When learning a foreign language there are some vocabulary areas that you learn for pleasure, some you learn because it makes life easier, and some you learn because you have to. Learning Polish vocabulary connected to sickness and health was definitely in the latter category.

The first time I got a headache in Poland, the last thing I wanted to do was work hard memorizing some Polish vocabulary. But before venturing out to buy some painkillers, I decided to consult a dictionary and check how to say boli mnie głowa.

In most languages the word for ‘pain’ sounds unpleasant. Whether it’s the German schmerzen or the French douleur, the word is full of harsh sounds and downward intonation. Yet in Polish, the word for pain, ból, sounds sweet and cute. When Poles want to say that something hurts, they say to boli. To Anglo-saxon ears, boli sounds too cheery to describe pain. Dolly, polly, jolly, lolly…in English such sounds are reserved for childish, playful words. Boli sounds like the name of a cartoon character, a world-famous clown or a feelgood movie from India.

So when I discovered that ‘I have a headache’ in Polish is boli mnie głowa, it actually made me feel better and reduced the pain. But maybe that’s the point? Maybe it’s the natural medicine of the Polish language. Just saying the word makes you feel better!

But in practice, Polish words for illnesses make me feel worse rather than better. For some reason, the illnesses sound unfamiliar and more threatening in a foreign language. Before I get the chance to consult a dictionary, I worry that I have some fatal disease.

I recall being told that I might have ‘angina’, which in English is a heart problem often connected to heart attacks. I was ready to write my last will. But it turns out that angina is used more flexibly in Polish. When I consulted the dictionary, I found that it referred to a broad range of problems, some as mild as a sore throat. ‘Thank God, I’ll live!I cried as I kissed dictionary.

It was the same with grypa (flu). When I heard that I had grypa, it sounded like some terrible illness was holding me in its death-like grip and wouldn’t let go. The English word ‘flu’, by comparison, is so much nicer because it suggests that the illness will simply fly away.

One morning I woke up and couldn’t get out of bed because my back hurt so badly. Eventually I struggled to a doctor’s surgery. The doctor wasn’t particularly sympathetic. He prescribed some painkillers, told me to come back in a month if it still hurt and said ma prawo boleć parę dni.

As I staggered out of his surgery, I started to think about this strange expression that he had used. What did he mean that ‘my back had the right to hurt for a few days’? What right? A legal right? A constitutional right? Personally, I don’t want any parts of my body to have such rights. And I started to worry about the painkillers. If I took them to get rid of the pain, could my back hire a lawyer and sue me? After all, I was depriving it of its god-given right to burn in pain!

Beside the language used to describe pain and illness, when I moved to Poland I also needed to learn Polish ways of caring for one’s health. The number one piece of health-related advice is to wrap up warm in winter – most Poles don’t realise that it’s a waste of time telling this to a British person. To us, wrapping up warm means wearing socks. The second most common piece of advice concerns ginger, garlic and honey. To stay healthy during a Polish winter, it seems necessary to consume huge quantities of these natural substances in hot drinks.

One time a Pole told me that whenever she had a heavy cold as a child, her mother would treat her with something called bańki.

Bańki. What are bańki? I asked.

It’s a treatment, she said. You heat up these glass bowls and stick them on your bare back and leave them for a few hours.

How many bowls? I asked.

As many as possible, but usually around six. They leave bruises for days afterwards. By the way, what’s the English word for bańki?

I think we do have a word for that, I answered. We call it torture!

It certainly sounds like torture to me, but I’ve met a number of Poles who claim it really helps. Call me a coward, but I’d rather use the glass bowls to drink a cocktail of garlic, ginger and honey.

I also learned that geography has an influence on your health in Poland – some places are healthy and some not so much. The healthy places have the word zdrój (spa town) attached to their names because their water is so good for you. And I have heard countless times from Polish parents that they are taking their children to the Baltic coast to expose them to jod (iodine). The first time I heard this word was when a Pole told me in English that he wanted his kids to ‘get some jod’. Not knowing the word jod, I misunderstood and thought he was taking his kids to Sopot for religious reasons.

I once spent a few days in a Polish spa with my parents-in-law. In the UK, spa towns were popular in Victorian times, but are long out of the fashion, and sanatoria don’t even exist any more, so I was completely unfamiliar with the concept.

In my hotel room, there was a large booklet with all the treatments on offer. I had a package that allowed me to choose a range of treatments so I scanned the list, looking for something relaxing, and possibly, beneficial to my health.

At first glance, the only treatments I recognized were masaż and krioterapia. A massage sounded good, but I ruled out cryotherapy. If I did that, I reasoned, I would be forced to drink milk with garlic, ginger and honey for the rest of the day.

It was then that I noticed that one item, bicze szkockie, was connected to my native country. Misunderstanding the word bicze (whip) for bicie (beating), I thought the treatment was called a ‘Scottish beating’.

‘Scottish beating… is that a treatment? I wondered. Where I come from, that’s the thing that puts you in hospital in the first place!

Later I found out that a ‘Scottish whip’ is when you stand in your swimming costume against a wall while someone fires alternate blasts of hot and cold water at you. It sounded like a lashing that the Scottish weather gives you on a walk in the Highlands… especially if you didn’t bother with the hot water. I decided to pass on the Scottish whip.

Maybe kąpiel w białaj glince (bath in white clay)? Maybe not. I once fell up to my chest into a bog while walking in the Scottish Highlands. I didn’t feel better afterwards.

The next item on the list was kąpiel siarkowa. I read it aloud. ‘Kąpiel siarkowa‘.

I knew that kąpiel was a bath, but I didn’t know what siarkowa meant. All I heard was the word ‘shark’. I had a vision of a me, a small swimming pool and a huge shark.

In the end, during the three days in the spa, I only had one massage. Three days. One massage. My wife and parents-in-law walked around in their bathrobes, going from one treatment to another. But I stood firm. I just wasn’t convinced that those ‘treatments’ were good for my health!

By the end of the stay I was so bored that I decided to volunteer in the spa and help out with the whipping. As a real Scotsman, I would happily lash the guests with a whip and then tell them afterwards in a serious, but soothing voice that their entire body ma prawo boleć parę dni.

What happened to Polisher?

It’s been a while since I’ve added any new posts to this site.


It’s not because I have fallen out of love with the Polish language. Far from it.

The reason is that I’ve been focusing my creative energies on writing a novel.

And it’s finally done!

It’s got nothing to do with the Polish language or cultural differences.

But some of the humour is same 😉

If you’re curious, it’s available here:

You’re joking, right?

John Cleese once said that if a British person could choose between being called a bad lover or being called someone without a sense of humour, they’d much rather have a reputation as a bad lover. That tells you all you need to know about the importance of humour in the UK.

I lived in Germany for a couple of years, and one of things I missed was British comedy. The German sense of humour just didn’t do it for me. Indeed, I once read an anecdote about a Brit and a German watching a Benny Hill sketch. In the scene, Benny played a street sweeper. Once he had swept the dirt into one big pile, he looked around to check no-one was watching, then lifted the pavement and swept all the dirt underneath. The Brit laughed, but the German didn’t.

‘Don’t you find that funny?’ the Brit asked.

‘No,’ replied the German, ‘in Germany you can’t lift up pavements like that.’

So I moved to Poland.

I was curious whether the Poles had a vibrant sense of humour. Did they appreciate humour in the same way as the Brits? Did they get Monty Python? On my first day in Poland I stood on the edge of a loose paving stone. Suddenly a blast of muddy brown rain water shot up my leg. Well, I thought, at least you can lift up the pavements in Poland!

When I arrived, I didn’t speak a single word of Polish. So besides physical humour, I wasn’t able to tell whether Poles were funny. As a language learner, it takes years and years to reach a level at which you can appreciate even a fraction of the jokes in a foreign language, and linguistic humour is especially opaque. That said, humour and jokes were actually an important part of the language learning process.

Here are three Polish words that I’ve learned because I didn’t understand a joke.

#1: Lombard

I remember sitting with a group of Poles as they were discussing the fact that one of them had just rented an apartment to a rather untrustworthy foreigner. Spoko, one of them said, on nie wie, co to jest lombard. The others laughed nervously and a little too long. Oh, that joke hit a nerve, I thought… but what’s a lombard? I knew the Lombards as an ancient tribe who had long beards and eventually settled in what is now Italy. Why was it a good thing that this particular foreigner didn’t know any members of a hairy tribe from the Dark Ages? What on earth could the word lombard mean in Polish? Not wanting to interrupt the flow of the conversation, I didn’t ask, but continued to ponder. Perhaps lombard meant ‘barber’ in Polish and they were making a joke about his personal hygiene?

A few months later, while walking down a street in Kraków, I saw a man coming out of a shop. He was carrying a chain saw, which he turned on and started making imaginary cuts in the air. Crossing the road to avoid him, I noticed that he had just come out of a shop called ‘Lombard’. I had a light bulb moment. A lombard is a pawn shop. That guy is checking whether the chain saw works properly before he buys it! Yes, I thought, thank god that foreigner didn’t know what was a lombard was. He would have pawned all the furniture… or worse, he might have a swapped it for a chain saw!

#2: Zawodnik

There are lots of different forms of humour – sarcasm, irony, satire, word play, physical humour, self-deprecating humour, ridicule – and different cultures prefer certain types. So coming to Poland, I didn’t take it for granted that humour would be the same as in the UK. Indeed, I had to learn from experience whether Poles used sarcasm, irony and ridicule.

After being in Poland for about a year, my girlfriend and I were invited to one of her friends’ wedding. Before the event I was invited to the couple’s apartment to get to know them. It turned out that they also wanted to check whether it was safe to invite a foreigner to a Polish village wedding, i.e. could I handle the vodka?

I couldn’t.

After consuming a large number of shots, I got rather ill and had to be taken home in a taxi. The next day (or perhaps it was the one after), the couple phoned my girlfriend to check that I was still alive. I asked her how the call went and whether they were disappointed by my poor performance.

No, no, she consoled me, ‘they said you were a dobry zawodnik.

A what?

Dobry zawodnik…it means ‘a good player’.

Really? But I fell asleep in their bathroom!

What I was really thinking was ‘do Poles do sarcasm?’. Are they saying the opposite of what they think for comic effect? Or perhaps they were just trying to be polite to help me save face?

To this day, I still don’t know. But that’s how I learned the Polish word zawodnik… and, despite all the evidence to the contrary, I like to believe that they weren’t being sarcastic 😉

#3: Skleroza

In the UK, one of the most common forms of humour is self-deprecating humour. Because we don’t want to appear too arrogant or serious, we tend to make jokes about ourselves, especially about our own abilities. When a British person says, ‘I can barely boil an egg’, they probably have at least one star from Michelin.

Interestingly this is not a form of humour that Poles use very often… but there is one exception.

While working as a language teacher, I had a student who struggled to memorize new vocabulary. During one lesson, while we were revising some new language from the previous lesson, she failed to recall a single word. Ale mam sklerozę, she said in Polish. Taking her literally, I assumed she was revealing that she had a serious disease. In English, the term ‘sclerosis’ is used in a number of disorders, most of which are rather serious. I reduced the number of new words we covered and gave her less homework. Must be tough to learn a foreign language with such a disease, I worried.

After the third or fourth time I heard a Pole saying mam sklerozę, I started to worry that there was an epidemic in the country. Perhaps it was genetic?

Eventually, I asked a student ‘How long have you had sclerosis?’

‘What?’ she replied.

‘Is it curable?’

‘No, no… it just an expression,’ she said. ‘I don’t really have sclerosis, just a bad memory!’

And that’s how I learned one of the few Polish examples of self-deprecating humour. While in English, we might say that ‘I have a memory like Swiss cheese’, in Polish they take the depreciation one step further and diagnose themselves with a major disease!


Despite learning a lot of Polish from various types of humour, I still miss so much. Sometimes I just pretend I’ve understood and laugh anyway. Polish has a great expression for this: śmiać się jak głupi do sera (lit. laugh like a fool at cheese) which means to laugh for no reason. It fits my experience a lot of the time. If someone cracks a joke at the end of a dinner party which everyone gets but me, rather than sit there looking serious, I just laugh at the cheese.

When Poles tell jokes, I’d say I laugh at the cheese around 85% of the time. Even when I understand the joke on a literal level, I often don’t understand the double meaning that makes it funny.

I tried learning Polish vocabulary connected to humour, but it didn’t help at all. I memorized the word dowcip (joke) because it is an anagram of ‘cowdip’, and made me think of cows being disinfected. Żart (joke), on the other hand, sounded like the English word ‘fart’ and was easy to associate with lavatory humour. The verb chichotać (to hehee) is a wonderful onomatopoetic word. The only trouble is that I always mix up the vowels and usually end up saying chachotać or chichachać!

That usually gets a laugh.

So do Poles have a good sense of humour? Does Polish humour meet my high expectations? Undoubtedly yes.

There’s a Polish expression obśmiać się jak norka (laugh like a mink). I’ve no idea why a mink is the reference point for laughter, but perhaps it should be used as a sales slogan for language schools.

Learn Polish… you’ll laugh like a mink!

Old School

I’m trying to learn Polish… but which Polish? Sometimes I feel that the Polish language is evolving faster than my ability to learn it.

New slang arises from the streets, the language races to keep up with technological innovation, and the influence of English grows daily.

I remember a Polish guy who went back to learning English after a long break. Whenever he was corrected for making a mistake, he would protest ‘that was correct ten years ago. It’s not the same language any more!

Sometimes I get that feeling with Polish.

The problem for a language learner is that they think they are learning a static, unchanging set of words and rules, but this is far from the case. You simply don’t know which words are outdated, which used to be cool but aren’t anymore, and which are the height of fashion today. By the time you’ve mastered certain functional areas, the language has moved on and you sound like someone who has just been dug up on an archeological site.

Take greetings, for example. My ‘Teach Yourself Polish’ textbook introduced me to dzień dobry, jak się masz and do widzenia but on the street what I heard young Poles actually say was hej, siema and dozo. I remember the first time I heard the expression siema. At a bus stop I observed two Polish teenager boys greet one another and say siema. ‘Are they both called Szymon?’ I wondered and ‘is siema just a short version of the name?’ I made a mental note and checked my dictionary when I got home. The only similar word I could find was siano (hay)… ‘perhaps it was a countryside expression that had just reached the city?’

A further problem with fashionable language is the constant emergence of new trendy expressions. By the time that I learned siema, the cool kids had moved on to siemka or siemano. Will I ever catch up? No, I don’t think so… and for the very reason, that if I, a middle-aged foreigner, knows the word, then it’s high time to invent something new.

It was the same with the word for ‘okay’. My textbook taught me the tongue twister w porządku, but in reality young Poles say okej, spoko or wporzo. I’ve even heard that you can now say gitara. Although, now that I’m aware of the term, the language will probably move on to some other musical instrument instead, bęben (drums) perhaps.

So all of this gives me a dilemma. Which Polish to learn? Should I stick to the Polish that is considered suitable for my age group, or should I try to sound fresh by using the latest street slang? I’m tempted to use these new terms like nara, siema, spoko, dozo and wporzo – they’re shorter, easier to pronounce and, best of all, they sound like characters from the Muppets (wasn’t dozo one of the birds?). So where’s the problem?

The problem is that I have some reservations. I feel as if these terms don’t belong to my age group and if I used them, I’d be like an old man wearing a baseball cap sideways. I feel awkward saying siema to a teenager, I’d feel a complete fool saying siemka? And what kind of fool? Would I be a głab or a dzban? As a linguistic category, the words used for foolish people is another that evolves faster than a learner’s ability to keep up. It turns out that my favourite words for ‘fool’ in Polish are all old-fashioned – gamoń or trąba – while the new trendy ones, like janusz or dzban, sound old-fashioned to my ears.

old school

How can I stay in touch with the Polish language as it evolves? Well, there are two key places to do research – the street and the Internet.

Perhaps I could do some field work? Like an undercover detective, I could venture out at night with a notepad, pencil and pocket dictionary and try to overhear what’s being said on the street corners. However, the only new slang I’d learn would be new ways of saying ‘get lost you old fart‘.

I remember talking to a friend who recently bought an apartment. Before he submitted an offer for a place he liked, he would park outside the apartment building at night, sit in his car and count how many pato (in his words) gathered around the entrance to drink alcohol. If there was a big group of pato, then he wouldn’t make an offer. That’s how I learned the Polish word pato (from patologia) to refer to a certain group of people who come out at night. And while I admire this approach to doing street level investigations, I doubt I’d overhear much new slang from the safety of my car.

As for the Internet, it’s much easier to do research, but it helps me keep up with English slang more than Polish. There are actually some examples of English slang that I’ve picked up via Polish. I thought that YOLO (you only live once) was another LOL variant until a young Pole explained to me what it means.

Yet one challenge with technology is its fondness for shortened forms. I have enough trouble keeping up with new words like spoks, but in chat messages it is shortened to the abbreviation SPX. Immediately I’m three steps behind!

There is one upside to this process of change, and it’s that the Polish language, at least the version spoken by the younger generation, seems to resemble English more and more. Many of the shortened versions of Polish words – nara, spoko, dozo etc – follow a consonent-vowel-consonent-vowel pattern like many English words. Then there is the use of the -ing suffix to describe cool activities as in leżing or plażing. Thirdly, there’s the borrowing of English words to make Polish slang, e.g. za friko, fejm and nolife.

But that’s the ultimate irony… at least as far as I am concerned.

Polish is slowly evolving into English…

…but by the time it does so…

…I’ll be too old to use this new, trendy language.

Ale suchar!

Perhaps I should concentrate on learning more dated language. It’s exhausting trying to keep up with new slang.

I once found the word hulanka in a dictionary defined as ‘a party’. ‘That sounds cool’, I thought and invested some time to memorize it. Turns out it was cool… around 100 years ago. And when I innocently used it for the first time to describe my weekend, I got some instant feedback on its relevance to today’s Poles.

But maybe hulanka is an example of my kind of Polish after all. Perhaps I should focus on learning such old-fashioned words. At least, it’s static, not evolving. If only there were a textbook that taught such old-school language:

Polski dla starych pryków (Polish for old Farts)


Jak ględzić po polsku (Prattling in Polish)

I’d buy them both.

Double Trouble

One quirk that a Polish language learner needs to confront is the language’s fondness for repetition. There’s a number of expressions or grammatical constructions that come in doubles. Indeed, by saying certain words twice, you can actually change their meaning.

If you say dobra, then it means ‘okay’. The first time I heard a Pole saying dobra dobra, I thought it meant the same as the English expression ‘good good’, i.e. a way of saying that ‘all is good and in order’. However, when I started paying more attention to context, I realised that it means something quite different. I was once in a car with a Polish couple. The wife was nagging her husband about something and he said dobra dobra in a tone of voice that suggested he didn’t want to discuss it further. ‘Ah-hah’, I thought, ‘when a Pole says dobra dobra, it means something like ‘shut up about it okay‘. Indeed, the expression is often accompanied by a dismissive hand gesture that attempts to wave away whatever subject is being discussed.

It’s the same with zaraz. If you ask a Pole when a task will be completed and they reply zaraz, it means ‘soon’. If they reply zaraz zaraz, it doesn’t mean ‘sooner’. It means something like ‘why the hell are you asking?’

So I began to wonder if there was a rule: say a Polish word once and it means what it means. Say it twice and it means you’re annoyed and don’t want to discuss the topic further.

However, one time when I went mushroom picking, a friend pointed to a patch of forest and said that right now there were no mushrooms, but last week it was całkiem całkiem (lit. completely completely). I was waiting for a word to finish the sentence. Completely completely… what? But none came.

So całkiem całkiem breaks the annoyance rule. In this case, it does mean more of something.

Sometimes the issue is not that words are doubled, it’s the negation that is repeated. In English, the use of double negatives, as in ‘I didn’t say nothing’ is considered a mistake and sounds childlike or cartoonish. In Polish, on the other hand, nic nie powiedziałem is grammatically correct and double negatives are often used in poetry and songs. Indeed, the expression nic nie się stało (nothing didn’t happen) is practically the country’s motto!

It takes a lot of concentration to unlearn the English approach. Don’t the two negatives cancel each other out and become a positive? Only in some languages it seems. I read somewhere that Polish has a ‘negative mood’ allowing the speaker to pile on the negative expressions as if they were throwing logs onto a fire. I’ve even seen a sentence with a triple negative – nikt nic nie wie (nobody doesn’t know nothing) – which made me wonder if it’s possible to have a sentence with quadruple negatives? Is there record for a sentence in Polish with the most negative expressions?


Another Polish construction that involves repetition is the Polish equivalent of ‘neither…nor’. Expressions like ani ładna, ani mądra (neither pretty nor clever) repeat the determiner ani twice. When I first heard this word I thought it was a form of the name Anna. So Annie is pretty and Annie is clever… but should really we talk about Annie behind her back?

Then, there’s a more baffling set of expressions involving repetition, which, to a English native-speaker, sound particularly bizarre. The first time I read the expression dzień dzisiejszy, I was confused. Doesn’t it mean ‘today’s day’? Doesn’t Polish have a word for ‘today’? Do they need to differentiate today’s day from yesterday’s day… and tomorrow’s day?

Actually, they do.

I was even more surprised when I came across dzień wczorajszy and dzień jutrzejszy. I had learned the Polish words dzisaj (today), jutro (tomorrow) and wczoraj (yesterday) very early in my Polish education, so I knew that the language had words to separate today from tomorrow and yesterday. So why double up? And isn’t there a risk that this might become a trend? Will it soon be possible to say dzień piątejszy (Friday’s day) instead of piątek?

The only context in which this might be useful is when time travel is invented and we need to differentiate between ‘today in the future’ and ‘today in the present’. Perhaps the Polish language is gearing itself up for such times!

Another one I can’t get my head around is fakt faktem (lit. a fact is a fact). When Poles want to emphasise a statement, they say ‘fakt faktem…‘ What’s the purpose of stressing that a particular fact is a fact? Is there an expression fakt fikcją (a fact is a lie) too?

Actually, in the era of fake news, perhaps such an expression is necessary so that a speaker can announce whether they are sharing a fictitious fact or a factual fact. Along with the time travel thing, is this another case of Polish being ahead of the times?

Regardless, all this doubling up can be tiresome. Isn’t it just a case of adding unnecessary words for the sake of it? And just as if the language were deliberately trying to tease me, Polish has an expression to describe this very phenomenon: masło maślane (lit. butter butter).

Yet masło maślane is double bind.

If I want to complain that Polish has too many expressions in which words are repeated, I have to use an expression in which a concept is repeated, thereby reinforcing the problem!

Sometimes the Polish language just messes with your head…

…and there’s not nothing you can’t never do about it!

Thank God it’s Friday’s day!

Stuck in the Syntax

Polish words, Polish grammar, English syntax. I find it hard to shake off the syntax.

Deeply buried in my brain are rules and patterns for arranging words into sentences, but they apply to English only. It’s tough enough learning Polish words and grammar rules, but when it comes to ordering those words into sentences, my brain still relies on English syntax.

Take for instance, English ways of being polite. If you want to make a polite request in English, we often use ‘may I’ or ‘can I’ to ask for the listener’s permission, as in the request may I open the window? It’s like we’re giving the listener the role of master for this particular interaction. Can I open the window? or in other words, you’re the window master, it can’t be opened without your permission, but if you do happen to want some fresh air, then I’m at your service and ready and willing to do the job.

When speaking Polish, it’s hard for me to bypass this deep cultural habit of asking for permission, and sticking with the English syntax, I simply slap Polish words into this cultural pattern and say czy mogę?

Once, on the eve of a summer holiday, I rushed to a shopping centre to buy a pair of sunglasses. Since it was almost closing time, the shop was completed deserted, except for a shop assistant who was mopping the floor. I grabbed a pair of sunglasses and stood by the checkout, waiting to be served, but the shop assistant didn’t react. Okay, I thought, I’ll need to get her attention. Should I cough or speak? I decided to speak and that’s when my Polish words/English syntax program kicked in.

Czy mogę zapłacić? (Can I pay?), I asked.

Musi Pan! (You have to), she replied.

I felt so annoyed by this dismissal of my polite request that I had a strong urge to throw down the sunglasses and walk out of the shop. How rude, I raged internally, how arrogant, doesn’t she know that I’m not actually asking for her permission, but merely being polite and letting her be the master of the interaction! If it hadn’t been the night before my holiday, if I hadn’t been making a last minute purchase, then I would have told here where to stick the sunglasses.

Another pattern I can’t shake off concerns the word ‘I’. My English syntax adores the subject-verb-object pattern, so it’s hard to make the switch when speaking a language that dispenses with the pronoun ‘I’. When saying ‘jestem, mam or idę‘, I know that ja isn’t necessary but I just can’t help putting it back in.

That said, this is a piece of English syntax that works out for me. Dealing with Polish bureaucracy usually means attempting to charm female administrators in various offices so that they help you fill forms, fulfill excessive criteria or bypass certain processes. During such interactions, I’ve found that it helps if I explain where I’m from by saying Ja jestem Szkotem. I can’t remember how it started, but with a particular emphasis on the word Ja and a slight Scottish accent, I try to sound like Sean Connery playing James Bond. Just as Bond repeats his name when introducing himself ‘Bond, James Bond’, I double down on the pronoun by saying Jaaaaaaa… jestem Szkotem. For some reason, this little piece of English syntax seems to have the desired impact, and if I’m face-to-face with a particularly resistant office clerk, then I release my secret linguistic weapon.

It makes me wonder whether English is an egotistical language in comparison to Polish. Are English native speakers more self-obsessed because we overuse the word ‘I’? Julius Caesar famously said ‘Veni, vidi, vici’ and we’ve always translated it with pronouns as ‘I came, I saw, I conquered’ as if it was important to him personally. But perhaps Caesar spoke in a really bored tone of voice, perhaps he was merely ticking off items on a list, perhaps we should translate the quote without the pronoun as ‘came, saw, conquered… whatever’.

One of the biggest differences between English and Polish is that English has articles while Polish doesn’t. I understand how a language can work without the word ‘I’, but how on earth does language work without articles?

That a language has words like ‘the’ or ‘a” is one of those things that I just took for granted. At school I learned French and German, and the challenge with those languages is learning all the different articles for masculine, feminine and neuter nouns – der, die, das, la, le, lesit’s not the absence of articles that is the problem, it’s the sheer abundance of them!

Then when I started learning Polish, I was surprised to discover that there are no articles in Polish at all. Part of me was relieved, but part was disconcerted. How can a language function without articles? How do people refer to specific things?

Somehow it works, somehow Poles communicate without them. But there’s still a voice in the back of my head that just doesn’t believe it. The whole time I’ve living in Poland, I’ve been waiting for the day when I find out that there is some flaw in this system. That there’s some huge problem that arises because the language doesn’t have articles. I’m just waiting for the day when Apple announces that the latest iPhone won’t be sold in Poland because it doesn’t work without the definite article!

Despite the fact that they don’t even exist in Polish, articles are another part of English syntax that I can’t shake off. When speaking Polish I sometimes feel like a person who has lost a limb but still feels its presence. It sounds bizarre but for me the word ‘the’ is like a phantom limb!

One upshot of this is that I tend to overuse words like to, ta, ten, tamto, tamten etc and place too much emphasis on pointing things out. I feel strange saying poprosze o sól. Even when there’s only one salt shaker on the table, I still say czy mogę prosić o tę sól? and point towards it just in case the listener doesn’t know which salt cellar I’m referring to.

So, philosophically and practically, I don’t know how a language works without articles? How does a society even function without words like ‘the’ and ‘a’? How do people communicate with one another? How do the buses run on time? Does democracy still work? Put a cross in the box…which box?

Another problem is that English syntax also causes me to invent invisible, abstract entities and insert them into sentences. For example, in English when we want to express the fact that water is falling from the sky, we say ‘it is raining’. If you asked an English speaker, what ‘it’ is, they would probably be confused. What is it that is raining? The sky, the clouds, the atmosphere? We just don’t know, but we need something to blame for all the rain, so we invent some abstract entity (known as ‘it’) and point the finger there.

Applying this piece of English syntax to Polish, I overuse the word ‘to’ and say to pada instead of just saying pada. I just can’t shake off the English syntax nor the the need to invent some abstract entity to blame for the bad weather.


So speaking Polish accurately involves getting it right at three levels – the right words, correct grammatical constructions and the appropriate Polish syntax. Is two out of three good enough? Not really. I can communicate, I’m understood but I still stand out as a non-native.

I feel like I’m stuck in a spider’s web of syntax, which would be a nice metaphor for my situation… only I can’t remember the Polish word correctly – I always say pajęczyzna instead of pajęczyna.

What can I say?

I came, I saw, I screwed up the language.

Keep Calm

Different cultures emphasise different emotions. Britons, for instance, think that calmness is the queen of emotions and that if only everyone would calm down, then the world would be a better place. All those ‘keep calm and…‘ memes (like ‘keep calm and drink tea‘) are part of our propaganda campaign to sell our favourite emotion to the world 😉

If a foreigner wants to appear British, then he or she needs to develop their ability to be detached and ironic while saying ‘we might have a slight issue here‘ as the house burns down.

So which emotions are peculiar in the Polish language? Which emotions does a Polish language learner need to understand not only linguistically, but also emotionally, in order to sound like a Pole?

In my experience, it isn’t positive emotions (like happiness, surprise or relief) that are tough to express in Polish, it’s the words used to describe negative emotions that give me sleepless nights.

The first Polish word used to describe an emotion that I came across was zły. The dictionary translated it as ‘bad’ but I just felt confused.

You see, there are such a variety of declensions of this little word: zła, źli, złe, złemu, złą, złego…some with a ‘z’, some with ‘ź’, some with ‘ł’, and others with ‘l’ – that I didn’t know whether it was one word or many different words. I’ve probably been corrected more often for grammatical errors connected with the formation of the word zły than any other word in Polish.

And then there is the meaning. At first I thought it was a direct equivalent of the English word ‘bad’ as in źle się czuję (I feel bad) and złe zachowanie (bad behaviour). So when I heard Poles say Jestem zły (lit. I am bad) I wondered if they were confessing something about their character and were going to tell me where the bodies were hidden. Of course, it turns out that zły means ‘angry’ too… and a lot more besides.

Type these three letters z-ł-y into an online dictionary and you get a mass of English translations. Angry, bad, evil, ill, malevolent, malicious, malign, miffed, miserable, nasty, peeved, poor, savage, adverse, annoyed, erroneous, evil-intentioned, evil-minded, fierce, incorrect, invalid, mad, pissed off, spare, upset, vicious, wrong, hot under the collar. That’s a lot of meaning packed into three letters! Does the word zły describe many different emotions or just one huge cocktail of badness?

All in all, for a Polish learner, zły is bad word… both in terms of meaning… and grammatically!

Another time I was confused about the word zły was when a Polish colleague wanted to warn me that our boss was in a bad mood and said uważaj, ona jest w złym humorze. I understood that it was a warning about about her sense of humour, and I feared being the victim of some malicious joke. But I was merely the victim of a false friend. ‘Humour’ in English used to mean ‘mood’ as well, but nowadays it just refers to jokes and comedy. So when a Pole says that are in a bad mood (w złym humorze), I like to think that they are just having a ‘bad comedy day’ and so I avoid making jokes they won’t appreciate.

When I first came to Poland I used to buy a sport newspaper called Przegd Sportowy. Not knowing much Polish, I didn’t read the articles, but simply checked the football results from European leagues. On one particular Monday, the headline on the cover read ‘Hańba!‘. In Scotland, football fans shout this word quite often when they see an opposition player using their hand to play the ball and want to appeal for a penalty. The word ‘handball’, when shouted by a Scottish crowd, sounds just like hańba. So innocently, I assumed the lead story was about a controversial penalty in a football match. Indeed, the picture below the headline showed some hooligans rampaging in a stadium. They must have been really upset by the referee’s decision, I thought.

Of course, it turned out that the story was about some hooligans destroying a stadium and the Polish word hańba means ‘disgrace’. I should have known because if there’s one emotion that is expressed frequently in Polish, it’s ‘shame’. In order to sound even slightly proficient in Polish, it’s necessary for a learner to master one key expression:

Ale wstyd!

Poles are so good at saying this. The slight shake of the head, the way the word ale lasts twice as long as the word wstyd, the sharp, downward intonation at the end. It’s cutting. Whenever the national football team lose an important match, a public institution isn’t functioning properly or a politician makes a silly gaff, I’ve learned to react like a Pole by expressing the emotion of shame and saying ale wstyd!

I have more trouble with the word żenada (embarrassment) though. It sounds too nice for such a powerful emotion. To my ears, it sounds likes a soft drink. Do you want lemoniada, oranżada or żenada? I just can’t connect it to a feeling of embarrassment.


If there’s one language mistake I’ve made that did cause me to feel żenada, it concerns the expression to describe being ‘in the huff’. For years, instead of hearing the correct version strzelić focha, I thought the Polish version was strzelić foka (to shoot a seal). ‘It’s rather brutal, I thought ‘that when a Pole is in the huff they go outside and shoot a seal‘. I did wonder whether there are many seals left in the Baltic or whether they’ve all been shot!

How was I supposed to know that the word was focha and not foka? The only Foch I knew was a French general in the First World War. And while he probably had good reason to be in a bad mood, I doubted that his temper was so infamous as to become part of the Polish language.

So when I informed a room full of Poles that someone had just shot a seal, understandably, they were a little confused. And when they figured out my mistake, I felt embarrassed… just a little żenada.

Of course, language learning can be a minefield. You’re going to trip up from time to time.

So even if I make an embarrassing language mistake in Polish, I revert to the British emotion of calmness:

Keep calm and take care of the seals!

Polish for Dummies

When a learner of Polish gets to the terms that Poles use to refer to other nationalities, the majority are pretty easy to learn. The Polish names for the French (Francuz), British (Brytyjczyk) or Russian (Rosjanin) are very similar to the terms these nationalities use themselves. However, there are three countries that get special treatment in the Polish language, three countries whose Polish names are strikingly different and that a learner has to make an effort to learn. I’ve always been curious why.

The first is Germany. In Polish, why is Germany called Niemcy? English borrowed Germania from Latin to make Germany, while the French use the term Allemange from the Germanic tribe Alemanni. But there was no tribe called the Niemenni, so what influenced the first Poles to call their western neighbours Niemcy?

One day I found the answer… and it’s hilarious!

I learned that it comes from the Polish word niemy meaning ‘dumb’ or ‘mute’. It made perfect sense. Niemcy comes from niemy. How else to refer to the group of people who don’t speak your language? When the first Poles encountered a tribe of barbarians on the other side of the Oder/Odra river, they probably tried to start a conversation. But these strangers didn’t understand a single word and their own language was completely incomprehensible. No wonder the first Poles christened them ‘the dummies’.

And grammatically the words for Germany and Germans are strange. Why is the Polish word for Germany (Niemcy) and Germans (Niemcy) the same? Is it because, rather than talking about the geographical country, Poles are simply referring to the inhabitants? You know, the bunch of dummies next door?

And then there’s the question why one German is Niemiec and Poles, when they are traveling to Hamburg or Frankfurt, say Jadę do Niemiec... as if they were going to visit one particular German? And when they come back, a Pole will then say Byłem w Niemczech. Niem-czech… are the Czechs dummies too?

All in all, the way that the Polish language refers to its western neighbour is rather odd.

The next country that is a special case is Italy. Most languages refer to this country as Italia, Italiano etc. Why do the Poles call the country Włochy and call Italians Włosi? I looked for a similar pattern to the Germans. Perhaps the name comes from a Polish adjective? The closest I could find was włochaty meaning ‘fluffy’. Are Italians known for their fluffiness? Do Poles refer to them as Fluffarians? Probably not, so it remains a mystery.

And the third country that gets special treatment are the Hungarians, who are not called Huns or Magyars but Węgrzy. A woman from Hungary is a Węgierka, which is also a type of plum. Is there a connection? Perhaps to Poles, Attila the Hun was only a fruit salesman? Whatever the reason, there seems to be a very special relationship between Poles and Hungarians – I even heard a Polish rhyme about it – Polak, Węgier, dwa bratanki, i do szabli, i do szklanki (lit. Pole, Hungarian, two brothers, with the sword, and with the glass). Basically, Poles and Hungarians are great friends who get drunk together after beating up the Dummies or the Fluffarians.


mr rude2

So the process of learning the terms for nationalities raises lots of questions for a Polish language learner. And it gets worse when it comes to idioms.

Take for instance, the Polish expression meaning ‘once in a blue moon’ which is raz na ruski rok (lit. once a Russian year). I use this expression completely blindly. I know what it means, but I don’t know what it implies? Why is it raz na ruski rok rather than raz na szwedzki rok? When I use it am I ignorantly perpetuating some negative stereotype against the Russians?

You see, it is hard to work out whether this idiom might be offensive. According to NASA, a blue moon occurs every 2.7 years. So how long is a Russian year according to Poles? 2.7 years, 5 years, 10 years? And what is implied if one suggests that a Russian year is a lot longer than a normal one? For all I know, raz na ruski rok could be grossly insulting.

Another one I’m worried about is czeski błąd. If I make a typo, is it okay to refer to it as a czeski błąd or should I stick to ąd drukarski? Why, in the Polish language, is a typo connected to the Czechs? Are they prone to making typos? Are they too lazy to double-check what they’ve written? Or is it that they type with one hand while holding a glass of strong Czech lager in the other?

And then there’s a Polish idiom that describes people from the British Isles: wyjść po angielsku (lit. leave in an English style) which means to leave a social gathering without saying goodbye. In the UK it is acceptable to discreetly sneak out of a party without making a fuss (most British habits and customs are designed to avoid making a fuss). But I wasn’t aware that this behaviour isn’t entirely normal until I came across this Polish idiom. Oh, I thought, Poles have a idiom for this! You mean it’s a bit weird to leave without saying goodbye?

The problem for me is that I’m Scottish, and we Scots can get offended if others call us English. So now I make a special effort to say goodbye to everyone when leaving a party in case anyone dares claim that I left po angielsku!

To be on the safe side, perhaps I should just avoid using Polish idioms that refer to other nationalities completely? Just in case I am reinforcing some negative stereotype.

But then again, maybe I shouldn’t be so sensitive.

Maybe I’m being too fussy? Maybe I should just use these Polish idioms freely and not worry if I’m perpetuating stereotypes nor insulting anyone?

I mean… linguistically … I don’t want to come across like a francuski piesek!


*francuski piesek, (lit. french dog), over-sensitive, fussy.

Don’t be the Early Bird

The first time I went sailing in Mazury, we hired a boat in Giżycko and set sail around ten a.m. As soon as we were out of the port, the captain handed me a beer.

Alcohol? This early? I don’t think I’ve ever drunk alcohol before midday‘ I muttered.

Welcome to Mazury‘, he replied.

It’s not just drinking habits that vary from culture to culture, attitudes to time vary as well. If you don’t fall into line with a foreign culture’s approach to time-keeping, then you end up doing the wrong thing at the wrong time in the wrong place.

Of course, you could say that drinking beer on a boat in Mazury at 10am is doing the wrong thing at the wrong time in the wrong place. Rather than falling into line with the habits of a foreign culture, I might have ended up falling into a Masurian lake… but you know what I mean.

So when a foreigner learns the Polish language, he or she also picks up some insight into Poles’ attitude towards time. How do Poles tell the time? Do they value punctuality? And are they good time managers?

Lesson #1: Telling the Time

Learning how to tell the time in Polish isn’t particularly difficult, but it’s more tricky than it should be. By using ordinal numbers and the 24-hour clock, the Polish language makes a foreigner work just a little bit harder to master this skill.

First of all, I was surprised to learn that Poles use ordinal numbers instead of cardinal ones to label hours. So if you want to say ‘it’s eight o’clock’, then you need to say jest ósma (literally, it’s the eighth hour). And when I hear this, I always think ‘the eighth hour since what?’ As a child I learned that the First World War ended on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. Saying ‘it’s the eighth hour’ in Polish gives me a sense of doom as if I were saying ‘it’s the eighth hour… since some terrible tragedy occurred‘. To my ears, this gives Polish time a very weighty, backward-looking feel. It’s the eighth hour and we haven’t forgotten.

And there’s a lot of memorization involved. While a learner of English just needs to learn 12 cardinal numbers, learners of Polish need to learn 24 cardinal numbers and their 24 ordinals. This is because Poles use both the 12 and 24-hour clock to tell the time. If you want to meet at 8pm, a Pole might say o ósmej wieczorem (at the eighth hour in the evening) or o dwudziesej (at the twentieth hour). Why? I don’t know. I just know that it’s a pain in the neck to learn all those bloody ordinals.

By the time I had learned how to schedule appointments in Polish, I was too exhausted to actually go anywhere. I’d look at the clock, try and figure out what the time was, and conclude that it pora snu (bedtime).

Lesson#2: Punctuality

The first time I saw the Polish word for ‘hour’, I assumed that time must be important to Poles. To my ears, Godzina sounded like the name of a god, or at the very least, some huge, powerful creature, perhaps the offspring of Godzilla and Krishna. So do Poles treat time as a deity and worship punctuality?

Not always.

There’s seems to be a magical 15 minute grace period. On many occasions, while waiting for others to arrive, I’ve heard Poles talk about the kwadrans akademicki (academic quarter of an hour). As far as I understand it, professors are allowed to be 15 minutes late for lectures. If they are more than 15 minutes late, then the students get up and leave. Thanks to this, lectures don’t start late until 16 minutes past the scheduled start time. Anything up to 15 minutes is actually on time.

In some countries, punctuality is highly valued. It’s important to be on time because being punctual defines you as a well-organized person. In my experience, many Poles have a more pragmatic approach to being on time – it’s only important to be on time if it gains you some advantage. For instance, if there is limited seating at a concert venue and you want to make sure you have a good spot, then it’s worth being on time. If there’s nothing to be gained from being on time, then there’s no point being punctual just for the sake of it.

Lesson#3: Public Holidays

In Poland the names and timings of public holidays are complex, and a foreigner, if they are curious why they have a day off work, faces some challenges. Firstly, they need to learn some Polish history to appreciate the relevance of Święto Konstytucji 3 Maja and Narodowe święto Niepodległości. Secondly, they face the challenge of learning some very tough vocabulary connected to religious holidays – Trzech Króli, Boże Ciało, Wniebowzięcie Najświętszej Maryi Panny and Wszystkich Świętych. And thirdly, because many of these holidays fall on Tuesdays or Wednesdays or Thursdays, they need advanced time management skills to maximize the number of long weekends they can enjoy per year.

In the UK, by comparison, it’s far easier. Public holidays are always on a Monday and are known as ‘Bank Holidays’. You see, in the UK, money is our religion. If the bank is closed and you can’t manage your finances, then you might as well spent time with your family or visit the seaside. It’s simple. No history, no religion, all you need to know is that time is money… except on days when the banks are closed!

Time Mysteries


While I’ve picked up some insights into Polish time-keeping, there are still many things that I don’t understand:

  • Why do the Polish words for midday (południe) and midnight (północ) also mean ‘south’ and ‘north’? At first, I assumed it was because a clock and a compass look similar, but if that was the case, then południe should refer to six o’clock!
  • Do Poles have trouble remembering the words for past and future? Przeszłość (past) and przyszłość (future) look and sound so similar that I couldn’t remember which was which for years. When I learned the word złość (anger), it started to make sense. I’d been pretty angry about the difference between przes-złość and przys-złość for years!
  • How do PKP measure time? While waiting for a train, I’ve often heard an announcement that the train is late by X minutes. This is followed by a wonderful sentence czas opoznieny może ulegnac zmiany (the amount of lateness may change). Einstein taught us that time is relative. It seems to be especially relative to PKP. So you need to get your head around the fact that the train is late, but still might arrive earlier than the estimated delay, or later than the current delay. No matter how long the delay is, I usually hang around the platform. You still need to be on time for PKP’s lateness otherwise you’ll miss the train.
  • What does zaraz zaraz really mean? When a Pole says zaraz it means ‘soon’, but when they repeat the word and say zaraz zaraz, I don’t get the impression that it means ‘sooner’.
  • Last, but not least, there are the Polish equivalents of ‘early bird’ and ‘night owl’. When I first heard the expression ranny ptaszek, I assumed this meant ‘injured bird’. Ranny can be translated into English as both ‘morning’ and ‘injured’ and I assumed it meant the latter. So rather than getting the first worm, I wondered, do Poles think that an early bird is more likely to attacked by some predator? And as regards ‘night owl’, why is the Polish translation nocny marek? Who is this Marek guy? Has anybody stayed up late enough to meet him?

Gulliver’s Travels

Is Poland a big country or a small one? Sounds like a simple question, but it isn’t.

The first day I arrived in Poland, while traveling by taxi from the airport to the centre of Warsaw, there was one thing that really captured my attention in this new, alien country. It wasn’t the people nor the buildings, but some of the cars. They were so absurdly small that I couldn’t believe a human being could fit inside. ‘That’s a Maluch,’ explained the person who had picked me up at the airport. ‘It means ‘a little one’.

It turned out that my flat was ‘a little one’ as well.

The apartment was around 28 square metres and consisted of one room, half a kitchen and a tiny bathroom. There was one narrow sofa bed that was a sofa during the day and a bed at night, and also doubled up as a container for the bedding. Covering one entire wall of the living room was a line of cupboards, shelves and drawers, some functional, some ornamental, which was packed full of possessions left by the landlord. The washing machine wasn’t in the kitchen. Instead, despite being tiny, it took up half the space in the bathroom, and only had enough capacity for one set of clothes to be washed at a time. The TV screen was the size of a toaster and mostly showed ski jumping competitions, which were won by a small Polish guy called ‘Małysz‘.

Unsurprisingly, many of the first words I learned in Polish described small things – mały, wąski, krótki – or were the names of space-saving items of furniture and storage solutions – meblościanka (wall unit), wersalka (sofa bed), pawlacz (cubbyhole) and piwnica (basement). Indeed, one of the first verbs I learned was rozłożyć łozko (set up the bed) though I learned it in the context of nie mogę rozłożyć łóżka (I can’t set up the bed). There’s a knack to getting one half of a folding sofa bed to click into place so that it collapses into the bed position. I just couldn’t work out how to do it and spent the first few nights sleeping on the narrow sofa rather than the full bed. I was too embarrassed to ask for help in case people got the wrong idea. Can you come round to my place and show me how to set up the sofa bed? Sounds way too suggestive!


Like Gulliver on his arrival in Lilliput, I felt like a giant in a world designed for dwarfs. And I started to wonder whether communist architects had made some sort of miscalculation in their plans that caused them to assume that Poles were only 1.5m tall.

First impressions can be deceptive, but at first, Poland felt like a small country.

In the book Gulliver’s Travels, Gulliver escapes from Lilliput, and ends up in a land of giants called Brobdingnag. Curiously, my first month in Poland seemed to retrace Gulliver’s journey when I spent a long weekend in Southern Poland.

I was immediately struck by the difference in scale. The houses had five stories, the fir trees were huge and the Tatra mountains looked like the Alps. In Zakopane I didn’t learn words for small, compact things, but for big, expansive ones: góra, góral, wielki. The hiking routes were długie (long) and the prices, like the mountains, were wysokie (high). The highlanders, the Górals, also seemed to have a big approach to life as well – large, outgoing people with loud, booming voices. They seem to have so much confidence, striding around in those fury sweaters and sheepskin trousers.

I went rafting on the Dunajec river and as we passed beneath the Pieniny Mountains, one of the passengers asked a Góral who was steering the boat what he did during the off-season when there were no tourists. Fortunately, a Polish friend was on hand to translate his reply.

Pointing at the three peaks above us, the Góral said in a melodic voice, ‘we rearrange the mountains to give the tourists a different view when they come back the following season.’

If Nietzsche went looking for his superman in Poland, I’d recommend he start in a karczma in Podhale!

Riding the train back to Warsaw from Zakopane, I leafed through a guidebook to Poland and was surprised to notice that the ‘land of giants’ was called Małopolska.

Isn’t it ironic that the region with all the big stuff is called ‘little Poland?‘ I asked a Polish friend.

‘No,’ she replied. ‘Because there’s a region called Wielkopolska too and there’s no mountains there.’

I started to wonder whether Poland was Jonathan Swift’s inspiration for Gulliver’s Travels. Perhaps he toured Europe in his youth and was struck by the contrast of big things and little things in Poland. Of course, when Swift was alive in the 17th century, Poland was bigger than it is now… and in a different location… and the mountains have been rearranged by the Górals many times since then…

So is Poland a big country or a small one?