If there’s one thing that a learner of Polish has to eventually confront, it’s the influence of the poet Jan Brzechwa on the Polish language.
I remember being in a room full of Poles and asking what the word leń (lazy bones) meant in English. In response, one woman answered by saying Na tapczanie… and immediately three other Poles joined in and said …siedzi leń. Nic nie robi cały dzień. They were all smiling and laughing and looked at me as if they expected me to understand what was going on. I didn’t. All I knew was that I asked for the meaning of a word in Polish, and it triggered a communal recital of a poem.
And this kind of thing happens a lot. One simple word or question is enough to suddenly transport a group of Poles back into the world of Brzechwa, where they recite poems full of impulsive animals, talking vegetables and the various problems of birds. I am constantly amazed how Poles not only know his work, but have learned it by heart.
I started to wonder if that’s how children learn Polish. In Scotland where I come from, we start school at the age of 5. When I discovered that Poles don’t start school until they are 7, I was shocked and couldn’t understand what kids do with all the free time. Now I know. They spend the years from ages 3 to 7 intensively memorizing Brzechwa poems!
And what impact does this have on foreigners learning Polish? It makes the task a lot harder! You see, Brzechwa was so creative with the Polish language that he made it more complex and idiomatic. And because his poetry is on the tips of their tongues, Poles often respond in idioms or verse rather than in simple sentences. During my time in Poland, I’ve heard the following lines used instead of normal speech:
- A to feler, westchnął seler
- Co, kapusta?! Głowa pusta?!
- Czy ta kwoka, proszę pana, była dobrze wychowana?
- Jak pan może, panie pomidorze?!
- Wybiera się sójka za morze, ale wybrać się nie może
Not knowing much about the intelligence of cabbages, the migration habits of jays, or the social skills of hens, I was lost. And even after these expressions were explained and translated, not having read Brzechwa’s poetry, I just couldn’t get a proper feel for them.
I don’t know whether Brzechwa invented all these idioms himself or just played with them, but he definitely seems to be responsible for their popularity. Indeed, it’s the opening line from his poem Chrząszcz that has set the bar for the difficulty of pronouncing Polish. As I’ve written elsewhere, this sentence is used as a mocking test of a foreigner’s doomed attempt to speak the Polish language.
When these idioms arise, I call it a ‘Brzechwa Moment’. These are times when Polish enters this weird poetic world, and sometimes, it’s not even a Brzechwa poem that causes the trouble. One time, I wanted to point out to a colleague that the weekend was almost upon us:
Me: Jutro sobota
Pole: …imieniny kota.
Pole: Kot się ubiera, idzie do fryzjera
Me: Jesteś okej?
I knew it had been a long, tiring week, but when my colleague started talking about her cat’s name day and its plans to go to the hairdresser, I started to worry that she might need more than two days off!
Eventually I came to the conclusion that it wasn’t enough to learn vocabulary and grammar. If I wanted to communicate fluently in Polish, then I just had to memorize some Brzechwa. So I went shopping for a book of his poems. I was looking for something targeted towards Polish language learners – perhaps titled Wiersze dla obcokrajowców, którzy chcą uczyć się języka polskiego z poezją Jana Brzechwy, bo nie ma innego wyjścia (Poems for foreigners who want to learn Polish from the poetry of Jan Brzechwa because there’s no alternative) – but there seems to be a gap in the market since I couldn’t find such an edition.
So I bought a regular book for Polish children and started by learning the poem about the beetle in Szczebrzeszyn. As well as picking up some crucial Polish vocabulary – gąszcz (thicket), gaje (grove) and brzęczeć (buzz), I also learned that a wół is an ox and that they are easily tricked by beetles. While the rhymes are a great memory aid, the problem with learning from Brzechwa poems is that you can’t use little shortcuts like guessing the meanings of the words from context. For instance, take Kaczka Dziwaczka:
z apteki poszła do praczki
kupować pocztowe znaczki
(from the chemists she went to a washerwoman to buy some stamps)
Everything in a Brzechwa poem is unexpected, illogical and absurd, so you need to double check every word. And it’s embarrassing knowing that every five year old child in Poland understands the sentence a niech tę kaczkę gęś kopnie!, but I can’t work out whether it’s the duck is kicking the goose or the other way around.
When I moved on to a poem called Na Straganie, in which the vegetables in a market stall have a conversation about their various problems including lying too long on the stall or who would be the best marriage partner for a beetroot, I started to wonder whether, as well as shaping the language, Brzechwa also shapes how Poles think? After reading that poem, I empathize more with the vegetables when I’m waiting in a queue at a stall. How long have the chives been forced to sit here? How are the turnips feeling today? Is the cabbage right to prophesize that they will all end up in soup?
So I’m making progress, but it’s a long, slow road. I’m starting to fear that not having had those childhood years of intensive memorizing is too much of a handicap. In the end, I may have to accept speaking Polish without the ability to join the group recitals of Brzechwa poems.
I’ll be able to communicate in Polish, but only like the sea creatures in the poem Ryby, Żaby i Raki.
Like the ryby, it will be na niby,
and like the żaby, only be aby-aby,
and like the rak, my Polish usage will always be byle jak.