The Yin and Yang of Learning Polish


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

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

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

Why is everything so heavy?

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

What does spoko luz mean?

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

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

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

Yin and Yang

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

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

When it comes to learning Polish…

ciężko is yin

spoko luz is yang.

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

Two for the Price of One

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

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

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

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

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

Well, it’s something like that.

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

robić (zrobić perf)

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

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

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

I zdid it, i zdid it.

You zdid what?

I learned a Polish verb!


Okay, I didn’t.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

McKupić, verb     to quickly buy an item without shopping around

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

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

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

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

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

Best Wishes

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


sto lat

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

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

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

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

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

Sto lat, sto lat,

Niech żyje, żyje nam.

Sto lat, sto lat,

Niech żyje, żyje nam,

Jeszcze raz, jeszcze raz,

Niech żyje, żyje nam,

Niech żyje nam!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

sto lat, sto lat, sto lat, sto lat

niechaj żyje nam

sto lat, sto lat, sto lat, sto lat

niechaj żyje nam

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

I’m currently miming this version.

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

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

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

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

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

wszystkiego najlepszego

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

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

But sometimes it feels a bit cheap.

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

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

wszystkiego najlepszego.

The Family Tree

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Apparently not.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

family tree4

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

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

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

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

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

Additional Questions

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

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


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

And then there are other problems…

Like what to buy my paszenog for Christmas?

And if he even exists!

Lessons from Traffic Cops

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I know.

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

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

He paused for a moment.

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

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

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

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

So I decided to put the ball in his court.

How much does that cost?‘ I replied.

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

Nothing!‘ he said.

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

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


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

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

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

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

Imperial Delusions

My first flat in Poland looked over a bunch of ramshackle huts arranged in rows. I asked my landlord what it was and he said it was a bazaar.

Being British, I grew up hearing and reading tales about our former empire. The adventures of British explorers, soldiers and administrators are popular and describe a world full of strange lands, exotic peoples and quirky cultures. It might be a bit misleading in the 21st century, but I was taught to associate foreign lands with Kipling’s the Jungle Book, the Arabian Nights and the search up the Zambezi river for Dr Livingstone.

So when I heard that there was a bazaar next to my block, my mind raced to ancient Persia, flying carpets and Ali Baba.

When you go to a foreign country, you expect things to be unfamiliar. Yet sometimes, those expectations can go too far and you discover that reality isn’t quite as weird as your own imagination.

So assuming that a Polish bazar was not unlike an Arabian bazaar, I decided to play it safe. For about a month I didn’t go anywhere near it just in case I got tricked out of all my zloties by a snake charmer.

When I finally did venture into the bazar, with my camera ready, it was a great disappointment. There were no oriental silks, no fortune-tellers, and no persistent camel salesmen – just lots of market stalls selling vegetables, shoes and pirated Cds.

No Ali Baba, only Ali Babcia!


Another time, a friend suggested we meet at 7pm ‘by the pavilion next to the park‘. I showed up an hour late!

Why? Because I was looking through my imperial lenses again. Because I was looking for a fancy, exotic-looking building near the park. You see, in English, a pavilion is an elegant, often historic building that is used for leisure activities. In Brighton there’s an ornate building called the Royal Pavilion with domes and minarets that was modeled on Indian and Muslim architecture.

So for an hour I wandered around the park, like Livingstone in Africa, looking for splendid neo-colonial palace.

With this goal in mind, I completely overlooked the squat, flat-roofed building in one corner of the park. Whatever that was, it wasn’t a pavilion.

Eventually, I called my friend and she explained it was at the west side of the park. I went to the west-side. Still couldn’t find a pavilion. Called again, asking for more directions. In the end, we had to stay connected while my friend guided me to the pavilion as if I were blind.

I soon learned that in Poland a pawilon isn’t very exotic at all. It just a type of shopping centre in the middle of a housing estate. Just a glass-fronted, concrete box where the local chemists, grocery shops and dry-cleaners are.

No minarets, only mini-markets.

So for a while my colonial imagination confused me a little in Poland, and it took a while to calibrate my expectations to reality.

Yet language also played a part. It was the names given to particular places and buildings that gave me the wrong impression:

  • A galeria doesn’t exhibit paintings?
  • A bar mleczny doesn’t sell milkshakes?
  • and a pasaż doesn’t go anywhere?

If they’d just used dom handlowy instead of pawilon, I might have recognized it at once!

Oh and besides not getting used to its architectural appearance, I couldn’t get the pronunciation of pawilon right either.

To this day, I still say ‘pavilion’ instead of ‘pawilon‘ … for some reason, I just can’t get my tongue to make the switch.

So whenever I pop out to buy some bread or potatoes, there’s a part of me that thinks it’s in India, riding an elephant through a sea of natives towards the gleaming marble domes of an exotic, colonial palace.

Driving into Town

When you live in a country but don’t fully understand the language, there are times when you can’t tell the difference between a word and a name.

Take for instance, the first time I went sailing in Mazury. In the late afternoon, the rest of the crew would discuss in which port we would spend the night: ‘We could stay in Mikołajki, or go back to Wierzba or there’s always Trzcina.’ During the trip, I was surprised that Trzcina was always an option – whether we were in the northern lakes or down in the south. ‘Wherever this port of Trzcina is,’ I thought, ‘it must be pretty central because it’s only a couple of hours sailing from anywhere in the Masurian Lakes!’

It’s no different on the road.

In the same way that I thought Trzcina (reeds) was a port, a foreigner coming to Poland for the first time might think that Wita is name of a town in Poland. I’ve seen quite a few road signs on which the word Wita is printed in a bigger, bolder font that the actual place name.

Either that or a foreigner might think that Wita is another word to define a town like Dolny or Wielki. ‘We didn’t get much of a welcome in Olsztyn Wita so why don’t we look for some accommodation in Olsztyn instead?

Indeed, this is part of a wider issue for a non-native learner – in the final kilometre before any Polish town there are so many billboards, welcome signs, banners and advertisements that you can be overwhelmed.

So to help, I’ve prepared this short guide to arriving or leaving a Polish town:


  • wita / witamy = either the town (wita) or its people (witamy) are welcoming you. Personally, I’ve always felt that witamy is a warmer version because it comes from the people. How exactly a town can welcome anyone I’ve never figured out.
  • zaprasza / zapraszamy = in this case, either the town or its inhabitants are inviting you over, but don’t worry, you are not expected to bring a gift.
  • miasto monitorowane = this literally means that the town uses surveillance equipment and often comes right after the witamy sign. Together these signs mean, ‘you’re welcome, but keep your hands where we can see them!’. Basically, the authorities don’t trust you not to break the law as you pass through.
  • warto zobaczyć – this presents three things that are worth seeing in the town. Always disregard the last one, it’s just there to make up the numbers.
  • witamy na ziemi…/ ziemia…wita = often a region or jurisdiction will welcome you, e.g. witamy na ziemi świętokrzyskiej. Foreigners might panic at first, thinking this is a message for aliens, welcoming them to the Planet Earth. Don’t worry, it just means ‘welcome to the land of…
  • miasta partnerskie – these are other places with which this town is twinned. If you’ve never heard of any of the towns mentioned, don’t worry, no one has!
  • EU Funds – finally, you might see something that looks more like an enlarged document than a street sign. You can ignore this, it’s just a receipt showing who paid for the pavement.

One challenge with these signs is that they tend to be covered in graffiti, so you might not know which town you’re in, but you will know which football team is trending.


It’s the same story when you’re leaving town. Quite wisely, most towns don’t invest too much effort to say goodbye, however, there are some things it’s worth bearing in mind:

  • żegna / żegnamy – to me, this is more personal than do zobaczenia, especially żegnamy. However, if the town welcomed you on the way in (wita), but the people are saying goodbye (żegnamy), then it means that they’re glad to be rid of you.
  • zapraszamy ponownie – the townsfolk are inviting you back. However, if you noticed a miasta monitorowane sign on the way in and you broke a few driving laws, then I wouldn’t go back if I were you.
  • termination sign – in Poland, when leaving a town, there is a sign showing the town’s name with a red line through it. This looks very official as if the town just got cancelled by some bureaucracy. Don’t worry, the town will continue to exist, just not for you. We don’t have such signs in the UK. You just drive out of town without any fanfare. In Polish, there’s an idiom wyjść po angielsku (to leave in an English way) which means to ‘leave without saying goodbye to anyone‘. The same applies to towns and villages in the UK – they don’t say goodbye either.

Radom wita

Billboards & Banners

Finally, a word about billboards and banners. Polish towns extend a warm welcome, but their businesses welcome you and your wallet even more warmly. I must admit that there are so many billboards and banners lining the road into most places that I wonder whether there is a legal requirement, i.e. to register a business, you are obliged to erect a ugly billboard or sign on the road into town.

It seems that, in Poland, if you’re setting up a business, then you don’t have many choices for the company’s name. In fact, there are only 3 options:

1. -pol

The first option is patriotic. You use the suffix -pol to show the world that your business is 100% Polish. This is especially true if you sell food:

  • Szynkopol
  • Indykpol
  • Rybopol

For a logo, it’s common to use a cartoon of a pig, turkey, fish etc, happily dancing its way to the dinner table.

2. -ex / -bud

The second option is for a company that exports a product or service. In this case, it’s necessary to add -ex to the end of the name. The owners hope, rather optimistically, that this gives the company an international profile:

  • Dachmex
  • Żwirex
  • Paletex

The only exception is the construction industry, then it’s necessary to use bud in part of the name:

  • Drogbud
  • Słupbud

3. Two Guys

The final option is used if two Polish guys are setting up in business together. In this case you take one syllable from each of their first names and join them together:

  • Janmat = Janusz and Mateusz
  • Zendar = Zenon and Dariusz
  • Jarmar = Jarosław and Mariusz

To give another example, there’s a furniture company that operates in Poland called Juan. Because of the name, I assumed it was Spanish, but I later learned that it was set up by two guys from Warsaw called Jurek and Andrzej. Stupid me, forgot about the two guys rule!

If you are bored on a long journey, then you can play a game with these company names. It’s a great way to pass the time.

The rules are simple. The first passenger to spot a sign, billboard or banner with one of the above types of company names get the points. As you leave town, the person with the most points wins.

  • -pol = 1 point +  2 additional points if there’s a dancing turkey, fish, pig as a logo
  • -ex/bud = 2 points
  • two guys = 3 points (but you have to say which two names were used)

By the way, if you’re playing this for the first time, avoid Radom, it’s for advanced players only – you’ll have 30+ points before you get anywhere near the city!

The Alphabet Enigma

Ask a British person how many letters there are in the alphabet and they will instantly answer: twenty-six.

Ask a Polish person how many letters are in the Polish alphabet and they don’t know. Indeed, they don’t even care. The most typical responses are:

  • who cares?
  • never counted!
  • why would I need to know that?

In Britain everybody knows some basic facts – there’s 1 sun in the sky, 4 points on a compass, 12 months in a year, and the first thing you learn on your first day at school is that there are 26 letters in the alphabet.

In Poland, no seems to give a damn how many letters there are.

It’s weird, shocking, even scandalous, and whenever I express this to a Pole, they don’t see the problem.

Without knowing how many letters are in the language, how can you type an email, decode the enigma machine or do something really hard, like play Scrabble?

I guess part of my shock is connected with the fact that I, as a foreigner learning Polish, had to get to grips with many additional letters. Yet Poles don’t even know how many there are!

Another enigma that surrounds the Polish alphabet are the phantom letters Q, V and X. They’re not in the language, but they show up from time to time and this confuses me.

V, for instance, isn’t in the written language, but does exist in body language – I’ve seen many Poles holding up two fingers to show the V for victory gesture. Is this allowed? V isn’t even in the Polish alphabet. Shouldn’t they make a Z for zwycięstwo gesture by drawing a Z in the air… or would people think they’re referring to Zorro?

Then, there’s X which appears in the names of countless Polish firms from Budimex to Metalex, while Q is present in Latin words such as Quo Vadis. So do the letters Q, V and X exist, or don’t they?

Foolishly, I once agreed to play Scrabble in Polish. An English native-speaker gets a surprise straight out of the box when you see the points on the letter tiles. In the English version, Z is worth 10 points while in the Polish version it’s only worth 1. The other most valuable letter in English is Q, which is worth 10, but isn’t in the Polish version. My usual strategy for winning – waiting until I can place the word q-u-i-z on a triple word score – just wasn’t going to work.


So I started with a short, simple word – just three letters J, U and Z to spell the Polish word for ‘soon‘:

Me: It’s on a triple word score, so 3 times 6 equals 18 points.

Opponent: There’s no such word, już is spelt with a Ż.

Me: Aren’t the Z’s interchangeable? I don’t have a Z with a dot.

Opponent: No, they’re completely different letters. One is worth 1 point while the other is worth 5.

Me: Oh come on. That’s pedantic. It’s the same letter. Looks the same, sounds the same and comes at the end of the alphabet.

Opponent: No, Z, Ż and Ź are different letters entirely.

Me: But I’m a foreigner, isn’t there’s some handicap system in which I can substitute a normal Z, S or C for the funny ones?

Opponent: No. They’re different letters. You can’t substitute a M for a W by turning it upside down!

Me: Fine, can I have ‘F-U-J?

Opponent: No, it’s not a word.

Me: Of course it is. That’s what foreigners say when they first see the Polish alphabet!

Okay I was being facetious – they look so cute that learners, when they first encounter the new letters, give them special names:

  • funny E
  • Z with a hat
  • A with a tail
  • L with a belt

I guess it’s because they look like Roman letters dressed up in Polish folk costumes with hats, belts, swords and feathers.

In Polish, some of the diacritical marks are called kropki and kreski (dots and dashes), and of course, dots and dashes are also found in Morse code…

…which makes me wonder…

…maybe Polish writing actually contains a hidden code?

Maybe thousands of encrypted messages are hidden in all those dots and dashes and funny tails?

I don’t want to sound paranoid, but what if the sentence ‘Czy świerszcze lubią jeździć na łyżwach?’ includes a hidden message to Polish readers, like ‘never let a foreigner beat you at Scrabble‘?

Just before World War II, when the Polish Army shared their intelligence on the Enigma machine with their British and French allies, did they share everything, or perhaps, did they keep something back?

Just like the number of letters in the Polish alphabet, and the phantom letters Q, V and X… it’s an enigma!

Cute Overload

I have one inhibition when speaking Polish.

It’s not that I’m concerned with making grammar mistakes. I don’t care if I get vocabulary mixed up. And it’s not about using the right declination.

The thing that I have a big inhibition about…is diminutives!

I just don’t feel comfortable speaking in a way that makes things small and cute.

The Polish language has a lot of tricky grammar, but one, often overlooked, challenge for learners is grasping diminutives. By saying kawka instead of kawa (coffee) or piesek instead of pies (dog), Poles have special ways of making things sound small, cute and fluffy.

There’s a website called Cute Overload – it’s just pictures of cats, dogs and other sweet animals. If you need a daily fix, this is the place to go. And sometimes that’s what Polish sounds like…cute overload!

Take for example the word kot. Now I do think that cats are pretty…but does Polish really need 15 words to talk about a cute cat?

9 cats

kot, kotek, koteczek, kotulek, kotuś, kocurek, kociak, kociaczek, kocię, kociątko, kicia, kiciulek, kiciuś, kocisko, kocur

In English we survive with just two cutesy words for cat, namely kitty and pussycat, but Poles either really like cats or no one is heartless enough to trim the dictionary.

I ask Polish friends to explain all of this, but it rarely helps:

Me: What’s the difference between kot, kocurek and kiciuś?

Pole: Well, a kocurek is a small, cute and fluffy cat.

Me: And a kiciuś?

Pole: It’s even smaller and more fluffy.

Me: Cuter too?

Pole: Oh yes.

There are so many words for cat that sometimes I get confused and think any word that starts with a ‘k’ is another kitty word. Kościuszko…is that the guy who lead an uprising in the 18th century or is it just another word for a pretty cat?

Polish kids learn all this language during the first few years of their lives. Foreigners, who try to learn Polish grammatical rules, have a harder time. Indeed, if you try and organize all the cat words into a sensible order, you end up with a table that even Mendeleev would struggle to understand:


And as a result of internet memes, there’s even a new addition: koteł. Will the list ever stop growing?

So coming back to my inhibitions, I’m actually okay using diminutives when referring to kittens, puppies and froggies, but I have a harder time when it comes to non-living things – kawka, herbatka, łyżeczka, kanapeczka (coffee, tea, spoon, sandwich). It just feels silly to make an inanimate object all small and fluffy. If I just want milk in my coffee, do I need to say that I want it z mleczkiem (with a wee dash of milky-wilky)?

One consequence of this is that I’ve been told that I’m too serious when speaking Polish. Maybe I sound like a cyborg, speaking like a robot in a serious, neutral tone.

So anyway, I have lots of doubts and questions about these Polish diminutives:

  • Is it rude to respond with a different level of cutesiness? If someone offers me kawka and I, like a cyborg, say ‘yes, I’d like some kawa’, is that rude?
  • Are there any objects that are so big that you can’t make them small and cute? Godzilleczka? Mount Everestek? Kosmosek?
  • Is it possible to use contradictory diminutives, i.e. making extreme words sound less extreme? For instance, ogromienki, wrogeczek, katastrofka?
  • Why is the diminutive form often longer and uglier than the original word? e.g. cukiereczek, filiżaneczka, kanapeczka.
  • Why are some diminutives actually completely different things? For instance, the diminutive of cukier (sugar) is cukierek (hard-boiled sweet) while the diminutive of zegar (clock) is zegarek (watch).
  • Why does the word mały (small) have its own diminutives – maluteńki, maleńki, malutki, malusieńki? Isn’t this taking things just a drobniuteńko too far?
  • Scottish English has the word ‘wee’ meaning small, e.g. the best translation of wódeczka is a wee vodka. Can’t Polish just have one word for all of this?

And finally, one last question, why does the Polish language need 15 words to describe a cute cat?

The Polish Butcher

On a warm July evening we sat in the garden of a friend’s summer house. In the growing darkness the only illumination was a lamp on the wall of the cottage, which acted as a magnet for insects from the local forest. Moths and flies flew in circles while beetles and bugs crawled up the cottage wall towards the source of light.

I noticed something huge…slowly making it’s way up the wall…and now it was only a few centimetres from my friend’s head. I had to warn her.

Emm, Ola…uważaj bo blisko twoja głowa jest ogromny koń polowy.

(Look out Ola because there’s a huge field horse near your head).

She looked surprised, but turned around to see what I was referring to. Realising that it was only a harmless grasshopper, she started laughing, ‘Kon polowy!’ and the rest of the group started giggling too.


In English we have an idiomatic expression to butcher a language, i.e. to cut it into pieces until there’s just a big mess. Well, I’ve been butchering Polish for years…changing the word order, inventing completely new expressions, combining words that shouldn’t be combined, adding sounds to the pronunciation of words and using expressions in the wrong context. What’s left after this butchery is a bit of a dog’s dinner. Honestly, it’s never been my goal to speak perfect Polish, but to have fun interacting with Poles. I usually give them a good laugh.

Of course, when you want to warn someone that a huge bug is about to jump on their face, it’s useful to use the right vocabulary. Saying that a horse (koń) is climbing the wall instead of a grasshopper (konik polny) helps to get the listener’s attention…even if it doesn’t convey the correct level of danger.

But these mistakes are logical. I mean, I knew that the Polish word for grasshopper was related to a horse! And it was such a big grasshopper than the diminutive konik just didn’t do it justice. So, there’ some rational behind my butchery…I hope.

For instance, when someone says dziękuję, I always respond with proszuję. I prefer it when one expression mirrors the other.

Or with the word order in the sentence nic się nie stało… even when 55,000 Polish football fans are singing this in the National Stadium, I still can’t get the word order right. Switching the order of nie and się, I always say nic nie się stało. But, Polish word order is supposed to be flexible, isn’t it? … so don’t blame me if I take liberties.

Then there are words into which I add additional sounds…they just sound better to my ears. Most often this involves adding the letter z into words connected to animals:

  • pajęczy-z-na (pajęczyna / spider’s web)
  • ro-z-pucha (ropucha / toad)

Finally, Polish has too many comparative expressions and I only have enough free memory space for one…which happens to be the shortest and simplest: jak bela (as a bale) which is used in the expression pijany jak bela (drunk as a bale)

Now I compare everything to a bale:

  • szybki jak bela (fast as a bale)
  • zimno jak bela (cold as a bale)
  • lubić kogoś jak bela (to like someone as much as a bale)

and just assume that the listener understands that I mean ‘a lot’ or ‘very’.

So I butcher Polish…which works for me… but that’s not good news for those around me.

I live in Poland and interact in Polish around 90% of the time. The consequence of this is that my Polish skills improve, while the Polish of those I interact with gets worse!

Those friends from the summer house also use the expression kon polowy from time to time.

And my wife got so used to jak bela that she started to use it herself. Now we both use jak bela. It’s a nice shortcut, but, technically, her Polish is now worse.

So I invite you to start using jak bela too.

I wait for the day when it spreads out into society and I hear it in everyday situations. For instance, when I visit the doctor and he or she says, after completing the medical examination, that I’m zdrowy jak bela or when I’m watching football on TV and the commentator says Rasiak walczył jak bela.

I’ll be able to laugh and say…hah!…I started that…that’s my creative butchery!