Is it hard to learn Polish? Remarks from the past

Is it hard to learn Polish? Remarks from the past

An Example of which, Sir, you may have in the word »Chrzeszcz« (Scarabeaus, a Gad-Flie), this, with divers others in the Polish Tongue, scarce the Natives themselves are able to Pronounce…

Polish is considered a language that is extremely difficult for foreigners to learn. There are two main reasons for this: grammar and pronunciation. The declension and the possible structures of sentences that do not occur in English are just a few of the many challenges that risk-taker, who wants to learn the language of the Sarmatians, had to face. In turn, the large accumulation of consonants makes understanding another person speaking Polish a real feat.

Poles in their national costumes. Source: Rijksmuseum, public domain

In the early modern period, the Polish-Lithuanian state enjoyed great interest abroad. On the one hand, a vast, regional power was an integral part of the Christian world. On the other hand, travelers and diplomats were surprised with its exoticism, which was expressed primarily in fashion and customs. Of course, adventurers also paid attention to the languages spoken by the inhabitants of the Commonwealth. Let’s take a look at the old accounts about the Polish language!

The origin of the Poles and their language

From the end of the Middle Ages, the matter of the origin of Poles fascinated scholars, poets, and politicians. As in other realms, attempts were made to find ancient ancestors to justify dynastic policies, wars, and create some kind of identity within the elites.

Some tried to connect Poles and the ancient tribe of Vandals. Chronicler Wincenty Kadłubek gives a version of this myth. Legendary Queen Wanda ruled over the Polish lands, and from her name derived the name of the Vandal river and her people – Vandals. According to other versions, the progenitor of Poles, Vandal, came directly from Japhet, son of Noah. Still, others searched Polish roots in Scythians, Pannonians, and even the ancient Greeks. Interestingly, for a long time, the Lithuanians looked for their roots in the ancient Roman Empire!

Ancient Sarmatia, map from 1801. Source: Polona pl, public domain

As a result of mixing concepts about Sarmatian and Slavic origin, political and economic privileges of the nobles, and binding religion with identity, the ideology of Sarmatism was born, with all its lights and shadows. Let us add to this mix the numerous wars that the Polish-Lithuania Commonwealth had to deal with, and it is easier for us to understand why the cult of warlike ancestors was so easily adopted.

Let us return to the Polish language itself. Bernard O’Connor, author of the History of Poland, published in 1698:

As the Poles have the same Origin with the Muscovites, Bohemians, Croatians, Moravians, Silesians, Cassubians, Bulgarians, Rascians, Servians, Illyriansetc. (Cromerus says) they have like-wise the same Language with them, altho they differ in Dialects, and that scarce to be understood by each other. (…)

German loanwords in Polish

In the same passage, Dr. O’Connor mentioned something about other languages used in the Commonwealth:

Their terms of the Mechanic Arts are chiefly borrow’d from the Ancient Germans, who formerly had, as still they have, frequent intercourses with this Country. Nay, there are at present whole Towns and Villages that make use of the German tongue, that Nation having formerly planted several Colonies in this Kingdom. Also there are several of the Noble Families purely German, as may appear both by thei Names and Coats of Arms. Likewise Hebrew, Armenian, Russian, Tartarian and in some places Italian, are frequently spoken in this Country.

Indeed, urban societies in the Commonwealth largely consisted of immigrants from the lands of the Holy German Empire. The roots of this phenomenon can be found in the Middle Ages when urban colonization under German law was profitable for feudal rulers. Royal Prussia is a great example. In the Middle Ages, this region was ruled by the Teutonic Knights, who took care of the urban development of their country. In the middle of the 15th century, Pomerelia became part of the Kingdom of Poland. The effects were visible throughout the whole existence of the Polish-Lithuanian state: it was in Royal Prussia that large cities functioned with a strong and developed bourgeoisie, headed by Gdańsk: the largest city of the entire Commonwealth.

16th-century Gdańsk. Source: Polona pl, public domain

The legacy of this medieval social phenomenon is a great number of German loanwords in the Polish language. In modern dictionaries, we can find almost 3000 words of German origin! Among them are those related to craftmanship and urban lifestyle:

EnglishGermanPolish
Town hallRathausRatusz
MayorBürgermeisterBurmistrz
TradeHandelHandel
FairJahrmarktJarmark
WorkshopWerkstattWarsztat
PrintDruckDruk
MasterpieceMeisterstückMajstersztyk

Stephen Jones speaks similarly in his work devoted to the history of Poland, published in the same year in which the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth ceased to exist: in 1795. Jones concludes laconically: The proper language of Poland is Sclavonian, but intermixed with the High Dutch. In Lithuania, the language differs much from that of the other provinces.

We may be surprised by this mention of High Dutch. This was how the English-speaking travelers described the Low German language, which was used by the townspeople in many regions of the country, including Gdańsk. Low German, the main language spoken by the members of the Hanseatic League in the Middle Ages, was indeed closely related to Dutch.

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