), bajzel (slang for mess), belfer (slang for teacher), ciuchy (slang for clothing), cymes (slang for very tasty food), geszeft (slang for business), kitel (slang for apron), machlojka (slang for scam), mamona (money), menele (slang for oddments and also for homeless people), myszygine (slang for lunatic), pinda (slang for girl, pejorativelly), plajta (slang for bankruptcy), rejwach (noise), szmal (slang for money), and trefny (dodgy) were borrowed from Yiddish, spoken by the large Polish Jewish population, before the Jewish population in Poland disappeared, most of the Jews having been murdered during the Holocaust.

Typical loanwords from Italian include pomidor from pomodoro (tomato), kalafior from cavolfiore (cauliflower), pomara cza from pomo (pome) and arancio (orange), etc. Those were introduced in the times of Queen Bona Sforza (the wife of Polish King Sigismund the Old), who was famous for introducing Italian cuisine to Poland, especially vegetables. Another interesting word of Italian origin is autostrada (from Italian "autostrada", highway).

The contacts with Ottoman Turkey in the 17th century brought many new words, some of them still in use, such as: jar (deep valley), szasz yk (shish kebab), fili anka (cup), arbuz (watermelon), dywan (carpet), kie basa (sausage),[7] etc.

The mountain dialects of the G rale in southern Poland, have quite a number of words borrowed from Hungarian (e.g. baca, gazda, juhas, hejna ) 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 kima (to sleep) or majcher (knife) of Greek origin, considered then unknown to the outside world.

Direct borrowings from Russian are extremely rare, in spite of long periods of dependence on Tsarist Russia and the Soviet Union, and are limited to a few internationalisms, such as sputnik and pierestrojka . Russian personal names are transcribed into Polish likewise; thus Tchaikovsky's name is spelled Piotr Iljicz Czajkowski.

There are also a few words borrowed from the Mongolian language, e.g. dzida (spear) or szereg (a line or row). Those words were brought to the Polish language during wars with the armies of Genghis Khan and his descendants.

Loanwords from Polish

The 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 (border), Dutch and Afrikaans Grens from Polish granica; German Peitzker from Polish piskorz (weatherfish); German Zobel, French Zibeline, Swedish Sobel, and English Sable from Polish sob l; and ogonek ("little tail") the word describing a diacritic hook-sign added below some letters in various alphabets. Also "spruce" ("z Prus" = "from Prussia") in English. "Szmata," a Polish word for "mop" or "rag" became part of Yiddish.

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 twar g (a kind of cheese; see: quark (cheese)) and German Gurke, English gherkin from og rek (cucumber). The word pierogi (Polish dumplings) has spread internationally, as well as p czki (Polish donuts).

See also


Further reading

External links

af:Pools als:Polnische Sprache ang:Polisc spr c ar: an:Idioma polaco arc: frp:Polon s ast:Polacu az:Polyak dili bn: ba: be: be-x-old: bg: bo: bs:Poljski jezik br:Poloneg ca:Polon s cv: cs:Pol tina co:Lingua pulacca cy:Pwyleg da:Polsk (sprog) de:Polnische Sprache dv: dsb:P l ina et:Poola keel el: eml:Pul c es:Idioma polaco eo:Pola lingvo eu:Poloniera ee:P lisigbe fa: hif:Polish bhasa fr:Polonais fy:Poalsk ga:An Pholainnis gv:Polynnish gd:P lais gl:Lingua polaca hak:P -l n-ng ko: hy: hi: hsb:P l ina hr:Poljski jezik io:Poloniana linguo id:Bahasa Polski ia:Lingua polonese os: zu:IsiPholisi is:P lska it:Lingua polacca he: jv:Basa Polski kl:Polenimiutut krc: ka: csb:P lsczi j z k kk: kw:Polonek sw:Kipoland kv: ku:Ziman polon la:Lingua Polonica lv:Po u valoda lb:Polnesch lt:Lenk kalba lij:Lengua polacca li:Pools lmo:Lengua polacca hu:Lengyel nyelv mk: mg:Fiteny poloney ml: mt:Lingwa Pollakka mi:Reo P rana mr: arz: ms:Bahasa Poland mdf: mn: nah:Poloniatlaht lli na:Dorerin Poran nl:Pools nds-nl:Pools new: ja: nap:Lengua pulacca ce:Pol khoyn mott pih:Poelish no:Polsk nn:Polsk oc:Polon s mhr: pa: pnb: pap:Polaco km: pcd:Polon pms:Lenga polon isa tpi:Tok Polan nds:Poolsch pl:J zyk polski pt:L ngua polaca crh:Leh tili ro:Limba polonez qu:Pulaku simi rue: ru: se:Polskkagiella sco:Pols stq:Poolsk sq:Gjuha polake scn:Lingua pulacca simple:Polish language sk:Po tina sl:Polj ina cu: szl:Polsko godka ckb: sr: sh:Poljski jezik fi:Puolan kieli sv:Polska tl:Wikang Polako ta: tt: tet:Lia-polaku th: tg: tr:Leh e udm: uk: ug: vec: ngua po aca vep:Pol' an kel' vi:Ti ng Ba Lan vo:Pol nap k vls:Pools war:Pinolako yi: yo: d P l nd zea:Po ls bat-smg:L nku kalba zh:

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