A Guide to Polish - 10 facts about the Polish language

Kraków © Agnes Królik

Translation in Polish

Check the Polish-only version

1. Where is Polish spoken?

Polish is the official language of Poland, which has a population of 39 million people. There are big Polish-speaking communities in Argentina, Australia, Belarus, Brazil, Canada, Germany, Lithuania, the UK, the Ukraine, the US and Russia (among many other countries).

2. What you already know about Polish

You might have heard of  Solidarność, Poland's trade union federation and social movement. The meaning of the word is easy enough to guess - solidarity. Other Polish words in the English language point to the delicious Polish cuisine. Perhaps you've tried a kabanos or two, Poland's famous smoked sausages, bigos, hunter's stew, or pierogi, small filled dumplings.

Polish has borrowed heavily from the English language in recent post-communist years. These loanwords often receive a Polish linguistic treatment, but are far from unrecognisable. They even reveal a bit about the Polish language, eg.  komputer, skaner: the letter c turns into k in Polish.  Parkować means to park and displays the typical Polish verb ending -ować.

Beware of false friends, words that look similar to English words but mean something different. For example, if you wanted to say ordinary dress, avoid 'literal' translation as the Polish word
 dres means a tracksuit (of the Waynetta kind) and  ordynarny means vulgar!

3. How hard is it to learn?

Admittedly the Polish language is one of the more difficult languages to learn, what with its tongue-bending pronunciation, complex gender system, seven cases, aspect as a grammatical category of the verb and a tendency to avoid internationalisms for "real" Polish words. But the consonants sound pretty much like they do in English, three old tenses have been abandonded (the aorist, imperfect, and past perfect) and the stress of a word is always on the penultimate syllable. Now, isn't that a consolation?

4. The most difficult words and tongue twisters

 W Szczebrzeszynie chrząszcz brzmi w trzcinie i Szczebrzeszyn z tego słynie.
In Szczebrzeszyn a beetle buzzes in the reed, for which Szczebrzeszyn is famous.

5. Know any good Polish jokes?

The Polish sense of humour isn't miles away from the British one, so there is plenty of malice about mother-in-laws, blondes, neighbouring countries and grannies visiting the doctor. Here's a fairly innocent one:

  Dwóch przedszkolaków przechwala się nawzajem:
A wiesz, mój tata jest lepszy od twojego taty!
A mój brat jest lepszy od twojego brata!
Za to moja mama jest lepsza od twojej mamy!
A wiesz, tu to chyba masz rację, bo nawet mój tata tak mówi.
Two preschool children are showing off:
Do you know, my dad is better than your dad!
And my brother is better than your brother!
But my mum is better than your mother!
Do you know, you might be right there, even my dad says so.

6. If I learn Polish, will it help me with any other languages?

Learn Polish and you get other West-Slavonic languages almost for free: Czech, Slovak, Sorbian are closely-related languages. And you will have a real advantage learning any other Slavonic language: Belarusian, Bosnian, Bulgarian, Croatian, Macedonian, Russian, Slovene, Serbian and Ukrainian.

7. What not to say and do

There is a tendency for non-Polish speakers to mix up the phrases  dziękuję, thank you, and  dzień dobry, hello, ending up wishing everyone a good day who is offering them food (and watch out - there is a lot of food on offer in social situations). Also try to avoid talking about "preservatives" as the Polish word prezerwatywa means condom. Use the expression
 bez konserwantów, without preservatives, instead, to praise that lovely, natural food you'll get offered in Poland. Take no offence at a Pole calling you a b*tch because the similar sounding Polish word  być simply means to be.

8. Famous quotations

 Litwo! ojczyzno moja! ty jesteś jak zdrowie;
Ile cię trzeba cenić, ten tylko się dowie,
Kto cię stracił. Dziś piękność twą w całej ozdobie
Widzę i opisuję, bo tęsknię po tobie.
O Lithuania! My fatherland! You are like health;
How much one should value you, knows only he
who lost you. Today I see and describe your whole beauty
because I yearn for you.

Adam Mickiewicz (1798-1855), Poland's leading author of the Romantic school spent most of his life in exile due to his political activities. This quote expresses his longing for his country, the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth.

9. First publication

The first complete sentence in modern Polish spelling dates back to 1270 and was recorded in the Book of Henrykow, which described the everyday life at that time. A husband says to his working wife:  Daj, ać ja pobruszę, a ty poczywaj. You rest, and I will grind.

10. How to be polite and show respect

Poland is one of the few countries in the world, where courteous hand-kissing is still a common practice. This high level of politeness is reflected in the already very formal language. Where many languages opt for a you-thou kind of distinction between younger and older people and formal and informal situations, Polish uses a title:  Pan, Sir, and  Pani, Lady. So to ask someone formally if he or she speaks English, say:  Czy Pan mówi po angielsku? Czy Pani mówi po angielsku? Lit. Does the Sir/the Lady speak English?

Polish people are even polite when they argue. You might hear the odd  Pan jest idiotą. Sir, you're an idiot.

Kraków girl © Agnes Królik

Polish key phrases

Get started with 20 audio phrases

Kraków shop © Agnes Królik

The Polish alphabet

All the sounds, from A to Ż and lots of sibilants

Kraków street ©Agnes Królik

Polish soap

Read the story of Polish builder Bob and Sarah

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