Stuck in the Syntax

Polish words, Polish grammar, English syntax. I find it hard to shake off the syntax.

Deeply buried in my brain are rules and patterns for arranging words into sentences, but they apply to English only. It’s tough enough learning Polish words and grammar rules, but when it comes to ordering those words into sentences, my brain still relies on English syntax.

Take for instance, English ways of being polite. If you want to make a polite request in English, we often use ‘may I’ or ‘can I’ to ask for the listener’s permission, as in the request may I open the window? It’s like we’re giving the listener the role of master for this particular interaction. Can I open the window? or in other words, you’re the window master, it can’t be opened without your permission, but if you do happen to want some fresh air, then I’m at your service and ready and willing to do the job.

When speaking Polish, it’s hard for me to bypass this deep cultural habit of asking for permission, and sticking with the English syntax, I simply slap Polish words into this cultural pattern and say czy mogę?

Once, on the eve of a summer holiday, I rushed to a shopping centre to buy a pair of sunglasses. Since it was almost closing time, the shop was completed deserted, except for a shop assistant who was mopping the floor. I grabbed a pair of sunglasses and stood by the checkout, waiting to be served, but the shop assistant didn’t react. Okay, I thought, I’ll need to get her attention. Should I cough or speak? I decided to speak and that’s when my Polish words/English syntax program kicked in.

Czy mogę zapłacić? (Can I pay?), I asked.

Musi Pan! (You have to), she replied.

I felt so annoyed by this dismissal of my polite request that I had a strong urge to throw down the sunglasses and walk out of the shop. How rude, I raged internally, how arrogant, doesn’t she know that I’m not actually asking for her permission, but merely being polite and letting her be the master of the interaction! If it hadn’t been the night before my holiday, if I hadn’t been making a last minute purchase, then I would have told here where to stick the sunglasses.

Another pattern I can’t shake off concerns the word ‘I’. My English syntax adores the subject-verb-object pattern, so it’s hard to make the switch when speaking a language that dispenses with the pronoun ‘I’. When saying ‘jestem, mam or idę‘, I know that ja isn’t necessary but I just can’t help putting it back in.

That said, this is a piece of English syntax that works out for me. Dealing with Polish bureaucracy usually means attempting to charm female administrators in various offices so that they help you fill forms, fulfill excessive criteria or bypass certain processes. During such interactions, I’ve found that it helps if I explain where I’m from by saying Ja jestem Szkotem. I can’t remember how it started, but with a particular emphasis on the word Ja and a slight Scottish accent, I try to sound like Sean Connery playing James Bond. Just as Bond repeats his name when introducing himself ‘Bond, James Bond’, I double down on the pronoun by saying Jaaaaaaa… jestem Szkotem. For some reason, this little piece of English syntax seems to have the desired impact, and if I’m face-to-face with a particularly resistant office clerk, then I release my secret linguistic weapon.

It makes me wonder whether English is an egotistical language in comparison to Polish. Are English native speakers more self-obsessed because we overuse the word ‘I’? Julius Caesar famously said ‘Veni, vidi, vici’ and we’ve always translated it with pronouns as ‘I came, I saw, I conquered’ as if it was important to him personally. But perhaps Caesar spoke in a really bored tone of voice, perhaps he was merely ticking off items on a list, perhaps we should translate the quote without the pronoun as ‘came, saw, conquered… whatever’.

One of the biggest differences between English and Polish is that English has articles while Polish doesn’t. I understand how a language can work without the word ‘I’, but how on earth does language work without articles?

That a language has words like ‘the’ or ‘a” is one of those things that I just took for granted. At school I learned French and German, and the challenge with those languages is learning all the different articles for masculine, feminine and neuter nouns – der, die, das, la, le, lesit’s not the absence of articles that is the problem, it’s the sheer abundance of them!

Then when I started learning Polish, I was surprised to discover that there are no articles in Polish at all. Part of me was relieved, but part was disconcerted. How can a language function without articles? How do people refer to specific things?

Somehow it works, somehow Poles communicate without them. But there’s still a voice in the back of my head that just doesn’t believe it. The whole time I’ve living in Poland, I’ve been waiting for the day when I find out that there is some flaw in this system. That there’s some huge problem that arises because the language doesn’t have articles. I’m just waiting for the day when Apple announces that the latest iPhone won’t be sold in Poland because it doesn’t work without the definite article!

Despite the fact that they don’t even exist in Polish, articles are another part of English syntax that I can’t shake off. When speaking Polish I sometimes feel like a person who has lost a limb but still feels its presence. It sounds bizarre but for me the word ‘the’ is like a phantom limb!

One upshot of this is that I tend to overuse words like to, ta, ten, tamto, tamten etc and place too much emphasis on pointing things out. I feel strange saying poprosze o sól. Even when there’s only one salt shaker on the table, I still say czy mogę prosić o tę sól? and point towards it just in case the listener doesn’t know which salt cellar I’m referring to.

So, philosophically and practically, I don’t know how a language works without articles? How does a society even function without words like ‘the’ and ‘a’? How do people communicate with one another? How do the buses run on time? Does democracy still work? Put a cross in the box…which box?

Another problem is that English syntax also causes me to invent invisible, abstract entities and insert them into sentences. For example, in English when we want to express the fact that water is falling from the sky, we say ‘it is raining’. If you asked an English speaker, what ‘it’ is, they would probably be confused. What is it that is raining? The sky, the clouds, the atmosphere? We just don’t know, but we need something to blame for all the rain, so we invent some abstract entity (known as ‘it’) and point the finger there.

Applying this piece of English syntax to Polish, I overuse the word ‘to’ and say to pada instead of just saying pada. I just can’t shake off the English syntax nor the the need to invent some abstract entity to blame for the bad weather.


So speaking Polish accurately involves getting it right at three levels – the right words, correct grammatical constructions and the appropriate Polish syntax. Is two out of three good enough? Not really. I can communicate, I’m understood but I still stand out as a non-native.

I feel like I’m stuck in a spider’s web of syntax, which would be a nice metaphor for my situation… only I can’t remember the Polish word correctly – I always say pajęczyzna instead of pajęczyna.

What can I say?

I came, I saw, I screwed up the language.

5 thoughts on “Stuck in the Syntax

  1. “pajęczyzna” sounds like the language of spiders (polszczyzna = the Polish language, angielszczyzna = English etc.) and it is my favorite word from now on :).
    where can I find any examples of this language? should I search the Web for it? 😀

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Your remark about articles is very interesting. We indeed do not have articles, much as English verbs do not decline according to gender. So when I say “X i Y poszły spać” (X and Y went to sleep), I immediately know that “X” and “Y” refer to women, regardless of how ambiguous their names are gender-wise. This may be, and is, problematic when translating books from English to Polish, especially ones whose plots rely on a mystery as to the gender of the characters.

    You also do not have, as a rule, morphological distinctions between parts of speech. If you say “glue”, “scream”, “bank”, etc., you do not know by the look of these words alone whether they are verbs, nouns, or adjectives. In Polish you do. You neither have a morphological distiction for commands. So “glue” can mean a noun, an infinitve, and a command. So you can imagine a situation where you stand in front of something that has a notice “glue” stuck to it. What does it mean? Is it just glue? Or should you use glue to glue it to something else? In Polish one word alone is enough, in this case, to convey an unambiguous message.

    Another thing that comes to my mind, as a result of studying Icelandic – in English, when you say: “The ship is sinking…” and suspend the sentence at that point, you do not know whether the ship is doing the verb, or whether the verb is being done to it. In other words, the “sinking” in “the ship is sinking” means something else than in “The ship is sinking it”. In Polish, as in Icelandic, we have two separate verbs denoting each of these actions (“tonąć” i “topić”). There are other verbs like these but I can’t remember them right now.

    And by the way, the rules about the use of articles in English may be confusing as well. Why do you say “I go to the shop” even when you don’t know which shop you’re going to? Why do you say “I go to prison” when you’re the inmate, and “I go to a prison” when you’re a visitor? Why did I write “the inmate” in the first clause, but “a visitor” in the other? And was I correct? Why/why not? Why do you drop articles altogether when space is of the essence, like in newspaper headings? Are the headings less understandable because of that? And if not, what’s so special about them? Why do you say “at night” but “in the day”, “in the afternoon”? And so on, and so forth.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Actually your intuition on the “veni vidi vici” phrase is spot on. It is supposed to be the whole official report Caesar gave to Roman Senate on a victorious war. Three words. It couldn’t be a more clear “fuck you, guys, whatevs” message on Caesar’s part.

    Liked by 1 person

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