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Polish Language (polski)

Regarded as rather hard for foreigners to master, Polish is an Indo-European language belonging to the West Slavonic group. When the proto Slavonic tribes left their lands between the Odra and Dnieper rivers in the early Middle Ages, they settled almost the entire central, east and south Europe, reaching the Elba in the west, the Volga and Dvina in the east and the Balkan Peninsula in the south. One of the effects of this expansion was the emergence of three groups of Slavonic languages: west, south and east. The West Slavonic group also comprises Czech and Slovak and despite a variety of differences between these languages, Poles, Czechs and Slovaks can easily understand one another without an interpreter. Polish began to emerge around the 10th century, the process largely triggered by the establishment and development of the Polish state.

Polish is an inflected language with seven cases, two numbers, three genders in singular and two in plural. Verbs are conjugated by person, tense, mood, voice and aspect. There are nasal vowels, which is unique among Slavonic languages. Another singularity is the regular stress on the penultimate syllable - in other Slavonic languages it is shifting (Russian) or falls on the first syllable (Czech, Slovak). The so-called Polish vowel mutation is the change of e into o or a before hard front consonants. Characteristic of Polish are also word stems with several variants. Polish grammar and punctuation abound in rules and twice as many exceptions to them. Predictably, Polish is said to be a rather difficult language to learn.

In spelling, one major difficulty for both foreigners and natives alike is the words with z vs. rz, u vs. , and h vs. ch, since the pairs of sounds these letters or combinations of letters represent have identical or almost identical pronunciation.

  • A is always pronounced as a in father.
  • C is always pronounced as ts, hence Slowacki is Slo-vat-ski, Potocki is Po-tot-ski, Waclaw is Vat-slav.
  • E is always pronounced as e in bet or met.
  • G is always pronounced as g in go, hence Gerson is Guerson.
  • H is never silent.
  • I is always pronounced as ee in bee, hence Izbica is Eez-bee-tsa.
  • J is always pronounced as y in yes, hence Jagiello is Ya-guel-lo, Jadwiga is Yad-vee-ga, Jaworski is Ya-vor-ski.
  • O is always pronounced as o in order or orchard.
  • U is always pronounced as oo in root, hence Ujejski is Oo-yeayski, Uchanski is Oo-han-ski.
  • W is always pronounced as v, hence Warna is Varna, Wilno is Vilno.
  • Y is always pronounced as i as in din.

Certain combinations of consonants have definite sound values, like the combination of sh and ch in English.

  • Cz in Polish is equivalent to the English ch in church, much, such, etc., hence Czeslaw is Che-slav, Mickiewicz is Meets-kieveech.
  • Ch is practically h, hence Chelm is pronounced like Helm, Chodkiewicz is Hod-kie-veech.
  • Sz is equivalent to the English sh in mush or rush, hence Szawle reads as Shav-le, Warszawa (Warsaw) is pronounced Var-shah-vah.
  • Rz is equivalent to z in azure, hence Przemysl is Pzhe-misl.

An apostrophe over a consonant softens the sound, hence n is pronounced as n in canon, s is pronounced almost like sh, and c is almost equivalent to ch. An apostrophe over an 6 turns the pronunciation of the letter into double o in English.

In Polish words the accent always falls on the penult, i. e., on the syllable preceding the last, hence Lokie'-tek, Kosciusz'-ko, Pilsud'-ski. Polish has five major dialects, spoken in Silesia, Malopolska, Mazovia, Wielkopolska and Kashubia. This is a hangover from the times when every Slavonic tribe used its own language which slowly developed and changed over centuries. This process took place largely outside big urban centres, among small-town gentry and peasants. Each dialect has several varieties with characteristic and consistent linguistic phenomena. These varieties differ from standard Polish in vocabulary, syntax, pronunciation and morphology. For example, Poles from Mazovia and Malopolska tend to substitute dental stops and affricates with alveolar stops and affricates, so they pronounce syja instead of szyja (neck) and cysty instead of czysty (clean).

Beginning with the early postwar years, Polish has been the language of all but a very few citizens. Grouped with Czech and Slovak in the West Slavic subgroup of the Slavonic linguistic family, Polish uses a Latin alphabet because the Roman Catholic Church has been dominant in Poland since the tenth century Documents written in Polish survive from the fourteenth century; however, the literary language largely developed during the sixteenth century in response to Western religious and humanistic ideas and the availability of printed materials. In the eighteenth century, the Enlightenment stimulated a second period of advances in the literary language. When the Polish state fell at the end of the eighteenth century, the language played an important role in maintaining the Polish national identity.

Although modern Polish was homogenized by widespread education, distribution of literature, and the flourishing of the mass media, several dialects originating in tribal settlement patterns survived this process in the late twentieth century. Among the most significant are Greater Polish and Lesser Polish (upon a combination of which the literary language was formed), Silesian, Mazovian, and Kashubian, which is sometimes classified as a separate language.

Both spoken and written Polish have undergone profound changes since World War II. The increasing urbanization of Polish culture and the forced change in Polish society are the main factors influencing the change in the language. Indirect evidence of changes which have occurred in the vocabulary and idioms of spoken Polish in the postwar period can be found in textbooks of Polish for foreigners, written by Polish authors and published in Poland. The new features of spoken Polish can be divided into the following groups: (1) new lexical features (including idiomatic constructions), (2) new syntactic structures, and (3) new morphological structures.




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Page last modified: 09-08-2012 19:42:00 ZULU