When Polish Was King: The Global History (& Geography) of the Polish Language Outside of Poland
#language & literature
default, When Polish Was King:
The Global History (& Geography)
of the Polish Language
Outside of Poland, center, Europe_1550_kings.jpg
A look at some of the most audacious adventures in the life of Polish as a foreign language.
If languages, like nations and empires, have periods of growth and expansion, devolution and stagnation, what has this life of the Polish language been like so far? When was it born? When was its golden age? When did it begin to wane? (And did it, really?) How did the language of a small tribe from central Poland set out to conquer the region – and maybe even the world? Follow Culture.pl on a journey through time and space into the global realm of the Polish language.
Poland Didn't Always Speak Polish: The Lost Linguistic Diversity of Europe
A language is born
Pinpointing the exact date and place of birth of any language is obviously impossible for a number of reasons. Scholars agree, however, that the Polish language began to emerge from the West Slavic language branch sometime between the 8th and 9th centuries AD. This process took place in the area of today’s western Poland, where it was spoken by the closely related Lechite tribes. These included, among others, the Polans, Vistulans, Lendians, Silesians and Pomeranians.
The more ‘official’ emergence of Polish is usually linked to the establishment of the Duchy of Poland in the 10th century by Duke Mieszko I, a ruler of the Polans tribe which inhabited the Greater Poland region (around today’s Poznań). Not long after, the first recorded Polish words appear in Latin sources – such as the name of Poland and its rulers, as well as names of tribes and settlements.
And yet, one would have to wait another 200 years to see the first sentence recorded in Polish, in the year 1270, in a chronicle from Lower Silesia:
Day ut ia pobrusa a ti poziwai
(Let me, I shall grind, and you take a rest)
This marks the beginning of a long tradition of written Polish – one which, in fact, pre-dates the literary traditions of many of Poland's neighbours, including most other Slavic languages.
The developments of the subsequent centuries would result in the formation of Polish as a literary language. While again, it may be difficult to pinpoint all of the factors that led to this moment, most scholars agree that Polish as we know it today originated in the Wielkopolska region. Ultimately formed in Małopolska in the late Middle Ages, it finally acquired some features typical of the Masovian region in more central Poland.
This effectively came to be the language employed by writers such as Mikołaj Rej (1505-1569) and Jan Kochanowski (1530-1584). Through their work, Polish became not only a powerful and elegant tool of artistic expression, but also a vehicle and element of linguistic and political expansion. This is our point of departure.
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Polish goes East
The earliest diffusion of Polish as a foreign language followed the political and military expansion of the Polish state. This dates back to the 14th century and the reign of King Casimir III the Great, the last ruler of the Piast dynasty. Casimir, who waged a number of successful wars in the eastern borderland territories, managed to incorporate the region of Galicia-Lodomeria (the historical kingdom of Ruthenia), with such towns as Lviv, Galich and Volodymyr. This spread eastwards established a long history of Polish presence in the area, populated by Ukrainians, Belarusians (who spoke Ruthenian, as it was called at the time) and Lithuanians.
Over the next centuries, many members of the Ruthenian nobility would decide to take on a Polish cultural identity, and speaking Polish was surely one of its hallmarks. As the historian and ethnographer Jan Stanisław Bystroń noted:
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Eastern neighbours used Polish in learned writing and in literature. Polish was used not only by members of the nobility, who would often speak Ruthenian at home, but also by the clergy – both uniate [Eastern Rite Catholic Church] and Orthodox – from both the right and the left side of the River Dnieper.
This process was accelerated after the Union of Lublin (1569), which created a new polity known as the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.
Polish in Belarusian lands
As a result of these political developments, many Belarusian authors of the period were fluent in both Ruthenian and Polish (as well as Latin). Simon Budny (1533-1593), a Calvinist thinker based in Nieśwież, the seat of the aristocratic Radziwiłł family, was the author of the Ruthenian translation of Martin Luther’s Catechism and also the Polish version of the Bible (the so-called Nieśwież Bible). Andrzej Rymsza – another writer from the region, who is often considered one of the fathers of the Belarusian language – wrote both the Cyrillic Chronologia (Chronology) and the Polish epic poem Deketeros Akroama. The latter depicted Stefan Batory’s military expedition to Pskov.
In the next centuries, Polish culture continued to exert an impact on Belarusian. The political supremacy of the Polish language was symbolically affirmed at the end of the next century, when Polish became the official tongue of the administration of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.
The borderland character of the area also resulted in a long tradition of writing in a linguistic melange of Polish and Belarusian. The practice dates back to the works of Franciszek Rysiński and Kayetan Marasheuski and lasted well into the 19th century, represented in such works as Vintsent Dunin-Martsinkyevich’s 1846 Syelanka (An Idyll).
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The ‘Polish’ Academy in Kyiv
Perhaps the greatest testimony to the vibrant and long-lasting impact of Polish culture (and with it, the Polish language) in the Eastern Ruthenian territories was the Mohyla Academy in Kyiv. Established in 1658 in what was then part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Academy became the educational centre and training ground for Ruthenian elites.
In its educational curriculum, the Academy relied on Polish teaching materials and Jesuit methods, with a heavy emphasis on Polish and Latin poetry. Among the students of the Academy were some of the greatest minds of the period, like Lazar Baranovych (1595–1693), Symeon Polotski (1629-1680) or Stefan Yavorski (1658-1722). Many of these authors were just as fluent in Ruthenian (and Russian) as they were in Polish (and Latin) – and for many of them, Polish was their tool of choice. They used it to pen panegyric poems in honour of the tsar, but also religious polemical pieces, often in praise of the Orthodox Church.
Polotski, who wrote poetry in Polish, is sometimes credited with founding a poetic tradition of Russian literature based on the Polish syllabic system. Baranovych wrote in Polish even to the Orthodox clergy, and when he wrote in Ruthenian, it was so loaded with Polish loanwords that in Moscow, his orthodoxy began to come into question. This was also the time when even Dimitry of Roostow, a future saint of the Russian Orthodox Church, wrote in Polish.
As Janusz Tazbir observed, during this period, the role of the Polish language in Ukrainian literary life could be compared to that of the French language during the Polish Enlightenment. The Academy retained its Polish-Latin profile as late as the first half of the 18th century – that is, long after Kyiv was no longer part of the Kingdom of Poland.
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The study of Polish in Moldova
Moving further down the map, we find ourselves in Romania and Moldova... where Polish culture also waged a strong influence, starting from the 15th century. This impact culminated in the 17th century, when many of the greatest representatives of Romanian national culture were educated in Poland and also becoming fluent in the Polish language. As some historians claim, during this period, in the high society of Romanian elite, Polish became synonymous with higher culture and education.
Effectively, some of these Romanian writers, like Grigore Ureche or Miron Costin, went on to write their works in both Polish and Romanian. Costin entered the history of Polish literature by writing the 1679 Chronika Ziem Mołd i Multańskich (Chronicle of the Moldavian and Multan Lands) and Historyja Polskimi Rytmami o Wołoskiej Ziemi i Moltańskiej (A History in Polish Rhythms: On the Land of Wołoska and Multańska), which dates to 1684. This latter work was dedicated to John III Sobieski.
Polish also established itself as the language of diplomacy in the region: letters sent between the hospodars of Moldavia and Vallachia and the Polish kings were written in exquisite Polish, requiring no translation. It has even been claimed that Polish occasionally served as the language in which letters were exchanged between Romanian rulers and sultans of the Ottoman Empire. This would make Polish the true lingua franca of Balkan diplomacy. This is much in keeping with the opinion expressed by Andrzej Maksymilian Fredro (1620-1679), who wrote about Polish that:
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it spreads far and wide among the numerous nations, from the Ice Sea to the Adriatic.
Moscow, or when the tsars spoke the language of their enemy
The history of intense relations with Russian culture (and language) dates back to the late 16th century – and what other than the Polish-Russian wars waged by King Stefan Batory?
But while the peak of Polish military domination came around 1610 – that’s when Polish troops seized Moscow, and Duke Władysław IV Vaza was hailed as the new tsar – the impact of Polish culture was much more long-lasting... not to mention much more subtle. It certainly could have done without sword and fire.
According to scholars, this Polish influence, which lasted throughout the 17th century, is responsible for bringing Russia its first wave of Western modernisation. Poland was the source of the latest fashions (for a little while, boyars supposedly shaved their heads Polish-style and wore the kontusz, the robe of Polish-Lithuanian nobility), as well as those in the arts and literature. This fascination also pertained to the Polish language.
In the second half of the 17th century, Polish was the only foreign language spoken at the tsar’s court. This Polish influence came to a peak during the reign of Fiodor III Alexandrovich (1676-1682; his wife, Agafia, was Polish) and during the regency of Sophia (until 1689). The Polish language became very fashionable in the high circles of the Kremlin and affluent boyar families – so much so that when very soon afterwards, books printed in Latin and Polish came to be seen as a threat, the were officially banned. Still, the anecdote has it that when Russian diplomat Boris Sheremetev arrived on a diplomatic mission in Vienna in 1697, he communicated with the Austrians in Polish.
This glorious era of Polish impact on Russian culture came to an end with the political reforms of Peter the Great. This is when Russia started to rapidly modernise, drawing directly upon Western models. Skipping Poland as intermediary, they reached out for models and solutions from Germany, the Netherlands and France. From now on, French would take hold as the language of the Russian salon. If not for this, who knows – maybe the heroes of War and Peace would speak Polish, rather than French?
The Polish influence, however, managed to outlast even Peter the Great. As Andrzej Romanowski notes, even as late as the 1730s, a young Mikhail Lomonosow – the future father of modern Russian literary language – set out on learning Polish. He was inspired, as he would later recall, by the works of Smotrytski and Polotski.
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Livonia, or the Polish Sumatra & Borneo
Moving back west, we’re in the Baltic region – in the remotest north of the Polish linguistic map. The Polish Livonia, or Inflanty Polskie, as the area is sometimes called, is surely the most distant and northernmost territory where the Polish cultural identity and language took root. Even for Poles today, this area remains a terra incognita.
The history of the Polish presence in what is today the region of Latgale, a southeastern region of Latvia, goes back to the mid-16th century. That’s when a significant portion of the territory formerly governed by the Livonian Order of the Sword was incorporated into the Polish Crown. A small part of this acquisition was located on the left bank of the river Dvin, with the most important city of Dyneburg (now the Latvian Daugavpils). It remained part of the Commonwealth for the next 200 years – that is, until 1772, when it was ultimately severed off by the first partition.
During this period, the area saw the emergence of a peculiar Polish cultural formation. At its core were a number of once-powerful aristocratic Teutonic families which had polonised along the way, often becoming ardent Polish patriots. To name a few, these included the Tyzenhaus, Denhoff, Weyssenhof, Reytan and Plater families.
The Polish presence was traditionally strong in the countryside, as well as towns like Lucyn (today: Ludza), Rzeżyca (Rēzekne) and Krasław (Krāslava). The 19th century also saw Poles’ growing importance in cities like Dyneburg and Riga (the latter two not being part of Livonia proper), which became important centres of Polish culture.
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Despite a seemingly long period of political allegiance to the Commonwealth, Livonia never entered the Polish historical imagination, instead occupying a remote place on the mental map of Polish geography. As Gustaw Manteufel, the greatest 19th-century scholar of the region, noted: the majority of Poles knew as little about the Inflanty as they knew about the faraway Southeast Asian islands of Sumatra and Borneo.
Nevertheless, Livonia did contribute in significant ways to Polish cultural heritage, with such writers as Konstancja Benisławska, Kazimierz Bujnicki, Adam Plater and the aforementioned Gustaw Manteufel. Livonia pretty much ceased to exist after World War I, when many Polish families moved to the territories of the resurrected Polish state. But even then, the Polish vernacular specific to the region continued to thrive, as proven by the poetry of Olga Daukszta:
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And nowhere else does the sky look so grand
in the starry rains as in this grey land
[I nigdzie piękniejszem się niebo nie zdaje
wśród deszczów gwiaździstych, jak w szarym tym kraju]
From ‘Inflanty’ (Livonia) by Olga Daukszta, trans. LD
When Polish was the language of freedom
What about the Polish language in Poland? This question isn’t as absurd as it may at first seem. The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was traditionally a multi-ethnic state, with Polish being only one of many languages spoken. While Polish (along with Latin and, later, French) was the language of the elites, as well as that of ethnic Poles in the countryside, minority groups stuck to their vernaculars: Ukrainian, Belarusian and Yiddish being the most important.
The 17th and 18th century saw a process of slow polonisation restricted to certain groups, like the Polish Armenian minority (as with the poets Minasowicz and Piramowicz). And yet, it was only the next century which marked a period of intense assimilation to Polish culture – the language included.
This may seem paradoxical at first, considering the fact that Poland, after being partitioned in the late 18th century and subjected to foreign rule, was in many ways reduced to its cultural relevance alone. The difficult predicament of Polish culture and identity was not, however, an obstacle to processes of assimilation. In fact, as Janusz Tazbir noted:
the assimilation processes among foreigners intensify at the time of greatest hardship for the Polish nation – between the January Uprising and the outbreak of World War I.
As a result of this strange dynamic, the 19th-century Polish cultural pantheon was populated by families and figures who had only become Polish in the previous generation. Examples include the painters Matejko, Grottger or Andriolli; the scholars Lelewel, Linde (the author of the Polish dictionary) and Estreicher; as well as the poet Wincenty Pol. All of them became ardent Polish patriots who proved instrumental in keeping up the national spirit. What could be better proof of the ultimate victory of the defeated?
Meanwhile, the Polish language, mediated by the poetic legacy of Romantic writers like Mickiewicz and Słowacki, wielded its own magnetic influence on a new generation of writers. Polish was the language of the early works of the Austrian writer Joseph Roth, the Belarusian poet Yanka Kupala and I. L. Peretz, who wrote in Yiddish. Rosa Luxemburg and Ivan Franko also used Polish at various moments throughout their careers. This all serves as further proof of Polish culture’s great force of attraction in this time period.
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Polish goes global
More importantly, the predicament of Poland in the 19th century resulted in waves of migration, which followed political turmoils and subsequent uprisings. Soldiers, political refugees and deportees all found themselves speaking their native tongue outside of Poland.
Effectively, by the mid 19th-century, Polish was spoken in several centres of Polish emigration in Western Europe, including Belgium, England and France, where Polish poets were particularly active. But the language could also be heard in the vast areas of Siberia, where Poles were deported by the Russian authorities, and even in Haiti, where Polish soldiers were sent under Napoleon – and stayed.
The second half of the century made the presence of Poles and Polish language around the world truly global, and on a large scale. With the onset of economic migration kicking in in the 1870s, Polish was taken to the other side of the Atlantic, with large Polish settlements arising in the US (from Chicago and Detroit to Panna Maria), Brazil and Argentina.
But even then and there, the Polish language could also be a subversive tool of political resistance. One of the most spectacular cases is surely Helena Modjeska (Modrzejewska)’s employment of Polish on theatrical stage. While touring the US with her Shakespeare repertoire, the actress turned to Polish in her depiction of the scene of Ophelia going mad. For Modjeska, this was yet another way to bring publicity and attention to the cause of Poland’s independence. If audience was reportedly not fully convinced, the use of Polish had certainly never been so political... or so widespread.
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It would seem that during this time, any possible impact of Polish on other languages would have hardly been possible, or that at the least, it would have been restricted. And yet, during the 19th century, the Polish language did manage to substantially influence one other language – or is it two?
Starting in the 19th century, the Czech and Slovak languages, following some two centuries of neglect and oblivion, were slowly being revived by patriotic intellectuals – as well as intense pressure from the German language. In their search for models and benchmarks, the national awakeners, or narodni buditiele, quite naturally decided to turn to another Slavic language, with which it shared much history. You’ve guessed it: Polish.
Polish became especially useful as a resource for a potential historical Czech vocabulary. Lexicographers like Josef Dobrowski or Josef Jungmann dug deep into Polish dictionaries to find words which, after ‘bohemising’, could be added to their new Czech-language dictionaries. Jungmann was especially fond of the Polish dictionary by S. B. Linde, which he emulated and used as a source. As a result, his five-volume Slovník Česko-Německý (Czech-German Dictionary, 1834-1839) contains a conspicuously large number of Polish words; at times, whole entries with Polish examples were adopted. Many of these remain in Czech today, like příroda (nature, Polish: przyroda), předmět (subject, Polish: przedmiot), or záměr (intention, Polish: zamiar).
Slovak, too, borrowed heavily from Polish in these days, which such Slovak words as kochat’ (to love, Polish: kochać), brud (dirt, Polish: brud) or chlop (peasant, Polish: chłop) nicely prove. This was a time of true Pan-Slavism.
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Polish as a window to beyond the Iron Curtain
Fast forward to the 20th century, and we’re in Russia again – only this time, it’s called the Soviet Union. By the mid-20th century, the USSR had become one of the most powerful empires in history. Poland, meanwhile, was now one of the many central European countries which, following World War II and Yalta, found itself closed off behind the Iron Curtain – under the communist regime, with Big Brother lurking just beyond its Eastern border.
But Poles had something many citizens of the Soviet Union didn’t have – namely, a tiny margin of freedom, which allowed for a growth of Polish culture, however controlled. Poland, as the saying goes, was the ‘the happiest barrack in the socialist block’, but for many other countries around, it was also a window to the world.
After the end of Stalinism, this window included access to Western movies – many of which would not have been screened in the Soviet Union and other countries in the communist block – as well as a thriving cinematography of its own, as proven by Andrzej Wajda’s films from this period. Polish readers also had much better access to Western literature in translation, including books which simply would not have been published in the USSR.
The same went for Russian literature. To name one example, one of the chapters of Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago was published in a Polish magazine even before the whole book was published in Italy in 1957, long before its publication in the USSR. This also pertained to the Polish daily press and magazines – which were not as strictly censored as in the other countries of the block. As a result, magazines like Twórczość (Creativity) or Przekrój (Cross-Section) enjoyed a much wider circulation in this part of the world.
This was reflected in the extraordinary position of the Polish language. Starting in the 1950s, many people across the Soviet world, especially members of the intelligentsia, learned Polish in order to gain access to Western culture. This was the case for Joseph Brodski, who learned Polish so that he could read books by foreign authors. As he wrote:
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People there [in Poland] were much better informed, publishing all these magazines, and everything was translated; Czytelnik [a state-owned publishing house] could put out whatever they liked. I remember the first time I read Malcolm Lowry, [...] Proust, Faulkner [...], and Joyce, it was in Polish. [...] We needed a window onto Europe, and the Polish language assured us this window.
From ‘A Talk with Joseph Brodsky’ by A. Husarska in ‘The New Leader’, 14 Dec 1987, trans. MG
Brodski went on to translate Polish poets like Gałczyński, Norwid and Miłosz. Poland, as he claimed, became part of his life, ‘part of my consciousness’. In this, he wasn’t the only one: Russian intellectuals like Vladimir Bukovski and Natalya Gorbanievskaya, as well as the Lithuanian poet Tomas Venclova, also studied Polish at the time, for similar reasons.
In more ways than one, the Polish language – and with it, Polish culture – was back at its favourite role. As a window onto the Western landscape, it acted as an intermediary between the East and the West, thus facilitating the flow of ideas.
Written by Mikołaj Gliński, May 2019
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