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Polish spells /v/ as "w", and the "v" letter does not exist in the language. The other slavic languages using the latin alphabet are in a reverse situation, "v" is used exclusively and "w" does not exist.

What accounts for Polish's differentiation from all other Slavic languages written in the Latin alphabet as regards the spelling of this sound?

  • 4
    Possibly, influence from German where it is also the case. – Anixx Sep 22 '16 at 20:19
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    There are quite a few languages in which /v/ is spelt "w": German, Polish, Frisian, Kashubian, Upper Sorbian. And if we consider four largest languages that use "w" to write non-loanwords, in two of them "w" is pronounced /w/ (English and Filipino), and in two others "w" is pronounced /v/ (German and Polish). So this use of "w" is in no way exceptional. – michau Sep 27 '16 at 12:41
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    It's not different from "almost all other languages". The spelling is just a common system inherited from ancient times, which a lot of languages happen to share for convenience. But the actual pronunciation in all those languages can well be different from what the language that the spelling system was originally used for. e.g. even Chinese has a type of Latin transliteration but apparently the actual Chinese pronunciation has nothing in common with ancient Latin pronunciation! – xji Oct 8 '16 at 21:10
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It wasn't always written this way: in the earliest records of written Polish (such as the Bull of Gniezno), the letters "u" and "v" were used for this sound as well. There was no official "standard" for Polish orthography (or, for that matter, the Polish language) until the 18th century.

At this point, the letter "w" had already come to mean /v/ in German, due to a 17th-century phonological change ([w] → [β] → [v]). This is the same change which happened much earlier in Latin to separate "v" from "u" in the first place.

So when written Polish was finally standardized, many writers were using "w" for the /v/ sound due to influence from German. And it thus became part of the official orthography.

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  • 1
    The Bull of Gziezno was written in Latin so I don't think it counts. The Book of Henryków appears to employ w. Do you have example texts with v in mind? – user6726 Sep 23 '16 at 18:03
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    The Bull was written in Latin, but contained names of Polish people and places. My notes on this mention the Slavic name "Vsemir" appearing, but unfortunately I can't find a copy online to search—I'll have to check the library. – Draconis Sep 23 '16 at 18:28
  • @user6726 and Draconis, it's Gniezno, not Gziezno. – Alex B. Sep 23 '16 at 18:37
  • My bad! That's what I get for trying to transcribe my own handwriting. – Draconis Sep 23 '16 at 18:39
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    pl.wikisource.org/wiki/Bulla_gnie%C5%BAnie%C5%84ska. Point is that they aren't writing in Polish so it doesn't bear on Polish spelling (the lack of w in Latin spelling overrides all). Whereas, "Day, ut ia pobrusa, a ti poziwai" does count. – user6726 Sep 23 '16 at 18:41
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The original sound in Western Slavic dialects in place of today's /v/ was bilabial /w/. I can't find a good reference, but here the corresponding consonant is definitely stated as bilabial. It is possible, that they didn't want to use the same symbol which was used for V in Latin because the sound was different. In Czech the situation was similar, the sound change /w/ -> /v/ happened in the 14. century. That is after the Bull of Gniezdno mentioned in the other answer.

In Czech the orthography switched to V from W only in the 19th century in a wave of several simplifications and modernizations. Until that time it used W in the same way as Polish does.

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