In British English one person who has their own category of pronouns is the Queen. She is addressed as Your Majesty and when she speaks she rarely uses I. Instead she uses ‘we’ even though she’s only talking about herself. It’s called the ‘Royal We’ and prompted Mark Twain to joke that only kings, presidents and people with tapeworm have the right to use ‘we’.
British and American English also no longer differentiates between the familiar and formal forms of the word ‘you’. Once we had thou and ye (you), but it’s been hundreds of years since they were last used in everyday speech. So when a native English speaker learns how to address others in Polish, it comes as quite a shock.
I wasn’t surprised that Polish has a polite form of ‘you’. I speak German and learned French at school, and both languages have such forms. What shocked me was that the Polish polite form is in the third person, so actually, when I say czy Pan/Pani tu siedzi?, what I am saying ‘is sir/madam sitting here?’
This made me feel a little strange. Besides the standard opening to a formal letter (Dear Sir or Madam), the words sir and madam are rarely used in English. Indeed, I hate it when anyone calls me sir because it implies a master/servant relationship. And when I realised that I was saying sir and madam in Polish, I felt like a beggar in a Dickens’ novel, humbly bowing before any lady or gentleman who tossed me a penny.
So it took me a while to get comfortable saying Pan and Pani, but, to be honest, that was the least of my challenges. Selecting the right way of addressing others in Polish is a little more complex than in English:
The equivalent table for English looks like this:
We have come up with plural forms like y’all, yous or you guys, but they’re not considered a part of English grammar yet.
In Polish it’s pretty easy to decide whether to use the singular or plural – it just involves counting up to two. It’s working out your place in the social hierarchy that’s a little harder. How does a Pole decide whether to use Ty or Pan/Pani? Well, it seems to involve a mathematical formula based on the following criteria:
If (B/A) x S x R > 1, then use Pan/Pani
- A = your age
- B = the other person’s age
- S = their social status (2 = professor, doctor etc, 1 = regular person, 0 = cham)
- R = how much you respect them (2 = very much, 1 = somewhat, 0 = they just crashed into your car)
I’ve been working on the above formula for a while, but it’s ‘work in progress’. I still need to include the gender of the other person, family relationship, and one’s goal in the relationship (e.g. do I want to marry this man’s daughter?).
Yet, despite the calculations involved, choosing the right form of address in a one-off situation is fairly straightforward. It’s when the variable of time is added, that things get more complicated. The question of when to switch from Pan/Pani to Ty is one that puzzles me:
- Who decides that the relationship is now close enough that we can switch from Pan/Pani to Ty?
- Is it always the older person that makes the offer to switch?
- Can a man suggest the switch to a woman or is that ungentlemanly conduct?
- At what age does a Pole move from being addressed by Ty to Pan/Pani? Is this a rite of passage from childhood to adulthood?
- How does alcohol impact this? If you get drunk with someone, do you automatically switch to Ty? If yes, after how many drinks?
- Are there obligations when you move from Pan/Pani to Ty? If you switch to Ty, does that mean you need to call on birthdays and name-days, or return missed phone calls quicker?
- Does switching to Ty mean that things you do for the other person become favours rather than transactions?
- Can you give constructive feedback to someone with whom you use Pan/Pani or only those with whom you use Ty?
- How do you keep track? Do Poles have a little notebook where they keep track of whom they need to address formally and with whom they’ve agreed to switch?
- What happens if you switch to Ty, but then don’t meet for next ten years, do you need to start from Pan/Pani again?
- Can you switch back to Pan/Pani if you fall out with the other person?
- Can you refuse to switch? A Pole once told me that her professor suggested she call her by name, but she declined. Nie chce mi to przejść przez gardło (I couldn’t get the word out of my throat) she said, meaning the professor’s name. Coming from an Anglo-Saxon country, I was stunned by this.
- What if you are a teacher and you are frozen for 30 years (like Jerzy Stuhr in Sex Mission) and when you wake up you are younger than your pupils. Should you use Pan/Pani?
I am also intrigued by the language that surrounds this. Jesteśmy na Ty (we are on you) sounds so odd when you translate it into English. Another one I like is when, at the start of a training session, the Polish trainer asks the group czy możemy mówić sobie po imieniu? (can we address each other by name?). At that moment, I usually think sarcastically how else are we going to address each other? By grunting and pointing?
If it wasn’t confusing enough, it seems there is even a hybrid form: Pan/Pani and the listener’s first name, e.g. Pani Małgosiu or Panie Piotrze. As far as I can tell, this form is used by elderly ladies with their friends and salespeople who want to create a false sense of closeness in order to try and sell you something.
I also wonder if this is changing? Does the internet, the influence of English and generational change mean that Ty is becoming more prevalent? It seems the internet and I have a Ty-relationship since most of its communications use this direct form. Perhaps this needs to be sorted – surely computers can handle my mathematical formula? And if they decided to re-brand YouTube under a Polish name, would it be called TyTube, WyTube, PaństwoTube… or perhaps the more Slavic PaństwoCiub?
But, after all these questions, I must say that there is one huge favour that Poles grant to foreigners:
We’re excluded from all this!
Poles don’t seem to care whether a foreigner uses Ty, Pani or whatever. I’ve never met a Pole that expected me to use it correctly or was offended when I didn’t. I wonder why this is. Is it because Poles appreciate that their language is extraordinarily difficult and give foreigners a free pass? Is it because Poles don’t have much experience of foreigners speaking their language and so have low expectations? Is it because all these norms and rules about respect only apply to native Polish speakers?
Whatever the reason, I am mightily relieved. I try to follow these linguistic and cultural norms as best I can, but, as you might have concluded from the number of questions in this post, I don’t have complete clarity around this language area yet.