Polish is like Russian, with a drunken slur. At least according to my former schoolmate, Kostja, from Selenogradsk on the Courland Spit near the Baltic Sea. As a Russian, he seems to know what he is talking about. One time, he told me, he met a Pole; vodka loosened their tongues and the conversation flowed freely between them. They understood each other perfectly.
'Polish is like Czech with bad radio reception'
A few years later, I found myself sitting with fifty erasmus students on a bus headed from the Czech city of Brunn to the Polish city of Krakow. The buzzing started on the Polish border; a flood of sizzling and crackling nasal noises coming from the radio. Every now and then, a familiar sounding word would come through dimly on the airwaves. For a split second, it was clear to me: Polish is like Czech with bad radio reception.
'Proto-slavic' common language
This is how misunderstandings often arise between the Slavic languages. One frequently comes across 'false friends'; that is, a word that sounds similar in both languages, but nevertheless has a different meaning. Thus the similarities between the Slavic languages today can be deceiving. Linguists can infer that all Slavs from Ljubljana to the Urals conversed in Proto-Slavic, using regional dialects, up until the twelfth century. The arrival of the Hungarians, and the conquest by the German-speaking Franks had the effect of dividing the southern Slavs in the Balkans from their 'brothers' further north. Polish, Czech, Slovak, and Serbian developed as independent western Slavic languages.
Among these languages, it was the Polish language that had the greatest influence. Through the consolidation of the Polish kingdom and the grand duchy of Lithuania into the Polish-Lithuanian noblemen’s republic of 1569, Polish came next to Latin as the language of officialdom in the far reaches of eastern Europe. As the republic reached its zenith in the seventeenth century, during the 'golden age', eleven million people lived under Polish rule. The area comprised what is now Ukraine, Belarus, the Baltic states, and modern day Poland.
Polish a status symbol
While the Polish population was a minority compared to Ukrainians, Belarusians and Lithuanians, the Polish language and culture spread quickly. Speaking Polish became a status symbol, and the landed aristocracy became more Polish. Even outside of Polish settlements, there emerged Polish speaking elites who governed the native speaking peasant classes.
In 1791, Poland-Lithuania adopted a constitution, which entrenched a separation of powers and ensured more political consultation with farmers and citizens. Fearing what the new freedoms granted to Poles would inspire in their own peoples, the neighbouring authoritarian regimes of Austria, Prussia and Russia took military action and invaded Poland. By 1795, the state was finished.
Thus Poland remained under foreign rule by Germans and Russians until the end of the first world war. The only traces the Poles had left of their national identity were their culture and their language. The (trans-)nationalist and romantic idea of pan-slavism of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries never really got a foothold in the Polish intelligentsia. Pan-Slavists wanted to bring all Slavs together in a common political and cultural sphere. However, their movement was adopted by Russian tsars as an instrument to advance their own power in central and eastern Europe. From the Polish perspective, pan-slavism appeared to be the natural ideology of the occupying power: pan-slavism proposed the liberation of the Slavic peoples through the Russians – while a large segment of Poles were already under the yoke of these 'liberators'.
Esperanto of east
Pan-slavism fell apart. Even today, the slavic languages are moving further apart, as the inhabitants of each nation feel increasingly attached to their own official language. For example Silesians on either side of the border speak either Polish or Czech instead of their regional dialect. Serbs and Croats are making an effort to use regional words and to forget the former common language of Serbo-Croatian. Thirteen years after the 'velvet divorce', Czech children in Prague have difficulty understanding Slovak vendors.
After a century of nationalism, are the Slavs now trapped in their own languages? For some, the dream of pan-slavism is not quite over. For four years, Slovak linguist Mark Hucko has been working on Slovio, the 'esperanto of the east'. Slovio brings the words and grammar of Slavic languages down to lowest common denominator. However, the idea that all Slavs might one day speak the same language remains wishful thinking for the moment. When a Russian and a Pole want to converse, they usually stick to English – or else vodka.
This article was first published on cafebabel.com on 30 January 2007