Alien Languages - Bilingual Children's Books
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Polish your language

2011 census data released last week revealed some interesting news about language in England. For the first time in its history, the second most widely spoken language is now Polish with a massive 546,000 speakers. Fantastycznie! The data comes from responses to the census question “what is your main language” and revealed that in fact 4.2 million residents of England and Wales have a main language other than English.  Coming closely in fourth behind English, Welsh and Polish are Indian and Pakistani languages followed by Arabic, French, Chinese and Portuguese.

This has exciting implications for the burly beast that is the English language. Research shows that consistent contact with other languages changes the English we speak, particularly in areas where these other language such as Polish are most widely spoken. The biggest area of change is vocabulary, with foreign words being assimilated into everyday speech.

We already use an array of loanwords without really being aware of it. When retiring to bed, we wash our hair with “shampoo” and put on our “pyjamas” and in doing so are unwittingly speaking Hindi. Likewise, we go “caravanning” in Arabic, drink “cider” in Hebrew and endure “karaoke” in Japanese. Indeed, the very term “loanword” itself is a borrowing, coming from the German “Lehnwort”. When it comes to vocabulary, English is just a giant lexical sponge, soaking up terminology from passing languages.

Polish has so far had a relatively gentle impact on English vocabulary. The words that we do use have mainly entered English via Yiddish slang, brought by Jews migrating from Poland to North America. “Schelpping” around the shops has become a common Saturday afternoon past time, whilst someone who has the “chutzpah” to “kvetch” (complain) about it, is a complete “putz”.   Genuine Polish loanwords however, i.e. those still used in the Polish language today, remain less common, and generally relate to specialist Polish activities – certain foods, dances and past times.

English, in its inevitable omnipresence has also had an impact on its newly arrived Poles, who now speak of “fastfoody”, “buspasy” and “chuligans”; no doubt sadly symptomatic of the more depressing sides of British cultural influence as well as linguistic.

Cultural diversity is a great thing and brings with it a concomitant linguistic richness – an exciting rush of accent, vocabulary and phrasing. English would be far poorer without the influence of immigrant languages, whose words describe new experiences, tastes and feelings. Language is far from static and in a constant state of change and progression. With Polish becoming such an outspoken voice in great burbling Babel, it will be interesting to see what legacy it leaves behind.