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 certain words.
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 I could only grasp these spatial metaphors, then I would be a step closer to thinking in Polish. But it takes time. And believe me. It really screws with your mind.
So what have I learned so far? What are the dimensions of Polish? And how did learning about them mess with my head?
Dimension #3 – The Adventures of Pod and Spod
I’ve always had problems with the word pod (under) in Polish. I often misunderstood it. Struggled to work out its subtleties. Of all the Polish prepositions, it’s the one I couldn’t get my head around.
When I see the word pod, I immediately think ‘under’. That’s often a mistake. When a Pole says pod domem, they mean ‘near or by the house’. Pod koniec means ‘at the end’. One time I was told that I was driving pod prąd (the wrong way, lit. against the current) in an underground car park. I thought my passenger was criticising the fact that I hadn’t turned the headlights on. Pod doesn’t always translate to ‘under’.
Except when it does.
At my wedding I wore a kilt. I should have anticipated the question when it came. But it was a busy day.
Czy masz coś pod spodem?, a Polish friend asked.
It’s a sporran, not a spodem, I replied, referring to the little bag that Scotsmen wear around their waist. Even if I had understood the question, I wouldn’t have answered it. There are some things that have to remain secret.
Another time I played a board game called Kolejka, whose theme was shopping during the communist times in Poland. One action card was called ‘towar spod lady‘ (goods under the counter) under which there was a photograph of a woman. ‘Oh, she must be the spod lady‘, I thought. No doubt a female shop assistant in communist times was called a ‘spod lady‘. I wondered if there had been a ‘spod man‘ too.
It took me years to understand pod and spod. My mistake was thinking that a spod was a physical object, like a saucer or a lid, instead of a location under every object. If a Pole said that something ‘jest pod spodem‘, I would look around for a thing called a spod under which that thing was hidden.
And I can’t take them seriously Maybe its their sound. Pod and Spod sound like the names of two cartoon characters – The adventures of Pod and Spod. I have a plan to get two kittens and call them Pod and Spod. Then, when they are wrestling, I can say that Spod is nad Podem and Pod is pod Spodem. Just for fun.
But it got worse when I came across the verbs. The ones that contain the prefix pod-. There’s a subtle mental switch you need to make to conceive of these verbs.
Take for example, lifting. In English, I reach down and lift a box up. In Polish you ‘under-lift’, podnosisz. Instead of talking about the direction the box is moving, you talk about the location of your effort. Likewise, Poles don’t heat something up, they ‘below-warm’ it, podgrzewają. It makes sense. I mean, you have to put the fire under the pot.
But it’s not intuitive at first.
I once rented a flat from an elderly couple, both of whom were present when I signed the contract. The landlady wore a big fur coat and bright green eyeshadow. She actually looked like the Spod Lady from Kolejka. I think her husband was as scared of her as I was.
The flat was furnished. Most of the furnishings were plants. After we had signed the contract and she had handed over the keys, she reminded me to podlewaj kwiaty (water the plants). And because I was foreign, she repeated POD-le-waj very slowly. I started to wonder why she emphasised the pod in podlewaj. I knew that pod meant ‘under’. Was I supposed to put water ‘under the plants’, or ‘underwater the plants’, i.e. not give them enough water?
In the end, I under-watered the plants. But not on purpose. They survived. Just.
Let me sum up this section, or sum under (podsumować) in the Polish dimension. In English you are manipulating things from above. In Polish, it seems, you manipulate from below. It’s like that old joke about Chunk Norris. Apparently, when Chuck does press-ups he doesn’t push himself up, he pushes the Earth down. English is like Chuck Norris, manipulating the word from above. Polish is like the Earth, pushing Chuck up from below. At least, that’s how I conceive it.
Dimension #4 – The Roz- Multi-Verse
In the first few weeks of learning Polish, you come into contact with the prefix roz-. The first hundred times, it’s because you’re repeating the expression nie rozumiem. After that, it’s because you need to get around and discover that a rozkład jazdyis a timetable.
But roz- is a mysterious prefix. It isn’t a separate word. The morpheme itself doesn’t mean anything as far as I can tell. But it does imply that things are arranged or moving around in space.
But in which direction? It takes time to figure out.
Rozbudować (extend) and rozwijać (develop) seem to imply more something. But rozładować (discharge, as in a battery) and rozmrozić (defrost) imply the opposite – less of something! Rozglądać is to have a look ‘around’, while rozliczyć is to account ‘for’ or settle ‘up’, and rozgrzać się means to warm ‘up’ before sport. As for rozwiązanie (solution), it arises in Polish when you untie (rozwiązać) a knot.
I love the word rozczarowanie (disappointment). It appears to imply that the enchantment (czarowanie) has gone, and that you’re disappointed because you now see reality without the magic. In English, the word is much duller. We are disappointed because our hairdresser cancelled Friday’s appointment.
I’m also curious that rozkład means decay or decomposition, yet a rozkład jazdy is a timetable! True, while waiting on a boiling hot day, I feel like I will decompose before the bus comes. But I doubt this is where the expression comes from.
So roz- seems to be a negative prefix, like the English ‘un-‘ or ‘dis-. It also means more of something. Or less. In some contexts, it equates to ‘out’, ‘around’ or ‘up’. Maybe even ‘off’ and ‘away’. A whole multi-verse of meanings. It’s chaos!
Roz- also means something else. I learned that meaning the hard way.
I’ve done some foolish and clumsy things in my life. One time I smashed a hole in a toilet bowl. That was one of the clumsiest. In the apartment I rented from the old couple, there was cupboard right above the toilet. I kept tools in it. Heavy tools. One day I opened the cupboard and a spanner felt out. A big, heavy spanner. It fell straight into the toilet. Then straight through the toilet. And left a hole about the size of a grapefruit in the toilet bowl.
Oh shit, I thought. How am I going to explain that to the owners? How will the Spod Lady react?
And it was an urgent issue. I couldn’t flush the toilet because the water would shoot onto the floor. There was only one course of action. I got the dictionary out.
I looked up the verb ‘destroy’. Zniszczyć sounded too dramatic to my ears. Zburzyć too. Rozwalić seemed like the best translation. I did want to stress the urgency of the situation, but I didn’t want to panic an old couple. They might have a heart attack if I used the wrong verb. Okay, rozwalić it is.
So I called them. Fortunately, it was the landlord who answered.
– Rozwaliłem toaleta, I announced.
I didn’t have the Polish skills to explain what had happened to the toilet. Still don’t.
My landlord dashed around to the apartment. I think it was the relief that the entire bathroom wasn’t smashed into a million pieces that caused him to laugh so hard when he saw the hole in the toilet bowl. In the end he was quite good about it. He called the plumber and I paid for a new toilet bowl. And luckily for me, he didn’t tell his wife.
And so I learned another meaning of the prefix roz-. Into pieces.
I’ve been trying to wrap my head around it for years. How to understand the Polish prefix roz-?
And I’ve come to the following conclusion.
To me, it’s like you put reality in a blender…
… but you forget to put on the lid.
When you switch the blender on, there will be a huge mess and to describe the result you will require a roz- verb… and possibly, a phone call to your landlord.