Polish Language History

The Polish language is the official language in Poland, where most of the Polish-speaking population resides. In fact, Poland is one of the most linguistically homogeneous countries globally. Around 97% of the population speak Polish as their first language, and most of the remaining Poles learn Polish as a second language and can understand Polish words and phrases.

The Polish diaspora also uses the Polish language. After World War II, millions of Polish people immigrated to countries such as the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, Australia and South America. This takes the global Polish-speaking population to around 50 million. Moreover, it is the sixth most-spoken language in the European Union (EU), meaning that learning Polish benefits anyone wanting to work or study in Europe.

Historically, the Polish language was just as important as it is today. It served as a lingua franca in Central and some parts of Eastern Europe, primarily in political and academic settings. It rose to prominence in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, one of the largest countries in 17th century Europe. During this time, it was popular among royalty, so more and more people started speaking and learning Polish.

Here, we look at the history of Polish in more detail. We travel back to the origins of the first Polish words and discover when the Polish language broke off into a distinct vernacular. You will also learn when Polish became the official language in Poland, where the alphabet was derived and why there are so many people speaking Polish today.

Polish Language Origin

The Polish language has Proto-Slavic roots. This language was spoken by Slavic tribes from around 500 AD, but it had split off into three distinct branches by 1000 AD. These branches are West Slavic, South Slavic, and East Slavic. Polish is a descendant of the West Slavic branch, first emerging as a separate language in the 10th century when Poland was established as a state under the Piast dynasty.

This first version of the language in Poland was known as Old Polish. During this linguistic period, lots of Polish words were adopted from Latin. At the time, Latin was used for administrative purposes as Polish was a Christian state and heavily influenced the Polish vocabulary. Other Polish words were borrowed from Czech, another member of the West Slavic language family.

Despite the use of Latin for official purposes, people continued speaking the Polish language in Poland day-to-day. This led to Polish becoming an official language alongside Latin during the Jagiellonian era (1386 to 1569). This coincided with the time Polish writing was established. The first paper on Polish orthography was written in 1470 and published in 1513, and a flourish of Polish literature soon followed.

Modern “Polish Language”

From the 16th century, the Middle Polish era began. This period is widely regarded as the Golden Age of Polish literature. Poet Jan Kochanowski proposed a writing system for Polish words, increasing the uniformity of grammar and spelling. After this, literature took off. Polish became the lingua franca in many parts of Europe as more people were interested in reading literary works written in the Polish language.

The 16th century was also the era in which the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was established, covering the areas of modern-day Poland and Lithuania. Speaking Polish was common among royalty during this time, and the language became synonymous with nobility. As a result, more people started learning Polish and this interest in Polish continued until 1795, when Poland ceased to exist.

In 1795, the sovereignty of Poland was split between Russia, Prussia, Austria, and Germany. Polish was no longer an official language anywhere in Europe. It was not until the end of the First World War that Poland became its own state again, and somehow the Polish language survived! Modern Polish was born and made the official language in Poland once more, and people have been speaking Polish in the country ever since.

Alphabets & Writing System

Despite Polish dating back to 500 AD, it is believed that the Polish alphabet only started to be established in the 12th century. The earliest written sentence using Polish words was found in a 13th century piece titled Księga Henrykowska. The first book written entirely in Polish did not emerge until 1513. This is relatively late compared to other European languages.

The writing system used for the Polish language was based on the Latin alphabet. This makes sense considering Latin was the administrative language in Poland. However, many Polish words had sounds that did not match Latin characters. Therefore, several letters were added to the Latin alphabet to make pronunciation easier when speaking Polish and learning Polish: ą, ć, ę, ł, ń, ó, ś, ź, and ż.

Polish also excludes the letters q, v and y from its alphabet. These sounds are not found in Polish words, so they were omitted from their official writing system. Therefore, the alphabet contains 32 letters in total. However, when learning Polish, you might come across words that use these omitted letters. These are all loanwords adopted from foreign languages that have become part of the everyday language in Poland.

Polish Language Dialects

Historically, there were many regional dialects of Polish. With seven neighbouring countries, Germany, Belarus, Russia, Lithuania, Slovakia, Ukraine and Czechia, the Polish language adopted many words from other prevalent European languages. The regional dialects that emerged also had different pronunciation and grammatical rules.

However, the situation today is vastly different. Many traditional dialects were lost after WWII as the Polish borders were redrawn. The forced migration of Polish families into Poland caused regional dialects to merge. There are only four major dialects of language in Poland today:

  • Greater Polish, spoken in the west
  • Lesser Polish, spoken in the south and southeast
  • Masovian, spoken in central and some eastern parts of Poland
  • Ilesian, spoken in the southwest.

All of these vernaculars are similar to one another. You might hear a slight change in accent when speaking Polish with someone from the west compared to the east, but Polish words and grammar are fairly consistent. Therefore, despite Poland covering a relatively sizeable geographical area, it is one of the most linguistically homogeneous countries globally. This makes learning Polish much easier for beginners as Polish is almost consistent throughout.

Polish Translation Services

Polish translations are in high demand. This is due to the large Polish diaspora globally and the importance of the Polish language in the EU. Although it is an official language in Poland, it is an important language across the planet.

If you need help translating Polish, contact Renaissance Translations. Our Polish translators are native language speakers. This ensures your translations are accurate and authentic, making it easy for you to communicate with Polish-speaking people across the globe.

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