After 19 long months of being stuck in domestic travel, I was finally able to make it abroad last week. While I will not share my mother’s maiden name here, I can assure you the “ski” at the end of her name makes it abundantly clear that on my mother’s side I am nearly entirely Polish. With this said, a return to one of my native lands felt appropriate for my return to international travel.
What struck me most on this trip is the sheer resilience of the Polish people. Only becoming their own independent country recently on a global scale, they have endured occupations, two world wars, countless regional conflicts, and more. In spite of Russian and German being languages of their oppressors or occupants at any point, the Polish language has not only endured, but evolved, and thrived.
With about 38 million first language speakers, Polish even linguistically represents its rich diverse heritage. A West Slavic language, written in Latin script, Polish is considered to have its own alphabet, with the standard 26-letter Latin alphabet in addition to 9 “Polish letters” (ą, ć, ę, ł, ń, ó, ś, ź, ż); likewise, while not part of any natively Polish words, x, q, and v are recognized as the extended full alphabet. Dialects have led to some unique variations in the language itself; double consonants can be pronounced as one long consonant or pronounced separately, and the natural inflections of speech may lead words to be pronounced in common and even formal speech separately than what their written word would express.
Grammatically, Polish represents its origins as an amalgamation of languages. Like Latin, nouns are gendered, including a neutral gender more commonly found in Germanic languages. However, Polish excludes articles entirely, and includes special rules regarding masculine nouns for animate vs. nonanimate and and human vs nonhuman. Polish also includes what many English speakers would think of as a “double negative,” the tag word nie is included in a sentence even when other words that would indicate negation, such as nigdy (never) appear.
Although a language on its own emerged most formally by the 10th century, we saw the beginning of modern Polish in the 17th century, and today can see influences ranging from Latin and Romance languages, including the alphabet, Germanic languages, and even Yiddish. A deep linguistic study would see not only a large amount of loanwords, from German to Greek and beyond, but have also discovered clusters of such words. For example, many of the German loanwords entered the language in medieval times, and there are even heavy influences from the Mongolians during the 12th and 13th centuries. Polish as a language is a great cultural tool to explore how important Polish and its speakers were to a cosmopolitan Europe during the middle ages and Renaissance.
Although not as globally used as a language today, Polish still represents a Europe in constant flux, and the importance of communication with its neighbors. Even today, it’s still used as a common language in Eastern Europe, with many Slavic countries using it as a lingua franca nearly as prominently as Russian.