The Polish language consists of four major dialect groups, each primarily associated with a particular geographical region, and often further subdivided into subdialectal groups (termed gwara in Polish). They are:
- Greater Polish, spoken in the west
- Lesser Polish, spoken in the south and southeast
- Masovian, spoken throughout the central and eastern parts of the country
- Silesian spoken in the southwest (sometimes also considered a separate language, see comment below)
The regional differences correspond mainly to old ethnic or tribal divisions from around a thousand years ago. As a result of 19th century measures taken by occupying powers, of expulsions plus other displacements of Poles during and after World War II, as well as language policy in the Polish People's Republic, supplemented by broadcast media, the Polish language has become more homogenised than ever before in the second half of the 20th century.
Traditional spoken Polish includes three more distinct dialect groups, adding to a total of eight. The remaining dialects have been put at risk of extinction due to historic geopolitical population movements. They are:
- Northern Kresy, spoken along the border between Lithuania and Belarus
- Southern Kresy, spoken in isolated pockets in Ukraine
- The distinctive Podhale dialect (Góralski) used by the Gorals (Highlanders) in the mountainous area bordering the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
Dialect and language distinctions
Although traditional linguistic divisions continue to be cited, especially in Polish sources, the current linguistic consensus tends to consider Kashubian a separate language, or at least as a distinct lect that cannot be grouped at the same level as the four major modern Polish dialects. Prior to World War II, Kashubian speakers were mainly surrounded by German speakers, with only a narrow border to the south with Polish speakers. Kashubian contains a number of features not found in other Polish dialects, e.g. nine distinct oral vowels (vs. the six of standard Polish), evolution of the Proto-Slavic TorT group to TarT (a feature not found in any other Slavic language) and (in the northern dialects) phonemic word stress, an archaic feature preserved from Common Slavic times and not found anywhere else among the West Slavic languages.
The two Kresy dialects are spoken in Kresy, the former eastern Polish territories annexed by the Soviet Union in 1945 and currently absorbed into Lithuania, Belarus and the Ukraine. Both dialect groups have been in decline since World War II as a result of expulsions of millions of Poles from Kresy. Poles living in Lithuania (particularly in the Vilnius region), in Belarus (particularly in the northwest), and in northeast Poland continue to speak the Northern Kresy dialect, which sounds (in Polish described as zaciąganie z ruska) as if speaking with a Russian drawl, and is quite distinctive.
The majority of Poles expelled from Kresy were settled in newly annexed regions in northern and western Poland, and thereby their manner of speech evolved into so-called new mixed dialects. However, among the declining older generation there are still traces of Kresy dialect with its characteristic Ukrainian or Rusyn sounds, especially in the use of the Russian "L" where standard Polish uses "Ł" and of elongated vowels.
Many linguistic sources relating to the Slavic languages describe Silesian as a dialect of Polish. However, many Silesians consider themselves a separate ethnicity and have been advocating the recognition of Silesian as a distinct language. According to the last official census in Poland in 2011, over 0.5 million people declared Silesian as their native language. Many sociolinguistic sources (e.g. Tomasz Kamusella assert that the determination between a language or a dialect is ultimately a matter of extralinguistic criteria, such as national attachment or the political attitudes of its users, and this changes over time. See: Agnieszka Pianka, Alfred F. Majewicz, Tomasz Wicherkiewicz) Language organizations such as SIL International and various linguistic resources such as Ethnologue, and Poland's Ministry of Administration and Digitization, recognize Silesian as a distinct language. In 2007, Silesian was assigned its language code szl within the ISO 639-3 standard.
List of dialects
Greater Polish dialect
Derived from the Western Slavic language spoken by the Polans, the subdialects are:
- Białystok dialect (Polish: gwara białostocka)
- Suwałki dialect (Polish: gwara suwalska)
- Warmia dialect (Polish: gwara warmińska)
- Kurpie dialect (Polish: gwara kurpiowska)
- Masurian dialect (Polish: gwara mazurska)
- Malbork-Lubawa dialect (Polish: gwara malborsko-lubawska)
- Ostróda dialect (Polish: gwara ostródzka)
- Near Mazovian dialect (Polish: gwara mazowsze bliższe)
- Far Mazovian dialect (Polish: gwara mazowsze dalsze)
Lesser Polish dialect
- Łowicz dialect (Polish: gwara łowicka)
- Sieradz-Łęczyca dialect (Polish: gwara sieradzko-łęczycka)
- Holy Cross Mountains dialects (Polish: gwary świętokrzyskie), often associated with the ancient tribe of the Lędzianie
- Grębów dialect (Polish: gwara lasowska)
- Orawa dialect (Polish: gwara orawska)
- Spisz dialect (Polish: gwara spiska)
- Podhale dialect (Polish: gwara podhalańska)
Silesian (Polish: język śląski, dialekt śląski), derived from the language of the Slavic tribe called, Ślężanie, in modern times spoken in the regions of Upper Silesia. The United States Immigration Commission in its "Dictionary of races or peoples" published in 1911 counted Silesian as one of the dialects of Polish.
Those who regard Silesian as a separate language tend to include the Lach dialects (Polish: gwary laskie) of the Czech Republic as part of this language. However, the standard linguistic sources on Slavic languages normally describe them as dialects of the Czech language,or sometimes as transitional Polish–Czech dialects.
Northern Kresy dialect
- Wilno dialect (Polish: gwara wileńska)
Southern Kresy dialect
A number of dialects are not easily classifiable according to the above scheme. Among the most notable of them:
- The Gwara poznańska, spoken in Poznań and to some extent in the whole region of the former Prussian annexation (excluding upper Silesia), with characteristic high tone melody and notable influence of the German language.
- Some city dwellers, especially among the less affluent, had their own distinctive dialects — for example the Warsaw dialect, still spoken by some of the people in the Praga district on the eastern bank of the Vistula. (Praga was the only part of Warsaw where the city survived World War II relatively intact.) However, these city dialects are now[update] mostly extinct due to assimilation with standard Polish.
- There are several sociolects with distinct pools of thematic vocabulary, e.g. Polish high school students.
- Many Poles living in emigrant communities, for example in the USA or Europe, whose families left Poland around World War II, retain a number of features of Polish idiom and accent as spoken in the first half of the 20th century that now come across as archaic to contemporary visitors from Poland.
- There are also several circumstantial dialects preserved, of which the best known is grypsera, a language spoken by long-time prison convicts.
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