What Language Is The Closest To Polish? (A Look At 7 Slavic Languages)

avatarMille Larsen
7 mins read

Polish is a West Slavic language spoken by some 50 million people in the world. This makes it the most widely spoken West Slavic language and the second most spoken Slavic language in the world.

The Slavic branch of the Indo-European language family is known for its languages being relatively closely related. If you know Polish, you're likely to understand a little Russian, Ukrainian and other Slavic languages, but this doesn't mean that the languages are mutually intelligible.

But which languages in the world are actually closest to Polish?

Languages such as Czech and Slovak are close to Polish, but if a Czech and a Pole were to have a conversation, they'd still need to make an effort to understand each others. To find languages that are closer to Polish, we need to look at minority languages such as Silesian, Kashubian and Sorbian.

West Slavic Languages Are Closer Than The Rest Of The Slavic Languages

The Slavic languages as a whole can be divided up into the East, South and West Slavic language branches. To illustrate how different these are, let's try and compare an example of each. We'll take a look at Polish, of the West Slavic family, Russian, which is East Slavic and Macedonian which is a South Slavic language.

To compare the three, we'll look at the same text translated into the different languages. For making this easy, let's take the first article of the Universal Declaration Of Human Rights.

First, let's have a look at Polish:

Wszyscy ludzie rodzą się wolni i równi w swojej godności i prawach. Są obdarzeni rozumem i sumieniem i powinni postępować wobec siebie w duchu braterstwa.

Now, we'll look as the same thing in Russian: (Note that I've transliterated this text into the Latin alphabet).

Vse ljudi rozhdajutsja svobodnymi i ravnymi v svoem dostoinstve i pravah. Oni nadeleny razumom i sovest'ju i dolzhny postupat' v otnoshenii drug druga v duhe bratstva.

And finally, let's look at Macedonian: (Which is also transliterated into the Latin alphabet).

Site čovečki suštestva se raǵaat slobodni i ednakvi po dostoinstvo i prava. Tie se obdareni so razum i sovest i treba da se odnesuvaat eden kon drug vo duxot na opšto čovečkata pripadnost.

Looking at these three examples, we can clearly see that the languages are related. Russian and Polish seem a little more similar than Macedonian, but all three have words that are clearly of the same origin like the word "rights" "prawach / pravah / prava".

Yet it seems unlikely that a Pole and a Macedonian speaker would understand each other, even when making sure to speak slowly. Even Polish and Russian have important differences. Words that seem related still have different amounts of syllables and it's not difficult to imagine that the pronunciation would be quite different.

Also when listening to the audio examples of the texts (that are made with text-to-speech software) the different sound-bites clearly sound different.

How Similar Is Polish To Other West Slavic Languages?

While Polish has some similarities to other Slavic languages, such as the East Slavic Russian language and the South Slavic Macedonian language, these are clearly not mutually intelligible. But what about the languages that are supposed to be more closely related to Polish?

The West Slavic sub-branch of the Slavic language family can be further divided into three groups, namely the Lechitic, Sorbian and Czech–Slovak groups. Polish is part of the Lechitic group (along with Kashubian and Silesian), but how does it compare to a Sorbian and a Czech-Slovak language?

Let's try and do the test. First, let's have a look at Polish for reference again.

Wszyscy ludzie rodzą się wolni i równi w swojej godności i prawach. Są obdarzeni rozumem i sumieniem i powinni postępować wobec siebie w duchu braterstwa.

Sorbian is a quite small language spoken in East Germany by a total of around 50.000 people. The language exists in two variants, upper and lower Sorbian, and these are said to be quite different from one another. In the following, We'll have a look at an example of Lower Sorbian:

Wšykne luźe su lichotne roźone a jadnake po dostojnosći a pšawach. Woni maju rozym a wědobnosć a maju ze sobu w duchu bratšojstwa wobchadaś.

And here's an example of the same text in Czech:

Všichni lidé se rodí svobodní a sobě rovní co do důstojnosti a práv. Jsou nadáni rozumem a svědomím a mají spolu jednat v duchu bratrství.

I haven't been able to find an audio-example of Lower Sorbian (But here's an example of Upper Sorbian), but looking at the three texts above make it possible to compare the languages. They are clearly closely related, But Lower Sorbian is clearly closer to Polish than Czech. Many words are the same or similar, but still, there's a difference in word order and in a significant amount of vocabulary.

So while Polish and Lower Sorbian are close, they still aren't exactly mutually intelligible. At least not without making a lot of effort.

Now, finally, let's try and have a look at the languages that are supposed to be the absolute closest to Polish, namely the languages of the Lechitic subfamily.

Polish Compared To Other Lechetic Languages

The Lechitic language sub-group consists of Polish, Kashubian and Silesian. Other languages such as Slovincian and Polabian used to exist, but today they're considered extinct.

Whereas Polish is a language spoken by over 50 million people, Kashubian and Silesian are minority languages today, and not very common. Kashubian is spoken by a little over 100.000 people and Silesian is said to be the language of around 500.000.

It's important, however, to note that different dialects of both languages exist. Silesian is spoken in both the Czech Republic and in Poland, and depending on the area, it is sometimes considered to be a dialect of either Polish or Czech.

But let's try and compare the three languages with the same text example we used before.

First, let's look at Polish again for reference:

Wszyscy ludzie rodzą się wolni i równi w swojej godności i prawach. Są obdarzeni rozumem i sumieniem i powinni postępować wobec siebie w duchu braterstwa.

And now let's look at a translation in Kashubian:

Wszëtczi lëdze rodzą sã wòlny ë równy w swòji czëstnoce ë swòjich prawach. Mają òni dostóne rozëm ë sëmienié ë nôlégô jima pòstãpòwac wobec drëdzich w dëchù bracënotë.

And finally the same thing in Silesian:

Wšyjske ludźe rodzům śe swobodne a růwne we swojim werće a prawach. Sům uůne uobdařůne filipym a sůmńyńym a majům powinność wzglyndym inkšych jak brat s bratym postympować.

So Which Language Is Closer To Polish?

As you might have noticed, even though there are many similarities between Slavic languages from all categories, there are also a lot of differences. Even the languages that are supposed to be the closest to Polish, like the two other Lechitic languages, Kashubian and Silesian, have differences in terms of vocabulary and grammar.

And where two languages might be similar in some aspects, they're different in others. This means that it's quite difficult to simply pick one language that's closer to Polish than all of the others.

Generally, though, I'd say that the Silesian language, which is often referred to as a dialect of Polish, is the closer language to Polish. On the second place, I'd put Kashubian, then Lower Sorbian. Then other Sorbian, Czech or Slovak languages might be next. Finally, on the other end of the scale, languages such as Macedonian are the Slavic languages furthest from Polish.

But what do you think? I'd be interested in hearing other people's opinions, so don't hesitate to post a comment below!

And if you're interested in learning the Polish language, go read my article on how to learn Polish by yourself.