I heard about a British guy who didn’t speak nor understand Polish, but he’d lived in Poland for a while and heard the language being spoken a lot. It was all meaningless communication to him, except that there was one word that he heard over and over. He heard it on buses and trams, he heard mothers saying it to their children, he heard owners shouting it at their dogs, he heard it from politicians on TV and from loudspeakers outside churches. But he didn’t know what it meant. He came to the conclusion that it must be the most important word in Polish society, otherwise they wouldn’t repeat it all the time.
But what was it?
What did it mean?
And why was it so common?
The word was ‘Nie wolno…‘.
And if you listen carefully, you can hear it all the time.
Here’s another expression you hear a lot:
If you listen to Polish politicians on the TV or radio, there’s one expression that they use over and over. No matter which subject they’re discussing – the EU, the budget, the constitution – they introduce their opinion by saying:
‘Nie może być tak, że…‘ (We can’t accept that…)
Basically, they’re saying that whatever situation exists right now, it can’t continue like this. They rarely offer an alternative, but they are good at pointing out exactly what ‘nie może być‘.
The most common sign in Poland has the word ‘zakaz‘ (it’s forbidden to…) written in big capital letters across the top, followed by whatever activity is forbidden – parking, playing ball games, feeding the birds. Even if you don’t understand Polish, it’s very obvious what ‘zakaz‘ means – the sign is usually bright red and often there’s a image showing what’s forbidden.
Curiously, despite the popularity of these expressions, they don’t work.
- Nie wolno – this is used when someone (often a child) is already doing what’s forbidden. Saying ‘nie wolno‘ won’t stop them, at best it will lead to the response ‘why not?’
- Nie może być tak, że – whatever subject is being discussed, it will become more popular because now more people know about it.
- Zakaz – people are already doing this activity in this place – that’s why it was necessary to put up the sign in the first place. Adding the sign just gives people a reminder that this is a good place to park, play ball games, swim etc.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned living in Poland, it’s that despite all these reminders about what people can’t or shouldn’t do, Poles will do it anyway!
So that British guy who heard ‘nie wolno‘ everywhere but didn’t understand what it meant, well, it turns out that he was paying more attention to the expression that most Poles do!