People love dogs, but languages don’t. The English language treats dogs poorly with most dog idioms having negative meanings. A dog’s life is an unhappy one, you work like a dog and then die like a dog…and it’s not a happy ending.
On moving to Poland, I noticed that Poles were dog lovers, so I held out a hope that Polish dogs would get a better deal linguistically than they do in English. Yet before I even got to metaphors and idioms, the first challenge was learning the Polish word for dog.
The base form is easy – it just looks like the English word ‘pies’ as in apple pies. The challenge arises when the word is used in different cases:
pies, psów, psa, psem, psie, psi, psiego, psy, psu, piesek, pieskie…
I know that dogs come in many shapes and sizes, but does the Polish language need to reflect this? It isn’t instantly obvious to a foreign learner that psa, psem or psów are forms of the word for dog. Frankly, I see as much similarity between a Chihuahua and a Labrador than between pies and psa!
When I first learned the word for dog, I just assumed that the plural of pies was piesi (pedestrians). So, when I noticed a triangular road sign with an exclamation mark, warning drivers about piesi, I assumed it was an instruction to watch out for small dogs!
The animal may be cute, but the Polish word pies, and all its forms, is a dog to learn!
Fortunately, many dog idioms in Polish are less challenging because they are similar to those in English – pieskie życie (a dog’s life), zszedł na psy (going to the dogs) and traktować jak psa (treat like a dog) – but there are many more that are unique to Polish.
So is the Polish language kinder to dogs than English? Well, one way to verify this is to go through a checklist of needs, such as Maslow’s hierarchy, and ask if each of them are met. So let’s consider a typical Polish dog, perhaps called Burek, and check whether his needs are met according to Maslow’s hierarchy.
Starting at the base of the pyramid, one can ask whether Burek’s basic needs (food, sleep etc) are cared for. As regards sleep, it seems not. Psia wachta (dog’s watch) is the worst watch in the middle of the night. While the rest of us sleep soundly, Burek is awake, keeping an eye out for intruders and thieves. And what reward does Burek get for keeping us safe? Certainly not kiełbasa as the idiom nie dla psa kiełbasa (sausage is not for a dog) clarifies. If he is fed at all, it’s low quality and given grudgingly.
Is Burek’s personal safety looked after? No, he’s not even given a roof over his head. The expression pogoda pod psem suggests that he has to sleep outdoors at the mercy of the weather.
The first time I heard the expression pogoda pod psem (literally, weather under a dog) I did wonder whether it meant good weather. I haven’t spent much time under a dog, but I imagine you’re sheltered and warm down there. Maybe it means hot, steamy summer weather? But no, as it turns out, it just means rotten weather. I should have known that if a dog’s involved, it wouldn’t be good news.
So it seems that Burek not only stays up all night, but does so in the cold, wind and rain.
The next level of the pyramid is belonging. Surely, Burek is a loved and valued member of the family who will be remembered long after he has passed on? Well, no… the Polish language doesn’t pass this test either. The idiom zdechnąć jak pies pod płotem (literally, die like a dog under a fence) is used when someone passes on but isn’t mourned by any one. So it seems that poor Burek won’t be remembered for long…or at all.
Is Burek respected as an individual? No, it seems not. The idiom nie jednemu psu Burek (there’s more than one dog called Spot) reminds us that Burek is just another dog. If you shouted his name in the park, half a dozen dogs would run over. If the wrong one followed you home, who cares!
So no, one can’t say that Burek’s owners help to build his self-esteem, he’s just another dog.
Finally, we come to the apex of Maslow’s pyramid, the highest and most fulfilling need. Does Burek have opportunities for development? Can he grow personally and realise his full potential as a dog?
Anything poor Burek achieves will be psu na budę (useless).
So as this quick run through Maslow’s hierarchy of needs shows, Burek isn’t any better off in the Polish language as Spot is in English. In fact, he’d be better off with Pavlov than Maslow… at least, he’d get fed regularly.
If languages truly reflected people’s affection for dogs, you’d think there would be a lot more positive idioms and expressions. After all, a dog is a man’s best friend, and as they say in Polish wierny jak pies (faithful as a dog). And how do the English and Polish languages treat them in return?
Given all the bad PR that surround dogs, isn’t it time they got organized and started demanding better treatment… at least linguistically? Dogs need to break free of their leashes, assert their rights and campaign for better idioms. If they were to raise awareness of their situation, lobby the makers of dictionaries and march through our cities’ streets, then perhaps one day, in the not too distant future, we’ll all aspire to live a dog’s life!