Magazine Poland

Going back in time with the Polish language

polish-language

Krakow, Poland – Just about every country in the world has an official language. Some, like Canada, India, and China, have more than one. In many places, this mix of tongues is a product of now-fallen empires or ancient trade routes that pushed societies together.

Poland, however, has just a single official language and stands as one of the most homogenous countries in Europe as far as languages and accents are concerned. 

According to World Atlas, 98% of people currently in Poland speak Polish. Of course, that’s hardly an unusual statistic but it’s nevertheless higher than most other countries in Europe, for instance France, where “only” 92% of the population speak French as a first language.

Second and third to Polish are local languages Silesian and Kashubian, which have 529,377 and 108,140 speakers, respectively, a long way down from the 38 million fluent in the complexities of the Polish language.

Oddly enough, despite being declared the language of business by Harvard Business Review and holding the position of Poland’s most-learned second language, English sits in fourth.

Learning English has become one of the EU’s most popular pastimes, partly due to the spread of online language services like Preply, which provides 1-on-1 lessons to adult students. Despite the dominance of the Polish, Silesian, Kashubian, and English languages today, this hasn’t always been the case.

The country enjoyed a great deal of culture mixing before the Second World War as a consequence of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, one of Europe’s most populous and powerful nations in the 16th century.

This alliance ultimately melded Latin and Polish into a strange vernacular called Macaronic. This can still be observed today, as Polish retains a lot of Latin loan words compared to other Slavic languages. 

From the Enlightenment to modern days

During its history, Poland also felt the influence of Yiddish, Hebrew, Lithuanian, Belarussian and Ukrainian, though only the latter two languages continue to break the top ten most spoken tongues in the country, mainly as a result of the important cohorts of migrants coming from these two countries to settle in Poland.

Tellingly, Warsaw was also the birthplace of the wanna-be universal language Esperanto in the late 19th century, following a selective ban on Polish in the north-eastern city of Bialystok.

Poland’s borders have been restructured many times. While this might seem like something that would split the population up into lots of different languages and cultures, it produced the opposite effect, leading people from disparate areas to adopt a common language in order to communicate.

This also had the perhaps unintended consequence of diluting some accents, contrary to other European nations of an approximately similar size.

Poland’s linguistic history has been one of correction and a slow return to an official version of Polish, especially during the Enlightenment of the 18th century and in the post-war period during the late 1940s and 1950s.

However, the Polish diaspora and the country’s language now have a global presence, with significant populations in largely English-speaking places like Australia, the UK, Canada, and the US. 

In the UK, Polish became the country’s second-most spoken language back in 2013, according to the Office of National Statistics, ahead of Punjabi, Urdu, and Bengali. While Poland is linguistically a very Polish place, it’s also one of the fastest-growing languages outside its borders, too.

Staffed with a growing team of passionate journalists and local contributors, our Kraków office is fully dedicated to covering all-things Polish, from reporting on the latest news to promoting fascinating local initiatives across Poland.