One quirk that a Polish language learner needs to confront is the language’s fondness for repetition. There’s a number of expressions or grammatical constructions that come in doubles. Indeed, by saying certain words twice, you can actually change their meaning.
If you say dobra, then it means ‘okay’. The first time I heard a Pole saying dobra dobra, I thought it meant the same as the English expression ‘good good’, i.e. a way of saying that ‘all is good and in order’. However, when I started paying more attention to context, I realised that it means something quite different. I was once in a car with a Polish couple. The wife was nagging her husband about something and he said dobra dobra in a tone of voice that suggested he didn’t want to discuss it further. ‘Ah-hah’, I thought, ‘when a Pole says dobra dobra, it means something like ‘shut up about it okay‘. Indeed, the expression is often accompanied by a dismissive hand gesture that attempts to wave away whatever subject is being discussed.
It’s the same with zaraz. If you ask a Pole when a task will be completed and they reply zaraz, it means ‘soon’. If they reply zaraz zaraz, it doesn’t mean ‘sooner’. It means something like ‘why the hell are you asking?’
So I began to wonder if there was a rule: say a Polish word once and it means what it means. Say it twice and it means you’re annoyed and don’t want to discuss the topic further.
However, one time when I went mushroom picking, a friend pointed to a patch of forest and said that right now there were no mushrooms, but last week it was całkiem całkiem (lit. completely completely). I was waiting for a word to finish the sentence. Completely completely… what? But none came.
So całkiem całkiem breaks the annoyance rule. In this case, it does mean more of something.
Sometimes the issue is not that words are doubled, it’s the negation that is repeated. In English, the use of double negatives, as in ‘I didn’t say nothing’ is considered a mistake and sounds childlike or cartoonish. In Polish, on the other hand, nic nie powiedziałem is grammatically correct and double negatives are often used in poetry and songs. Indeed, the expression nic nie się stało (nothing didn’t happen) is practically the country’s motto!
It takes a lot of concentration to unlearn the English approach. Don’t the two negatives cancel each other out and become a positive? Only in some languages it seems. I read somewhere that Polish has a ‘negative mood’ allowing the speaker to pile on the negative expressions as if they were throwing logs onto a fire. I’ve even seen a sentence with a triple negative – nikt nic nie wie (nobody doesn’t know nothing) – which made me wonder if it’s possible to have a sentence with quadruple negatives? Is there record for a sentence in Polish with the most negative expressions?
Another Polish construction that involves repetition is the Polish equivalent of ‘neither…nor’. Expressions like ani ładna, ani mądra (neither pretty nor clever) repeat the determiner ani twice. When I first heard this word I thought it was a form of the name Anna. So Annie is pretty and Annie is clever… but should really we talk about Annie behind her back?
Then, there’s a more baffling set of expressions involving repetition, which, to a English native-speaker, sound particularly bizarre. The first time I read the expression dzień dzisiejszy, I was confused. Doesn’t it mean ‘today’s day’? Doesn’t Polish have a word for ‘today’? Do they need to differentiate today’s day from yesterday’s day… and tomorrow’s day?
Actually, they do.
I was even more surprised when I came across dzień wczorajszy and dzień jutrzejszy. I had learned the Polish words dzisaj (today), jutro (tomorrow) and wczoraj (yesterday) very early in my Polish education, so I knew that the language had words to separate today from tomorrow and yesterday. So why double up? And isn’t there a risk that this might become a trend? Will it soon be possible to say dzień piątejszy (Friday’s day) instead of piątek?
The only context in which this might be useful is when time travel is invented and we need to differentiate between ‘today in the future’ and ‘today in the present’. Perhaps the Polish language is gearing itself up for such times!
Another one I can’t get my head around is fakt faktem (lit. a fact is a fact). When Poles want to emphasise a statement, they say ‘fakt faktem…‘ What’s the purpose of stressing that a particular fact is a fact? Is there an expression fakt fikcją (a fact is a lie) too?
Actually, in the era of fake news, perhaps such an expression is necessary so that a speaker can announce whether they are sharing a fictitious fact or a factual fact. Along with the time travel thing, is this another case of Polish being ahead of the times?
Regardless, all this doubling up can be tiresome. Isn’t it just a case of adding unnecessary words for the sake of it? And just as if the language were deliberately trying to tease me, Polish has an expression to describe this very phenomenon: masło maślane (lit. butter butter).
Yet masło maślane is double bind.
If I want to complain that Polish has too many expressions in which words are repeated, I have to use an expression in which a concept is repeated, thereby reinforcing the problem!
Sometimes the Polish language just messes with your head…
…and there’s not nothing you can’t never do about it!
Thank God it’s Friday’s day!