The first thing you cover when learning a foreign language is how to say ‘hello’. Once you’ve mastered that, you can move on to ‘goodbye’. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the Polish greeting cześć means both hello and goodbye. ‘How economical,’ I thought, ‘I’ve learned two words for the price of one. Learning Polish is going to be easy’.
I was also surprised to learn that cześć means honour or reverence. In this sense, Polish is more respectful than English. ‘Hi’ is derived from ‘hey you over there‘ and was just used to get the attention of the guy standing in the way of your tractor. ‘Hello’ is what you shout down the telephone to ask ‘is anyone there?‘
Despite being included in a beginner’s first language lesson, greetings and salutations are actually a rich language area, full of nuance and culture. You don’t just say hello, you also show respect, social status and define the closeness of the relationship.
While many Polish greetings have a similar form to English – dobranoc, dzień dobry, do widzenia – there are some expressions that are a little less straightforward to learn:
When I first came to Poland and spoke very little Polish, I used to give one-to-one English lessons to a manager in a oil company. During the lessons, the manager would receive a lot of phone calls from her employees, some of which she answered in my presence. She would finish each call by saying ‘pa’ and I used to think that it was her dad that was calling.
‘He certainly has a lot of questions,’ I thought, ‘to bother his daughter at work all the time!’
When I first heard the salutation szerokiej drogi, I didn’t really get it. I understood that it literally means ‘I wish you wide roads’, but was confused why Poles used the adjective wide. If I was to make a ranking of ideal road conditions, I’d put fast roads first, followed by safe in second position. Wide wouldn’t even make the top ten.
But then I heard an anecdote and the expression suddenly made perfect sense.
It concerned an American director who came to work in Poland to run a factory situated 45km from Warsaw. He lived in the city and so commuted to work everyday using a busy road that had one lane in each direction.
The first time he made the trip, he freaked out.
Why? Because it was one of those Polish roads with additional lanes on either side. If you want to overtake, then you drive in the centre of the road, and cars coming the other way move over into these additional lanes. Being American, he’d never seen this style of driving, and he spent the whole trip swerving to avoid cars that were coming directly towards him. As soon as he got to the factory, he went straight to the procurement department and asked them to order him a big Volvo…the safest model available. His employees in the factory taught him the expression szerokiej drogi and jokingly said it to him every time he left to go home.
So actually, the salutation is very literal. Wide roads mean safe roads because there’s room to avoid other traffic. What’s more, wide roads are fast roads because there’s or plenty of room for overtaking.
So I should apologise to those Poles that I doubted. Wide roads are better than fast or safe roads, and when they wished me szerokiej drogi, it was wisdom based on experience!
The use of witam in Polish has always puzzled me, and it’s actually one word of Polish that I can’t bring myself to use. For me, it just doesn’t make any sense. Okay, it’s useful when you are welcoming a guest to your apartment or a new employee to your place of work, but in other contexts, I find it strange.
And I’ve always been particularly confused by the use of witam or witajcie at the start of emails. What is the writer welcoming me to? The email?
In English this would sound automated, as if the computer were welcoming you:
Welcome to this email.
You will find its contents in the two paragraphs below.
If you are not completely satisfied with the contents of this email, please reply button on the top right of the screen.
We wish you a satisfactory stay in your inbox.
I had a landlord in Krakow who always used to use this expression when he came round to collect the rent money. He was medium-height and very skinny, usually dressed in black. As he was leaving, he would always say kłaniam się and he would bow slightly. It was as if he were a butler that was leaving his master for the night.
At first, I assumed it was a regional expression, and that I was hearing the word ‘goodbye’ in a Cracovian dialect. It wasn’t until later that I learned that kłaniam się actually means ‘I bow’.
I can’t help using kłaniam się sarcastically from time to time. Like when I was summoned to give a presentation to a board meeting – I delivered the presentation, answered some questions and left so they could move on to the next topic. So I picked up my laptop, bowed slightly and said kłaniam się as a I backed out of the door.
I wish you a wide virtual highway.
Welcome to the end of this post 😉
Wel, as you might already know the use of “Witam” in e-mails is actually incorrect according to linguists. It was born on the Internet, where people wanted something less formal than “Szanowny Panie” and also because when you write to a person that is selling something on allegro, you don’t really know a gender of that person.
I personally try to avoid it as much as possible, because it truly looks weird, as you pointed out.
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I remember that one of my professors said that if he sees ‘witam’ at the beginning of the e-mail he wants to write ‘żegnam’ as an answer.
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Interesting, so it’s an imperfect solution to a modern problem. English has the same issue with ‘dear’. It just doesn’t suit the internet age. This is especially true when addressing an unknown recipient – ‘dear sir/madam’ sounds too formal for quick email.
This is why I begin all half-informal emails with “Dzień dobry”. You can never go wrong with dzień dobry.
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Unless the recipient reads the email in the evening, when they should expect ‘dobry wieczór’.