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Polish is the official language of Poland, the second most widely spoken Slavic language (after Russian) and is closely linked to other Indo-European languages. There are an estimated 50 million Polish speakers worldwide, not only in Poland but also across the Czech Republic, Romania, Slovakia, Germany, the Ukraine and elsewhere.
Though Polish does have different dialects, there is a clear, ‘standard’ variety of Polish. This homogeneity was helped by the mass migration of Poles from the East to the West of the country in 1939, following the Soviet annexation of Kresy. Regional variations of the language are, however, largely mutually intelligible, with the differences lying in pronunciation and vocabulary.
The Polish alphabet derives from the Latin alphabet (unlike many other Slavic languages such as Russian and Bulgarian) but includes diacritics. This was due to the prevalence of Roman Catholicism, as church texts were among the first written manuscripts available. It has borrowed a number of words from other languages over the centuries. These words have usually been adopted by altering the spelling to approximate the Polish pronunciation, most recently words of Latin or Greek origin from English (e.g. ‘komputer’). In the past, however, Latin was the official language of Poland and therefore influenced the lexicon. German has also been a strong influence on Polish vocabulary due to the significant German populations in Polish cities and their geographical position as neighbours. The Polish language has also influenced others; English gets the word ‘gherkin’ from the Polish equivalent ‘ogórek’, for example.
Polish became the language of diplomacy throughout the fifteenth century. Polish orthography was standardised in great part by printers, who encouraged the publication of Polish books and dictionaries, thereby helping the language to develop. By the mid-sixteenth century, printers in Krakow had reached the highest level in all of Europe. The Zaluski library in Warsaw was one of the first public libraries in Europe. The first complete dictionary of modern Polish was published in the early nineteenth century, at which stage Polish was more developed than the Russian language; it had an extremely rich literature and vocabulary. In fact, the Polish language and its literature remain of great cultural significance today.