Have you ever wondered how many languages there are in the world? Depending on how precisely you define “language”, there are about 6 to 7 THOUSAND languages worldwide! That’s a lot, and certainly more than you could ever try to learn. But of course many people can speak more than their own mother tongue. Champion polyglots know up to 30 languages! That’s exactly what 21st February is dedicated to – language, cultural diversity, and multilingualism.
Although it was first established by UNESCO in just 1999, celebrations were already noticeable a year later. Today, in order to commemorate it in our own way, we’d like to introduce you to the vast and colorful world of Polish language. For those who know it tours to Poland may turn out to be quite exciting trip. Why? Because Polish also differs!
This language belongs to the Slavic family, and derives from the dialects spoken by the Slavic peoples who lived on the territory of today’s Poland. For a long time, neither grammar or vocabulary were fixed but with the begining of the constitutional monarchy, rules and letters were gradually standarized. The oldest written sentence in Polish dates to 1270 and was written in Wroclaw, and most of the written or printed works that came after that were Christian prayers or other religious texts. Faster development came with legal documents and diplomatical liaisons, mostly in the 16th century when Poland became the center of Eastern Europe’s politics.
Today, Polish is thought to be one of the hardest languages to learn – topped only by the Asian ones – although it is considerably easier if you already know one of the other Slavic languages. Currently there are abour 40 million people in the world whose mother language is Polish, and another 4 million who know it as a second language. Those people mostly use one of the three main dialects: Greater Polish (spoken in the west of Poland), Lesser Polish (spoken in the south and east of Poland) or the Masovian (spoken in the central and east parts of the country). There are also two minor dialects, often regarded as a separate languages only deriving from Polish: the Kashubian and Silesian languages that are spoken respectively in the Pomorze region (Baltic seaside) and Silesia (southern Poland) – and a number of smaller, local dialects characteristic to regions (like the Podhale dialect, spoken by southern highlanders, Gorals, or the Eastern Borderlands dialect. Its accent is very similar to Russian and therefore easily recognizable for other Polish speakers).
While we’re on the subject of speaking and how things sound, we’d like to tell you about the correct Polish pronounciation. It’s quite different from English, and many of the Polish sounds have no equivalent in any other language – the only letters that are pronounced as you’d expect them to be are these: b, d, f, h, k, l, m, n, p, t and z. Here’s our best attempt at giving you a rough guide to pronouncing the strangest sounds:
weird letter prononciation:
c = like “ts” in “cats”[b]
j = English “y”, like in “yes”
u = like “oo” or “ou”, as in “moose” or “soup”
y = something between short “i” and long “ea”, somewhat similar to “sit” or “myth”
ą = “on” or “om”, a kind of nasal “o”
“ć” or “ci” = Soft “tch”. Similar to but clearly softer than “cz”
ę = “en” or “em”, a kind of nasal “e”
ł = pronounced like an English “w” as in “will”
ó = Exactly the same as “u”
“ś” or “si” = Soft “sh”. Similar to but clearly softer than “sz”
ź = Soft “zh”. Similar to but clearly softer than “ż” and “rz”
ż = Hard “zh”. Sounds exactly the same as “rz”
ch = pronounced the same as in “Loch Ness”, very similar to normal “h”
cz = hard “tch”, similar to English “ch” as in “cheese”
dz = similar to “ds” in “cads”
“dź” or “dzi” = Somewhat similar to “g” in “gene”. Similar to but softer than “dż”
dż = like ‘”j” in “John”
rz = hard “zh”, exactly the same as “ż”
sz = sh
The adventure with Polish language doesn’t stop at the sounds, of course! Words change their form depending on who is speaking and when (there are no subject pronouns or articles!), and although the Subject-Verb-Object order (like in English) is dominant, any other word order is correct and understandable, too. Nouns have genders and adjectives need to agree their form with them, and there are seven cases that also can completely change the meaning of the sentence depending on which one you use. There’s also the most confusing part – the double negation that, contrary to most languages, still means a negation.
Still, many Polish words are quite similar to English and other European languages. This is the reason why you can often guess their meaning by comparison. Why? Because they formed under the same influence — mostly Latin and its Greek borrowings, a great deal of German, most of the other Slavic languages (Russian, Czech, Slovak), French and currently also English (mainly in youth slang and freshly borrowed words to describe newest concepts). Of course, it’s not like Polish was only under the influence of others.
There are plenty of words that came from Polish and spread to other languages of the world. Slovak, German, Dutch, Swedish, even English and Yiddish (the language of the Ashkenazi Jews) contain words that originate directly from Polish, for example German “Grenze”, border (from Polish “granica”) or English “sable” (Polish “soból”). And, of course, the internationally known, specific words for Polish cuisine, that had no equivalents and therefore entered other languages with much ease: “pierogi”, “pączki”, “kiełbasa”…
All those words and rules and pronunciation, and every other wacky part of Polish language are a part of the world of languages we should celebrate, not only today. As the slogan for 2002 Language Day said: “In the galaxy of languages, every word is a star”.