How I Lost my First Billion

If you’re learning a foreign language, you need to memorize the numbers. There’s no other way.

When I first scanned the list of numbers in Polish, it didn’t look great.

Jeden was good. I was happy with jeden. Two syllables, five letters, easy to pronounce.

Dwa was okay. Short enough, but the pair of consonants at the beginning was tricky.

Trzy. The real problems started when I got to three!

I’ve probably said the word trzy ten thousand times, but I still can’t pronounce it correctly! I just can’t shape my vocal organs to get it out. For some reason, transitioning from the ‘t’ sound to the ‘rz’ sound is physically impossible for me. It’s probably genetic.

My phone number ends in a 3 and whenever I have to read it out loud – whether I’m ordering pizza or making an appointment – I get a little stressed halfway through. I know that soon I will have to say that horrible number and there’s a very good chance the listener won’t understand me.

It usually goes like this:

Me: zero, siedem, trzy

Listener: zero, siedem, sześć?

Me: Nie, trzy na końcu

Listener: sześć? (for some reason, when I say trzy, they hear sześć, which is ironic because I can’t pronounce sześć either! )

Me: Nie, tak jak raz-dwa-trzy

Listener: Ah, trzy!

If I count one-two… then most educated people have enough context to know that I’m trying to say ‘three’ next.

I’ve considered surgery to rebuild my mouth, tongue and jaw. But it would be expensive. Then my wife told me that when I try really hard, when I really concentrate on pronouncing the word trzy carefully and fully, I sound like someone from Kraków. Fine. I’ll take that. It is cheaper than an operation.

Cztery, pięć. Okay.

Sześć. Another horror to pronounce. Especially when you’re still worrying about trzy.

Siedem, osiem. Fine.

Dziewięć, dziesięć. Nooooo, I moaned when I first saw these words written on the page. We talking basic numbers, one to ten. They should be short and simple. The longest English numbers from one to ten are three, seven and eight. Five letters max. Eight is too many. And all those Polish sounds and weird letters. Come on! What’s more, they are too similar. Bound to lead to mistakes.

But it gets worse when you get into double figures. I had a problem remembering the difference between trzynaście and trzydzici. Which one was 13 and which was 30? In end, and probably connected with my feelings at the time, I learned the numbers 11 to 19 by associating the ending –naście with the English word ‘nasty’. One-nasty – that was jedennaście. Two-nasty – dwanaście, three-nasty – trzynaście etc.

The worse number is 99. Dziewięćdziesiąt dziewięć. I wanted to cry.

Beside pronunciation, another issue I have is that Poles often use other forms, words or declinations to represent the numbers. Inevitably, this leads to misunderstandings with helpless foreigners. I will address the horrors of declination in the next post. But first, I’d like to devote a few paragraphs to some other complaints.

I once took part in a Polish language lesson. We had learned the basic numbers and the teacher wanted us to count to ten as a group. Jeden, dwa, trzy…and so on. So that we all started at the same time, she counted us in by saying raz dwa trzy… and everyone started counting. But I couldn’t concentrate because the whole time I was thinking ‘why did she say raz instead of jeden?’ What’s raz? Have I learned the wrong word for ‘one’?

Another time I was helping a friend to move flats. This involved carrying the sofa out of the apartment, down the stairs and into a van. As we bent to pick up the heavy sofa, getting a good grip with our hands, my Polish friend said trzy cztery and lifted his end of the sofa. My end stayed on the floor. I have never understood why Poles start from three-four and then expect action on five. In English, we start at the beginning with one-two, then lift on three. What happened to 1 and 2 in Polish? Maybe, like me, every one hates the number 3? It’s nasty.

So don’t expect any effort from me on 5. I work on 3. By the time we get to 5, I expect the job to be done!

And talking of strikes, I went through a phase of refusing to write the numeral ‘1’ in the Polish way. In English, ‘one’ is written as a single straight line, up and down. In Polish the number one consists of two lines. A diagonal line and a vertical line. Isn’t this inconsistent? Shouldn’t ‘one’ be represented by one line? Not two. It took me a while to get used to this. In fact, I rebelled at first. For geometrical reasons. Call me a purist, but ‘one’ should written in one stroke!

Then there’s jedynka. Or jedeneczka. I once entered a lift, quickly followed by an elegant-looking women, who saw me reach for the floor buttons and just said jedynka. Clearly, she was asking me to push a button for her. But which one? The building had twelve floors and I had heard ‘jed something‘, but it wasn’t exactly jeden or jedenaście. Did she want me to push ‘one’ or ‘one-nasty’? Because I dithered for so long and because the lift had already left the ground floor, she quickly reached out and pressed the number one. If she hadn’t reacted, she would have ridden with me to the 8th floor while cursing me for being a dumb foreigner who couldn’t work an elevator.

I used to watch Szansa na Sukces, not because I enjoyed the singing, but because every time they chose a number at random by pulling on a string, they would announce it using a diminutive – dwójka, piąteczka… my favourite was always czwóreczka. I’ve never understood how a number can have a diminutive form. One is one. Mathematically. How can you have a little one? If jeden plus jeden is dwa, how much is jedynka plus jedynka? Less then two, surely!

Perhaps, I’m splitting hairs?

Incidentally, in Polish ‘to split hairs’ is dzielenie włosa na czworo. In English, when we split hairs, it’s just into two parts. Four is very, very precise. Almost sub-atomic. What technology do Poles use to split hairs this finely?

Finally, let’s move on to the big numbers.

I always thought that the big numbers in English were easy. As we add three zeros, we simply change the first letter(s) – million, billion, trillion. According to the American comedian, Rich Hall, the next number after trillion is a ‘killion’ – because if you try to count up to a killion, you will die before you get there!

Then I started learning Polish. Here, the big numbers are milion, miliard and bilion. That’s confusing, was my initial reaction. I always got mixed up when I saw miliard. I thought it was the Polish word for million. It just looks like it should mean a thousand thousand. But then I discovered that we used to use milliard in English. To mean… well, a billion. But the American billion, not the old British billion. The old British billion is equivalent to the Polish… bilion.

Confused? Just try counting to a killion. It’s easier. Raz, dwa, trzy… What would be the Polish for a ‘killion’, anyway? Zgilion, combining zginąć and milion, I guess.

Last month I was in a shop, paying in cash at the checkout. The shop assistant pointed towards my wallet and said czy chce się pan pozbyć tego bilonu? I had no idea what he was talking about. But I heard the word bilion. What billion? Is he suggesting I am carrying a billion zloties in my wallet? Unlikely. And even if I were, I wouldn’t be in a hurry to get rid of it. And not in Carrefour Express.

He repeated the question two more times, using the same word. He obviously didn’t know any synonyms.

I eventually realised that he was referring to loose change. My wallet was bulging that day, not with a billion in cash, but with lots of small coins. So I swapped some for a ten zloty note.

That’s the beauty of language learning. I’ve been asked for drobne or końcówka (change) a million times in Polish shops. I even wrote a post about it. But on the 1,000,001th occasion, the cashier used a different word. And to make matters worse, it just happens to be a false friend!

Anyway, I’ve decided to write a book, offering financial advice in a self-help style. The title will ‘How I Lost My First Billion‘. Please don’t spoil the content (the above anecdote). There are so many suckers out there. I’m pretty sure I can sell a zgilion copies.

images from Plakat: Poznaj Polskę w liczbach [1945], Nauka rachunków. Cztery działania z liczbami całkowitemi (1883). Wyd 2., Warszawa: Lesman i Swiszczowski, Przyjaciel Domowy: pismo dla ludu, 1852, R.2, nr 2

Thank you, Lena.

Lena, the cartoonist for Polisher (and also my niece) has a lot on her plate. At school, the homework and tests are piling up. That’s why, she needs to take a break from drawing for the Polisher blog.

Thank you, Lena, for all the wonderful drawings that you’ve produced over the last few years. They really gave a blog a unique and charming visual style.

The next post will appear on Friday (19th February). But it will look totally different.

New look, same nonsense 😉

The Dimensions of Polish (part two)

Thinking in a foreign language. That’s the ultimate goal. But is it possible? The voice inside my head might talk to me in Polish from time to time, but it still makes grammatical mistakes and forgets certain words.

And what’s more, there’s another level. A deeper one.

To really think in Polish, I need to grasp how Poles perceive the world. You see, languages have different ways of talking about where things are in space. Different metaphors for directions, up and down, back and front.

If I could only grasp these spatial metaphors, then I would be a step closer to thinking in Polish. But it takes time. And believe me. It really screws with your mind.

So what have I learned so far? What are the dimensions of Polish? And how did learning about them mess with my head?

Dimension #3 – The Adventures of Pod and Spod

I’ve always had problems with the word pod (under) in Polish. I often misunderstood it. Struggled to work out its subtleties. Of all the Polish prepositions, it’s the one I couldn’t get my head around.

When I see the word pod, I immediately think ‘under’. That’s often a mistake. When a Pole says pod domem, they mean ‘near or by the house’. Pod koniec means ‘at the end’. One time I was told that I was driving pod prąd (the wrong way, lit. against the current) in an underground car park. I thought my passenger was criticising the fact that I hadn’t turned the headlights on. Pod doesn’t always translate to ‘under’.

Except when it does.

At my wedding I wore a kilt. I should have anticipated the question when it came. But it was a busy day.

Czy masz coś pod spodem?, a Polish friend asked.

It’s a sporran, not a spodem, I replied, referring to the little bag that Scotsmen wear around their waist. Even if I had understood the question, I wouldn’t have answered it. There are some things that have to remain secret.

Another time I played a board game called Kolejka, whose theme was shopping during the communist times in Poland. One action card was called ‘towar spod lady‘ (goods under the counter) under which there was a photograph of a woman. ‘Oh, she must be the spod lady‘, I thought. No doubt a female shop assistant in communist times was called a ‘spod lady. I wondered if there had been a ‘spod man too.

It took me years to understand pod and spod. My mistake was thinking that a spod was a physical object, like a saucer or a lid, instead of a location under every object. If a Pole said that something ‘jest pod spodem‘, I would look around for a thing called a spod under which that thing was hidden.

And I can’t take them seriously Maybe its their sound. Pod and Spod sound like the names of two cartoon characters – The adventures of Pod and Spod. I have a plan to get two kittens and call them Pod and Spod. Then, when they are wrestling, I can say that Spod is nad Podem and Pod is pod Spodem. Just for fun.

But it got worse when I came across the verbs. The ones that contain the prefix pod-. There’s a subtle mental switch you need to make to conceive of these verbs.

Take for example, lifting. In English, I reach down and lift a box up. In Polish you ‘under-lift’, podnosisz. Instead of talking about the direction the box is moving, you talk about the location of your effort. Likewise, Poles don’t heat something up, they ‘below-warm’ it, podgrzewają. It makes sense. I mean, you have to put the fire under the pot.

But it’s not intuitive at first.

I once rented a flat from an elderly couple, both of whom were present when I signed the contract. The landlady wore a big fur coat and bright green eyeshadow. She actually looked like the Spod Lady from Kolejka. I think her husband was as scared of her as I was.

The flat was furnished. Most of the furnishings were plants. After we had signed the contract and she had handed over the keys, she reminded me to podlewaj kwiaty (water the plants). And because I was foreign, she repeated POD-le-waj very slowly. I started to wonder why she emphasised the pod in podlewaj. I knew that pod meant ‘under’. Was I supposed to put water ‘under the plants’, or ‘underwater the plants’, i.e. not give them enough water?

In the end, I under-watered the plants. But not on purpose. They survived. Just.

Let me sum up this section, or sum under (podsumować) in the Polish dimension. In English you are manipulating things from above. In Polish, it seems, you manipulate from below. It’s like that old joke about Chunk Norris. Apparently, when Chuck does press-ups he doesn’t push himself up, he pushes the Earth down. English is like Chuck Norris, manipulating the word from above. Polish is like the Earth, pushing Chuck up from below. At least, that’s how I conceive it.

Dimension #4 – The Roz- Multi-Verse

In the first few weeks of learning Polish, you come into contact with the prefix roz-. The first hundred times, it’s because you’re repeating the expression nie rozumiem. After that, it’s because you need to get around and discover that a rozkład jazdyis a timetable.

But roz- is a mysterious prefix. It isn’t a separate word. The morpheme itself doesn’t mean anything as far as I can tell. But it does imply that things are arranged or moving around in space.

But in which direction? It takes time to figure out.

Rozbudować (extend) and rozwijać (develop) seem to imply more something. But rozładować (discharge, as in a battery) and rozmrozić (defrost) imply the opposite – less of something! Rozglądać is to have a look ‘around’, while rozliczyć is to account ‘for’ or settle ‘up’, and rozgrzać się means to warm ‘up’ before sport. As for rozwiązanie (solution), it arises in Polish when you untie (rozwiązać) a knot.

I love the word rozczarowanie (disappointment). It appears to imply that the enchantment (czarowanie) has gone, and that you’re disappointed because you now see reality without the magic. In English, the word is much duller. We are disappointed because our hairdresser cancelled Friday’s appointment.

I’m also curious that rozkład means decay or decomposition, yet a rozkład jazdy is a timetable! True, while waiting on a boiling hot day, I feel like I will decompose before the bus comes. But I doubt this is where the expression comes from.

So roz- seems to be a negative prefix, like the English ‘un-‘ or ‘dis-. It also means more of something. Or less. In some contexts, it equates to ‘out’, ‘around’ or ‘up’. Maybe even ‘off’ and ‘away’. A whole multi-verse of meanings. It’s chaos!

Roz- also means something else. I learned that meaning the hard way.

I’ve done some foolish and clumsy things in my life. One time I smashed a hole in a toilet bowl. That was one of the clumsiest. In the apartment I rented from the old couple, there was cupboard right above the toilet. I kept tools in it. Heavy tools. One day I opened the cupboard and a spanner felt out. A big, heavy spanner. It fell straight into the toilet. Then straight through the toilet. And left a hole about the size of a grapefruit in the toilet bowl.

Oh shit, I thought. How am I going to explain that to the owners? How will the Spod Lady react?

And it was an urgent issue. I couldn’t flush the toilet because the water would shoot onto the floor. There was only one course of action. I got the dictionary out.

I looked up the verb ‘destroy’. Zniszczyć sounded too dramatic to my ears. Zburztoo. Rozwalić seemed like the best translation. I did want to stress the urgency of the situation, but I didn’t want to panic an old couple. They might have a heart attack if I used the wrong verb. Okay, rozwalić it is.

So I called them. Fortunately, it was the landlord who answered.

Rozwaliłem toaleta, I announced.


I didn’t have the Polish skills to explain what had happened to the toilet. Still don’t.

My landlord dashed around to the apartment. I think it was the relief that the entire bathroom wasn’t smashed into a million pieces that caused him to laugh so hard when he saw the hole in the toilet bowl. In the end he was quite good about it. He called the plumber and I paid for a new toilet bowl. And luckily for me, he didn’t tell his wife.

And so I learned another meaning of the prefix roz-. Into pieces.

I’ve been trying to wrap my head around it for years. How to understand the Polish prefix roz-?

And I’ve come to the following conclusion.

To me, it’s like you put reality in a blender…

… but you forget to put on the lid.

When you switch the blender on, there will be a huge mess and to describe the result you will require a roz- verb… and possibly, a phone call to your landlord.

That’s roz.

The Dimensions of Polish (part one)

Thinking in a foreign language. That’s the ultimate goal. But is it possible? The voice inside my head might talk to me in Polish from time to time, but it still makes grammatical mistakes and forgets key vocabulary.

And what’s more, there’s another level. A deeper one.

To really think in Polish, I need to grasp how Poles perceive the world. You see, languages have different ways of talking about where things are in space. Different metaphors for directions, up and down, back and front.

If only I could grasp these spatial metaphors, then I would be a step closer to thinking in Polish. But it takes time. And believe me, it really messes with your head.

So what have I worked out so far? What are the dimensions of Polish? And how did learning about them screw with my mind?

Dimension #1 – Pits and Mountains

In Polish you need to think in terms of pits and mountains. The key words are góra (mountain) and dół (pit). That’s the essence of up and down in Polish. The direction ‘up’ is w górę – you’re going up a mountain. The direction ‘down’ is w dół – you’re going down into a pit.

It is a bit creepy at first, visualising all these deep holes and towering mountains. Basically, if you are going down, you need to pretend you’re a miner going into a pit. If you’re going up, then you’re like a mountaineer, climbing Everest.

The constant reference to mountains can be particularly confusing if you’re actually in the mountains. One time I was waiting in a queue to ride a ski-lift. It was necessary to scan your ticket at a gate, which would then open. I scanned my ticket. Nothing happened. I tried again. Still nothing.

On the far side of the gate was a highlander who worked at the ski-lift. He was leaning against a barrier, smoking a cigarette. He looked at me, took another draw on his cigarette and just said do góry nogami. I fed his words into my internal translator and out popped ‘to the mountain by legs’. Is he telling me that my ticket isn’t valid and I have to walk up the mountain…

… in my ski boots!

How was I supposed to know that ‘upside-down’ in Polish is do góry nogami? In the end, the highlander extinguished his cigarette, walked over and turned the ticket in my hand. The gate opened. I’ve never been more relieved.

But it gets more complex. Sometimes, Poles say pod górę (literally, under the mountain) to express the direction ‘uphill’. Going under the mountain is definitely the Chuck Norris way of getting from one side of the hill to the other!

Think of it like this. The mountain is towering above you. Incidentally, the Polish verb for ‘tower above’ is górować. When you’re going up, you are ‘under the mountain’ because it’s laughing while you are suffering. On the way down, however, you go z górki (downhill, lit. from the mountain) and after all that pain on the way up, you’ve never going back.

It’s the same with cash. In English you get paid ‘in advance’ or ‘in arrears’. It’s a time thing. Either you get the payment before the work or you get it after.

In Polish, don’t think in terms of time. Think in pits and mountains.

If you get paid in advance, that’s płatność z góry (payment from the mountain). You’re in charge, towering over the sucker that paid you before the work was done. But if you have to do the work first and you get paid after a month or even later, then it’s płatność z dółu… whether it’s a sack of coal or salt, doesn’t matter. You’re still getting paid from the pit!

Up. Down. Rich. Poor. It’s all pits and mountains in Polish.

Dimension #2 – Step by Step

Most guidebooks have a section with tips on how to ask for directions when you’re lost as a tourist. It’s a complete waste of time. You can’t pronounce the phrases. You won’t understand the answers. And in any case, languages have very subtle ways of describing directions.

Under the definition of the word ‘where’, my first ever pocket Polish phrasebook included the following dialogue:

Where is the cathedral? Gdzie jest katedra?

It’s over there. Tam.

This dialogue puzzles me. If the cathedral was close enough that someone could point at it and say tam, then I am pretty sure that I would be able to spot it myself. Cathedrals aren’t tiny buildings at the end of a dark, narrow alley. And if the cathedral was hidden from view, and the answer to the question was tuż tuż za rogiem (just round the corner), then I wouldn’t have understood a word anyway.

Yet, there’s one word in Polish that you need to listen out for. Actually, it’s not a word, just a morpheme. It won’t tell you in which direction to head, but it will tell you how you’re going.

In English, the verb ‘go’ is all about action. Just go! In Polish, it’s more measured. Step by step. If you want to go anywhere in Polish, you can’t avoid the morpheme chód or chod.

Let’s start with the verbs. Besides the basic chodzić (to go), there’s przychodzić (to come, arrive), wchodzić (go in), wychodzić (go out), odchodzić (leave), zachodzić (drop in), pochodzić (come from), nadchodzić (approach)… I could go on!

Then there are nouns: przychodnia (clinic), dochód (income), schody (stairs), pochód (parade), pochodzenie (origin), chodnik (pavement).

What is a chód anyway? It’s so fundamental to motion in Poland. Basically, it’s a walk. A Pole walks into life as they are born (przychodzi na świat), celebrates their birthdays (obchodzi urodziny), earns money (ma dochody), goes through hard times (przechodzi trudny okres), retires (przechodzi na emerturę) and finally, when they think they’re done with all the walking, they leave this world on foot (schodzi z tego świata).

So much walking!

And is there any footwear to support your feet during all this walking? Only chodaki (clogs)!

I once visited a friend who lives in a rural part of Warmia. After dinner I asked where the bathroom was. Jest tu tylko wychodek, Tomek said and pointed towards the back door.

I had no idea what he meant. I wandered out the door and into the garden. I had a vague sense that the prefix wy- meant ‘off’ as in wyłączyć (turn off) and, of course, chod, meant I had to walk somewhere. Was he suggesting I had to walk off into the distance until they couldn’t see me any more? Then do my business?

As a rule, if I hear the morpheme chod in Polish, I just start walking. I went past a greenhouse, followed a well-worn path, turned the corner, and there it was. An outhouse (wychodek).

It makes sense. In English we kid ourselves that the wooden, outdoor toilet is a house… only it’s at the bottom of the garden. In Polish, the key feature is that you have to take a walk to get there.

To think in Polish takes time. Up and down a long, twisting road. And I’m not going by car. Whenever I hear the morpheme chod or chód, it’s a reminder. That on the long journey to understand the dimensions of Polish, I’m going on foot.


There’s a few things I’m still confused about.

  • Why is a person who works in a coal mine called a górnik (miner) in Polish and not a dółnik?
  • do góry nogami – to translate this expression literally, it’s ‘legs up’. This makes perfect sense if you come across a beetle on its back with its legs in the air? I assume that if you rescue the beetle, you turn it nogami w dół (legs down). But what about a painting or a mug? Do you have to imagine that the object has legs for the expression do góry nogami to apply?
  • The morpheme chod is used in the words for east (wschód) and west (zachód). Wschód means both east and sunrise. Zachód means both west and sunset. Of course, this is very logical. The sun rises in the east and sets in the west. And here’s my question: does the use of chód suggest that the sun walks up and down the sky?
  • The Polish equivalent of ‘one for the road’ is rozchodniaczek. I get the impression that this is much more ethical because it implies that you are walking and not driving. Am I right?
  • I’m often surprised when a Pole says w tamtą stronę (in that direction) and points directly ahead. Is there a subtle difference between the words strona in Polish and ‘side’ in English? In English, the word ‘side’ only has one dimension – left or right – whereas in Polish, I get the impression that it has two – left-right and forwards-backwards.

This topic is too big for one post – so I’ve divided it into two. The Dimensions of Polish (part two), … more ways that the Polish language has messed with my head… will follow next week.

Incidentally, I haven’t included the concepts of ‘near and far’ in this post – I covered these dimensions in an earlier post – Far, Far Away.


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.