Polish language

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Polish (język polski)
Spoken in: Poland (38 million), also speakers in the United States, Lithuania, Belarus, France, Germany, Ukraine and other countries.
Region:  –
Total speakers: 46 million
Ranking: 25
Genetic classification: Indo-European
   West Slavic
Official status
Official language of: Poland, European Union
Regulated by: Polish Language Council
Language codes
ISO 639-1 pl
ISO 639-2 pol
SIL pol
See also: LanguageList of languages

Polish (język polski, polszczyzna) is the official language of Poland. Polish is the main representative of the Lechitic branch of the Western Slavic languages. It originated in the areas of present-day Poland from several local Western Slavic dialects, most notably those spoken in Greater Poland and Lesser Poland.

Polish was once a lingua franca in various regions of Central and Eastern Europe, mostly due to the political, cultural, scientific and military influence of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Although not that popular any more due to the Russian language influence, it is still sometimes spoken or at least understood in western border areas of Ukraine, Belarus and Lithuania as a second language.



Outside Influence

Polish has been influenced by contact with foreign languages (foremost Latin, Czech, French, German, Italian, Old Belarusian, Russian and recently it has been virtually bombarded by English, especially American English language elements).

Many words have been borrowed from German as a result of heavy contact with Germans and the German language. This process has been going on since medieval times. Examples include szlachta (from German Adelsgeschlecht=nobility), rachunek (Rechnung=account), ratusz (Rathaus=town hall), burmistrz (Bürgermeister=mayor; word used only for mayors of smaller cities), handel (Handel=commerce), kac (Kater=hangover), kartofel (Kartoffel=potato; this word is dialectal: most Poles use the word 'ziemniak' for potato, but both words are understood anywhere), cukier (Zucker=sugar), kelner (Kellner=waiter) and malarz (Maler=painter; also the word 'malować' has entered Polish as the verb "to paint"). This is especially true of the regional dialects of Upper Silesia. There are also several words of French origin in the language, most likely dating from the Napoleon era, such as ekran (écran=screen), rekin (requin=shark), meble (meuble=furniture), fotel (fauteuil=armchair), plaża (plage=beach) and koszmar (cauchemar=nightmare). Some place names have also been adapted from French, such as the two Warsaw boroughs of Żoliborz (joli bord=beautiful riverside) and Mokotów (mon coteau=my cottage), as well as the suburb of Żyrardów (from the name Girard, with the Polish suffix -ów attached to form the town's name). Other words are borrowed from other Slavic languages, for example "hańba" and "brama" from Czech.

When borrowing international words, Polish often changes their spelling. For example, the Latin suffix spelled '-tion' in English corresponds to '-cja'. To make the word plural, -cja becomes -cje. Examples of this include "inauguracja" (inauguration), dewastacja (devastation), konurbacja (conurbation) and konotacje (connotations). Also, the digraph 'qu' becomes 'kw' (kwadrant=quadrant; frekwencja=frequency).

Since 1945, as the result of mass education and mass migrations (which affected several countries after the Second World War, with Poland being an extreme case) standard Polish has become far more homogeneous, although regional dialects persist, particularly in the south and south-west in the hilly areas bordering the Czech and Slovak Republics. In the western and northern territories, resettled in large measure by Poles from the territories annexed by the Soviet Union, the older generation speaks a dialect of Polish characteristic of the former eastern provinces.


The Polish language is the most widely-spoken of the Slavic language subgroup of Lechitic languages which include Kashubian (the only surviving dialect of Pomeranian language) and the extinct Polabian language. The three languages, along with Upper and Lower Sorbian, Czech and Slovak, belong to the West branch of Slavic languages. To English ears, it sounds virtually indistinguishable from Russian, and indeed the two languages have a very similar grammar; however, Polish and Russian speakers cannot understand each other without training due to a very different vocabulary. In other words, to a speaker of one, the other sounds to them about how the first stanza of the poem Jabberwocky would sound to an English-speaker.

Geographic distribution

Polish is mainly spoken in Poland. In fact, Poland is one of the most homogenous European countries in terms of its mother tongue, as close to 97% of Polish citizens declare Polish as their mother tongue. After the Second World War the previously Polish territories annexed by the USSR retained a large amount of the Polish population that was unwilling or unable to migrate towards the post-1945 Poland and even today ethnic Poles in Lithuania, Belarus, and Ukraine constitute large minorities. In Lithuania 9 percent of the population declared Polish to be their mother tongue. It is by far the most widely used minority language in the Vilniaus Apskritis (Vilnius region) (26% of the population, according to the 2001 census results), but it is also present in other apskritis. In Ukraine, Polish is most often used in the Lwów and Łuck regions. Western Belarus has an important Polish minority, especially in the Brześć and Grodno regions.

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, the UK and the United States.

In the U.S. the number of people of Polish descent is over 9 million, see: Polish language in the United States, but most of them do not use Polish in their everyday communications.

According to the United States 2000 Census, 667,414 Americans of age 5 years and over reported Polish as language spoken at home, which is about 1.4% of people who speak languages other than English or 0.25% of the U.S. population.


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 west), Little Polish (spoken in the south and southeast), Mazovian (Mazur) spoken throughout the centre and east of the country, and Silesian spoken in the southwest. Mazovian shares some features with the Kashubian language, whose remaining speakers (estimates vary from 100,000 to over 200,000) live in and around the city of Gdańsk near the Baltic Sea, predominantly to the west of the city. There are also several, now mostly extinct, regional dialects of Polish, including the Warsaw dialect.

Small numbers of people in Poland 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 [ɛ] front half open unrounded ten ten ('this')
y [ɨ] central closed unrounded sick mysz ('mouse')
a [a] central open unrounded cat, cot or cut (depends on variety of English) kat ('executioner')
u / ó [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.

Before all stops and affricates nasal vowels are now pronounced as vowel + nasal consonant (kąt pronounced as kont, gęba pronounced as gemba, ręce pronounced as rentse). At the end of the word nasal 'e' is pronounced as non-nasal 'e' by almost all native speakers. Practically nasal vowels survived in pronunciation only before fricatives and in (nasal ą) at the end of the word.

Unlike those 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, or a nasal vowel followed by a nasal semivowel, for example ą [ɔɰ̃] rather than [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 [ɛ̃] 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: dьnьdzień;
'Day' in genitive: dьnadnia

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.


The Polish consonant system is more complicated and its characteristic features are series of affricates 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, voice 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 set tom ('volume')
n [n] alveolar nasal not noga ('leg')
r [r] alveolar trill rolled (vibrating) r as in arriba krok ('step')
z [z] voiced alveolar fricative zero zero ('zero')
s [s] voiceless alveolar fricative some sum ('catfish')
dz [ʣ] voiced alveolar affricate woods 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')
[ʥ] voiced alveolo-palatal affricate would you więk ('sound')
ć [ʨ] 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')
[dʒ] voiced postalveolar affricate jam em ('jam')
cz [tʃ] voiceless postalveolar affricate kitchen czas ('time')
ń [ɲ] palatal nasal el Niño koń ('horse')
j [i̯]
or [j]
palatal semivowel
or palatal approximant
or yes
jutro ('tomorrow')
ł [u̯]
or [w]
labial-velar semivowel
or labial-velar approximant
or way
mały ('small'), łaska ('grace')
g [g] voiced velar plosive god gmin ('plebs')
k [k] voiceless velar plosive rocket 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, aka "hissing" (ciąg syczący): z s dz c
  • postalveolar (retroflex in some varieties) aka "rustling" (ciąg szumiący): ż sz dż cz
  • alveolo-palatal, aka "hushing" (ciąg ciszący): ź ś dź ć

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

All palatal and alveolo-palatal consonants (that is 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, for example:

  • czysta [ˈtʂɨsta] ('clean' fem.) vs trzysta [ˈt ʂɨsta] ('three hundred')
  • dżem [dʐɛm] ('jam') vs drzem [ˈd ʐɛm] ('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 [ˈwutka] ('boat'), [d] → [t] (k is normally voiceless)
  • kawka [ˈkafka] ('jackdaw'), [v] → [f] (k is normally voiceless)
  • także [ˈtagʐɛ] ('also'), [k] → [g] (ż is normally voiced)
  • jakby [ˈjagbɨ] ('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 [kʂak] ('bush'), [ʐ] → [ʂ] (k is normally voiceless)
  • odtworzyć [ɔtˈtfɔʐɨʨ] ('to reproduce'), [d] → [t] & [v] → [f] (t is normally voiceless)

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

W Szczebrzeszynie chrząszcz brzmi w trzcinie.
[fʂtʂɛbʐɛʂɨɲɛ xʂɔ̃ʂtʂ bʐmi ftʂʨiɲɛ]
In [the town of] Szczebrzeszyn a beetle buzzes in the reed.


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

Exceptions include:

  • verbs in first and second person plural past tense, for example zrobiliśmy ('we did') - stress on the last but two syllable
  • verbs in conditional tense, for example zrobiłbym ('I would do') - stress on the last but two syllable
  • verbs in first and second person plural conditional tense, for example zrobilibyśmy ('we would do') - stress on the last but three syllable
  • some words borrowed from Latin (for example matematyka) can optionally be stressed on the last but two syllable, but this has mostly fallen 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.

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], [ʨ]
Ć Ć ć ć [ʨ] [ʥ]
D   d   [d] [t]
E   e   [ɛ]  
Ę Ę ę ę [ɛ̃] [ɛ], [ɛm], [ɛn], [ɛŋ], [ɛɲ]
F   f   [f] [v]
G   g   [g] [k]
H   h   [x] [ɣ]
I   i   [i] [i̯], mute (softens preceding consonant)
J   j   [i̯] or [j]  
K   k   [k] [g]
L   l   [l]  
Ł Ł ł ł [u̯] 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   [ɨ]  
Z   z   [z] [s], [ʑ]
Ź Ź ź ź [ʑ] [ɕ]
Ż Ż ż ż [ʒ] [ʃ]

Polish orthography also includes seven digraphs:

Capitalized HTML
phonetic value
phonetic values
Ch   ch   [x] [ɣ]
Cz   cz   [ʧ] [ʤ]
Dz   dz   [ʣ] [ʦ], [ʥ], [d-z]
DŹ dź [ʥ] [ʨ]
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, for example: 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; of course, this depends on one's native language. While difficult for English speakers, it is relatively easy for speakers of Russian and other Slavic languages. 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 plus 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? (It could be derived from Cóż zrobiliście? which actually sounds odd and is not used)

All the above examples show inflected forms of the verb "zrobić" for the subject "you" informal plural ("wy"). However, it is of note that none of the above examples include the subject itself. The inclusion of the subject is not necessary here because Polish is a pro-drop language. This means that a subject does not need to be used with an inflected verb. Instead, the reader or listener can tell which subject is implied through the type ending on the verb. This is different for each pronoun in Polish with the exceptions of on/ona/ono (he/she/it) which all have the same verb ending as each other and oni/one (they - of a group including male humans/they - of a group of people or things not including male humans) which also have the same verb ending as each other. Because the subject can be dropped, if the subject is used with an inflected verb it places the emphasis of the sentence on the subject. Of the above three examples, a native speaker would not include the subject in the middle sentence and would be unlikely to include a subject in the last one. The below examples show how the subject could be included in such sentences, where possible:

  • Co wy zrobiliście?
  • Coście zrobili? (a native speaker would not use a subject here)
  • Co wyście zrobili? (this example places the stress strongly on "you" -- "wy"+ście)
  • Co żeście zrobili? (this example includes the use of the że- particle - considered very colloquial)

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. Basic word order in Polish is SVO, however it is possible to move words around in the sentence, and to drop subject, object or even sometimes verb, if they are obvious from context.

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

Note the marker "czy" which is used to start a yes/no question, much as the French use "est-ce que".

There is a tendency in Polish to drop the subject rather than the object and you rarely 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" (I) and "ty" (you, singular), and also their plural equivalents "my" (we) and "wy" (you, plural), are almost always dropped.


Conjugation of "iść" ("walking" in Present Continuous):

  • Ja idę – I am walking
  • Ty idziesz – You are walking
  • On/ona/ono idzie – He/she/it is walking
  • My idziemy – We are walking
  • Wy idziecie – You are walking (Plural)
  • Oni/one idą – They are walking ("Oni" masculine, "one" feminine or neuter)


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

my - we
wy - you (Plural)
oni - they (mixed group, both men and women)
one - they (group of only women and children or things)

kot - cat
pies - dog
krowa - cow
świnia - pig
mucha - fly
osa - wasp
pszczoła - bee

drzewo - tree
kwiat - flower

Anglia - England
Szkocja - Scotland
Walia - Wales
Irlandia - Ireland
Wielka Brytania - Great Britain
Zjednoczone Królestwo - United Kingdom

Niemcy - Germany
Japonia - Japan
Stany Zjednoczone Ameryki - The United States of America
Francja - France
Hiszpania - Spain
Wenezuela - Venezuela

Polska - Poland
Polak - Pole
polski - Polish

Konstantynopolitańczykiewiczówna - a young, single, female citizen of Constantinople (the longest word in Polish)


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

See also

External links

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