Dominance of English: a view from Poland

Posted by on April 04, 2013

Our series on English as a lingua franca continues with a post by Jonathan Marks about Poland. Jonathan looks at the ways in which English influences the local language.

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Previous posts in this thread were from Denmark, Iceland and Germany, where the national languages are – like English – Germanic, and where, except in the former GDR, there is a lengthy tradition of teaching English.

Poland is different firstly because its national language, being Slavonic, is more remote from English, and secondly because widespread teaching of English is a relatively recent development. In the communist era (to 1989) only a small minority of Poles learned English, or indeed any ‘western’ language. In the 1990s, the introduction of English into the school curriculum, especially outside large towns, was slowed by an initial shortage of qualified teachers and nowadays, although almost all pupils learn English, levels of achievement vary considerably. Poles with a high level of proficiency in English are still a minority, albeit a much bigger minority than twenty or thirty years ago.

The typical carriers of English influence into Polish are young people working in business, journalism, politics etc. and using the latest information and communication technologies. In contrast, many middle-aged and older people have no knowledge of English, which explains occasional rogue spellings such as ‘hod dog’ and ‘chesburger’ and the mystification caused by expressions like ‘maksymalnie zminimalizować’ (maximally minimise). A knowledge gap has arisen between those who understand and use a large number of anglicisms and those who do not; this is also, to some extent, a generation gap, an education gap and a gap between city and countryside.

Although anglicisms with restricted circulation often keep their original spelling, e.g. for the time being, at least, copywriter prevails over kopirajter, widely-used ones are typically adapted so that the spelling represents, approximately, the English pronunciation, e.g. lunch is increasing written as lancz. The fact that anglicisms become grist to the twin mills of derivation and inflection, e.g. systemami skomputeryzowanymi (with computerised systems), also shows that Polish has no trouble assimilating such alien elements.

However, a degree of instability is introduced into Polish in the form of left-modified noun phrases of English/German type such as polityczny pluralizm in contrast to the predominant right-modified type pluralizm polityczny (political pluralism). In phrases compounded from recent loans the modifying element remains often, even more uncharacteristically for Polish, uninflected, e.g. fitness klub rather than the traditional construction klub fitnesowy.

Not surprisingly, there is considerable debate about whether Polish is threatened by English, with the vox populi generally expressing more concern than the linguists!

For more blog posts in this series discussing the dominance of English and English as a lingua franca, please see this page.

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