The native idiom of illustrious personalities like Copernicus, Chopin, Roman Polanski and Marie Curie, Polish is spoken as a first language by more than 38 million people in Poland, by more than one million in the other countries of Eastern Europe and by another million in North America.
The Polish language is written in the Roman alphabet augmented by the use of diacritical marks (special characters). It is extremely rich phonetically, having 10 vowels and 35 consonants. In pronunciation, the stress is normally placed on the penultimate syllable of a word.
A distinctive feature is the preservation in spoken Polish of the nasal vowels which are no longer found in the other modern Slavic tongues. As in Czech, the nouns, pronouns, and adjectives have seven cases (nominative, genitive, dative, accusative, vocative, instrumental, and locative), meaning that the ending of the words varies according to their syntactical function in the sentence.
Poland – or Polska, as its inhabitants call it – is one of the most prosperous countries of the former Soviet bloc. Backed by EU accession on May 2004, more than 75 per cent of the country’s GDP is now produced in the private sector. The economy is well integrated with those of western European nations and inflation has been brought down to low levels. After an initial fall, output has been growing continuously for more than 10 years and, on average, Poles are much better off now than they were a decade ago. For this reason polish language services have gained new importance over the years.
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, eastern and southern 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 while they are closely related, these different languages are not fully mutually intelligible.
Polish began to emerge around the 10th century, the process largely triggered by the establishment and development of the Polish state. Mieszko I, ruler of the Polanie from Wielkopolska, united a few culturally and linguistically related tribes from the basins of the Vistula and Odra before eventually accepting baptism in 966. With Christianity, Poland also adopted the Latin alphabet, which made it possible to write down Polish, until then existing only as a spoken language.
The first manuscripts, produced by the clergy, were only in Latin, but occasionally they had to contain ethnically Slavonic names. Three documents with such insertions have survived from that period. The oldest of them is the Dagome judex, in which Mieszko I subordinated his state to pope. It was written c. 990-992 and included a description of the duke’s lands with information on his two major cities, Gniezno and Cracow.
The first written texts in Polish were translations of Latin prayers and sermons rendered in the vernacular so that the faithful would understand their worships. In the 13th century the first secular texts began to appear slowly. The earliest writings were just two sentences: one said by a peasant and the other by a ruler.
The first attempt to codify the rules of the Polish language was made around 1440 by Jakub Parkoszowic of Zurawica who wrote a Latin treatise on Polish spelling. At the same time Polish started to be used in legal documents and court books. A bit earlier, about 1400, the first secular poem in Polish, devoted to the pleasures of feasting, was written. However, the first Polish dictionary was compiled only four centuries later. The six-volume work by Samuel Bogumil Linde, printed in 1200 copies, was published in Warsaw between 1807 and 1814.
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.
An interesting phenomenon that started after 1954 is the emergence of new, mixed dialects in the north and west of the country where thousands of people moved after the war.
Polish also has many borrowings from other languages, notably from English, French, German, Latin and Russian.
These influences have been caused by various factors ranging from fascination with other cultures (borrowings from French) to historical processes such as the partitions (borrowings from German and Russian) or accepting Christianity (borrowings from Latin).
For French, the period of the greatest impact was the 18th century when it was spoken by virtually everyone who wanted to be regarded as educated and world-travelled – at that time French was in Europe what English is today.
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