How Many People Speak Polish, And Where Is It Spoken?

Polish has gone from being one of the biggest languages in medieval Europe to nearly being wiped out in the 20th century and back. What’s the status of the language today?
clock tower and neighborhood in Poland

A Brief History Of The Polish Language

The Polish language belongs to the Slavic language family, which is the third-largest language family in Europe behind the Romance languages and the Germanic languages. All of these language families descend from proto-Indo-European, and they’ve continued to splinter over time. The Slavic languages broke off into East, South and West Slavic, and then West Slavic broke down even further into Czech–Slovak, Sorbian and Lechitic. It’s the last of these that Polish eventually evolved from.

The Polish language first distinguished itself from Lechitic in the 10th century, when the Polans tribe ruler Mieszko I united other tribes that spoke similar dialects. What really cemented the formation of the Polish language was the tribes’ adoption of Christianity, which brought with it the Latin alphabet. The first known sentence written in Polish is from the Book of Henryków, a text written in the 13th and 14th centuries by Cistercian monks.

Polish continued to develop as Poland’s influence grew, and by 1500, it had become a lingua franca in many parts of Europe. Polish remained prominent for a few hundred years, but its power waned at the end of the 18th century. The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, as it was called at the time, was partitioned on three different occasions between 1772 and 1795 due to power struggles between Habsburg Austria, the Kingdom of Prussia and the Russian Empire. It wasn’t until the end of World War I in 1918 that Poland became its own sovereign state once again.

Despite attempts by Russians and Germans to suppress Polish, the language survived the partitions and continued to be spoken. The country was invaded once again during World War II and was affected by the USSR’s post-war communism, but it has had its own government since 1952. Polish is now an official language of the European Union and remains an important tool for communication in the region.

Where In The World Is Polish Spoken?

The Polish language is centered almost entirely around Poland, where it’s the official language. Surrounding countries including the Czech Republic, Belarus, Ukraine, Lithuania, Hungary and Slovakia also have sizable Polish minorities.

During World War II, many Polish speakers migrated to other countries around the world, including the United States, Israel, Brazil and Canada. In some of these countries, there are still Polish-speaking communities, but in others — including the United States — Polish isn’t spoken nearly as much by the migrants’ descendants. The Polish community worldwide is at this point much larger than the count of actual Polish speakers.

How Many People Speak Polish?

One count of Polish speakers equates to about 40,265,000 worldwide. A massive percentage of that comes from Poland, where pretty much all of the 38 million people in the population speak Polish. Of them, 36.5 million speak Polish natively.

No other populations come close to that number, but there are still a number of speakers in other parts of the world. Here’s where Polish speakers outside of Poland live: Germany (783,000), Lithuania (615,000), Israel (125,000), Russia (67,400), Czechia (33,600), Ukraine (18,700), Hungary (3,500), Slovakia (3,120) and Romania (2,080).

Why Learn Polish?

The Polish language is still widely spoken in Eastern Europe, so if you want to go to that region, that alone is reason to learn the Polish language. Because it’s based in the Latin alphabet, it can also be a bit more approachable than other Slavic languages, like Russian or Ukrainian. Polish can be a gateway Eastern European culture, which is too often overlooked because of the bias toward Western European culture in the United States.

Polish culture is rich, and learning the language can give you more access to it. You can cook Polish food using recipes in the original language, or you can read any of the many Polish poets and writers. The Polish language has a very long, fascinating history, and by learning it, you can become part of it too.

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