Chasing Rainbows

What colour is the Polish language?

It seems like a bizarre question, right? But actually many people have subjective experiences in which their senses overlap. It’s called synesthesia and often involves perceiving numbers, words or sounds as colours. My wife, for instance, colours the days of the week – Tuesday is dark grey, Thursday is green and Sunday is yellow.

So if the Polish language has a colour, what is it?

Blue?

There’s a Polish idiom myśleć o niebieskich migdałach (literally, to think of blue almonds) which means ‘to daydream’. Why blue almonds? It’s actually a good choice because blue food only exists in your imagination. Blueberries are purple, blue cheese is only blue because it’s turned bad, and as for smurf-flavoured ice cream, well that comes straight from a dye factory. So thinking of a blue-coloured food is a perfect metaphor for daydreaming.

And thinking of blue almonds is also a good metaphor for a foreigner trying to master Polish. Sometimes I daydream about being able to speak the language fluently, reeling off perfectly-formed sentences like a native-speaker, understanding all of its grammatical complexities, and being able to spice up my utterances with idioms, street slang or regional dialect. Yet, deep down I know this is just chasing rainbows. At the end of the day, the Polish language is just a huge blue almond and it’s a hard nut to crack.

Gold?

Perhaps Polish is a golden language? Złoty in Polish is used in expressions like złoty interes (lucrative deal) and obiecywać złote góry (promise wonders). So perhaps the real question should be, does learning Polish offer you the chance to get rich? Not really. While many people learn English for economic reasons, I don’t think learning Polish is a złoty interes. So, no Polish isn’t a golden language.

Grey?

If you asked a British person (older than 30) to say which colour best describes Poland, they would probably answer: grey. In Cold War films and books, communist countries were portrayed as grey and bleak, and this image has stuck. So when such people happen to visit Poland, especially in the summer, they’re surprised to discover so much colour.

In keeping with its dull shade, the colour grey in the Polish language is used to describe a shady place or person: szara strefa (grey area) is place of uncertainty, while robić kogoś na szaro (lit. turn someone grey) means to swindle someone, and a szara eminencja (grey eminence) is a mysterious figure in the background who pulls the strings.

So is Polish grey? Well, it’s definitely a szara strefa, where the rules are as murky as a Polish winter, and I frequently feel swindled when I try to learn ten new words, but only remember two. And when I try to pronounce certain Polish words, I do feel as if there is a szara eminencja behind me, pulling my tongue in the wrong direction!

White & Red?

Colours were one of the first group of words I tried to learn in Polish, and I distinctly remember having a real moment of language shock when I first saw the Polish word for the red. I was expecting a word beginning with the letter ‘r’ just like words for red in other European languages – rouge, rot, rosso, rojo… in Polish it will probably be ‘rusz’ or ‘rzot’, I thought. But no, it’s czerwony, and it was then that I realised that learning a Slavic language was going to be tougher than I thought.

Since the national flag of Poland is white and red, you could easily assume these two colours would be very prevalent in the Polish language too.

In English the colour white is associated with purity and innocence. A white lie is told for a good reason, and if you’re whiter than white, then a white knight might come to rescue you. Conversely in Polish, the colour white seems to be associated with madness. While białe szaleństwo (white craziness) only refers to winter sports, the expression dostać białej gorączki (lit. get a white fever) means to go into a furious rage, something that in English, we express as red: to see red mist.

But the madness doesn’t end there. In English, when someone drinks do białego rana (until dawn) and has hallucinations when sobering up, they see pink elephants. I was amused to discover that the equivalent in Polish is widzieć białe myszki (see white mice). Now, white mice aren’t that exotic – you’re much more likely to see a white mouse than a pink elephant. And this made me wonder whether the hallucinations of Polish drunks aren’t as psychedelic as those in the English speaking world. Perhaps it’s a result of the purity of the vodka?

So there are certainly plenty of white idioms in Polish. What about red?

Curiously, there’s hardly any red idioms in the Polish language at all. Indeed, any that I came across seemed to be translations of foreign idioms (e.g. dostać czerwoną kart, czerwone światło) rather than original Polish ones. Why, despite Poland having a rather bloody history, does the Polish language ignore the colour red?

An armchair psychologist might suspect there’s something going on here. Why does the Polish language focus on white half of the flag? Why are there no red idioms? And why, when red is suppressed, do most of white idioms suggest craziness?

rainbow1

Green?

Then, perhaps Polish is a green language? The colour green is associated with youth and inexperience as the expression zielony jak szczypiorek na wiosnę (as green as chives in spring) poetically describes. Yet, to me, Polish feels an old language, more like a gnarly old hedge that’s full of thorns and practically impenetrable.

However, I did experience some greenness early on in the process of learning Polish. After getting bored of repeating nie wiem so often, I switched to the response nie mam zielonego pojęcia (lit. I don’t have a green concept/idea) when asked difficult questions. Even though I didn’t know the answer to the question, by expressing this fact idiomatically, it felt like I was making progress.

And why is it that a lack of green ideas signifies not knowing? I’ve often wondered whether Poles, when searching for information, go through a quick checklist in their heads. Red ideas? Check. Blue ideas? Yes, lots of those. Orange ideas? Yep. Green ideas?… green ideas? I’ve got no green ideas!… I don’t know anything about this!

So what can I conclude?

I know three languages – English, German and Polish. For me, English is bluish-grey, German is green, what about Polish?

I’m pretty sure it’s not red or gold, but it could be grey, white or blue.

But, at the end of the day, all I can really say is nie mam czerwonego pojęcia, nie mam niebieskiego, żółtego ani pomarańczowego pojęcia. I na pewno nie mam pojęcia zielonego!

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