How I Lost my First Billion

If you’re learning a foreign language, you need to memorize the numbers. There’s no other way.

When I first scanned the list of numbers in Polish, it didn’t look great.

Jeden was good. I was happy with jeden. Two syllables, five letters, easy to pronounce.

Dwa was okay. Short enough, but the pair of consonants at the beginning was tricky.

Trzy. The real problems started when I got to three!

I’ve probably said the word trzy ten thousand times, but I still can’t pronounce it correctly! I just can’t shape my vocal organs to get it out. For some reason, transitioning from the ‘t’ sound to the ‘rz’ sound is physically impossible for me. It’s probably genetic.

My phone number ends in a 3 and whenever I have to read it out loud – whether I’m ordering pizza or making an appointment – I get a little stressed halfway through. I know that soon I will have to say that horrible number and there’s a very good chance the listener won’t understand me.

It usually goes like this:

Me: zero, siedem, trzy

Listener: zero, siedem, sześć?

Me: Nie, trzy na końcu

Listener: sześć? (for some reason, when I say trzy, they hear sześć, which is ironic because I can’t pronounce sześć either! )

Me: Nie, tak jak raz-dwa-trzy

Listener: Ah, trzy!

If I count one-two… then most educated people have enough context to know that I’m trying to say ‘three’ next.

I’ve considered surgery to rebuild my mouth, tongue and jaw. But it would be expensive. Then my wife told me that when I try really hard, when I really concentrate on pronouncing the word trzy carefully and fully, I sound like someone from Kraków. Fine. I’ll take that. It is cheaper than an operation.

Cztery, pięć. Okay.

Sześć. Another horror to pronounce. Especially when you’re still worrying about trzy.

Siedem, osiem. Fine.

Dziewięć, dziesięć. Nooooo, I moaned when I first saw these words written on the page. We talking basic numbers, one to ten. They should be short and simple. The longest English numbers from one to ten are three, seven and eight. Five letters max. Eight is too many. And all those Polish sounds and weird letters. Come on! What’s more, they are too similar. Bound to lead to mistakes.

But it gets worse when you get into double figures. I had a problem remembering the difference between trzynaście and trzydzici. Which one was 13 and which was 30? In end, and probably connected with my feelings at the time, I learned the numbers 11 to 19 by associating the ending –naście with the English word ‘nasty’. One-nasty – that was jedennaście. Two-nasty – dwanaście, three-nasty – trzynaście etc.

The worse number is 99. Dziewięćdziesiąt dziewięć. I wanted to cry.

Beside pronunciation, another issue I have is that Poles often use other forms, words or declinations to represent the numbers. Inevitably, this leads to misunderstandings with helpless foreigners. I will address the horrors of declination in the next post. But first, I’d like to devote a few paragraphs to some other complaints.

I once took part in a Polish language lesson. We had learned the basic numbers and the teacher wanted us to count to ten as a group. Jeden, dwa, trzy…and so on. So that we all started at the same time, she counted us in by saying raz dwa trzy… and everyone started counting. But I couldn’t concentrate because the whole time I was thinking ‘why did she say raz instead of jeden?’ What’s raz? Have I learned the wrong word for ‘one’?

Another time I was helping a friend to move flats. This involved carrying the sofa out of the apartment, down the stairs and into a van. As we bent to pick up the heavy sofa, getting a good grip with our hands, my Polish friend said trzy cztery and lifted his end of the sofa. My end stayed on the floor. I have never understood why Poles start from three-four and then expect action on five. In English, we start at the beginning with one-two, then lift on three. What happened to 1 and 2 in Polish? Maybe, like me, every one hates the number 3? It’s nasty.

So don’t expect any effort from me on 5. I work on 3. By the time we get to 5, I expect the job to be done!

And talking of strikes, I went through a phase of refusing to write the numeral ‘1’ in the Polish way. In English, ‘one’ is written as a single straight line, up and down. In Polish the number one consists of two lines. A diagonal line and a vertical line. Isn’t this inconsistent? Shouldn’t ‘one’ be represented by one line? Not two. It took me a while to get used to this. In fact, I rebelled at first. For geometrical reasons. Call me a purist, but ‘one’ should written in one stroke!

Then there’s jedynka. Or jedeneczka. I once entered a lift, quickly followed by an elegant-looking women, who saw me reach for the floor buttons and just said jedynka. Clearly, she was asking me to push a button for her. But which one? The building had twelve floors and I had heard ‘jed something‘, but it wasn’t exactly jeden or jedenaście. Did she want me to push ‘one’ or ‘one-nasty’? Because I dithered for so long and because the lift had already left the ground floor, she quickly reached out and pressed the number one. If she hadn’t reacted, she would have ridden with me to the 8th floor while cursing me for being a dumb foreigner who couldn’t work an elevator.

I used to watch Szansa na Sukces, not because I enjoyed the singing, but because every time they chose a number at random by pulling on a string, they would announce it using a diminutive – dwójka, piąteczka… my favourite was always czwóreczka. I’ve never understood how a number can have a diminutive form. One is one. Mathematically. How can you have a little one? If jeden plus jeden is dwa, how much is jedynka plus jedynka? Less then two, surely!

Perhaps, I’m splitting hairs?

Incidentally, in Polish ‘to split hairs’ is dzielenie włosa na czworo. In English, when we split hairs, it’s just into two parts. Four is very, very precise. Almost sub-atomic. What technology do Poles use to split hairs this finely?

Finally, let’s move on to the big numbers.

I always thought that the big numbers in English were easy. As we add three zeros, we simply change the first letter(s) – million, billion, trillion. According to the American comedian, Rich Hall, the next number after trillion is a ‘killion’ – because if you try to count up to a killion, you will die before you get there!

Then I started learning Polish. Here, the big numbers are milion, miliard and bilion. That’s confusing, was my initial reaction. I always got mixed up when I saw miliard. I thought it was the Polish word for million. It just looks like it should mean a thousand thousand. But then I discovered that we used to use milliard in English. To mean… well, a billion. But the American billion, not the old British billion. The old British billion is equivalent to the Polish… bilion.

Confused? Just try counting to a killion. It’s easier. Raz, dwa, trzy… What would be the Polish for a ‘killion’, anyway? Zgilion, combining zginąć and milion, I guess.

Last month I was in a shop, paying in cash at the checkout. The shop assistant pointed towards my wallet and said czy chce się pan pozbyć tego bilonu? I had no idea what he was talking about. But I heard the word bilion. What billion? Is he suggesting I am carrying a billion zloties in my wallet? Unlikely. And even if I were, I wouldn’t be in a hurry to get rid of it. And not in Carrefour Express.

He repeated the question two more times, using the same word. He obviously didn’t know any synonyms.

I eventually realised that he was referring to loose change. My wallet was bulging that day, not with a billion in cash, but with lots of small coins. So I swapped some for a ten zloty note.

That’s the beauty of language learning. I’ve been asked for drobne or końcówka (change) a million times in Polish shops. I even wrote a post about it. But on the 1,000,001th occasion, the cashier used a different word. And to make matters worse, it just happens to be a false friend!

Anyway, I’ve decided to write a book, offering financial advice in a self-help style. The title will ‘How I Lost My First Billion‘. Please don’t spoil the content (the above anecdote). There are so many suckers out there. I’m pretty sure I can sell a zgilion copies.

images from Plakat: Poznaj Polskę w liczbach [1945], Nauka rachunków. Cztery działania z liczbami całkowitemi (1883). Wyd 2., Warszawa: Lesman i Swiszczowski, Przyjaciel Domowy: pismo dla ludu, 1852, R.2, nr 2

The Dimensions of Polish (part two)

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. Zburztoo. 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.

That’s roz.

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.

You’re joking, right?

John Cleese once said that if a British person could choose between being called a bad lover or being called someone without a sense of humour, they’d much rather have a reputation as a bad lover. That tells you all you need to know about the importance of humour in the UK.

I lived in Germany for a couple of years, and one of things I missed was British comedy. The German sense of humour just didn’t do it for me. Indeed, I once read an anecdote about a Brit and a German watching a Benny Hill sketch. In the scene, Benny played a street sweeper. Once he had swept the dirt into one big pile, he looked around to check no-one was watching, then lifted the pavement and swept all the dirt underneath. The Brit laughed, but the German didn’t.

‘Don’t you find that funny?’ the Brit asked.

‘No,’ replied the German, ‘in Germany you can’t lift up pavements like that.’

So I moved to Poland.

I was curious whether the Poles had a vibrant sense of humour. Did they appreciate humour in the same way as the Brits? Did they get Monty Python? On my first day in Poland I stood on the edge of a loose paving stone. Suddenly a blast of muddy brown rain water shot up my leg. Well, I thought, at least you can lift up the pavements in Poland!

When I arrived, I didn’t speak a single word of Polish. So besides physical humour, I wasn’t able to tell whether Poles were funny. As a language learner, it takes years and years to reach a level at which you can appreciate even a fraction of the jokes in a foreign language, and linguistic humour is especially opaque. That said, humour and jokes were actually an important part of the language learning process.

Here are three Polish words that I’ve learned because I didn’t understand a joke.

#1: Lombard

I remember sitting with a group of Poles as they were discussing the fact that one of them had just rented an apartment to a rather untrustworthy foreigner. Spoko, one of them said, on nie wie, co to jest lombard. The others laughed nervously and a little too long. Oh, that joke hit a nerve, I thought… but what’s a lombard? I knew the Lombards as an ancient tribe who had long beards and eventually settled in what is now Italy. Why was it a good thing that this particular foreigner didn’t know any members of a hairy tribe from the Dark Ages? What on earth could the word lombard mean in Polish? Not wanting to interrupt the flow of the conversation, I didn’t ask, but continued to ponder. Perhaps lombard meant ‘barber’ in Polish and they were making a joke about his personal hygiene?

A few months later, while walking down a street in Kraków, I saw a man coming out of a shop. He was carrying a chain saw, which he turned on and started making imaginary cuts in the air. Crossing the road to avoid him, I noticed that he had just come out of a shop called ‘Lombard’. I had a light bulb moment. A lombard is a pawn shop. That guy is checking whether the chain saw works properly before he buys it! Yes, I thought, thank god that foreigner didn’t know what was a lombard was. He would have pawned all the furniture… or worse, he might have a swapped it for a chain saw!

#2: Zawodnik

There are lots of different forms of humour – sarcasm, irony, satire, word play, physical humour, self-deprecating humour, ridicule – and different cultures prefer certain types. So coming to Poland, I didn’t take it for granted that humour would be the same as in the UK. Indeed, I had to learn from experience whether Poles used sarcasm, irony and ridicule.

After being in Poland for about a year, my girlfriend and I were invited to one of her friends’ wedding. Before the event I was invited to the couple’s apartment to get to know them. It turned out that they also wanted to check whether it was safe to invite a foreigner to a Polish village wedding, i.e. could I handle the vodka?

I couldn’t.

After consuming a large number of shots, I got rather ill and had to be taken home in a taxi. The next day (or perhaps it was the one after), the couple phoned my girlfriend to check that I was still alive. I asked her how the call went and whether they were disappointed by my poor performance.

No, no, she consoled me, ‘they said you were a dobry zawodnik.

A what?

Dobry zawodnik…it means ‘a good player’.

Really? But I fell asleep in their bathroom!

What I was really thinking was ‘do Poles do sarcasm?’. Are they saying the opposite of what they think for comic effect? Or perhaps they were just trying to be polite to help me save face?

To this day, I still don’t know. But that’s how I learned the Polish word zawodnik… and, despite all the evidence to the contrary, I like to believe that they weren’t being sarcastic 😉

#3: Skleroza

In the UK, one of the most common forms of humour is self-deprecating humour. Because we don’t want to appear too arrogant or serious, we tend to make jokes about ourselves, especially about our own abilities. When a British person says, ‘I can barely boil an egg’, they probably have at least one star from Michelin.

Interestingly this is not a form of humour that Poles use very often… but there is one exception.

While working as a language teacher, I had a student who struggled to memorize new vocabulary. During one lesson, while we were revising some new language from the previous lesson, she failed to recall a single word. Ale mam sklerozę, she said in Polish. Taking her literally, I assumed she was revealing that she had a serious disease. In English, the term ‘sclerosis’ is used in a number of disorders, most of which are rather serious. I reduced the number of new words we covered and gave her less homework. Must be tough to learn a foreign language with such a disease, I worried.

After the third or fourth time I heard a Pole saying mam sklerozę, I started to worry that there was an epidemic in the country. Perhaps it was genetic?

Eventually, I asked a student ‘How long have you had sclerosis?’

‘What?’ she replied.

‘Is it curable?’

‘No, no… it just an expression,’ she said. ‘I don’t really have sclerosis, just a bad memory!’

And that’s how I learned one of the few Polish examples of self-deprecating humour. While in English, we might say that ‘I have a memory like Swiss cheese’, in Polish they take the depreciation one step further and diagnose themselves with a major disease!


Despite learning a lot of Polish from various types of humour, I still miss so much. Sometimes I just pretend I’ve understood and laugh anyway. Polish has a great expression for this: śmiać się jak głupi do sera (lit. laugh like a fool at cheese) which means to laugh for no reason. It fits my experience a lot of the time. If someone cracks a joke at the end of a dinner party which everyone gets but me, rather than sit there looking serious, I just laugh at the cheese.

When Poles tell jokes, I’d say I laugh at the cheese around 85% of the time. Even when I understand the joke on a literal level, I often don’t understand the double meaning that makes it funny.

I tried learning Polish vocabulary connected to humour, but it didn’t help at all. I memorized the word dowcip (joke) because it is an anagram of ‘cowdip’, and made me think of cows being disinfected. Żart (joke), on the other hand, sounded like the English word ‘fart’ and was easy to associate with lavatory humour. The verb chichotać (to hehee) is a wonderful onomatopoetic word. The only trouble is that I always mix up the vowels and usually end up saying chachotać or chichachać!

That usually gets a laugh.

So do Poles have a good sense of humour? Does Polish humour meet my high expectations? Undoubtedly yes.

There’s a Polish expression obśmiać się jak norka (laugh like a mink). I’ve no idea why a mink is the reference point for laughter, but perhaps it should be used as a sales slogan for language schools.

Learn Polish… you’ll laugh like a mink!

Old School

I’m trying to learn Polish… but which Polish? Sometimes I feel that the Polish language is evolving faster than my ability to learn it.

New slang arises from the streets, the language races to keep up with technological innovation, and the influence of English grows daily.

I remember a Polish guy who went back to learning English after a long break. Whenever he was corrected for making a mistake, he would protest ‘that was correct ten years ago. It’s not the same language any more!

Sometimes I get that feeling with Polish.

The problem for a language learner is that they think they are learning a static, unchanging set of words and rules, but this is far from the case. You simply don’t know which words are outdated, which used to be cool but aren’t anymore, and which are the height of fashion today. By the time you’ve mastered certain functional areas, the language has moved on and you sound like someone who has just been dug up on an archeological site.

Take greetings, for example. My ‘Teach Yourself Polish’ textbook introduced me to dzień dobry, jak się masz and do widzenia but on the street what I heard young Poles actually say was hej, siema and dozo. I remember the first time I heard the expression siema. At a bus stop I observed two Polish teenager boys greet one another and say siema. ‘Are they both called Szymon?’ I wondered and ‘is siema just a short version of the name?’ I made a mental note and checked my dictionary when I got home. The only similar word I could find was siano (hay)… ‘perhaps it was a countryside expression that had just reached the city?’

A further problem with fashionable language is the constant emergence of new trendy expressions. By the time that I learned siema, the cool kids had moved on to siemka or siemano. Will I ever catch up? No, I don’t think so… and for the very reason, that if I, a middle-aged foreigner, knows the word, then it’s high time to invent something new.

It was the same with the word for ‘okay’. My textbook taught me the tongue twister w porządku, but in reality young Poles say okej, spoko or wporzo. I’ve even heard that you can now say gitara. Although, now that I’m aware of the term, the language will probably move on to some other musical instrument instead, bęben (drums) perhaps.

So all of this gives me a dilemma. Which Polish to learn? Should I stick to the Polish that is considered suitable for my age group, or should I try to sound fresh by using the latest street slang? I’m tempted to use these new terms like nara, siema, spoko, dozo and wporzo – they’re shorter, easier to pronounce and, best of all, they sound like characters from the Muppets (wasn’t dozo one of the birds?). So where’s the problem?

The problem is that I have some reservations. I feel as if these terms don’t belong to my age group and if I used them, I’d be like an old man wearing a baseball cap sideways. I feel awkward saying siema to a teenager, I’d feel a complete fool saying siemka? And what kind of fool? Would I be a głab or a dzban? As a linguistic category, the words used for foolish people is another that evolves faster than a learner’s ability to keep up. It turns out that my favourite words for ‘fool’ in Polish are all old-fashioned – gamoń or trąba – while the new trendy ones, like janusz or dzban, sound old-fashioned to my ears.

old school

How can I stay in touch with the Polish language as it evolves? Well, there are two key places to do research – the street and the Internet.

Perhaps I could do some field work? Like an undercover detective, I could venture out at night with a notepad, pencil and pocket dictionary and try to overhear what’s being said on the street corners. However, the only new slang I’d learn would be new ways of saying ‘get lost you old fart‘.

I remember talking to a friend who recently bought an apartment. Before he submitted an offer for a place he liked, he would park outside the apartment building at night, sit in his car and count how many pato (in his words) gathered around the entrance to drink alcohol. If there was a big group of pato, then he wouldn’t make an offer. That’s how I learned the Polish word pato (from patologia) to refer to a certain group of people who come out at night. And while I admire this approach to doing street level investigations, I doubt I’d overhear much new slang from the safety of my car.

As for the Internet, it’s much easier to do research, but it helps me keep up with English slang more than Polish. There are actually some examples of English slang that I’ve picked up via Polish. I thought that YOLO (you only live once) was another LOL variant until a young Pole explained to me what it means.

Yet one challenge with technology is its fondness for shortened forms. I have enough trouble keeping up with new words like spoks, but in chat messages it is shortened to the abbreviation SPX. Immediately I’m three steps behind!

There is one upside to this process of change, and it’s that the Polish language, at least the version spoken by the younger generation, seems to resemble English more and more. Many of the shortened versions of Polish words – nara, spoko, dozo etc – follow a consonent-vowel-consonent-vowel pattern like many English words. Then there is the use of the -ing suffix to describe cool activities as in leżing or plażing. Thirdly, there’s the borrowing of English words to make Polish slang, e.g. za friko, fejm and nolife.

But that’s the ultimate irony… at least as far as I am concerned.

Polish is slowly evolving into English…

…but by the time it does so…

…I’ll be too old to use this new, trendy language.

Ale suchar!

Perhaps I should concentrate on learning more dated language. It’s exhausting trying to keep up with new slang.

I once found the word hulanka in a dictionary defined as ‘a party’. ‘That sounds cool’, I thought and invested some time to memorize it. Turns out it was cool… around 100 years ago. And when I innocently used it for the first time to describe my weekend, I got some instant feedback on its relevance to today’s Poles.

But maybe hulanka is an example of my kind of Polish after all. Perhaps I should focus on learning such old-fashioned words. At least, it’s static, not evolving. If only there were a textbook that taught such old-school language:

Polski dla starych pryków (Polish for old Farts)


Jak ględzić po polsku (Prattling in Polish)

I’d buy them both.

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.

Don’t be the Early Bird

The first time I went sailing in Mazury, we hired a boat in Giżycko and set sail around ten a.m. As soon as we were out of the port, the captain handed me a beer.

Alcohol? This early? I don’t think I’ve ever drunk alcohol before midday‘ I muttered.

Welcome to Mazury‘, he replied.

It’s not just drinking habits that vary from culture to culture, attitudes to time vary as well. If you don’t fall into line with a foreign culture’s approach to time-keeping, then you end up doing the wrong thing at the wrong time in the wrong place.

Of course, you could say that drinking beer on a boat in Mazury at 10am is doing the wrong thing at the wrong time in the wrong place. Rather than falling into line with the habits of a foreign culture, I might have ended up falling into a Masurian lake… but you know what I mean.

So when a foreigner learns the Polish language, he or she also picks up some insight into Poles’ attitude towards time. How do Poles tell the time? Do they value punctuality? And are they good time managers?

Lesson #1: Telling the Time

Learning how to tell the time in Polish isn’t particularly difficult, but it’s more tricky than it should be. By using ordinal numbers and the 24-hour clock, the Polish language makes a foreigner work just a little bit harder to master this skill.

First of all, I was surprised to learn that Poles use ordinal numbers instead of cardinal ones to label hours. So if you want to say ‘it’s eight o’clock’, then you need to say jest ósma (literally, it’s the eighth hour). And when I hear this, I always think ‘the eighth hour since what?’ As a child I learned that the First World War ended on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. Saying ‘it’s the eighth hour’ in Polish gives me a sense of doom as if I were saying ‘it’s the eighth hour… since some terrible tragedy occurred‘. To my ears, this gives Polish time a very weighty, backward-looking feel. It’s the eighth hour and we haven’t forgotten.

And there’s a lot of memorization involved. While a learner of English just needs to learn 12 cardinal numbers, learners of Polish need to learn 24 cardinal numbers and their 24 ordinals. This is because Poles use both the 12 and 24-hour clock to tell the time. If you want to meet at 8pm, a Pole might say o ósmej wieczorem (at the eighth hour in the evening) or o dwudziesej (at the twentieth hour). Why? I don’t know. I just know that it’s a pain in the neck to learn all those bloody ordinals.

By the time I had learned how to schedule appointments in Polish, I was too exhausted to actually go anywhere. I’d look at the clock, try and figure out what the time was, and conclude that it pora snu (bedtime).

Lesson#2: Punctuality

The first time I saw the Polish word for ‘hour’, I assumed that time must be important to Poles. To my ears, Godzina sounded like the name of a god, or at the very least, some huge, powerful creature, perhaps the offspring of Godzilla and Krishna. So do Poles treat time as a deity and worship punctuality?

Not always.

There’s seems to be a magical 15 minute grace period. On many occasions, while waiting for others to arrive, I’ve heard Poles talk about the kwadrans akademicki (academic quarter of an hour). As far as I understand it, professors are allowed to be 15 minutes late for lectures. If they are more than 15 minutes late, then the students get up and leave. Thanks to this, lectures don’t start late until 16 minutes past the scheduled start time. Anything up to 15 minutes is actually on time.

In some countries, punctuality is highly valued. It’s important to be on time because being punctual defines you as a well-organized person. In my experience, many Poles have a more pragmatic approach to being on time – it’s only important to be on time if it gains you some advantage. For instance, if there is limited seating at a concert venue and you want to make sure you have a good spot, then it’s worth being on time. If there’s nothing to be gained from being on time, then there’s no point being punctual just for the sake of it.

Lesson#3: Public Holidays

In Poland the names and timings of public holidays are complex, and a foreigner, if they are curious why they have a day off work, faces some challenges. Firstly, they need to learn some Polish history to appreciate the relevance of Święto Konstytucji 3 Maja and Narodowe święto Niepodległości. Secondly, they face the challenge of learning some very tough vocabulary connected to religious holidays – Trzech Króli, Boże Ciało, Wniebowzięcie Najświętszej Maryi Panny and Wszystkich Świętych. And thirdly, because many of these holidays fall on Tuesdays or Wednesdays or Thursdays, they need advanced time management skills to maximize the number of long weekends they can enjoy per year.

In the UK, by comparison, it’s far easier. Public holidays are always on a Monday and are known as ‘Bank Holidays’. You see, in the UK, money is our religion. If the bank is closed and you can’t manage your finances, then you might as well spent time with your family or visit the seaside. It’s simple. No history, no religion, all you need to know is that time is money… except on days when the banks are closed!

Time Mysteries


While I’ve picked up some insights into Polish time-keeping, there are still many things that I don’t understand:

  • Why do the Polish words for midday (południe) and midnight (północ) also mean ‘south’ and ‘north’? At first, I assumed it was because a clock and a compass look similar, but if that was the case, then południe should refer to six o’clock!
  • Do Poles have trouble remembering the words for past and future? Przeszłość (past) and przyszłość (future) look and sound so similar that I couldn’t remember which was which for years. When I learned the word złość (anger), it started to make sense. I’d been pretty angry about the difference between przes-złość and przys-złość for years!
  • How do PKP measure time? While waiting for a train, I’ve often heard an announcement that the train is late by X minutes. This is followed by a wonderful sentence czas opoznieny może ulegnac zmiany (the amount of lateness may change). Einstein taught us that time is relative. It seems to be especially relative to PKP. So you need to get your head around the fact that the train is late, but still might arrive earlier than the estimated delay, or later than the current delay. No matter how long the delay is, I usually hang around the platform. You still need to be on time for PKP’s lateness otherwise you’ll miss the train.
  • What does zaraz zaraz really mean? When a Pole says zaraz it means ‘soon’, but when they repeat the word and say zaraz zaraz, I don’t get the impression that it means ‘sooner’.
  • Last, but not least, there are the Polish equivalents of ‘early bird’ and ‘night owl’. When I first heard the expression ranny ptaszek, I assumed this meant ‘injured bird’. Ranny can be translated into English as both ‘morning’ and ‘injured’ and I assumed it meant the latter. So rather than getting the first worm, I wondered, do Poles think that an early bird is more likely to attacked by some predator? And as regards ‘night owl’, why is the Polish translation nocny marek? Who is this Marek guy? Has anybody stayed up late enough to meet him?

Gulliver’s Travels

Is Poland a big country or a small one? Sounds like a simple question, but it isn’t.

The first day I arrived in Poland, while traveling by taxi from the airport to the centre of Warsaw, there was one thing that really captured my attention in this new, alien country. It wasn’t the people nor the buildings, but some of the cars. They were so absurdly small that I couldn’t believe a human being could fit inside. ‘That’s a Maluch,’ explained the person who had picked me up at the airport. ‘It means ‘a little one’.

It turned out that my flat was ‘a little one’ as well.

The apartment was around 28 square metres and consisted of one room, half a kitchen and a tiny bathroom. There was one narrow sofa bed that was a sofa during the day and a bed at night, and also doubled up as a container for the bedding. Covering one entire wall of the living room was a line of cupboards, shelves and drawers, some functional, some ornamental, which was packed full of possessions left by the landlord. The washing machine wasn’t in the kitchen. Instead, despite being tiny, it took up half the space in the bathroom, and only had enough capacity for one set of clothes to be washed at a time. The TV screen was the size of a toaster and mostly showed ski jumping competitions, which were won by a small Polish guy called ‘Małysz‘.

Unsurprisingly, many of the first words I learned in Polish described small things – mały, wąski, krótki – or were the names of space-saving items of furniture and storage solutions – meblościanka (wall unit), wersalka (sofa bed), pawlacz (cubbyhole) and piwnica (basement). Indeed, one of the first verbs I learned was rozłożyć łozko (set up the bed) though I learned it in the context of nie mogę rozłożyć łóżka (I can’t set up the bed). There’s a knack to getting one half of a folding sofa bed to click into place so that it collapses into the bed position. I just couldn’t work out how to do it and spent the first few nights sleeping on the narrow sofa rather than the full bed. I was too embarrassed to ask for help in case people got the wrong idea. Can you come round to my place and show me how to set up the sofa bed? Sounds way too suggestive!


Like Gulliver on his arrival in Lilliput, I felt like a giant in a world designed for dwarfs. And I started to wonder whether communist architects had made some sort of miscalculation in their plans that caused them to assume that Poles were only 1.5m tall.

First impressions can be deceptive, but at first, Poland felt like a small country.

In the book Gulliver’s Travels, Gulliver escapes from Lilliput, and ends up in a land of giants called Brobdingnag. Curiously, my first month in Poland seemed to retrace Gulliver’s journey when I spent a long weekend in Southern Poland.

I was immediately struck by the difference in scale. The houses had five stories, the fir trees were huge and the Tatra mountains looked like the Alps. In Zakopane I didn’t learn words for small, compact things, but for big, expansive ones: góra, góral, wielki. The hiking routes were długie (long) and the prices, like the mountains, were wysokie (high). The highlanders, the Górals, also seemed to have a big approach to life as well – large, outgoing people with loud, booming voices. They seem to have so much confidence, striding around in those fury sweaters and sheepskin trousers.

I went rafting on the Dunajec river and as we passed beneath the Pieniny Mountains, one of the passengers asked a Góral who was steering the boat what he did during the off-season when there were no tourists. Fortunately, a Polish friend was on hand to translate his reply.

Pointing at the three peaks above us, the Góral said in a melodic voice, ‘we rearrange the mountains to give the tourists a different view when they come back the following season.’

If Nietzsche went looking for his superman in Poland, I’d recommend he start in a karczma in Podhale!

Riding the train back to Warsaw from Zakopane, I leafed through a guidebook to Poland and was surprised to notice that the ‘land of giants’ was called Małopolska.

Isn’t it ironic that the region with all the big stuff is called ‘little Poland?‘ I asked a Polish friend.

‘No,’ she replied. ‘Because there’s a region called Wielkopolska too and there’s no mountains there.’

I started to wonder whether Poland was Jonathan Swift’s inspiration for Gulliver’s Travels. Perhaps he toured Europe in his youth and was struck by the contrast of big things and little things in Poland. Of course, when Swift was alive in the 17th century, Poland was bigger than it is now… and in a different location… and the mountains have been rearranged by the Górals many times since then…

So is Poland a big country or a small one?


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.


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:


The equivalent table for English looks like this:


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