History of the Polish Language

As a Slavic language, Polish is part of a different family than English and the Romance languages.  Even though Latin has been a significant influence on Polish, it is not at its foundation as it is for many Western European languages. This means that much of the vocabulary, grammatical constructions and sounds are profoundly different than anything English-speakers are used to.

The Polish language could be viewed as having suffered through frequent historical changes of the country’s borders and decades of rule by foreign empires. However, these pressures on Polish nationhood have reinvigorated the language as it became one of the few means of expressing Polishness. Today, Polish literary heroes are honored as guardians of Polish culture and language, and you will find statues of the nineteenth-century poet Adam Mickiewicz on many Polish streets.

From Old Polish to the Seventeenth Century

Poland adopted Christianity in 966, and the embracing of the Church saw its language of Latin. Additionally, the lingua franca of Western Europe became an influence in Poland. The Old Polish (język staropolski) was the national language, and it took on some words from Latin. In the twelfth century, the Latin alphabet was adopted. However, diacritics (the ogonek (‘little tail’) on ę and ą; the kropka on ż; the kreska on ćńóśź; the stroke on ł) were gradually added to the Latin characters in order to denote certain sounds that the western alphabet could not represent, thus retaining a distinctively Polish flavor.

As well as the Church, Poland’s western neighbors also exerted an influence on the language, with Czech an important influence in the tenth century and the fourteenth to fifteenth centuries. A number of words were taken from Czech, like sejm (the name for the lower house of the Polish parliament) and brama (gate). German would also have an impact on the language from the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries. There were large German populations in some areas of Poland, and the fair measure of cultural interaction between the two countries resulted in some linguistic exchanges.

The fourteenth and fifteenth centuries saw the beginnings of a consolidation of the Polish language. The Holy Cross Sermons (kazania świętokrzyskie) are the oldest prose texts in Polish that are still in existence, and they are named after the monastery where they were housed. Saint Florian’s Psalter (psałterz floriański), which contains the psalms in Latin, German and Polish, is now in the National Library of Poland, both from the earlier period. Efforts to standardize the language were made in 1440 by Jakub Parkoszowic of the Kraków Academy, who wrote the first Polish orthographic study—the writing of words with standardized letters in a standardized style.

The printing of the first Digest of Polish Law in Kraków in 1488 also signaled that the vernacular language, not just Latin, was being used in official contexts and was taking on a standardized form. 1569 saw the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth established, properly uniting the country and ensuring further moves toward a more standardized Polish. However, the influences of other languages persisted, with the Italian wife of Sigismund of Poland (king from 1506-48) bringing many linguistic and cultural influences to her husband’s realm. (The Polish word for tomato, pomidor, is clearly influenced by the Italian pomodoro, for example.)

Hungarian also had an influence during the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries, particularly in the southern regions nearest to Hungary. There was the interaction with Ottoman Turkey in the seventeenth century, including the Polish-Ottoman War of 1633-34, and an extensive trading contact during what was Poland’s mercantile golden age saw Turkish words like filiżanka (cup) and dywan (carpet) come into use in Poland.

The Eighteenth Century and Beyond

The troubled history of the Polish state in the eighteenth century has cast a long shadow over the county’s linguistic history. The three successive partitions of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth between the rival forces of the Kingdom of Prussia, the Russian Empire, and Habsburg Austria in this century meant that Poland ceased to be an independent state in 1795. With the German-speaking Prussian and Habsburg imperial powers dominating the west of the country, this had an inevitable impact in accelerating the influence that German always had on the Polish language. However, despite the Russian Empire controlling the whole east of the country, Polish remained remarkably untouched by the Russian language. But, there were also other outside influences in this period.

As Napoleon’s expansionist ambitions and the power of the French state in eighteenth and nineteenth century Europe grew, French words became part of Polish vocabulary. The words of domestic luxury in particular came from French, like meble (meuble –furniture); abażur (abat-jour – lamp shade); fotel (fauteuil – armchair) and walizka (valise – suitcase). The early part of the nineteenth century also saw the first major Polish dictionary (Dictionary of the Polish Language – Słownik języka polskiego). This dictionary was published in six volumes between 1807-1814, and compiled by Samuel Bogumił Linde, a lexicographer at Warsaw’s Załuski Library—one of the first public libraries in Europe and a mark of Poland’s vibrant eighteenth-century Enlightenment.

During the last two hundred years Poland has only existed as a homogenous state for four decades. After the eighteenth century partitions, Poland didn’t exist at all until the First World War saw the downfall of the occupying powers (Poland as a country emerged after 11/11/1918). This long history of occupation may have influenced the development of a number of different Polish dialects, which still reflect the earlier partitions to some extent, with Silesian spoken in the formerly Austrian southwest, Greater Polish in the west (formerly Prussian), Mazovian in central and eastern Poland (annexed by Russia), and Lesser Polish in the Austrian and Russian-annexed south and southeast.

Surprisingly, these dialects are not very strong and are simply inflections of standard Polish, perhaps a sign of the importance of maintaining a “pure” Polish to the Poles who were living under foreign powers. Modern Polish (współczesny język polski) became an important focus of national identity in 1918 after the Second Polish Republic was destroyed by the Nazis and the Soviet invasions of the Second World War, and then the creation of the Soviet satellite state of the People’s Republic of Poland.

As the  communist regime sought to suppress some aspects of Polish culture and taught Russian as a compulsory subject in schools, the power of Polish was increased as a symbol of hope for freedom, and the over forty million Polish speakers in the world today can be proud of their language, which has survived with its integrity intact against the odds.