Online Polish Loses Some Of Its Polish

from the crossing-the-l-and-dotting-the-z dept

If it is to be true to its name, the World Wide Web ought to reflect the planet’s full cultural and linguistic diversity. Currently, though, many sites and tools remain optimized for English and its character set, although that’s gradually changing as other countries with different languages and writing systems come online in greater numbers.

This anglocentricity can have some unexpected knock-on effects on how people use their native tongues online, as this article about the plight of the written Polish language explains:

Computer and phone keyboards require users to punch additional keys for Polish alphabet. To save time, Poles often skip the nuances, and sometimes need to guess the meaning of the message that they have received.

Of course, all languages have ambiguities — as in this post’s headline — but in the case discussed above, the use of technology seems to be introducing some more, because special letters with extra diacritical marks are avoided and replaced by simpler versions that change a word’s meaning in important ways. In the same article, a Polish linguist expresses his fears about what this might lead to:

“Today, the Polish language is threatened by the tendency to avoid its characteristic letters,” Bralczyk said. “The less we use diacritical marks in text messages, the more likely they are to vanish altogether. That would mean an impoverishment of the language and of our life. I would be sorry.”

He probably doesn’t need to worry. Technology will soon sort out this problem of its own making: touchscreens allow all kinds of extended keyboards, including those with extra characters, and predictive technology can auto-correct as the user enters text. In due course, voice recognition will be good enough to offer a completely hands-free approach for both desktops and mobiles, and will be able to apply all the diacritical marks required as the dictation proceeds. Indeed, far from leading to diacritical marks disappearing, there’s no reason why such digital writing assistants shouldn’t help people use them more widely and correctly than ever before.

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Comments on “Online Polish Loses Some Of Its Polish”

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Anonymous Coward says:

I believe he is misguided, the transformation of a language, is an evolutionary step, we use what we need, we discard what we don’t.

Here is another view on the subject.

Texting is not impoverishing or destroying the language is creating a new form of language, and it is happening right before our eyes.

Anonymouse says:

Re: Re:

That’s a bad way of looking at it, would you be happy if 7 characters of the alphabet were unusable/very difficult to get to for English speaking people on their phones & computers? Lets drop off AEIOUT and W, you can use the rest and lets see how meaningful and useful your posts would be if you couldn’t use those 7 letter anymore from here on out…

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Hmm

It has been proposed several times and some people even created a neutral and much easier language to use than english. The problem is to a lesser extend spanish and to a larger extend chinese and french. Those countries do not under any circumstances want to change their language. In europe french is the official language for the postal service!

While I prefer english over danish in a lot of situation and people in the nordic countries are effectively close to bilingual (age 65 or below), I do not see it happening in France or China any time soon.

Stalin says:

Re: Hmm


Also, what’s with the proliferation of operating systems? It creates headaches for programmers, we should all go with the most popular OS and settle on that once and for all.

Also, what’s with the proliferation of species? All we really need is one type of algae to create oxygen, one type of cow to create meat, one type of human to create cuddly babies. A single common race of meat-producing species among all humans is worth the death of all other animal species.

Ninja (profile) says:

I don’t think Anglo-saxonic or rather English is at fault here. I’d say it’s the supremacy of nations that use the Roman alphabet so it goes way back in history. This may be leveled out in the next decades as the Asiatic influence grows (although I doubt China will be able to maintain their momentum for long).

We have to remember that all modern computer and software engineering has had their origins in nations that either use English or the Roman alphabet.. And it made sense back then with all the memory restraints. I can’t envision how they’d make it based on all the symbols you have on some languages.

marek says:

Polish spelling is very simple

Ironic that the MSN piece fails to show the Polish diacriticals correctly on either of the brower/OS combinations I have tried.

That’s a symptom of the problem, of course – as is the title of that piece, suggesting that the campaign is to preserve ‘its complex spelling’. But Polish doesn’t have complex spelling: it has very simple and consistent spelling. In Polish everything is pronounced as it is spelled and spelled as it is pronounced, something that in English we can only dream of. There is no equivalent in Polish of “ghoti”.

What Poland does have is complicated orthography – or at least more complicated than English. That’s not a pedantic distinction (OK, not just a pedantic distinction), because it means that the problem very quickly goes away if the tools can cope. There have been keyboards with Polish layouts since the dawn of the typewriter; it is easy to configure programs such as Word to use a logically sensible and easy to use layout even without a Polish physical layout. The problem comes partly from transmission – Kuba’s point in the first comment – and partly the growth of devices without a traditional keyboard layout. But in principle, the growing use of soft keyboards should make that easy to solve.

So there is a problem – but I suspect it is problem much more of the last ten years than the next ten.

randompole says:

Re: Polish spelling is very simple

Everything is pronounced as it is spelled? No, it isn’t. That’s actually a very common misconception, even among native speakers of the language apparently.

Take digraphs for example (cz, dz, rz, sz, dż). You wouldn’t normally pronounce them as we spell them in Polish. How about gemination in words like “ssaki”, “rodzinny”, “Joanna” etc.? That’s just the very basic stuff off the top of my head, but there’s lots more.

marek says:

Re: Re: Polish spelling is very simple

I think your examples support my argument rather than contradict it. In Polish, both digraphs and gemination are not just more consistent in themselves but can be heard pretty clearly in the spoken language. ‘Cz’ has one pronunciation, unlike ‘ch’ in English, for example, which has two; ‘rodziny’ is spelt differently from ‘rodzinny’ but it’s pronounced differently too.

So I stand by the assertion that pronunciation tells you spelling and spelling tells you pronunciation in Polish, in a way which is simply not true of English. That’s not to say that there aren’t any exceptions, nor is to say that Polish is special and unique in this respect – it is English which is much more the outlier in this context.

The problems of expressing Polish in anglocentric communications tools and protocols has a lot to do with orthography; it has nothing at all to do with spelling.

Jean-Marc Liotier (profile) says:

Poles are not alone...

We used to have the same problem with French – twenty years ago to preserve charset compatibility, I would even go as far as writing French with no accents. Today, we even start using accented capitals again and there are fierce debates about dash variants and their appropriate uses. Technology has reached a point where it no longer constraints language expression but empowers it – just start using the available tools to their full potential… And teach other users about them !

PRMan (profile) says:

Re: Re:

No coincidence whatsoever. I had a professor in college who did his dissertation on the fact that language creates who you are as a society.

The Chinese are very traditional because the language cannot change easily.

English-speakers invent lots of stuff because they can make up words whenever they feel like it.

There was a lot of other stuff to it (fascinating, actually), but he seemed to be right on.

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