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!


It’s hard work learning Polish.

At school I had learned German, which was easier because a lot of the vocabulary is similar to English. For instance, I didn’t have to learn the words for buch, finden or fussball – it’s like I got those ones for free. In Polish, however, the equivalent words are książka, odnaleźć and piłka nożna! For an English speaker there are no freebies when you learn Polish. You have to work hard for every word.

And that’s usually one advantage of having English as your mother tongue. Over the past 1500 years English has evolved or borrowed from so many different languages that you can expect some freebies when you’re learning any foreign tongue…except for Polish.

There’s an English expression hodgepodge (originally borrowed from French) which means a confused mixture of different things. And that’s how I’d describe the English language.

English started as a Germanic language, adopted Norse grammatical structures, then borrowed loads of words from Latin and French. During colonial times, it adopted words from various British colonies around the world: pyjamas (India), tomato (Aztec/Mexcio), and totem (Native American). Indeed, English has borrowed so many words from French that in Paris there’s a saying that English is a language for stupid French people.

But, returning to the challenge of learning Polish, I must say that first impressions can be deceptive. As you listen to Polish more and more, you start to hear English words in Polish sentences:

  • Dżinsy czy szorty?  (jeans or shorts)
  • On jest prawdziwym dżentelmenem  (he’s a real gentleman)
  • To jest mityng lekkoatletyczny  (it’s an athletics meeting)

And when an English-speaker learns how to spell particular sounds in Polish, then suddenly the English language magically reappears:

  • Dżungla…wait a second…is that the place where snakes and monkeys live?
  • I’m supposed to do what? Click on ‘lajkować’…ah… you mean the thumbs-up symbol.
  • A guy who rides a horse is a dżokej? Łał.

Previously I complained that there are no freebies when learning Polish…but that’s changing…and fast! Polish is acquiring English words at such a huge rate that in future a learner will only need to learn a few spelling rules to master the language!

Now I understand why Polish has borrowed words connected to modern technology – fejsbuk, hejter, smartfon – they’re new to English as well. But there are some words that Polish has borrowed from English that surprise me. Why did you borrow flirt, fair or weekend? Aren’t there Polish words for these?


Whatever the reason, like the English language, Polish is becoming a hodgepodge…or should that be a hodżpodż?

So, to add to the hodżpodż, I offer you the following hybrid verb, a combination of the Polish verb przesadzać and the English verb to exaggerate.

przesadzerate, verb – when a Pole pessimistically predicts the death of the Polish language due to the influx of English words

Władysław: Język polski umiera

Rajan: Don’t przesadzerate!

The Sesame Street Strategy

Young kids are best at learning languages. But as adults we often forget all those techniques and strategies we used to learn our first language.

So when it came to learning Polish, I adopted some childlike strategies.

1. Name Tags

The first books that children read only contain names and pictures – cat, ball, bee etc – so that they can learn to associate words with things.

If only the real world had labels.

When I rented my first apartment in Warsaw, the first thing I did was to decorate it… using post-it notes!


I labeled everything….and I mean absolutely every object in the apartment with its Polish name: łóżko, lodówka, szafa, podłoga (that one didn’t survive long), lustro, obraz, kwiatek. The entire apartment was covered in yellow post-it notes. At the time I hadn’t heard of Złota Polska Jesień, but that’s what the apartment looked like. When I opened a window the entire flat rustled like a chestnut tree in autumn.

Incidentally, Ikea should launch a line of furniture with labels where a language learner can write the name of the item in the foreign language they are learning. I’m sure it would it be a top seller.

2. The Count

In Sesame Street (Ulica Sezamkowa) there’s a Dracula-like character called ‘the Count’. Because his purpose is to teach children numbers, he counts everything. During my first few months in Poland, I adopted his strategy.

I prepared a water-proof cheat-sheet listing polish numbers from 1 to 500. I hung it in the bathroom so I could count in Polish while going through my bathroom routine every morning.

Typical counts:

  • Brushing my teeth – pięćdziesiąt
  • Showering – sto czterdzieści (dziewięćdziesiąt dziewięć if I was in a hurry)
  • Drying myself – trzydzieści

Most people only use this Sesame Street strategy to count the number of coffees they’ve drunk that morning. If you want to learn a foreign language, then I recommend extending it to your daily routine.

3. Copying

Children don’t learn their native language from textbooks with grammar exercises. They simply listen to what their parents or siblings say and copy it. I decided to adopt the same strategy. I would listen to Polish native speakers and copy what they said. Listen and copy, listen and copy.

So while traveling on the metro, I (and the rest of the children in the wagon) would repeat the names of the stations as they were announced. Or when a colleague ordered zupa pomidorowa in a restaurant, I’d order the same.

The one downside to this approach was that the person I mostly copied was my Polish girlfriend, so I ended up using the feminine form of most verbs. So instead of saying zadzwoniłem, I learned to say zadzwoniłam etc. But still, it was a step forward.

This strategy is more effective if you copy more than just the words. If you mimic the tone, the intonation and especially the emotion of the speaker, then not only is your pronunciation better, but you also start to get a feel for the language.

So when a cashier in a grocery shop asked for change, I would repeat the word ‘drobne‘ with the same world-weary tone of frustration and really feel the pain of not having enough tens, fives and ones.

False Friend#2 – Dziękuję

There are some words in different languages that might look the same and sound the same…but they don’t mean the same! That’s why they’re called ‘false friends‘.

While learning Polish, I’ve been tricked quite a few times. Here’s one of the worst (because it meant passing on wine):

thank you

I was having dinner with a group of colleagues from work. The waiter approached the table and offered wine to the guests. He came to me last.


Dziękuję” I said and waited for him to pour the wine into my glass…but he had already left.

Learning by experience is powerful especially when you feel deprived of something! At first I didn’t understand. I assumed the waiter had misheard me. The next time he came around with the wine bottle, I observed a Polish companion put her hand on top of the wine glass (to block access) and say ‘Ja dziękuję‘.

Ah-hah! In Polish ‘dziękuję‘ means ‘no thanks!’ When the waiter offered me wine, I knew what not to say, but wasn’t sure what to say, so I just held up my glass as if I were begging. That did the trick.

In English, if you respond with the word ‘thank you‘ to an offer, it means ‘yes please‘. To decline, say ‘no thank you‘. In Polish, ‘dziękuję‘ means ‘no thank you‘. You need to say ‘poproszę‘ if you want to accept the offer.

It seemed strange to me that the word ‘thank you‘ could have a negative meaning (to decline an offer). In the UK, we say ‘thank you’ to the waiter because he is doing something for us (i.e. pouring wine). In Polish you need to say ‘thank you’ in order to stop him as if you should thank him for keeping you sober!

Another time I remember a business meeting during which we were discussing a supplier who wasn’t performing according to our expectations. One participant suggested that we should thank them (trzeba im podziękować).

I was confused. „They’re not doing their job properly and you want to thank them for it! Maybe we should send them some wine and flowers as well?

I hadn’t yet learned that ‘podziękować‘ can mean to fire/dismiss/end cooperation. In English we can say to ‘thank someone for their services‘ meaning to end cooperation, but it isn’t nearly as common as podziękować in Polish.

I learned that in Polish the verb dziękować often signals the end of something. Thanking is the final action before the end of any interaction, the last thing you need to do. In this way, in English it means something like ‘we’re done!‘.


Third Time Lucky

I once thought that if I stopped making mistakes, then my Polish would be better.

I employed a teacher for 1-2-1 lessons. At our first meeting, I told the teacher that if I made a mistake, she should interrupt immediately and correct me. She agreed and we started talking in Polish. I said two words, she stopped me and corrected me. I repeated the first two words again – this time correctly – and added a third word. She said stop, corrected me again… and so it went. It took ten minutes for me to finish the first sentence.

Hmm…I thought… maybe it was a mistake to try avoiding making mistakes. Were mistakes so bad? I had certainly made some good ones!


The first time I was invited for dinner in Poland, I wanted to buy some wine to give to my host. No problem, I knew the Polish word for wine was ‘wino‘, I just needed to know the word for dry and white so that I could buy some dry, white wine. I opened my English-Polish dictionary. White was biała and dry was suchy. I made a note on a scrap of paper – suchy biała wino.

I walked to local shop, took out my note and asked for suchy biala wino. The shop owner looked at me strangely.

„Białe wino…a wytrawne, półwytrawne, słodkie?

I switched to my standard emergency response ‘Nie rozumiem‘. He took down two bottles off the shelf. One said wytrawne, while the other was półwytrawne. Either wytrawne meant dry or sweet and pół probably meant ‘un-‘. I gambled that it meant sweet and bought półwytrawne.

I learned three things from this experience. One, that wine in Poland is wytrawne or słodkie. Two, that wytrawne means dry. And three that using a dictionary isn’t as simple as I thought.

Another time I was running a training session for a group of around 30 Poles. Holding up a clipboard, I asked if everyone had their podpaski (sanitary pads) so that they could make notes. The entire group burst into laughter. That was very powerful and immediate feedback. Ah-hah, I thought, I’ve used the wrong word and whatever it means, it’s pretty funny.

And one time, I used the verb to kiss (całować) rather than the verb to regret (załować). Instead of saying sorry and regretting what I’d done, I embraced my inappropriate actions by saying I wanted to kiss them.

Indeed, the more embarrassing the mistake, the more powerful the learning experience. There are load of Polish words I’ve learned because I got them wrong the first time.

I ended the 121 lessons after one meeting. I thought that if I stopped making mistakes, then my Polish would be better. But in the end I realised that if I stop making mistakes, my experience of learning Polish would be poorer….much much poorer.

English and Polish share an idiom – third-time lucky / do trzech razy sztuka – that sums up the process of learning through mistakes. In many cases, especially in language learning, you need to fail twice if you want to succeed the third time.

Diego in Zakopanego

There’s a rumour that Polish is the 3rd hardest language for English speakers to learn. After a few months in Poland, I thought this claim was exaggerated. Sure, the numbers and pronunciation were hard work, but I had managed to pick up quite a few words and expressions. This is not so bad, I thought. But then I started learning Polish grammar!

I was surprised when I learned that Polish has seven cases. I was even more shocked when I learned that nouns and names change depending on the case… as the following anecdote demonstrates:

I was planning to take a trip to the Tatry mountains and went to the railway station to buy a ticket. Of course, I had prepared in advance, using a dictionary and in my pocket was a slip of paper with ‘one ticket please‘ written in Polish (along with a phonetic version so I could pronounce it correctly). I thought it would be a piece of cake.

Me: poproszę jeden bilet do Zakopane

Cashier: do Zakopanego?

Me: Nie, Zakopane.

I’d never heard of Zakopanego and I didn’t want to go there for a long weekend!

The cashier eventually sold me a ticket to Zakopane and I checked it carefully to make sure that I had bought a ticket to ‘Zakopane’ and not some other town with a similar name.

In English we don’t have ‘cases’. A noun doesn’t change in any way. A ‘book’ is always just a ‘book’ It doesn’t matter if you’re giving it to someone, throwing it away or jumping up and down on it. The spelling doesn’t change.

But in Polish…with all these cases…the names of things, people and places keeps changing. It can be very confusing.

It’s especially confusing with names. ‘You mean, you’re not called Piotr when I go somewhere with you? Then you’re Piotrem! And if I buy Piotr a present, it’s not actually for Piotr, but for some guy called Piotra!‘ Sounds a bit schizophrenic to me…all these different identities!

3 Piotrs2

Incidentally, my name is Andrew, but I use the short form ‘Andy’. When Poles use the genitive case (e.g. zadzwoniłem do Andy’ego), then my name becomes ‘Andiego’ which makes me sound Spanish. (By the way, what happens if you want to call a Spanish guy called Diego?).

Once I had got my head around these changes, I realised that I would have to learn them. So I got out my grammar book and some paper and drew a table – all the cases down one axis, all the genders across the top and started to fill it in. As it got longer, I attached another sheet to the first piece of paper. But there were so many exceptions…you didn’t just add -a or -ego. It depended on how the word was spelled in the first place! Eventually, the table covered three sheets of paper and was so full of data that it was practically useless.

I gave up. I decided that if I need any help with Polish grammar, then I’d ask Piotr or Piotra or Piotrem…any of those guys!

Shortcut#1 – Fake it til you Make it

It takes a long time to learn Polish, but if you’re confident enough, you can fake it. The verb to bluff in Polish is blefować, that’s right, it basically the English verb to bluff + ować. That’s what I’m proposing.

Here are three ways you can ‘fake it til you make it’:

1. -ować

A lot of Polish verbs end in -ować, especially those borrowed from other languages:

  • adapt = adaptować
  • decide = decydować
  • flirt = flirtować

I remember laughing out loud when I heard the Polish verb for saving a copy of data in a separate location is ‘backupować’. Perhaps Polish should borrow the grammatical structure as well and use ‘backować up‘:

  • Backowałem ten plik up


  • Backowałem ten plik do góry

Okay, maybe not.

Anyway if you don’t know a Polish verb, then just add -ować to the end of an English one. You’ll have a fair chance of being correct.

And if you want to turn the verb into a noun, add -owanie:

  • blefowanie
  • flirtowanie

You’ll need to decide yourself whether to say ‘backowanie up’ or ‘backupowanie’.

2. -ka


When talking about professions, use the English word for the male role. But remember to add – ka to the end of word if you’re talking about a woman:

  • barmanka
  • biznesmanka
  • wokalistka

Note that it doesn’t matter if the word contains the word ‘man’. Just stick a -ka on the end and it’s transformed into the female gender!

3. -czny / istyczny / -owy

For adjectives, it’s a little harder because there are two possible endings depending on the sound of the word:

  • drastic = drastyczny
  • mystic = mistyczny
  • snobby = snobistyczny

There’s one important exception to this rule: If you’re talking about something trendy, then you need to use ‘-owy‘ instead:

  • cult = kultowy
  • cool = coolowy
  • oldschool = oldschoolowy

If something was trendy but isn’t anymore, then perhaps the ending will change from -owy to -czny / -istyczny, i.e. in the future when cool is no longer cool, then Poles will say ‘coolistyczny‘.

The Polish Language Test

In his Polish history God’s Playground, Norman Davies describes a test used by Polish troops during the 14th century to check whether a suspect was actually Polish:

“Investigations into the Cracovian revolt were assisted by a simple language test. Any suspect who could correctly pronounce ‘soczewica, koło, miele, młyn’ was judged loyal; he who faltered was guilty.”

Norman Davies, God’s Playground, volume 1, p77


Clearly, Polish words are so difficult to pronounce that foreigners can’t even pronounce simple words like wheel or mill correctly.

I actually had to undergo a similar test in a Notary office one day. Before he would notarize the document I was signing (which was in Polish), the notary insisted I read the document aloud to prove that I understood it. I read one sentence and he said ‘stop’. He had heard enough and by pronouncing one sentence correctly, I had passed the test.

tongue twister_jpg

On many occasions, I’ve experienced Poles using a variation on this technique. When they heard that I’m learning Polish, they immediately respond by asking me to repeat a tongue-twister about a beetle in Szczebrzeszyn (W Szczebrzeszynie chrząszcz brzmi w trzcinie). This has happened so often that I’m curious why.

Obviously, it’s difficult and Poles want to challenge a foreigner with some particularly tricky Polish pronunciation.

However, I sometimes wonder if it’s defensive too. Are they saying ‘don’t get so good at Polish that we don’t know you’re foreign anymore!’ and by hearing me fail, they are comforted that only real Poles can say the ridiculously difficult beetle tongue-twister?