Polish Language History
Most of us have heard somewhere or other that the Polish language has its roots in what’s known as the Slavic group of languages, predominant in Eastern Europe, from the Baltic states on the Adriatic, all the way to the Black Sea. But what does this actually mean? What separates Polish from the other 'Slavic' languages, and how has it developed historically to become what it is today?
The term 'Slavic languages' refers to a group of languages that have developed in tandem with the languages of other dominant groups in mainland Europe, after breaking off from a larger language group known as the Eastern Indo-European. This larger group originally contained both Slavic and Baltic languages, including today's modern Lithuanian and Latvian. Around three millennia ago, this group fragmented and the Slavic language group, extending from the Baltic sea to the Med and Black Sea in the south east, was born.
Around the 9th Century AD, the Polish language began to undergo changes that would mark this period out to linguists as the 'Old Polish' period. Lasting nearly six centuries, the various historical, cultural, political and perhaps most of all, religious, influences on Poland from outside and in altered and moulded the language continuously; by the 16th Century, something similar to what we now know as modern Polish was the result.
It's estimated that Polish has around 200,000 words, which is quite a lot compared to English, which most estimations put at around 170,000. What's notable though is that around one quarter of these are still directly related in sound and pronunciation to their old Slavic originals, while as many as one third are foreign adoptions in some form.
The geographical proximity of the various language groups of Europe have led to the development of a very inter-influential system, and these similarities in vocabulary and grammar can be easily found throughout the entire European continent. Many linguists cite the date of Poland's entry into Christendom (beginning with the Chrzest Polski, when Poland's first Christian leader, Mieszko I was crowned) as the point when the Polish language began to be influenced most heavily by other European groups. Most notably, the adoption of Latinate root words became commonplace, emanating from the dominant Catholic language of Latin that was being used widely throughout Europe, and indeed Poland as it gradually fell in line with Rome.
More recently, with the advent of what's called 'Modern Polish', the language has been influenced heavily by globalisation, and indeed, the course of the country's history in the last few centuries. Not only has the language become a symbol of identity to the Polish people - being a way to maintain separation from the territory's various 20th century invaders - but Polish remains the second most widely spoken language in the Slavic group, topped only by Russian. Modern Polish is also marked by an increase in English and English-American words that are being assimilated more and more into the Polish system.
With such a rich history, and so many 'close calls', where Polish was literally almost wiped from the linguistic environment of Eastern Europe just as it was physically wiped from the map, it is easy to see why the Polish people are so indelibly proud of their language. This also means they often like to protect its reputation as one of the most difficult in the world. But, I implore you, don't let this put you off!