There’s a rumour that Polish is the 3rd hardest language for English speakers to learn. After a few months in Poland, I thought this claim was exaggerated. Sure, the numbers and pronunciation were hard work, but I had managed to pick up quite a few words and expressions. This is not so bad, I thought. But then I started learning Polish grammar!
I was surprised when I learned that Polish has seven cases. I was even more shocked when I learned that nouns and names change depending on the case… as the following anecdote demonstrates:
I was planning to take a trip to the Tatry mountains and went to the railway station to buy a ticket. Of course, I had prepared in advance, using a dictionary and in my pocket was a slip of paper with ‘one ticket please‘ written in Polish (along with a phonetic version so I could pronounce it correctly). I thought it would be a piece of cake.
Me: poproszę jeden bilet do Zakopane
Cashier: do Zakopanego?
Me: Nie, Zakopane.
I’d never heard of Zakopanego and I didn’t want to go there for a long weekend!
The cashier eventually sold me a ticket to Zakopane and I checked it carefully to make sure that I had bought a ticket to ‘Zakopane’ and not some other town with a similar name.
In English we don’t have ‘cases’. A noun doesn’t change in any way. A ‘book’ is always just a ‘book’ It doesn’t matter if you’re giving it to someone, throwing it away or jumping up and down on it. The spelling doesn’t change.
But in Polish…with all these cases…the names of things, people and places keeps changing. It can be very confusing.
It’s especially confusing with names. ‘You mean, you’re not called Piotr when I go somewhere with you? Then you’re Piotrem! And if I buy Piotr a present, it’s not actually for Piotr, but for some guy called Piotra!‘ Sounds a bit schizophrenic to me…all these different identities!
Incidentally, my name is Andrew, but I use the short form ‘Andy’. When Poles use the genitive case (e.g. zadzwoniłem do Andy’ego), then my name becomes ‘Andiego’ which makes me sound Spanish. (By the way, what happens if you want to call a Spanish guy called Diego?).
Once I had got my head around these changes, I realised that I would have to learn them. So I got out my grammar book and some paper and drew a table – all the cases down one axis, all the genders across the top and started to fill it in. As it got longer, I attached another sheet to the first piece of paper. But there were so many exceptions…you didn’t just add -a or -ego. It depended on how the word was spelled in the first place! Eventually, the table covered three sheets of paper and was so full of data that it was practically useless.
I gave up. I decided that if I need any help with Polish grammar, then I’d ask Piotr or Piotra or Piotrem…any of those guys!