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!

norka

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)

or

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.

web

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

time

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!

big_small2

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?

Yes!

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!

loser1

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!