Polish language

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Polish (polski, język polski) is the official language of Poland.

Polish (Polski)
Spoken in: Poland, also over 500 000 speakers in Germany, Ukraine and USA.
Region: --
Total speakers: 46,000,000
Ranking: 22


Official status
Official language of: Poland
Regulated by: Polish Language Council
Language codes
ISO 639-1 pl
ISO 639-2 pol


Polish has been influenced by contact with foreign languages (foremost Latin, Czech, French, German, Italian, Russian and recently it has been literally bombarded by English, especially American English language elements). In Upper Silesia the inimitable regional dialects are influenced by German elements. Since 1945, as the result of mass education and mass migrations (forced by the socialist government on the society to suppress the development of the local communities), standard Polish has become far more homogeneous, although regional dialects persist. In the western and northern territories, resettled in large measure by Poles from the territories annexed by the Soviet Union, the older generation came to speak a language characteristic of the former eastern provinces.


The Polish language, together with other Lekhitic languages (Kashubian, Polabian), Upper and Lower Sorbian, Czech and Slovak, belongs to the West branch of Slavic languages.

Geographic distribution

Polish is mainly spoken in Poland. In fact, Poland is one of the most homogenous European nations in terms of its mother tongue, close to 98 % of Polish citizens declare Polish as their mother tongue. After the 2nd World War the previously Polish territories annexed by the USSR kept a large amount of Polish population that was unwilling to migrate towards the post-1945 Poland and even today Ethnic Poles in Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine constitute a large minority. In Lithuania 9 % of the population decare Polish as their mother tongue, it's by far the most used in the Vilnius County ( 31.2 % of the population ), but it's also present in other counties. As of 2004, Vilnius County's only official language was Lithuanian. In the Ukraine it's most used in the Lviv and Luck areas. Western Belarus has an important Polish minority especially ion the Brest and Hrodna areas.

There are also significant numbers of Polish speakers in Australia, Austria, Azerbaijan, Brazil, Canada, Czech Republic, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Israel, Kazakhstan, Latvia, New Zealand, Romania, Russia, Slovakia, UAE, and the USA.

In the USA the number of Polish speaks is over 1 million, see: Polish language in the United States


It has several dialects that correspond in the main to the old tribal divisions; the most significant of these (in terms of numbers of speakers) are Great Polish (spoken in the northwest), Little Polish (spoken in the southeast), Mazovian (Mazur), and Silesian. Mazovian shares some features with the Kashubian language, whose remaining speakers (estimates vary from 100,000 to over 200,000) live west of Gdansk near the Baltic Sea.

Small numbers of people also speak Belarusian, Ukrainian, and German as well as several varieties of Romany.



The Polish vowel system is relatively simple with only six oral and two nasal vowels. All Polish vowels are monophthongs. The oral vowels are as follows:

Polish oral vowels
Polish script IPA Description English approximation Polish example1
i [i] front closed unrounded seek miś ('teddy bear')
e [ε] front half open unrounded ten ten ('this')
y [i] central closed unrounded sick mysz ('mouse')
a [a] central open unrounded cut kat ('executioner')
u [u] back closed rounded boom bum ('boom')
o [ɔ] back half open rounded caught kot ('cat')

Unlike in other Slavic languages, the Proto-Slavic nasal vowels are preserved in Polish. However, nasality tends to be lost, especially at the end of a word. These vowels are never initial. In script they are marked by a diacritic known as ogonek.

Unlike in French, the nasal vowels in Polish are asynchronous which means that in fact each nasal vowel is pronounced as an oral vowel followed by a nasal semivowel, e.g. ą [ɔɰ̃] rather then [ɔ̃]. For the sake of simplicity these asynchronous nasal vowels will be henceforth represented as ordinary (synchronous) nasal vowels.

Polish nasal vowels
Polish script IPA Description English approximation Polish example1
ę [ε̃] nasal front half open unrounded length węże ('snakes')
ą [ɔ̃] nasal back half open rounded nasal o (not a), as in long wąż ('snake')

The length of a vowel is not phonemic in Polish which means that how long a vowel is pronounced does not change the meaning of a word. However, this was not the case in Proto-Slavic, which distinguished three vowel lengths - short, normal and long. There were two short vowels - hard (ъ) and soft (ь). Eventually, the short vowels either disappeared or turned into a normal e. In the former case two CV syllables became one CVC syllable. Disappearance of a short soft vowel caused the preceding consonant to become "softened" or palatalized. Example:

'Day' in nominative: dьnь --> dzień 'Day' in genitive: dьna --> dnia

Meanwhile, long vowels were shortened to normal and simultaneously became higher - apart from the vowels which were already high - i and u. This vowel shift may be presented like this:

long a --> normal o long e --> normal y or normal i long i --> normal i long o --> normal ó, pronounced [u] long u --> normal u

Note that the normal u which was once a long o is still distinguished in script as ó.


Polish consonant system is more complicated and its characteristic features are series of affricate and palatal consonants. Affricates are often marked by digraphs. Palatal consonants (known to Poles as "soft" consonants) are marked either by an acute accent or followed by an i. Like in English, voicedness is phonemic but aspiration is not.

Polish consonants
Polish script IPA Description English approximation Polish example1
b [b] voiced bilabial plosive bus bas ('bass')
p [p] voiceless bilabial plosive top pas ('belt')
m [m] bilabial nasal man masa ('mass')
w [v] voiced labiodental fricative vase wór ('bag')
f [f] voiceless labiodental fricative phase futro ('fur')
d [d] voiced alveolar plosive dog dom ('home')
t [t] voiceless alveolar plosive talk tom ('volume')
n [n] alveolar nasal not noga ('leg')
r [r] alveolar trill rolled (vibrating) r as in carramba krok ('step')
z [z] voiced alveolar fricative zero zero ('zero')
s [s] voiceless alveolar fricative some sum ('catfish')
dz [ʣ] voiced alveolar affricate woods dz ('leader'), dzwon ('bell')
c [ʦ] voiceless alveolar affricate pots co ('what')
l [l] lateral alveolar approximant lock pole ('field')
ź [ʑ] voiced alveolo-palatal fricative where's your źrebię ('foal')
ś [ɕ] voiceless alveolo-palatal fricative sheer śruba ('screw')
[dʑ] voiced alveolo-palatal affricate would you więk ('sound')
ć [tɕ] voiceless alveolo-palatal affricate what's your ćma ('moth')
ż / rz [ʒ] voiced postalveolar fricative treasure żona ('wife')
rzeka ('river')
sz [ʃ] voiceless postalveolar fricative shoe szum ('rustle')
[ʤ] voiced postalveolar affricate jam em ('jam')
cz [ʧ] voiceless postalveolar affricate chair czas ('time')
ń [ɲ] palatal nasal el Niño koń ('horse')
j [ȋ]
or [j]
palatal semivowel
or palatal approximant
yes jutro ('tomorrow')
ł [ȗ]
or [w]
labial-velar semivowel
or labial-velar approximant
power mały ('small'), łaska ('grace')
or mały
g [g] voiced velar plosive god gmin ('plebs'), g ('god')
k [k] voiceless velar plosive duck kmin ('caraway'), buk ('beech tree')
h / ch [x] voiceless velar fricative loch hak ('hook')
chór ('choir')

Within this consonant system one can distinguish three series of fricatives and affricates:

  • alveolar, a.k.a. "hissing" (ciąg syczący): z s dz c
  • postalveolar, a.k.a. "rustling" (ciąg szumiący): ż sz dż cz
  • alveolo-palatal, a.k.a. "hushing" (ciąg ciszący): ź ś dź ć

In some Polish dialects, e.g. Masurian, the consonants of the rustling series are replaced by those of the hissing series.

All palatal and alveolo-palatal consonants (i.e. ź ś dź ć ń j) as well as those preceding the vowel i are referred to as "soft" consonants. All the other consonants are "hard".

Note that Polish distinguishes between affricates and plosive + fricative consonant clusters, e.g.:

  • czysta ['ʧista] ('clean' fem.) vs. trzysta ['tʃista] ('three hundred')
  • dżem [ʤεm] ('jam') vs. drzemka ['dʒεmka] ('nap')

In consonant clusters all consonants are either voiced or voiceless. To put it another way, a consonant cluster may not contain both voiced and voiceless consonants. All the consonants are voiced (if the last consonant is normally voiced) or voiceless (if the last consonant is normally voiceless). This rule does not apply to approximants - a consonant cluster may contain voiced approximants and voiceless consonants. Examples:

  • łódka ['wutka] ('boat'), [d] --> [t] (k is normally voiceless)
  • kawka ['kafka] ('jackdaw'), [v] --> [f] (k is normally voiceless)
  • także ['tagʒε] ('also'), [k] --> [g] (ż is normally voiced)
  • jakby ['jagbi] ('as if'), [k] --> [g] (b is normally voiced)
  • król [krul] ('king'), [k] does not change (r is an approximant)
  • wart [vart] ('worth'), [r] does not change (r is an approximant)

The consonants w and rz are normally voiced, but if a consonant cluster ends with w or rz and the last but one consonant is normally voiceless, then the whole consonant cluster is voiceless.

  • krzak [kʃak] ('bush'), [ʒ / Z] --> [ʃ / S] (k is normally voiceless)
  • odtworzyć [ɔt'tfɔʒitɕ] ('to reproduce'), [d] --> [t] & [v] --> [f] (t is normally voiceless)

The most popular Polish tongue-twister, a fragment of Chrząszcz poem by Jan Brzechwa, may serve as yet another example:

W Szczebrzeszynie chrząszcz brzmi w trzcinie.
[v ʃʧεbʒεʃiɲε xʒɔ̃ʃʧ bʒmi v tʃtɕiɲε]
In [the town of] Szczebrzeszyn a beetle buzzes in the reed.


In Polish the stress falls generally on the penultimate (last but one) syllable, e.g. zrobił ('he did'), zrobili ('they did').

Exceptions include:

  • verbs in first and second person plural past tense, e.g. zrobiliśmy ('we did') - stress on the last but two syllable
  • verbs in conditional tense, e.g. zrobiłbym ('I would do') - stress on the last but two syllable
  • verbs in first and second person plural conditional tense, e.g. zrobilibyśmy ('we would do') - stress on the last but three syllable
  • some words borrowed from Latin (e.g. matematyka) can optionally be stressed on the last but two syllable, but this have mostly fell out of use in last 50 years.


The Polish alphabet is based on the Latin alphabet but uses diacritics such as kreska (graphically similar to acute accent), superior dot and ogonek. The standard character encoding for the Polish alphabet is ISO 8859-2 (Latin-2).

phonetic value
phonetic values
A   a   [a]  
Ą Ą ą ą [ɔ̃] [ɔ], [ɔm], [ɔn], [ɔŋ], [ɔɲ]
B   b   [b] [p]
C   c   [ʦ] [ʣ], [tɕ]
Ć Ć ć ć [tɕ] [dʑ]
D   d   [d] [t]
E   e   [ε]  
Ę Ę ę ę [ε̃] [ε], [εn], [εn], [εŋ], [εɲ]
F   f   [f] [v]
G   g   [g] [k]
H   h   [x] [γ]
I   i   [i] [ȋ], mute (softens preceding consonant)
J   j   [ȋ] or [j]  
K   k   [k] [g]
L   l   [l]  
Ł Ł ł ł [ȗ] or [w] dental [l] in eastern dialects
M   m   [m]  
N   n   [n] [ŋ], [ɲ]
Ń Ń ń ń [ɲ]  
O   o   [ɔ]  
Ó Ó ó ó [u]  
P   p   [p] [b]
R   r   [r]  
S   s   [s] [z], [ɕ]
Ś Ś ś ś [ɕ] [ʑ]
T   t   [t] [d]
U   u   [u] [ȗ]
W   w   [v] [f]
Y   y   [i]  
Z   z   [z] [s], [ʑ]
Ź Ź ź ź [ʑ] [ɕ]
Ż Ż ż ż [ʒ] [ʃ]

The letters Q, V and X do not belong to the Polish alphabet but they are used in some commercial names and foreign words.

Polish orthography also includes seven digraphs:

Capitalized HTML
phonetic value
phonetic values
Ch   ch   [x] [γ]
Cz   cz   [ʧ] [ʤ]
Dz   dz   [ʣ] [ʦ], [dʑ], [d-z]
DŹ dź [dʑ] [tɕ]
DŻ dż [ʤ] [ʧ], [dʒ]
Rz   rz   [ʒ] [ʃ], [r-z]
Sz   sz   [ʃ] [ʒ]

Note that although the Polish orthography is mostly phonetic, some sounds may be written in more than one way:

  • [x] as either h or ch
  • [ʒ] as either ż or rz (though denotes a [rʒ] cluster)
  • [u] as either u or ó
  • some soft consonants as either ć, , ń, ś, ź, or ci, dzi, ni, si, zi

Unlike in English, if consonants are doubled in script, it means that they are also doubled in pronunciation, e.g.: wanna ['vanna], not ['vana] ('bathtub'); motto ['mɔttɔ], not ['mɔtɔ].


Polish is often said to be one of the most difficult languages for non-native speakers to learn. It has a complex gender system with five genders: neuter, feminine and three masculine genders (personal, animate and inanimate). There are 7 cases and 2 numbers.

Nouns, adjectives and verbs are inflected, and both noun declension and verb conjugation are highly irregular. Every verb is either perfective or imperfective.

Verbs often come in pairs, one of them imperfective and the other perfective (usually imperfective verb with a prefix), but often there are many perfective verbs with different prefixes for single imperfective words.

Tenses are:

construction (for perfective verbs) (for imperfective verbs) example imperfective example perfective
verb+ infinitive infinitive robić zrobić
verb+suffix future simple tense present tense robicie zrobicie
past participle+suffix past perfect tense past imperfect tense robiliście zrobiliście
(this suffix can be moved) coście robili coście zrobili

Movable suffix is usually attached to verb or to the most accented word of sentence, like question preposition.

Sometimes the sentence may be emphasised with a particle -że.

So what have you done ? can be:

  • Co zrobiliście?
  • Coście zrobili?
  • Cóżeście zrobili?

All these forms are used without a subject -- "wy" ("you" in plural). Of course, it is possible to use the subject along, but it sounds well only in the first sentence (the other two are stronger, with the stress on the verb, so the subject is not so important):

  • Co wy zrobiliście?
  • Coście zrobili? (in fact, a Pole won't use subject here)
  • Co żeście zrobili? (as above)
  • Co wyście zrobili? (here the stress goes to "you" -- "wy"+ście)

Past participle depends on number and gender, so 3rd person, singular past perfect tense can be:

  • zrobił (he made/did)
  • zrobiła (she made/did)
  • zrobiło (it made/did)

Word order

From Wikibooks' Polish Language Course. In Polish it is possible to move words around in the sentence, and to drop subject or object if they are obvious from context.

These sentences mean the same ("Ala has a cat"):

  • Ala ma kota
  • Ala kota ma
  • Kota ma Ala
  • Ma Ala kota
  • Kota Ala ma
  • Ma kota Ala

Yet only the first of these sounds natural in Polish, and others should be used for emphasis only, if at all.

If apparent from context, you can drop the subject, object or even the verb:

  • Ma kota - can be used if it's obvious who is being talked about
  • Ma - answer for "Czy Ala ma kota?" ("Does Ala have a cat?")
  • Ala - answer for "Kto ma kota?" ("Who has a cat?")
  • Kota - answer for "Co ma Ala?" ("What does Ala have?")
  • Ala ma - answer for "Kto z naszych znajomych ma kota?" ("Which of our friends does have a cat?")

Note the marker "czy" ("what"), which turns a sentence into a question, much as the French use "Est-ce que...".

There is a tendency in Polish to drop the subject rather than the object and rarely you know the object but not the subject. If the question was "Kto ma kota ?" (who has a cat ?), the answer should be "Ala" alone, without a verb.

In particular, "ja" and "ty", and also their plural equivalents "my" and "wy", are almost always dropped.


ja - I
ty - you
on - he
ona - she
ono - it

my - we
wy - you
oni - they (many men)
one - they (many women or things)


1 You can hear the voice samples by clicking on the Polish example (ogg format).

See also:

External Links

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