Guest Author - Barbara Swiech
An official language of Poland is used by about 40 million of people around the world. It belongs to the family of Indo-European languages but it shares the most similarities with the whole Western Slavonic group – that is with Slovak, Czech, Sorbian and Kashubian. Polish (which is placed in Lechitic branch of Western Slavonic languages) is also second most widely spoken Slavic language (after Russian that belongs to Eastern Slavonic group). Polish has quite complicated grammar rules but it is easier to pick up the language for those who already speak one of the Slavic languages.
As Poland is one of the most homogeneous European countries, most of the Polish speakers live in the country (about 95% of citizens declare that this is their mother tongue). There are, however, Polish minorities in other parts of the world, that still use the language at home. Some of the groups are result of change of the post-war borders (like the minority in Lithuania), while others were rather formed due to economic immigration. The biggest group of immigrants of Polish descent live in the United States of America – but most of them cannot speak the language of their ancestors.
Polish language emerged from Proto-Slavic that was used by the Slavic tribes in the past. After Poland was formed, the language of its citizens melted all the dialects used by the inhabitants of the lands – most notably those spoken in Greater and Lesser Poland. Although the grammar and vocabulary started to develop right after the Baptism of the country (that is in 10th century) the period between 9th and 16th century is the time of Old Polish language, before all the rules, grammar and even letters were standardized. Nowadays there are only few dialects that differ from the rest of the language. Among them the most characteristic is the dialect of Silesia and Podhale (called also highlander’s dialect).
The Poles adopted the Latin alphabet in 12th century. The letters could not depict the full phonology – therefore it happened that one letter would describe a few sounds (what was confusing). Numerous writers would come up with different systems before the obligatory and commonly used orthography was established. New letters, characteristic only for Polish language, were added to Latin alphabet. The letters that were excluded are: ‘q’, ‘v’ and ‘x’ – as one will find them only in foreign words.
The earliest examples of Polish language come from 9th and 10th century Latin documents – and these are names of places. The change, throughout the years, is so big that contemporary Polish-speakers find it hard to understand the texts from Middle Ages.
The nouns in Polish language are not proceeded with articles and there are three types of grammatical gender that apply to each noun (and in some cases determine the form of the verb). Plurals characterise with many exceptions therefore some of the cases are difficult even for those for whom Polish is a mother tongue. The most difficult thing to learn for foreigners is, however, declination. There are 7 cases and each of them determines a given ending (separately for singular and plural). Some endings are the same – what makes it easier to remember all of them. There are only three tenses in Polish language – past, present and future – but forms of verbs are dependant on gender, number and person. Prefix and suffix connected with the verb can change its meaning or inform whether the action (or state) was finished or unfinished.
Although it is extremely hard for the foreigners to learn to speak the language fluently and grammatically – the Poles appreciate when one makes an effort to speak it at all. Usually the knowledge of some words can make it easier to communicate when visiting Poland – especially with older people who apart from Polish might speak Russian or no other language at all.