Monday, February 9, 2015

Country Profile: The Languages of Poland

Today we're going to explore the linguistic diversity of Poland, a Central European country that is home to over 38 million people. Throughout much of its history, Poland was known for being quite diverse in terms of cultures and religions, so it should come as no surprise that it is linguistically diverse as well!

The Official Language

There's no surprise here - the official language of Poland is indeed Polish. This Slavic language, often known for its frequent use of the letter z, is spoken by over 36 million people in Poland. It is also used in other European nations such as Belarus, Ukraine, Lithuania, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia.

While the vast majority of Poland's population speak Polish, the country does have significant populations that speak other languages. In fact, the Polish government recognizes 16 other languages as minority languages, dividing them into two groups: languages spoken by minorities that have their own independent states, and minorities that do not. We'll just call them "national minority languages" and "ethnic minority languages" to keep it simple.

Białowieża Forest, Poland
National Minority Languages

Ten languages fall into this category: Armenian, Belarusian, Czech, German, Yiddish, Hebrew, Lithuanian, Russian, Slovak, and Ukrainian. Given the names of these languages it should be easy to identify which other nation they are native to, with the exception of Yiddish and Hebrew, which are both spoken by Jewish minorities. All of these languages are spoken by somewhere between 1,000 and 100,000 people in Poland.

Belarusian, Russian, Czech, Slovak, and Ukrainian are all closely related to Polish since they are fellow Slavic languages. Armenian is an independent branch of the Indo-European language family, while Lithuanian is a member of the Baltic language family. German is a Germanic language, Hebrew is a Semitic language, and Yiddish is a fascinating mixture of both: it belongs to the Germanic language family, is written using Hebrew script, and contains lots of Slavic words!

Ethnic Minority Languages

That leaves six more minority languages: Karaim, Kashubian, Rusyn, Tatar, and two Romani languages. Karaim is interesting in much the same way as Yiddish - it's a member of the Turkic language family, but features many characteristics from the Hebrew language.

Kashubian, on the other hand, is a Slavic language that is considered to be the closest related language to Polish. In fact, the two are so closely related that some linguists claim that Kashubian is a dialect of Polish. We don't know who is right, but we do know that there are approximately 100,000 speakers of this language or dialect in Poland. Similarly, Rusyn, (known as Łemkowski in Polish) is considered to be a dialect of Ukrainian by some linguists and a distinct language by others.

The Tatar language, also known as Tartar, is a Turkic language that is primarily spoken in Russia. Finally, we have Poland's two recognized Romani languages: the languages of the Polska Roma and Bergitka Roma groups. Both of these subgroups of the Romani people (often known by the controversial term "Gypsies") primarily reside in Poland, but speak different Romani dialects that feature loanwords from other languages used in their respective areas.