When a learner of Polish gets to the terms that Poles use to refer to other nationalities, the majority are pretty easy to learn. The Polish names for the French (Francuz), British (Brytyjczyk) or Russian (Rosjanin) are very similar to the terms these nationalities use themselves. However, there are three countries that get special treatment in the Polish language, three countries whose Polish names are strikingly different and that a learner has to make an effort to learn. I’ve always been curious why.
The first is Germany. In Polish, why is Germany called Niemcy? English borrowed Germania from Latin to make Germany, while the French use the term Allemange from the Germanic tribe Alemanni. But there was no tribe called the Niemenni, so what influenced the first Poles to call their western neighbours Niemcy?
One day I found the answer… and it’s hilarious!
I learned that it comes from the Polish word niemy meaning ‘dumb’ or ‘mute’. It made perfect sense. Niemcy comes from niemy. How else to refer to the group of people who don’t speak your language? When the first Poles encountered a tribe of barbarians on the other side of the Oder/Odra river, they probably tried to start a conversation. But these strangers didn’t understand a single word and their own language was completely incomprehensible. No wonder the first Poles christened them ‘the dummies’.
And grammatically the words for Germany and Germans are strange. Why is the Polish word for Germany (Niemcy) and Germans (Niemcy) the same? Is it because, rather than talking about the geographical country, Poles are simply referring to the inhabitants? You know, the bunch of dummies next door?
And then there’s the question why one German is Niemiec and Poles, when they are traveling to Hamburg or Frankfurt, say Jadę do Niemiec... as if they were going to visit one particular German? And when they come back, a Pole will then say Byłem w Niemczech. Niem-czech… are the Czechs dummies too?
All in all, the way that the Polish language refers to its western neighbour is rather odd.
The next country that is a special case is Italy. Most languages refer to this country as Italia, Italiano etc. Why do the Poles call the country Włochy and call Italians Włosi? I looked for a similar pattern to the Germans. Perhaps the name comes from a Polish adjective? The closest I could find was włochaty meaning ‘fluffy’. Are Italians known for their fluffiness? Do Poles refer to them as Fluffarians? Probably not, so it remains a mystery.
And the third country that gets special treatment are the Hungarians, who are not called Huns or Magyars but Węgrzy. A woman from Hungary is a Węgierka, which is also a type of plum. Is there a connection? Perhaps to Poles, Attila the Hun was only a fruit salesman? Whatever the reason, there seems to be a very special relationship between Poles and Hungarians – I even heard a Polish rhyme about it – Polak, Węgier, dwa bratanki, i do szabli, i do szklanki (lit. Pole, Hungarian, two brothers, with the sword, and with the glass). Basically, Poles and Hungarians are great friends who get drunk together after beating up the Dummies or the Fluffarians.
So the process of learning the terms for nationalities raises lots of questions for a Polish language learner. And it gets worse when it comes to idioms.
Take for instance, the Polish expression meaning ‘once in a blue moon’ which is raz na ruski rok (lit. once a Russian year). I use this expression completely blindly. I know what it means, but I don’t know what it implies? Why is it raz na ruski rok rather than raz na szwedzki rok? When I use it am I ignorantly perpetuating some negative stereotype against the Russians?
You see, it is hard to work out whether this idiom might be offensive. According to NASA, a blue moon occurs every 2.7 years. So how long is a Russian year according to Poles? 2.7 years, 5 years, 10 years? And what is implied if one suggests that a Russian year is a lot longer than a normal one? For all I know, raz na ruski rok could be grossly insulting.
Another one I’m worried about is czeski błąd. If I make a typo, is it okay to refer to it as a czeski błąd or should I stick to błąd drukarski? Why, in the Polish language, is a typo connected to the Czechs? Are they prone to making typos? Are they too lazy to double-check what they’ve written? Or is it that they type with one hand while holding a glass of strong Czech lager in the other?
And then there’s a Polish idiom that describes people from the British Isles: wyjść po angielsku (lit. leave in an English style) which means to leave a social gathering without saying goodbye. In the UK it is acceptable to discreetly sneak out of a party without making a fuss (most British habits and customs are designed to avoid making a fuss). But I wasn’t aware that this behaviour isn’t entirely normal until I came across this Polish idiom. Oh, I thought, Poles have a idiom for this! You mean it’s a bit weird to leave without saying goodbye?
The problem for me is that I’m Scottish, and we Scots can get offended if others call us English. So now I make a special effort to say goodbye to everyone when leaving a party in case anyone dares claim that I left po angielsku!
To be on the safe side, perhaps I should just avoid using Polish idioms that refer to other nationalities completely? Just in case I am reinforcing some negative stereotype.
But then again, maybe I shouldn’t be so sensitive.
Maybe I’m being too fussy? Maybe I should just use these Polish idioms freely and not worry if I’m perpetuating stereotypes nor insulting anyone?
I mean… linguistically … I don’t want to come across like a francuski piesek!
*francuski piesek, (lit. french dog), over-sensitive, fussy.