The Dimensions of Polish (part one)

Thinking in a foreign language. That’s the ultimate goal. But is it possible? The voice inside my head might talk to me in Polish from time to time, but it still makes grammatical mistakes and forgets key vocabulary.

And what’s more, there’s another level. A deeper one.

To really think in Polish, I need to grasp how Poles perceive the world. You see, languages have different ways of talking about where things are in space. Different metaphors for directions, up and down, back and front.

If only I could grasp these spatial metaphors, then I would be a step closer to thinking in Polish. But it takes time. And believe me, it really messes with your head.

So what have I worked out so far? What are the dimensions of Polish? And how did learning about them screw with my mind?

Dimension #1 – Pits and Mountains

In Polish you need to think in terms of pits and mountains. The key words are góra (mountain) and dół (pit). That’s the essence of up and down in Polish. The direction ‘up’ is w górę – you’re going up a mountain. The direction ‘down’ is w dół – you’re going down into a pit.

It is a bit creepy at first, visualising all these deep holes and towering mountains. Basically, if you are going down, you need to pretend you’re a miner going into a pit. If you’re going up, then you’re like a mountaineer, climbing Everest.

The constant reference to mountains can be particularly confusing if you’re actually in the mountains. One time I was waiting in a queue to ride a ski-lift. It was necessary to scan your ticket at a gate, which would then open. I scanned my ticket. Nothing happened. I tried again. Still nothing.

On the far side of the gate was a highlander who worked at the ski-lift. He was leaning against a barrier, smoking a cigarette. He looked at me, took another draw on his cigarette and just said do góry nogami. I fed his words into my internal translator and out popped ‘to the mountain by legs’. Is he telling me that my ticket isn’t valid and I have to walk up the mountain…

… in my ski boots!

How was I supposed to know that ‘upside-down’ in Polish is do góry nogami? In the end, the highlander extinguished his cigarette, walked over and turned the ticket in my hand. The gate opened. I’ve never been more relieved.

But it gets more complex. Sometimes, Poles say pod górę (literally, under the mountain) to express the direction ‘uphill’. Going under the mountain is definitely the Chuck Norris way of getting from one side of the hill to the other!

Think of it like this. The mountain is towering above you. Incidentally, the Polish verb for ‘tower above’ is górować. When you’re going up, you are ‘under the mountain’ because it’s laughing while you are suffering. On the way down, however, you go z górki (downhill, lit. from the mountain) and after all that pain on the way up, you’ve never going back.

It’s the same with cash. In English you get paid ‘in advance’ or ‘in arrears’. It’s a time thing. Either you get the payment before the work or you get it after.

In Polish, don’t think in terms of time. Think in pits and mountains.

If you get paid in advance, that’s płatność z góry (payment from the mountain). You’re in charge, towering over the sucker that paid you before the work was done. But if you have to do the work first and you get paid after a month or even later, then it’s płatność z dółu… whether it’s a sack of coal or salt, doesn’t matter. You’re still getting paid from the pit!

Up. Down. Rich. Poor. It’s all pits and mountains in Polish.

Dimension #2 – Step by Step

Most guidebooks have a section with tips on how to ask for directions when you’re lost as a tourist. It’s a complete waste of time. You can’t pronounce the phrases. You won’t understand the answers. And in any case, languages have very subtle ways of describing directions.

Under the definition of the word ‘where’, my first ever pocket Polish phrasebook included the following dialogue:

Where is the cathedral? Gdzie jest katedra?

It’s over there. Tam.

This dialogue puzzles me. If the cathedral was close enough that someone could point at it and say tam, then I am pretty sure that I would be able to spot it myself. Cathedrals aren’t tiny buildings at the end of a dark, narrow alley. And if the cathedral was hidden from view, and the answer to the question was tuż tuż za rogiem (just round the corner), then I wouldn’t have understood a word anyway.

Yet, there’s one word in Polish that you need to listen out for. Actually, it’s not a word, just a morpheme. It won’t tell you in which direction to head, but it will tell you how you’re going.

In English, the verb ‘go’ is all about action. Just go! In Polish, it’s more measured. Step by step. If you want to go anywhere in Polish, you can’t avoid the morpheme chód or chod.

Let’s start with the verbs. Besides the basic chodzić (to go), there’s przychodzić (to come, arrive), wchodzić (go in), wychodzić (go out), odchodzić (leave), zachodzić (drop in), pochodzić (come from), nadchodzić (approach)… I could go on!

Then there are nouns: przychodnia (clinic), dochód (income), schody (stairs), pochód (parade), pochodzenie (origin), chodnik (pavement).

What is a chód anyway? It’s so fundamental to motion in Poland. Basically, it’s a walk. A Pole walks into life as they are born (przychodzi na świat), celebrates their birthdays (obchodzi urodziny), earns money (ma dochody), goes through hard times (przechodzi trudny okres), retires (przechodzi na emerturę) and finally, when they think they’re done with all the walking, they leave this world on foot (schodzi z tego świata).

So much walking!

And is there any footwear to support your feet during all this walking? Only chodaki (clogs)!

I once visited a friend who lives in a rural part of Warmia. After dinner I asked where the bathroom was. Jest tu tylko wychodek, Tomek said and pointed towards the back door.

I had no idea what he meant. I wandered out the door and into the garden. I had a vague sense that the prefix wy- meant ‘off’ as in wyłączyć (turn off) and, of course, chod, meant I had to walk somewhere. Was he suggesting I had to walk off into the distance until they couldn’t see me any more? Then do my business?

As a rule, if I hear the morpheme chod in Polish, I just start walking. I went past a greenhouse, followed a well-worn path, turned the corner, and there it was. An outhouse (wychodek).

It makes sense. In English we kid ourselves that the wooden, outdoor toilet is a house… only it’s at the bottom of the garden. In Polish, the key feature is that you have to take a walk to get there.

To think in Polish takes time. Up and down a long, twisting road. And I’m not going by car. Whenever I hear the morpheme chod or chód, it’s a reminder. That on the long journey to understand the dimensions of Polish, I’m going on foot.


There’s a few things I’m still confused about.

  • Why is a person who works in a coal mine called a górnik (miner) in Polish and not a dółnik?
  • do góry nogami – to translate this expression literally, it’s ‘legs up’. This makes perfect sense if you come across a beetle on its back with its legs in the air? I assume that if you rescue the beetle, you turn it nogami w dół (legs down). But what about a painting or a mug? Do you have to imagine that the object has legs for the expression do góry nogami to apply?
  • The morpheme chod is used in the words for east (wschód) and west (zachód). Wschód means both east and sunrise. Zachód means both west and sunset. Of course, this is very logical. The sun rises in the east and sets in the west. And here’s my question: does the use of chód suggest that the sun walks up and down the sky?
  • The Polish equivalent of ‘one for the road’ is rozchodniaczek. I get the impression that this is much more ethical because it implies that you are walking and not driving. Am I right?
  • I’m often surprised when a Pole says w tamtą stronę (in that direction) and points directly ahead. Is there a subtle difference between the words strona in Polish and ‘side’ in English? In English, the word ‘side’ only has one dimension – left or right – whereas in Polish, I get the impression that it has two – left-right and forwards-backwards.

This topic is too big for one post – so I’ve divided it into two. The Dimensions of Polish (part two), … more ways that the Polish language has messed with my head… will follow next week.

Incidentally, I haven’t included the concepts of ‘near and far’ in this post – I covered these dimensions in an earlier post – Far, Far Away.

17 thoughts on “The Dimensions of Polish (part one)

  1. I love this post! For the first question: there are two possibilities why górnik is called like that: in the past “góra” meant also “mine”, maybe because mines were not only in the ground but also in the mountains; the second possibility is that the German word Bergmann was directly translated to Polish so blame Germans 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • You know, I even studied German at university and lived there for two years. Never came across the word Bergmann or if I did, I mistook it for a surname! Thanks for englightening me 🙂


      • It’s nice to see you’re blogging again. Always a good read. For the sun it does indeed “wschodzi” as is walks/crawls. Interestingly we would use the same word “wschodzi” to indicate plants germinating from seeds but more to indicate their movement upwards as they grow. Strona would be more often understood as a page and then you can think of left and right page in the book or back and front of the loose page. Strona is also used in geographical context “strona świata” (cardinal directions) and that might explain why it can be more than only left or right.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks Adam. Yeah, I remember being confused about ‘strona’ at first. I used to attend some football matches in which the supporters would chant ‘druga strona odpowiada’. I wasn’t sure whether they were referring to the other side (i.e. team) or the other side of the stadium, or the other end of the stadium. Everyone seemed to respond anyway.


  2. “In English you get paid ‘in advance’ or ‘in arrears’. It’s a time thing.”

    Okay, but in English you can also pay upfront, which also requires some dimensional thinking.
    Also: why ‘in advance’? It suggests I’d pay when the work is at the advanced stage. Meanwhile, I need to pay before it even started.
    I wonder if there is a language where these expressions actually make any sense 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. on the “strona” and it’s English counterpart. Aren’t there words like “northside” or “westside” etc. used in English? This analogy could help you to wrap your head around the spatial meaning of the word “strona” in Polish.

    Also, I take that your blog is more humorous than serious as far as linguistics are concerned 🙂 but at risk of being cpt. Obvious here I will point out that in Polish some words are actually homonyms, and not the _same_ word that you should treat as multiple uses of the same concept. Think of it as the word “party” in English – a party at home is a different kind of “party” than a party in a courtroom. I used that example simply because a party in a courtroom in Polish is also… strona 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  4. You forgot the most stupid word in polish which is samochód (car). It’s not only baby talk (samo-chodzi, walks-by-itself) but doesn’t make sense because cars don’t walk! I use it whenever someone says that some word is stupid (mainly feminatives, female versions of different jobs), because no one gives a damn about samochód.

    And yes, probably rozchodniaczek has vibe of walking away, I think that more people walked before. There is also synonym “strzemienny” from that metal part of saddle where you put your foot in (strzemię). That was for people on horses.


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