With about 55,000 people of Polish heritage in Vienna, the Polish language is shaping the city’s soundscape. Often heard on public transportation, in supermarkets and at cultural venues, its continuity is supported by the Jan III Sobieski Polish School, the Austrian school system, and University Vienna’s Sprachenzentrum, among others.
As a bilingual speaker of Polish and Austrian German, I often hear stories of family dramas, affairs, illnesses or other personal matters told by unsuspecting Poles in public places. The variety of languages is a defining aspect of Vienna, which makes it such a versatile place to live, listen and speak in. While it is clear that language is more than words alone express, it is important to look at those nuances that tell us about Polish people’s character.
While Polish and Vienna’s principal language, German, are both Indo-European and inflected languages, “Polish is grammatically more complex with many grammatical cases, pronunciation and verb-inflections,” says Katarzyna Hibel, a Polish philologist and teacher at University of Vienna’s Sprachenzentrum and at the Institute of Slavonic Studies. This explains Polish’s reputation as “difficult” and learners’ struggles.
But what makes Polish distinctly “Polish?”
Polish World View
Polish phrases such as the oft-used trudno (“too bad”) point to a certain kind of fatalism, Hibel says. On the other hand, the many variations of “to take care of something” in colloquial language – words such as ogarnąćor or wykombinować – reveal Poles’ ability “to adapt to new and difficult circumstances.” Polish resourcefulness plus humor enriches countless proverbs such as in śpiesz się powoli (“hurry along slowly”).
The language also feeds off international Vienna with many borrowed words, such as the German Hochstapler, an imposter in high places, or the French salon. To really understand a language means to grasp a nation’s mentality, so Hibel’s Polish classes for adults explore intercultural relations as an essential element. Most of her students are adults with a Polish partner or Polish roots, demonstrating the language-identity relationship, a portrait of how Polish thrives in Vienna.
Keeping Polish Alive in Vienna
Further support for Polish is offered by the Viennese school system the Bildungsdirektion Wien, which offers extracurricular lessons at Austrian schools for children and young adults with Polish as a first language. The Jan III Sobieski Polish School in Vienna, established and funded by the Polish Ministry of Education, also gives bilingual children a chance to expand their language skills and cultural knowledge.
Some 480 students from preschool classes to high school participate here in language, geography, history lessons and more in Polish, a voluntary program alongside regular Austrian school. Additional cultural events such as meetings with Polish artists, World War II survivors, and the drowning of a Marzanna doll (the Slavic winter goddess) when spring arrives, give these third culture kids a strong basis to form their identity. As with many bilingual people, Polish-Austrian speakers often use each language in a specific context.
According to a survey at the Polish School, Polish remains the language of “emotion, prayer and warmth,” while German is associated with “rationality, studying, work and career,” says Hanna Kaczmarczyk, who has been the school’s principal since 1998.
While some of these pupils come to Austria for only a short period of time, many were born here into Polish families. Embedded in a primarily German-speaking environment, they have their own struggles with Polish, with the pronunciation of certain sounds (like z-ź-ż) or with specialized vocabulary, which becomes the material of their weekly lessons at the Polish School.
This not only strengthens their confidence in speaking, listening and writing in Polish but also their identity, says Kaczmarczyk. “Learning Polish opens a door to Polish culture, language and history,” she says, quoting Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein: “The limits of our language knowledge are the limits of our world.”