Brzechwa Blues

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.

birds1

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.

Me: Słucham?

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.

Dear Sir or Madam

In British English one person who has their own category of pronouns is the Queen. She is addressed as Your Majesty and when she speaks she rarely uses I. Instead she uses ‘we’ even though she’s only talking about herself. It’s called the ‘Royal We’ and prompted Mark Twain to joke that only kings, presidents and people with tapeworm have the right to use ‘we’.

British and American English also no longer differentiates between the familiar and formal forms of the word ‘you’. Once we had thou and ye (you), but it’s been hundreds of years since they were last used in everyday speech. So when a native English speaker learns how to address others in Polish, it comes as quite a shock.

I wasn’t surprised that Polish has a polite form of ‘you’. I speak German and learned French at school, and both languages have such forms. What shocked me was that the Polish polite form is in the third person, so actually, when I say czy Pan/Pani tu siedzi?, what I am saying ‘is sir/madam sitting here?’

This made me feel a little strange. Besides the standard opening to a formal letter (Dear Sir or Madam), the words sir and madam are rarely used in English. Indeed, I hate it when anyone calls me sir because it implies a master/servant relationship. And when I realised that I was saying sir and madam in Polish, I felt like a beggar in a Dickens’ novel, humbly bowing before any lady or gentleman who tossed me a penny.

So it took me a while to get comfortable saying Pan and Pani, but, to be honest, that was the least of my challenges. Selecting the right way of addressing others in Polish is a little more complex than in English:

table1

The equivalent table for English looks like this:

table2

We have come up with plural forms like y’all, yous or you guys, but they’re not considered a part of English grammar yet.

In Polish it’s pretty easy to decide whether to use the singular or plural – it just involves counting up to two. It’s working out your place in the social hierarchy that’s a little harder. How does a Pole decide whether to use Ty or Pan/Pani? Well, it seems to involve a mathematical formula based on the following criteria:

If (B/A) x S x R > 1, then use Pan/Pani

  • A = your age
  • B = the other person’s age
  • S = their social status (2 = professor, doctor etc, 1 = regular person, 0 = cham)
  • R = how much you respect them (2 = very much, 1 = somewhat, 0 = they just crashed into your car)

I’ve been working on the above formula for a while, but it’s ‘work in progress’. I still need to include the gender of the other person, family relationship, and one’s goal in the relationship (e.g. do I want to marry this man’s daughter?).

Yet, despite the calculations involved, choosing the right form of address in a one-off situation is fairly straightforward. It’s when the variable of time is added, that things get more complicated. The question of when to switch from Pan/Pani to Ty is one that puzzles me:

  • Who decides that the relationship is now close enough that we can switch from Pan/Pani to Ty?
  • Is it always the older person that makes the offer to switch?
  • Can a man suggest the switch to a woman or is that ungentlemanly conduct?
  • At what age does a Pole move from being addressed by Ty to Pan/Pani? Is this a rite of passage from childhood to adulthood?
  • How does alcohol impact this? If you get drunk with someone, do you automatically switch to Ty? If yes, after how many drinks?
  • Are there obligations when you move from Pan/Pani to Ty? If you switch to Ty, does that mean you need to call on birthdays and name-days, or return missed phone calls quicker?
  • Does switching to Ty mean that things you do for the other person become favours rather than transactions?
  • Can you give constructive feedback to someone with whom you use Pan/Pani or only those with whom you use Ty?
  • How do you keep track? Do Poles have a little notebook where they keep track of whom they need to address formally and with whom they’ve agreed to switch?
  • What happens if you switch to Ty, but then don’t meet for next ten years, do you need to start from Pan/Pani again?
  • Can you switch back to Pan/Pani if you fall out with the other person?
  • Can you refuse to switch? A Pole once told me that her professor suggested she call her by name, but she declined. Nie chce mi to przejść przez gardło (I couldn’t get the word out of my throat) she said, meaning the professor’s name. Coming from an Anglo-Saxon country, I was stunned by this.
  • What if you are a teacher and you are frozen for 30 years (like Jerzy Stuhr in Sex Mission) and when you wake up you are younger than your pupils. Should you use Pan/Pani?

I am also intrigued by the language that surrounds this. Jesteśmy na Ty (we are on you) sounds so odd when you translate it into English. Another one I like is when, at the start of a training session, the Polish trainer asks the group czy możemy mówić sobie po imieniu? (can we address each other by name?). At that moment, I usually think sarcastically how else are we going to address each other? By grunting and pointing?

If it wasn’t confusing enough, it seems there is even a hybrid form: Pan/Pani and the listener’s first name, e.g. Pani Małgosiu or Panie Piotrze. As far as I can tell, this form is used by elderly ladies with their friends and salespeople who want to create a false sense of closeness in order to try and sell you something.

dear maam1

I also wonder if this is changing? Does the internet, the influence of English and generational change mean that Ty is becoming more prevalent? It seems the internet and I have a Ty-relationship since most of its communications use this direct form. Perhaps this needs to be sorted – surely computers can handle my mathematical formula? And if they decided to re-brand YouTube under a Polish name, would it be called TyTube, WyTube, PaństwoTube… or perhaps the more Slavic PaństwoCiub?

But, after all these questions, I must say that there is one huge favour that Poles grant to foreigners:

We’re excluded from all this!

Poles don’t seem to care whether a foreigner uses Ty, Pani or whatever. I’ve never met a Pole that expected me to use it correctly or was offended when I didn’t. I wonder why this is. Is it because Poles appreciate that their language is extraordinarily difficult and give foreigners a free pass? Is it because Poles don’t have much experience of foreigners speaking their language and so have low expectations? Is it because all these norms and rules about respect only apply to native Polish speakers?

Whatever the reason, I am mightily relieved. I try to follow these linguistic and cultural norms as best I can, but, as you might have concluded from the number of questions in this post, I don’t have complete clarity around this language area yet.

Yours faithfully

Polisher

The Granny Stopper

When building a footpath up a mountain, there’s a technique called a granny stopper. About 300 metres from the car park, the builders of the path include a challenging piece of terrain in which you have to scramble over a big rock. This is the granny stopper and its purpose is to give walkers a taste of what is to come later in the ascent. And if you’ve brought your granny with you, this is where, for her own safety, she gets discouraged and turns back.

Whoever designed the Polish language included a granny stopper too.

granny2

When a beginner starts learning Polish, the first hundred words aren’t too bad. You can make some progress and learn some basic statements and questions. But then, and with great irony, it’s when you come to the verb ‘to go’ that everything stops.

This issue is one that creeps up on the learner, slowly suffocating them like a boa constrictor. At first I learned simple sentences like idę do kina or idę do domu. Next up was chodzić which I learned is used for habitual actions, such as często chodzę do kina. Okay, I said to myself, instead of using different tenses like English, Polish just has different verbs. That’s fine… up to a point. But it went on and on. I would continually come across a sentence I didn’t understand, look it up in the dictionary, and out popped another go-verb. What does pójdziesz ze mną? mean? Oh, pojechać means go as well. Not another one! In the end I was scared of checking any word in the dictionary in case I discovered another verb for ‘go’.

In fact, there are three words meaning ‘go’ in Polish – chodzić, iść and pójść – and that’s just going on foot. There’s another three if you’re driving or riding – jechać, jeździć and pojechać. And it’s these Polish verbs of motion that bring learning to a complete standstill!

This is especially true when deciding which verb to use and in which form:

Student: How do I say ‘I’m going?’

Teacher: It depends. Are you going on foot?

Student: Yes.

Teacher: Are you male or female?

Student: Male.

Teacher: Do you plan on reaching your destination?

Student: Of course, why else would I be going?

Teacher: Some people just wander around, you know? We have a different form for that.

Student: Oh. No, I’ll be reaching my destination.

Teacher: Okay, then one more question. Is it a one-off trip or do you go there regularly?

Student: One-off, I guess. But if I like it, I might go back.

Teacher: Doesn’t matter. So you’re a man going by foot, you plan to reach your destination and it’s one-off trip… Where are you going?

(student stands up and heads towards the door)

Student: Lesson’s over. I’m going!

Teacher: But don’t you want to know the correct Polish verb form?

Student: Nah, forget it. Life’s too short.

Sometimes you just want to go someplace without overthinking it, for instance, to the bathroom.

I remember once trying to leave someone a note saying ‘I will go there at 9am tomorrow’. I was in a hurry and just wanted to scribble a quick message to reassure an acquaintance that I would take care of an issue. In the end I just wrote tam 9am jutro ja, stuck the note on the fridge and dashed out the door.

And that’s the problem. Going often means hurrying. When you’re in a hurry, you just don’t have time to sit down with pencil and paper and work out which Polish verb of motion is correct in this instance. It would have taken me a hour to work out that I should have written pójdę tam jutro o dziewiątej.

It’s the same with managing your personal space. In a flash of anger, you’re not in the mood to choose between saying idź do diabła or pójdź do diabła. There’s no time to consider whether the person should go all the way to the devil or whether it’s enough just to reach hell and wander around!

And that’s the dilemma. Do I want to invest enough time to communicate accurately in Polish or do I want to have a life?

If you choose not to have a life, then, once you have a basic grasp of chodzić, iść and pójść, you can spend the next few years on other verbs of motion – jechać, jeździć, pojechać, latać, lecieć, polecieć, biegać, biec, pobiec, pływać, płynąć, popłynąć.

It’s enough to drive you nuts, and I quickly developed a phobia about the verb ‘to go’. Yet it’s like having a phobia of breathing air because you can’t escape it. These verbs are everywhere and you are constantly reminded of your failure to master them.

If you look depressed, someone will ask ‘o co chodzi?‘ And they get a shock when you scream in reply ‘don’t say that word!’. You can’t take a step back, carefully consider your options and find the best solution because you don’t remember whether it should be iść po rozum do głowy or pójść po rozum do głowy? And you can’t shake your head and say  nie wierzę, że do tego doszło (how did it come to this?) because you know, deep down, that there’s another go verb buried in that statement.

And there’s no consolation when you finally do lose it, when the grammar finally drives you over the edge. It’s at this moment that the Polish language continues to twist the knife. Because, just like English which uses expressions like ‘go crazy’ or ‘drive someone insane’, Polish also uses a go verb for this fateful event. When you sit on the ground, put your arms over your head and mumble verbs of motion over and over, you are just acting out another go verb: odchodzić od zmysłów.

I really sympathize with teachers of Polish. It must be a real challenge hauling learners, kicking and screaming, over this gargantuan granny stopper. I assume that, as well as having teaching skills, they also require coaching and psychiatric skills to motivate, placate and possibly treat their students.

But perhaps this linguistic granny stopper is a kindness, separating the weak from the strong early in the learning process. Those who turn back may well have made the right decision. Because, as well as saving themselves a lot of blood, sweat and tears, perhaps, by choosing not to struggle with Polish verbs of motion, they’ve managed to preserve their own sanity?

The Lullaby Language

What does Polish sound like to someone who is hearing the language for the very first time?

The first time I heard Polish it wasn’t in a historic nor attractive location, it wasn’t Wałęsa nor John Paul II that was speaking, and the words didn’t mean anything to me. First dates can be disappointing.

Touring Europe as a student in 1995, my friends and I changed trains in Katowice as we traveled from Prague to Kraków. Waiting on the platform in the grey railway station, the loud speakers suddenly burst into life and I heard the Polish language for the first time. I assumed I was hearing an announcement about the arrival or departure of a train, but, of course, I didn’t understand a word. Although it was a completely alien stream of sounds, I could hear the tone, rhythm and emotion in the voice. Indeed, the main emotion seemed to be boredom and the speaker’s intonation was extraordinarily flat. I wondered whether Polish was a language that was specifically designed to be heard over loudspeakers.

Then, in the distance, I heard Polish for the second time. From somewhere further down the platform, I could hear a faint chanting. It sounded like a group of monks, but as it grew louder, my friends and I realised that it wasn’t a peaceful group of Hari Krishna that were approaching. We made the prudent decision to get out of the way and climbed some stairs to a balcony, where we watched the police escort around two hundred football fans out of the railway station. The fans were chanting something with a three-part rhythm: uh-uh, uh-uh, uh-uh-hu-hu.

So as we boarded the train to Kraków, I was left with those two impressions of the Polish language: flat intonation with a three-part rhythm.

Sound & Texture

Years later, having moved to Poland, I got the chance to hear Polish that wasn’t chanted nor transmitted through a loudspeaker, and I recall discussing the question of what Polish sounded like with a Canadian friend. We had both been in Poland for a few weeks and neither of us understood more than a few words of Polish. I said that, to my ears, Polish sounded like radio static, the sound that a radio emits when you are searching between frequencies for a station. The Canadian, Rob, said it reminded him of the sound you hear when you slowly pour sand onto a wooden floor.

While we disagreed on the best description, we definitely agreed that the key sound in Polish was sssszzzzz.

Apparently, Oscar Wilde described the sound of Polish as rustling, hissing and hushing that made his ears bleed. I definitely agree about the hissing and hushing sounds, but it doesn’t make my ears bleed. Quite the opposite in fact. I suspect that Oscar might have had a hangover that day, because actually Polish sounds soft and soothing. It sounds like something you’d want someone to whisper to help you fall asleep. Take for instance, the name Kościuszko:

Kosh – choosh – ko

It sounds like a lullaby, something a mother would sing gently to a baby as it drifted off to sleep. If the Prussians, Russians and Austrians had tried to turn Kościuszko in a bogeyman, they wouldn’t have fooled any of their children. ‘We’re not scared of Kosh-choosh-ko… he sounds sweet!’

baby1

Emerging Words

There’s always a sense of mystery when you listen to a language for the first time. Not knowing where words begin and end, utterances sound like long strings of syllables, and you struggle to hear individual words. Yet when I first started listening to Polish, there was one word that stood out. Within the dense chunks of language a word emerged. I didn’t know what it meant, but it was short, simple and familiar… and it seemed to be used a lot.

That word was pan or pani or pana.

Every other sentence, especially in post offices or shops seemed to contain some reference to the Greek god of nature. I did wonder why post office clerks were arguing with customers about ancient mythology. This must be a well-educated population, I concluded.

And pan was everywhere… like, well… pantheism. And there was also reference to another God that I didn’t know, but who sounded even more important: Proshaypana or Proshaypani… this one sounded more like a Buddhist god. Blah blah blah Proshaypana blah blah blah. I wondered whether, by invoking this God’s name, the speaker’s were uttering a plea, a prayer or a curse.

So I gained another impression – that Polish was an erudite, respectful and religious language… well, it can be.

Tempo & Intonation

Not understanding the words allowed me to focus on other aspects of spoken language – tempo and intonation.

Polish doesn’t sound particularly fast. As a foreigner hearing it for the first time, I wasn’t blown away by its tempo. It’s not like Arabic or Irish. I did wonder whether the reason for this is physical. It’s probably not the kind of language that you can say quickly – there are too many consonant sounds and you might injure your tongue, mouth or jaw if you tried to say too many hard Polish syllables too quickly.

As regards intonation, first impressions can be deceptive. When I first arrived in Poland, I remember being told that Wojciech Mann was a great presenter. Really? I didn’t understand what he was saying, but I could hear that his intonation was flatter than the countryside in Mazowsze. He just didn’t sound like an interesting speaker. And that’s what a foreigner hears when they hear Polish for the first time. It’s not like Italian in which the intonation rises and falls like the Alps. Polish is flat.

Yet Wojciech Mann’s speaking style is an acquired taste. It was only after I had learned Polish for a few years that I came to share Poles’ appreciation for his flat, deadpan delivery.

Summing up

So what does Polish sound like to someone hearing it for the first time?

In the end, it’s a subjective impression that’s tricky to describe. So maybe I’ll try to answer another way – with a Japanese Haiku.

Hissing sand falling … shushing the wooden floor … kosh choosh ko

thru static radio … a mann mumbles, deadpan tones … slow train approaching

a lullaby song … post office fans are chanting … old Proshaypana’s here.

The Fool’s Journey

When I switch from my native English to Polish, my IQ drops by at least 50 points… well, that’s how I feel.

So instead of assessing my skills against a system of language levels, I judge my abilities in comparison to how stupid I feel when I try to express myself in Polish.

Fortunately, Polish has some great words to describe stupid people. As well as English, there’s a group of words that started as medical definitions – imbecile, cretin, moron, idiot – but I prefer the folk terms like głupek wioskowy (village idiot). Call me old-school, but when I speak Polish I feel closer to the type of stupidity that’s been around the villages and backwoods for centuries:

Głąb Level

In this classification, in the place of beginner is the głąb level. The goal for a głąb learner is to inform others that he or she is a głąb (blockhead). When I first came to Poland, I remember saying nie rozumiem or nie mówię po polsku about 10 times a day. If I managed to pronounce the expressions correctly, then I could take pride in the fact that my interlocutor understood that I was a linguistic blockhead and walked away.

I chose the word głąb for this level because it just sounds dumb. The long, deep ‘omb‘ sound vibrates when you say it right and seems to express the emptiness inside my head when I can’t think of a Polish word for something.

Being a głąb in Polish, I once got confused between głąb and dąb (oak) and suggested to some friends that we take a blanket and lie down in the park under the big głąb. What can I say? If there had been a big głąb standing in the park, I’m sure he wouldn’t have cared if we sat beneath him.

The Gapa Moment

This is not so much a level as a moment of truth. Instead of running from encounters with the Polish language, the gapa learner stops and stares. Standing with their mouth ajar and eyes wide open, he or she gapes at the Polish language, its strings of consonants, funny letters and crazy words… oh my god… do I have to learn that?

Like the word gap in English, there is a huge chasm between the gapa (feather-brained) learner and being able to express oneself intelligently in Polish. This is the make or break moment. Does he or she commit to the learning process or flee in horror back to the głab level?

Gamoń Level

If the gapa learner commits and works really hard, then he or she can aspire to becoming a gamoń (bungler). Besides having a very limited range of vocabulary, the gamoń takes pleasure in constantly repeating the same phrases incorrectly. Don’t bother correcting them – eventually they’ll get it right by accident. The best word to describe the communication style is gamoniowaty (bungling). A gamoń hopes that if they say all the words they know, then eventually, like a monkey at a typewriter producing poetry after a million years, they might stumble on an intelligible sentence in the end.

I came across the word gamoń in an exhibition about the Orange Alternative. It included a description of an election committee called Gamonie i Krasnoludki (Fools and Dwarfs). Their election slogan was Głosując na Gamonie – głosujesz na siebie (a vote for fools is a vote for yourself). What’s a gamoń, I wondered? And what a pity I can’t vote!

When I learned that gamoń meant ‘bungler’, it was my favourite word for months. There’s something so pleasurable in saying the words ty gamoniu! to myself because I’ve made the same language mistake for the tenth time that day.

Fajtłapa Level

At this level, the fajtłapa (clumsy) learner is like a bull in a china shop. Because he or she has learned a broader range of language, there is significantly more opportunity for making clumsy mistakes. The key goal, or mission, for the fajtłapa learner is to inadvertently destroy the language he or she is learning. They do this by breaking as many rules and patterns as possible, happily smashing every linguistic convention they come across.

It can be tiring for Poles to interact with a fajtłapa learner – put simply, they mess with your head. But, please be patient, it’s all part of the learning process.

As well as being clumsy with Polish, I’m also rather clumsy in the kitchen, where I handle fragile things with the delicacy of a bear wearing boxing gloves. Wine glasses don’t have a long shelf-life in my home… just about as long as the wine, in fact. The word fajtłapa seems to captures the feeling that I’m engaged in a battle with my own hands. I don’t know what fajt means but when I first saw it, I understood it as fighting with my own łapa (paws).

Frajer Level

There are no shortcuts to get from the level of fajtłapa to frajer (sucker). It’s a long, hard slog to correct all the errors that are ingrained in the learner’s head, and you could question whether it’s worth the effort. But this level is called the frajer level because the learner, having come this far, is usually suckered into continuing.

Like a gamoń, I misunderstood the word frajer at first. To my ears, it sounded jolly, almost aspiration. When the world is too depressing, wouldn’t you rather just be a happy frajer? It also sounded too much like the English word ‘fryer’ – so I imagined some simpleton that works in a fast food restaurant frying the burgers!

In Scotland, we don’t make smart decisions when it comes to eating habits. For example, in some fish n’ chip shops you can buy a deep fried Mars Bar – a local delicacy that you can order if the battered fish and chips is too healthy for your tastes. If I ever set up a deep fried Mars Bar food truck in Poland, I’ll call it ‘The Happy Frajer‘.

But, as it turns out, my understanding of the word frajer was wrong – just another mistake that I need to iron out at this level!

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Pechowiec Level

The final and highest level for a learner is to become a pechowiec (loser). At this level the language learner is almost able to express his or her full level of intelligence. They can speak fluently, handle complex interactions and understand the nuances of the language. However, from time to time, no matter how hard he or she continues to learn, they can’t avoid looking silly from time to time. You see, the thing is that no language is completely logical. Eventually, they will inadvertently discover an exception to a rule or use a false friend incorrectly.

It’s just their bad luck that no language is perfectly rational and logical…

and the most you can aspire to… if you work hard for years and years and years…

… is to outgrow your głąbhood..

… and one day… become a loser!

The Yin and Yang of Learning Polish

Yin

Like most foreigners, when I first started learning Polish, I found it hard. The words were awkward to pronounce, the vocabulary was difficult to get my head around, and the grammar was a nightmare.

After a tough language lesson I felt exhausted. And I quickly learned that the best word to describe the process of learning Polish was ciężko (heavily).

Poles use the words ciężki/ciężka/ciężkie/ciężko a lot. In English, while we say that something is hard, difficult or serious, Poles say it’s heavy. A hard day is a ciężki dzień and hard times are ciężkie czasy. If someone has a serious illness, then it’s a ciężka choroba and they have a ciężka sprawa (difficult situation).

Why is everything so heavy?

Do Poles gather up all the hard, troubling stuff into a big pile and try to carry it on their shoulders? It’s no wonder that for many years the world’s strongest man was Polish. You need to be Pudzian just to bear the weight of all these problems!

In a way, learning the word ciężko is a physical activity, it’s a word that your body needs to learn as well as your tongue. To really speak Polish accurately, at the end of a long, hard language lesson, you need to slump your shoulders, bend your back, bow your head, and say how heavy the grammar was.

heavy1

The word ‘heavy’ was once very fashionable in English. In the 1960s, at the height of Flower Power, hippies used it to describe any unpleasant thought or situation. Basically, they smoked a lot of weed and used the word ‘heavy’ whenever they ran out of drugs. Nowadays it’s hardly ever used in this way.

Because I heard the word ciężki / ciężko so much, I started to wonder whether, after the 60s had ended, all the hippies had moved to Poland. But, on second thoughts, they wouldn’t be able to cope. The Polish language is just too heavy, man!

Yang

Just when I thought that learning Polish was too much of a burden, I came across an expression which liberated me. Instead of weight, it suggested lightness. Instead of taking energy, it lifted me up. Whenever I said it, all that linguistic heaviness was instantly removed from my shoulders.

I remember the first time I heard it. What’s that? It sounds like the name of a rock band or a style of dancing. It didn’t sound like a Polish word at all.

The expression was spoko luz. Some people even turned it into a rap and said spoko loko luz!

And I noticed that when Poles said it, their body language was relaxed, care-free – their shoulders rolled back, their arms moved in and out and they seemed to bounce on their toes.

Whatever it meant, it seemed to be the antidote to the ciężki issue because when faced with a challenge, some Poles would say spoko luz, smile and give the impression that it was no problem at all.

But what is this spoko luz, I wondered? And more importantly, where do you get it? It wasn’t in the dictionary and asking Poles for a definition didn’t help much:

What does spoko luz mean?

You know, it’s luz… relaxed… cool… everything is alright.

They sounded like the hippies during the non-heavy moments!

As far as I understand, luz is a kind of freedom, but not political freedom. There aren’t demonstrations in which citizens fight for chleb i luz. It’s more like personal freedom in which you have all the time, space and resources you need. And spoko luz is the even more chilled and relaxed version of it.

Yin and Yang

Is learning Polish a spiritual experience? No. But you definitely need to keep you spirits up during the process!

And that’s why, despite the fact that their meanings aren’t directly related, for me, spoko luz became the opposite of ciężki/ciężko.

When it comes to learning Polish…

ciężko is yin

spoko luz is yang.

If I struggled with the grammar or pronunciation and felt the weight and darkness of ciężko approaching, I would say my mantra – spoko luz – shake off the heaviness and give it another go.

Two for the Price of One

I once bought a book called Tackling Polish Verbs. It’s basically 250 pages of verb conjugations. What I like about it is the title. It’s not an exaggerated claim like ‘Learn Polish Verbs in 21 days‘ or ‘Polish Verbs made Easy‘. No, the author and/or publisher realised that Polish verbs are a tough opponent, something you need to physically fight. I imagine they pondered a number of options before deciding the title:

  • Wrestling with Polish verbs
  • Surviving Polish verbs
  • 12 rounds with Polish verbs

I also admire the way they chose a title that doesn’t imply success. Buy this book, give it a go, but don’t get your hopes up because you won’t succeed.

In fact, not succeeding with Polish verbs is so common that the Polish language actually has a grammatical aspect that allows you to describe activities that have no end result:

  • dokonany (perfective) – this aspect is for Poles who have successfully mastered Polish verbs.
  • niedokonany (imperfective) – this one allows foreigners to express the fact that they’re still in the process of ‘tackling Polish verbs’ but haven’t won the battle yet.

Well, it’s something like that.

I remember the first time I came across this was when I looked up a verb in the dictionary, it said this:

robić (zrobić perf)

Immediately I thought two things – (a) what does perf mean, and (b) do I need to bother with it? I checked in the grammar guide at the front of the dictionary. Perf was short for perfective. Cool, I thought, I’m not a perfectionist, I just want to be able to communicate, so no need to learn the advanced, perfectionist version of Polish.

Yet, I couldn’t avoid it for long. Polish is constructed so that verbs come in pairs. So I got it into my head that if I said zrobiłem, it meant that I had finished or completed something and wanted to emphasise that. While if I said robiłem, it means that I did something but there was no end result.

Because this aspect thing is rather alien, I tried to get my head around it by coming up with analogies. Firstly, I imagined how this would work in English. If you say ‘I zdid it‘, then it means you completed something. If you say ‘I did it‘ then you tried but failed:

I zdid it, i zdid it.

You zdid what?

I learned a Polish verb!

Really?

Okay, I didn’t.

Another way I tried to understand this was by relating it to shopping. You see. I hate shopping. I treat shopping as if I were some sort of soldier going on a dangerous covert mission. My goal is to sneak into enemy territory (i.e. the shopping centre), do a quick and dirty job, and get the hell out as fast as possible.

So actually when it comes to buying stuff, these perfective and imperfective aspects make sense. How do Polish verbs fit into this tactical approach to shopping?

  • kupować – this is what I don’t like. It emphasises the activity of buying, wandering from shop to shop, trying stuff on, comparing prices, getting help, looking for the best deal. Just shopping and shopping and shopping without any goal or end.
  • kupić – this is more my style. It stresses the result… because that’s all that matters. It emphasises the fact that you have bought something, completed the mission and successfully escaped from the shopping centre.

A typical sales promotion is two for the price of one. The Polish language has the same special deal. Whether you like it or not, Polish verbs come in pairs. Two for the price of one… and it’s a high price!

shopping1

Another issue with Polish verbs that a learner needs to tackle are ‘Polish phrasal verbs’. In this case, instead of two for the price of one, the offer is buy one, get ten free.

Take for instance the verb kupić/kupować. By adding a prefix, you get the following assortment of free gifts:

  • wykupić (sell out)
  • wkupić (buy into)
  • zakupić (purchase)
  • skupić się (focus)
  • nakupować (shop til you drop)
  • odkupić (buy back)
  • podkupić (outbid)
  • okupić (ransom)
  • obkupić się (shop successfully)
  • przekupić (bribe)

Most of these have some connection to shopping/buying… all but one. I’ve always wondered why skupić się means ‘to focus’, which isn’t even remotely connected to shopping. Focus in English is connected to seeing, the act of looking more closely. So why isn’t the equivalent Polish verb spatrzeć? Maybe it’s connected to my issue with shopping. I just don’t want to focus on doing it properly!

Two of these verbs seem to fit my shopping analogy really well:

  • nakupować – as far as I understand, this one uses the imperfective aspect because it focuses on the difficulty of the activity and not the result. So nakupowałem prezentów na święta means something along the lines of ‘I bought a lot but it cost me more’.
  • obkupić się – This verb is used with the perfective aspect, e.g. ale się obkupiłem, which means something like ‘I bought a lot and I’m happy with the result’.

But there’s something missing. What Polish needs is a phrasal verb that captures my military approach to shopping – getting in and out quickly – so I offer you the following:

McKupić, verb     to quickly buy an item without shopping around

The prefix ‘Mc-‘ emphasises that the action is fast and efficient, and not careful and considered.

So returning to the title of that book, am I tackling Polish verbs properly?

Probably not. I learn in the same way that I shop.

I don’t take an analytical nor thorough approach. Instead of analysing the similarities between English tenses and Polish aspects, I just try to connect Polish language to my everyday reality…

…but that reality doesn’t mean going shopping every day!

Best Wishes

In Poland every one gets their day – mother’s day, father’s day, children’s day, teacher’s day, woman’s day…and every other day is someone’s Name Day, Birthday or anniversary.

With so many opportunities to wish each other well, it’s no wonder that Poles are masters at składanie życzeń (well-wishing).

smacznego

The first form of życzenia that a foreigner learns is to wish others a tasty meal by saying smacznego before starting lunch or dinner.

For English speakers, we need to learn the custom as well as the expression because in English we simply don’t have a word for smacznego. If you type smacznego into google translate, the English translation is bon appetit, which of course, is French.

Why isn’t there a word for smacznego in English? Well, the basic reason is that the food is so bad that such a word isn’t required. Let’s be honest, it’s not going to be tasty, so why pretend that it is? Instead of saying ‘enjoy your meal‘, most British people look down at their food and then ask the the host ‘what’s for desert?‘. This is basically a way of saying ‘how much space should I reserve in my stomach for pudding?’

After saying smacznego for years, I was told that it’s actually considered bad taste and not proper etiquette. I’ve also read that bon appetit boorish as well because it focuses on digestion and implies that you might struggle to digest what’s on offer.

So what should one polite European say to another before dinner? If it was up to the European Union, they’d probably compromise and create a composite word like bon smacz or good mealzeit!

smacznego

sto lat

The real challenge with well-wishing is that it involves singing as well.

Foreigners learning English have a much simpler time learning our birthday song. If you analyse the text line by line, you can see how straightforward it is.

  • Happy Birthday to you (x2) – this is repeated twice to make sure that the listener knows what’s going on
  • Happy Birthday dear… – to avoid a case of mistaken identity, we specify exactly who we’re wishing well
  • Happy Birthday to you – we repeat the main message, summarizing the key takeaway from the interaction

The wishes are focused solely on the present – the birthday boy or girl is supposed to have a happy day but only until midnight, at which point, the fun should stop.

The Polish song, while it seems simple at first, is actually a lot more complex:

Sto lat, sto lat,

Niech żyje, żyje nam.

Sto lat, sto lat,

Niech żyje, żyje nam,

Jeszcze raz, jeszcze raz,

Niech żyje, żyje nam,

Niech żyje nam!

I must admit that it took me a while to learn the lyrics, not one hundred years, just two or three. You see, there are stages in the learning process for this song:

Stage 1: smiling like an idiot – in the first stage, I was new to Poland and had no idea what people were singing nor where the words began and ended, so I just stood there while others sang, smiling like an idiot.

Stage 2: faking it – after having heard the song around 10 times, I picked up the tune, but couldn’t remember the words. So I faked it. When you are singing in a large group, it’s easy just to open and close your mouth like a fish. No one realises that you aren’t actually singing. So for a year or so, I would just mime along to the song.

Stage 3: singing the basic version – the third stage is when I progressed to actually singing the words even if I still didn’t understand completely what they meant.

Niech żyje nam is short, but grammatically complex. I knew the verb żyć, but what does niech mean? It’s one of those words that’s all grammar and no meaning. The dictionary says ‘let’. I also knew that nam means we or us. So my first attempt to translate the words gave me: ‘Let us live’.

Which was really confusing. I thought we were wishing the birthday boy or girl a hundred years, so why are we saying ‘let us live?’ Who’s supposed to get the hundred years?

Eventually, I figured out the grammar and learned that it actually means: ‘May he/she live for us’.

Ah-hah, now it all made sense. They are supposed to live 100 for us, and we’ll be disappointed if they don’t make it!

Stage 4: singing the advanced version – the final stage in the learning process is mastering the advanced version of the song. This version isn’t always used, but you may encounter it at weddings or bigger events, especially if there’s a group of musicians. In this version, there’s an additional part added to the end which involves a tempo change and a lot more sto lats.

sto lat, sto lat, sto lat, sto lat

niechaj żyje nam

sto lat, sto lat, sto lat, sto lat

niechaj żyje nam

Just when you think you’ve mastered the basic version, this additional verse appears. Not only does the tempo increase dramatically, but there’s a new piece of grammar too! If I though niech was confusing, what the hell is niechaj?

I’m currently miming this version.

Another difference is that the Polish birthday song stretches its wishes over a much broader period of time than the English song, a hundred years to be precise.

I’ve never been sure whether we are wishing the birthday boy or girl 100 years from today or just a hundred in total? Perhaps it cumulative? If you count all the sto lats in the full version of the song, then you get 1600 years. Not even Noah lived that long!

Whatever the final total is, it’s a nice wish…but it’s also a big responsibility. When a room full of people sing ‘please live to 100 for us!, it does build some pressure to look after your health.

Sometimes, when it’s my birthday and others are singing this to me, I’m thinking:

How the hell am I supposed to live to 100? I guess I better join a gym, maybe loose a few kilos and cut down on the biscuits…but just look at that huge birthday cake!

wszystkiego najlepszego

A Polish learner gets a lot of mileage out of this expression. Because it fits nearly every occasion, I repeat it 200+ times a year. For instance, when you suddenly discover that it’s Chimney Sweep’s day and you don’t know how to wish them an abundance of sooty chimneys in Polish, then wszystkiego najlepszego will come to the rescue.

Just like ‘all the best‘, it means something along the lines of ‘I wish you the best of everything‘. Basically, it’s the well-wishing equivalent of a gift voucher, so that the listener can redeem it for whatever they desire.

But sometimes it feels a bit cheap.

I’m always amazed every Christmas at how effortlessly Poles can wish me a whole string of wonderful blessings. I stand there, opłatek in hand, listening to my future filled with miłych niespodzianek (nice surprises), dalekich podróży (distant journeys), dużo szczęścia (lots of luck or happiness), spełnienia marzeń (wish fulfillment), pasma sukcesów (string of successes), and uśmiechu na co dzien (smiles everyday).

And when it’s my turn to speak, I have nothing better to offer than…

wszystkiego najlepszego.

The Family Tree

Tolstoy wrote that ‘All happy families are alike. Each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way‘. What he could have written is ‘All families are alike. Each language describes families in its own way…unhappily for a language learner.’

Naively I assumed that learning Polish words for family members would be straightforward, just a question of substituting English terms for Polish ones. A family is just a family, right?

Nope!

Question#1: How do Poles perceive their in-laws?

In English, the family that you marry into are your in-laws, and to define the relationship, you simply add the suffix -in-law to mother, father, brother, sister etc.

I once had the following conversation with a Pole who got confused by the pronunciation of the word ‘law’:

Pole: I’m going to visit my mother-in-love.

Me: Who? Your mother-in-love?…Oh, your mother-in-law! it sounds a little like ‘love’, but actually it’s ‘in-law’.

Pole: I always thought it was ‘in-love’.

Me: Nope, it’s primarily a legal relationship. Love is secondary.

But on second thoughts, in-love might be a better suffix? After all, it’s because I love her daughter that she became my mother-in-law in the first place! Maybe mother-through-love would be the best version!

I was surprised to discovered that’s there was no Polish suffix for describing in-laws. What I can’t just say siostra prawna or ojciec prawny? Teść, teściowa, szwagier, szwagierka…all these new words to learn, that’s extra effort!

This made me wonder how Poles view their in-laws.

English can be coldly pragmatic sometimes, and the in-law suffix is a good example. If my sister marries, then I gain a brother….but only in the eyes of the law. The in-law suffix suggests it’s only temporary. If my sister divorces, then he’s not my brother anymore.

How do Poles perceive szwagier and szwagierka? Is it like getting a new brother or sister?

Question#2 – Do I need to learn these words for maternal and paternal relatives?

One day, I came across the word stryj. I checked the dictionary and found the translation ‘uncle’. Strange, I thought the Polish word for uncle was wujek? What’s going on? I checked another dictionary and found that the translation of uncle was both wuj/wujek and stryj / stryjek.

Sometimes I trick myself by thinking that words that look the same have similar meanings. So my first thought was that the word stryj was connected to strych (attic). So maybe wujek is your normal uncle, while stryj describes the crazy uncle who lives in the attic?

Apparently not.

I learned that the Polish language has two words for uncle – wuj/wujek (on your mother’s side) and stryj/stryjek (on your father’s side) – and it was the same with aunts, nieces and nephews.

I did some research and it felt like I was opening a can of worms: stryj, stryjna, wujna, pociot, wnuk wujeczny or stryjczny, szurzy and szurzyna… even strange Turkish terms like paszenog!

For a moment I despaired. Do I really need to learn all of these words?

Question#3: Are the stryj’s dying out?

I’ve heard or read the word wujek thousands of times, but only once came across the word stryj. Is it still used? Is the term dying out and being replaced by wujek? Do young Poles have a stryj and a wujek or just two wujeks?

I’m starting to worry about the stryj’s in Poland.

I have this image of the last group of Polish stryjow who are hiding in the wilderness of the Bieszczady mountains. Living on berries and mushrooms, they cling to survival away from civilisation that has forgotten them. Will they survive?

Maybe they’ll soon go the way of the paszenog, the last of whom probably passed away in Świętokrzyskie mountains in 19th century.

family tree4

Question#4: Is the Polish language becoming more streamlined?

Modern English is very streamlined when it comes to describing family relationships. Father, mother, brother, sister, aunt, uncle, husband, wife, daughter, son, grandfather, grandmother, grandson, granddaughter, niece and nephew. Everyone else is a cousin or in-law.

The prefix grand- is a convenient shortcut. To describe a relationship two up or down in the family tree, we just add the prefix grand: grandfather, granddaughter etc, but Polish has separate words for all of these people – dziadek, babcia, wnuk, wnuczka.

Linguistically, the Polish family tree is much more bushy than the English one. But is the tree being trimmed?

  • Has the word kuzyn/kuzynka (cousin) completely replaced wnuk wujeczny and siostra cioteczna?
  • Is Polish losing some of its linguistic richness when describing family relationships?
  • Do modern, smaller families still require these words?

Additional Questions

Besides the above, I also have other questions and thoughts about Polish families, just little things that puzzle me:

  • Why are grandparents called dziadkowie and not babkowie?
  • Can you call a family friend aunt or uncle even though they’re not related?
  • Why isn’t a sister called a bratka?
  • Whenever I see the word ‘teść’ (father-in-law) I think of Robert De Niro’s character in Meet the Parents – a disapproving father-in-law who wants to prove that Ben Stiller isn’t a suitable spouse for his daughter. Am I the only one who worries about failing a lie detector teść?
  • Grand in English means both big and magnificent, so great-grand mother can be considered a compliment. Wouldn’t you like to call your mother’s mother’s mother: wspaniała-wielka matka rather than the one who came before (prababcia)?

 

And that’s the challenge facing a language learner – you’re not learning a static thing. A language is always in the process of evolution. When a word isn’t in the dictionary, you’ve got no idea if it’s because the word is too old or because it’s too new.

And then there are other problems…

Like what to buy my paszenog for Christmas?

And if he even exists!

Lessons from Traffic Cops

Once when I was driving through the Polish countryside, I didn’t slow down when passing through a tiny village. From nowhere, a policeman stepped onto the road and signaled for me to pull over.

It was the first time I had ever been stopped for speeding in Poland.

I’d heard lots of stories from Poles that you could get away with speeding by offering a small bribe to the policeman. Indeed, I knew one Polish sales representative who used to carry lots of promotional gadgets in the boot of his car and would offer them to traffic police whenever he got stopped.

But I had grown up in the UK where bribery is extremely uncommon – in fact, I’d never bribed anyone in my entire life – and honestly, I didn’t even know how to do it!

So as I walked over to the police car, I was full of doubts. How is this going to work? Am I supposed to make an offer? Can I haggle? Should I start straight away or wait until he goes through the formal procedure? But what if I try to bribe him and he arrests me!

Also, linguistically, bribery is a hard interaction to master. It’s based on lots of subtle words and expressions that dance around the topic so as not to make it explicit. At the time, my Polish was pretty basic and certainly not good enough to be clever. Indeed, in the stress of the moment, I’d even forgotten the polish word for bribe!

You were going pretty fast,’ the policeman said to start the conversation.

Yes‘, I replied, not wanting to deny it.

This is a built-up area. The speed limit is 50 kilometres per hour.’

I know.

And you were doing over 70...’ and he showed me the figure 73 on the radar he was carrying.

Sorry,’ I said and tried to look as if I’d just learned the biggest lesson of my life.

He paused for a moment.

It’s going to happen now, I thought. He’s established the facts, now he’s moving on to the resolution. Now he’s going to raise this very delicate topic of bribery. Get ready…

How about a warning (to może wystarczy ostrzeżenie)?‘ he said.

I’d never heard the word ostrzeżenie before and had no idea what it meant. But, blinded by my expectations, I wrongly assumed it was connected to bribery.

Play it cool, I said to myself. Try and pretend you know what you’re doing. I assumed that I would need to make an offer, but I had no idea what the going rate was. And what was worse, he probably knew that and would see it as an opportunity to take advantage.

So I decided to put the ball in his court.

How much does that cost?‘ I replied.

The policeman looked puzzled and slid his cap back on his head. Whoops, I thought, that surprised him. Maybe it’s his first time too?

Nothing!‘ he said.

Oh, right. I understand,’ I mumbled…even though I had no idea what just happened.

I walked quickly back to the car, still wondering what ostrzeżenie meant.

police2

Some foreigners, when they are stopped for speeding, speak in English only, hoping that the police will give up in frustration. However, on the two occasions that I have been pulled over, I interacted with the police in Polish and they seemed to appreciate that a foreigner was at least trying to speak their language. I also learned some new expressions too.

As well as the Polish word for warning, I also learned the phrase ‘życzę miłego pobytu w naszym kraju‘ from a traffic cop.

The second time I got stopped, the policemen asked me where I was from, and it turned out his brother was working as a policeman in Scotland not far from my home town. At the end of the conversation, he told me to drive more slowly (fulfilling his duty as a policeman) but also wished me a pleasant stay in Poland.

Despite these two lessons, there are definitely more responsible ways to learn Polish, so I stick to the speed limit. I don’t want to push my luck, otherwise, the next time I might end up learning words like mandat or punkty karne!