I once bought a book called Tackling Polish Verbs. It’s basically 250 pages of verb conjugations. What I like about it is the title. It’s not an exaggerated claim like ‘Learn Polish Verbs in 21 days‘ or ‘Polish Verbs made Easy‘. No, the author and/or publisher realised that Polish verbs are a tough opponent, something you need to physically fight. I imagine they pondered a number of options before deciding the title:
- Wrestling with Polish verbs
- Surviving Polish verbs
- 12 rounds with Polish verbs
I also admire the way they chose a title that doesn’t imply success. Buy this book, give it a go, but don’t get your hopes up because you won’t succeed.
In fact, not succeeding with Polish verbs is so common that the Polish language actually has a grammatical aspect that allows you to describe activities that have no end result:
- dokonany (perfective) – this aspect is for Poles who have successfully mastered Polish verbs.
- niedokonany (imperfective) – this one allows foreigners to express the fact that they’re still in the process of ‘tackling Polish verbs’ but haven’t won the battle yet.
Well, it’s something like that.
I remember the first time I came across this was when I looked up a verb in the dictionary, it said this:
robić (zrobić perf)
Immediately I thought two things – (a) what does perf mean, and (b) do I need to bother with it? I checked in the grammar guide at the front of the dictionary. Perf was short for perfective. Cool, I thought, I’m not a perfectionist, I just want to be able to communicate, so no need to learn the advanced, perfectionist version of Polish.
Yet, I couldn’t avoid it for long. Polish is constructed so that verbs come in pairs. So I got it into my head that if I said zrobiłem, it meant that I had finished or completed something and wanted to emphasise that. While if I said robiłem, it means that I did something but there was no end result.
Because this aspect thing is rather alien, I tried to get my head around it by coming up with analogies. Firstly, I imagined how this would work in English. If you say ‘I zdid it‘, then it means you completed something. If you say ‘I did it‘ then you tried but failed:
I zdid it, i zdid it.
You zdid what?
I learned a Polish verb!
Okay, I didn’t.
Another way I tried to understand this was by relating it to shopping. You see. I hate shopping. I treat shopping as if I were some sort of soldier going on a dangerous covert mission. My goal is to sneak into enemy territory (i.e. the shopping centre), do a quick and dirty job, and get the hell out as fast as possible.
So actually when it comes to buying stuff, these perfective and imperfective aspects make sense. How do Polish verbs fit into this tactical approach to shopping?
- kupować – this is what I don’t like. It emphasises the activity of buying, wandering from shop to shop, trying stuff on, comparing prices, getting help, looking for the best deal. Just shopping and shopping and shopping without any goal or end.
- kupić – this is more my style. It stresses the result… because that’s all that matters. It emphasises the fact that you have bought something, completed the mission and successfully escaped from the shopping centre.
A typical sales promotion is two for the price of one. The Polish language has the same special deal. Whether you like it or not, Polish verbs come in pairs. Two for the price of one… and it’s a high price!
Another issue with Polish verbs that a learner needs to tackle are ‘Polish phrasal verbs’. In this case, instead of two for the price of one, the offer is buy one, get ten free.
Take for instance the verb kupić/kupować. By adding a prefix, you get the following assortment of free gifts:
- wykupić (sell out)
- wkupić (buy into)
- zakupić (purchase)
- skupić się (focus)
- nakupować (shop til you drop)
- odkupić (buy back)
- podkupić (outbid)
- okupić (ransom)
- obkupić się (shop successfully)
- przekupić (bribe)
Most of these have some connection to shopping/buying… all but one. I’ve always wondered why skupić się means ‘to focus’, which isn’t even remotely connected to shopping. Focus in English is connected to seeing, the act of looking more closely. So why isn’t the equivalent Polish verb spatrzeć? Maybe it’s connected to my issue with shopping. I just don’t want to focus on doing it properly!
Two of these verbs seem to fit my shopping analogy really well:
- nakupować – as far as I understand, this one uses the imperfective aspect because it focuses on the difficulty of the activity and not the result. So nakupowałem prezentów na święta means something along the lines of ‘I bought a lot but it cost me more’.
- obkupić się – This verb is used with the perfective aspect, e.g. ale się obkupiłem, which means something like ‘I bought a lot and I’m happy with the result’.
But there’s something missing. What Polish needs is a phrasal verb that captures my military approach to shopping – getting in and out quickly – so I offer you the following:
McKupić, verb to quickly buy an item without shopping around
The prefix ‘Mc-‘ emphasises that the action is fast and efficient, and not careful and considered.
So returning to the title of that book, am I tackling Polish verbs properly?
Probably not. I learn in the same way that I shop.
I don’t take an analytical nor thorough approach. Instead of analysing the similarities between English tenses and Polish aspects, I just try to connect Polish language to my everyday reality…
…but that reality doesn’t mean going shopping every day!