The Yin and Yang of Learning Polish

Yin

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.

heavy1

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!

Yang

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!

Really?

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!

shopping1

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!

The Fish Audit

If the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) were to take a look at the Polish language to check how animals are treated, then what would they learn about how Poles treat fish?

Do the fish have suitable living conditions?

The Polish language recognizes that the best place for a fish is in water: jak ryba w wodzie means to be in the best environment possible, while jak ryba bez wody means to be in a difficult situation. So the WWF would conclude that Poles know the best and worst place for a fish.

But of course, it’s the quantity and quality of water that matters. Take for instance the Polish idiom jak śledzie w beczce, which means to be packed into a tiny space…like sardines! This doesn’t suggest that śledź (herring) enjoy good living conditions. When such a popular Polish fish is treated in this way, this doesn’t look good for the rest.

Then there’s na bezrybiu i rak ryba (in a no-fish environment, a crayfish is a fish) which means something along the lines of beggars can’t be choosers. It’s a short expression, but when I first saw it, I couldn’t work out its meaning. The problem word was bezrybie because I couldn’t conceive of a no-fish environment, or more precisely, I couldn’t conceive that a language would have a word for this. If English tried to come up with one word to translate bezrybie, then the best I can think of is fishlessness:

Under fishlessness, a crayfish is a fish

Sounds poetic, but makes no sense.

Anyway, what worried me, and what might concern the WWF, is the fact that Polish has a word for the absence of fish. This suggests that such situation arises in Poland. If fishlessness exists as a concept, then it doesn’t bode well for the fish!

Do fish enjoy full rights as citizens?

The idiom gruba ryba suggests that some fish are doing well. But like the English equivalent, ‘to be a big fish in a small pond’, gruba ryba implies that the smaller fish aren’t so well off. Indeed, they’re probably harassed and exploited by the fatter, meaner fish, or even by rekiny biznesu!

When I first came across the expression: dzieci i ryby głosu nie mają, I assumed that ‘głos‘ referred to the right to vote. Kids and fish don’t get a vote – whether in family decisions nor in elections – which means that Polish fish don’t enjoy the full rights as citizens. It’s just as well that they don’t pay taxes otherwise we might face a revolt!

I later learned that this proverb doesn’t refer to voting at all. It means that children and fish don’t have a voice, i.e. parents say this to teach the kids to stay quiet. As we say in English, a child should be seen and not heard.

Polish fish are held up as examples of obedience and passivity. So the WWF might conclude that if fish want to win the right to vote, they’re going to have to speak up!

Are the fish in good health?

In English, to describe someone who drinks a lot of alcohol, we say that he or she drinks like a fish. This is a bit hard on fish who, if they drink at all, only drink water. As far as I’m aware, Polish fish don’t have a drink problem. Indeed, it seems that they are particularly healthy as Poles say zdrów jak ryba (as healthy as a fish) to describe someone who is in very good health.

So the WWF would give top marks here…but maybe they should take a second look?

Poles also say ryba psuje się od głowy (fish rot from the head down), to describe a situation in which an organization decays from its leadership down. Why did the Polish language choose fish for this particular idiom? Is rotting fish a common sight?

Wherever this comes from, it doesn’t sound like fish have good leadership. Not only are they poor communicators, but they’re a rotten bunch too. With this quality of leadership, I can’t see fish getting the right to vote any time soon.

fish1

Carp: A Case Study

If WWF really want to run a case study on fish, then they should attend Christmas in Poland.

Like most foreigners, I was intrigued to learn what Poles eat for Christmas dinner. I wasn’t surprised that Poles eat fish, it’s just that I expected it to be a more upmarket fish like salmon or trout. But carp?

You see, I was once in Łazienki Park in Warsaw where there is a large pond full of carp. Leaning over the balustrade of a bridge, I could see the large dark masses of the carp as they swam back and forth. Beneath me I noticed a cigarette butt floating on the water. All of a sudden, a huge carp emerged from the brown water with its mouth open and swallowed it.

Do Polish fish smoke? Well, I’ve never looked inside a wędzarnia (smokehouse), so I don’t know whether the salmon are smoked or smoking. But in the case of carp, it does seems they enjoy a wee puff now and then!

Of course, the next big surprise for a foreigner is the first time they see a carp in the bathtub. While it’s a practical solution, and after my experiences in Łazienki Park, I was glad the carp was clean…but it is kind of weird.

Since there’s an idiom jak ryba w wodzie, I wonder whether there’s also an idiom jak karp w wannie? And if there were, what it would it mean? Would it mean that the carp is happy or would it mean something like a turkey at Christmas?

So I was uncertain how carp would taste or if I even wanted to try it. But in actual fact, the carp was quite tasty. The problem was with all those bones. Carp must be the boniest fish in the history of marine life. It takes five minutes just to remove the bones from a forkful of carp before it’s safe to eat.

I was intrigued to learn that the Polish language has a separate word for a fish’s bones. In English, all animals, birds and fish just have regular bones, but in Polish the bones in fish are called ość instead of kość.

I assume the reason for this is that when you have a carp bone stuck in the your throat, you can’t pronounce the letter k and can only croak ość, ość as you point frantically down your mouth.

So what would the WWF make of the fact that Polish has a separate word for fish bone? It does suggest that fish are often seen in Poland without their skin – not good news for the fish!

Audit Results

So what conclusion would the World Wildlife Fund come to after their fish audit of the Polish language?

Well, the fish seem to be in good health, though an anti-smoking campaign might be necessary. Living conditions are mostly fine, but there’s room for improvement with śledź and carp. And finally, the lack of good local leadership is worrying.

The WWF would probably conclude that more attention is required because, as we say in English, it does look a bit fishy.

 

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).

smacznego

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!

smacznego

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.

Nation of Poets#3 – Work

Poles use a lot of rhyming expressions in everyday speech, and when I once told a friend that I like these expressions and he said:

‘What can I say? We’re a nation of poets!’

So to celebrate this nation of poets, here are some of my favourite rhyming expressions connected to work:

w naszym fachu nie ma strachu

This means ‘in our profession there is no fear‘, and when I first heard the expression I took it literally as a claim by the tradesman that he is so brave that he can tackle any job.

And to be honest, I would be rather unsettled by such a show of bravado. If I had a choice, I wouldn’t employ any tradesman who made this claim. It’s asking for trouble!

I imagined that the last words of many Polish builders before they met an untimely death were ‘w naszym fachu nie ma strachu‘…just before he fell off the dachu!

Later I learned that it’s not meant literally, and that it’s an expression tradesmen use to calm the client when they ask if a particular job is possible. A good rhyming translation would be ‘no fear, the plumber is here.’

work

elektryka prąd nie tyka

Another favourite of mine, and another expression to add the category ‘famous last words of Polish workers’ is elektryka prąd nie tyka (electricity doesn’t bother an electrician)

As far as I understand, this expression is complete wishful thinking as the electrician believes he is immune to electricity. I don’t know whether Polish electricians are made out of rubber, or whether their reactions are faster than a spark of electricity, but I still fear that they might be a little over confident.

zdrowie na budowie

Given the bravado of the previous two expressions, when I first saw zdrowie na budowie, I took literally. I assumed it was a slogan from communist times and was probably printed on posters in the style of social realism. By looking after the safety of himself and his colleagues, our heroic brick-layer builds apartments in record time.

I also figured that, in response to all the foolish bravery shown by Polish workmen, it was necessary to come up with a way to remind electricians that they are not immune to electricity. Fortunately, in Polish the word building site happens to rhyme with health and so, in an easy day’s work for the copywriter, zdrowie na budowie was created.

Yet my incorrect assumptions didn’t end there.

I also thought it was nice that construction firms care so much about the well-being of their employees that they came up with this slogan. Of course, it’s fashionable nowadays to erect digital signs saying 127 days since the last accident on this building site. What’s more, modern corporations have programs to support the well-being of their staff, but it seems that Polish building sites were ahead of this trend. I wondered whether it extended beyond health to other more fashionable concerns like wellness na budowie or mindfulness na koparce?

Then one day I learned that this slogan isn’t about workplace safety…nor mindfulness on a fork-lift truck, but it’s actually a toast and that the full version should read na zdrowie na budowie.

So the expression does refer to health on the building sites, just not in the way I assumed. ‘To your health on the building site‘ is the actual translation.

Oh!

What else is there to say when it turns out that your assumptions were completely wrong and that the world is actually a lot more cynical than you that you imagined?

gdzie kucharek sześc, tam nie ma co jeść

In the spirit of ignoring workplace safety, this last expression concerns a situation in which it wouldn’t be a problem if half the workforce had an work-related accident.

In English we have a very similar expression: too many cooks, spoil the broth, and both languages agree that the less cooks, the better.

I don’t know what it is about the cooking profession, but both languages agree that chefs just can’t work together in the kitchen. Perhaps they should learn from the builders and open a bottle of sherry before they start work?

I’m disappointed that we don’t have an English expression that rhymes. Using the Polish format with a number of chefs, it’s a piece of cake to come up with some useful rhymes:

  • when the cooks number eight, their soup you’ll hate
  • when the cooks number five, you won’t stay alive
  • when the cooks number four, just head for the door

I guess we’re just not a nation of poets…well our builders and cooks aren’t.

So if you’re working hard decorating your apartment or preparing food for Christmas in the kitchen, I hope your workplace is safe, free of fear and full of teamwork. If not, then there’s a simple solution…’na zdrowie‘.

The Weather Super Power

There’s a t-shirt you can buy that says on it: ‘I speak Polish. What’s your super power?

The thing is, I do think Poles have a super power but it’s not connected to speaking Polish.

It’s connected to the weather.

When learning words in a foreign language, it helps if you can hear, see or touch the thing that the word refers to. Alternatively, if the item of vocabulary refers to an experience, then it’s useful to remember a time when you’ve experienced the same thing.

But what if the expression describes something you’ve never sensed…never experienced…and is something you don’t even believe is possible for a human being to experience?

That’s what I felt the first time I heard a Pole say:

Spac mi się chce. Jest niskie ciśnienie dzisiaj.

(I’m sleepy. There’s low air pressure today)

Being British, I agreed politely even though I was thinking ‘what the hell are they talking about? How can the level of air pressure make them sleepy? Are they saying that there’s a huge column of air pressing down on their head and shoulders?’

I didn’t get it because I couldn’t feel it. I didn’t get it because I had never even experienced it.

The UK is a smallish, windy island, and the air tends to rush around a lot and definitely doesn’t stay in one place long enough to sit on anyone’s shoulders. The only air pressure British people feel is when walking into a strong wind.

But I kept hearing it. I met countless Poles who complained that the air pressure made them sleepy. So I came to the conclusion that Poles have some sixth sense that allows them to detect the level of air pressure? Some kind of super power.

Only it was a reverse super power because it takes energy away. A Polish super hero called Captain Ciśnienie wouldn’t have the energy to save anyone from mortal danger!

But that didn’t make any sense, so I just treated such statements as a mild case of hypochondria. I thought Poles who blamed air pressure for their sleepiness were exaggerating or making excuses to have another cup of coffee.

Yet… after living in Poland for 3-4 years…I started to feel it too. On days when the air pressure was low, I literally felt ‘under the weather’.

I’ve heard it’s the same in Munich with a wind that blows off the Alps called the föhn. When it blows, it gives the inhabitants a headache, but newcomers don’t feel it until they’ve been there a few years.

So it took me a few years to pick up this super power and get a feel for the word ciśnienie… only there are days when I wish I hadn’t.

Air pressure wasn’t the only type of weather that caused me confusion when learning Polish.

Like most foreigners, the first time I heard leje jak z cebra (literally, pouring like from a churn), I heard the word ‘zebra’ and assumed that this was the Polish equivalent of ‘it’s raining cats and dogs‘. I didn’t find this too strange because it doesn’t make much sense to imagine cats and dogs falling from the sky… so why not zebras too?

I did ask myself ‘why zebras?’ There aren’t any zebras in Poland except for the ones you use to cross the road.

Another Polish weather idiom is pogoda w kratkę (weather in plaid) which is used to describe changeable weather. When I first heard this, I automatically assumed that kratka was referring to Scottish tartan. The weather in Scotland is extremely changeable, so it made sense to talk about tartan weather.

It also answered the zebra question.

Zebras have black and white stripes, less colourful than tartan, but also arranged vertically. Since a zebra’s stripes are wider, it means the weather changes aren’t so frequent but are more severe…well, at least in my mind.

cats and dogs

If there’s one Polish season that has great branding, it’s autumn. I don’t know who invented the marketing campaign, but all Poles know how to promote this this season effectively. As soon as September arrives, I begin to hear the campaign slogan:

  • Złota Polska Jesień (golden polish autumn)

Indeed, I heard this expression so much that I started using an abbreviation – ZPJ – to save time.

Unlike most marketing campaigns, it is accurate. Poland does have lots of forests and the leaves turn golden in autumn, but it only tells one side of the story. While September and October are fully golden, the period from November to mid-December should be called Szara Polska Jesień (SPJ) because it’s cold, dull and smoggy for weeks on end.

They never mention SPJ in the holiday brochures!

If you want a good weather forecast, then don’t bother with the TV or internet. Poles look to nature when trying to predict the seasons.

I’ve heard Poles predict the depth of the upcoming winter or the raininess of the summer by making reference to one or more of the following:

  • the arrival or departure date of migrating birds
  • the number of babies in a stork’s nest
  • the thickness of the dog’s winter coat
  • whether mice decide to move indoors
  • the appearance of moles in the autumn

I’ve come to the conclusion that this skill of observation is another type of Polish super power.

In the UK, we seem to have lost this connection to nature, and we aren’t able to gather such useful data from animal and plant life about the upcoming seasons. The only exception are cows, but they only predict the next few hours and only one type of weather: rain. If the cows are sitting down in a field, then it will rain shortly. If they are standing up, your picnic can go ahead.

Come to think of it… perhaps cows have that super power thing… and it’s the air pressure that makes them feel sleepy and sit down?

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?

Nope!

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!

Hello & Goodbye

The first thing you cover when learning a foreign language is how to say ‘hello’. Once you’ve mastered that, you can move on to ‘goodbye’. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the Polish greeting cześć means both hello and goodbye. ‘How economical,’ I thought, ‘I’ve learned two words for the price of one. Learning Polish is going to be easy’.

I was also surprised to learn that cześć means honour or reverence. In this sense, Polish is more respectful than English. ‘Hi’ is derived from ‘hey you over there‘ and was just used to get the attention of the guy standing in the way of your tractor. ‘Hello’ is what you shout down the telephone to ask ‘is anyone there?

Despite being included in a beginner’s first language lesson, greetings and salutations are actually a rich language area, full of nuance and culture. You don’t just say hello, you also show respect, social status and define the closeness of the relationship.

While many Polish greetings have a similar form to English – dobranoc, dzień dobry, do widzenia – there are some expressions that are a little less straightforward to learn:

Pa

When I first came to Poland and spoke very little Polish, I used to give one-to-one English lessons to a manager in a oil company. During the lessons, the manager would receive a lot of phone calls from her employees, some of which she answered in my presence. She would finish each call by saying ‘pa’ and I used to think that it was her dad that was calling.

He certainly has a lot of questions,’ I thought, ‘to bother his daughter at work all the time!’

Szerokiej drogi

When I first heard the salutation szerokiej drogi, I didn’t really get it. I understood that it literally means ‘I wish you wide roads’, but was confused why Poles used the adjective wide. If I was to make a ranking of ideal road conditions, I’d put fast roads first, followed by safe in second position. Wide wouldn’t even make the top ten.

But then I heard an anecdote and the expression suddenly made perfect sense.

It concerned an American director who came to work in Poland to run a factory situated 45km from Warsaw. He lived in the city and so commuted to work everyday using a busy road that had one lane in each direction.

The first time he made the trip, he freaked out.

Why? Because it was one of those Polish roads with additional lanes on either side. If you want to overtake, then you drive in the centre of the road, and cars coming the other way move over into these additional lanes. Being American, he’d never seen this style of driving, and he spent the whole trip swerving to avoid cars that were coming directly towards him. As soon as he got to the factory, he went straight to the procurement department and asked them to order him a big Volvo…the safest model available. His employees in the factory taught him the expression szerokiej drogi and jokingly said it to him every time he left to go home.

So actually, the salutation is very literal. Wide roads mean safe roads because there’s room to avoid other traffic. What’s more, wide roads are fast roads because there’s or plenty of room for overtaking.

So I should apologise to those Poles that I doubted. Wide roads are better than fast or safe roads, and when they wished me szerokiej drogi, it was wisdom based on experience!

czitczat6

Witam

The use of witam in Polish has always puzzled me, and it’s actually one word of Polish that I can’t bring myself to use. For me, it just doesn’t make any sense. Okay, it’s useful when you are welcoming a guest to your apartment or a new employee to your place of work, but in other contexts, I find it strange.

And I’ve always been particularly confused by the use of witam or witajcie at the start of emails. What is the writer welcoming me to? The email?

In English this would sound automated, as if the computer were welcoming you:

Welcome to this email.

You will find its contents in the two paragraphs below.

If you are not completely satisfied with the contents of this email, please reply button on the top right of the screen.

We wish you a satisfactory stay in your inbox.

Kłaniam się

I had a landlord in Krakow who always used to use this expression when he came round to collect the rent money. He was medium-height and very skinny, usually dressed in black. As he was leaving, he would always say kłaniam się and he would bow slightly. It was as if he were a butler that was leaving his master for the night.

At first, I assumed it was a regional expression, and that I was hearing the word ‘goodbye’ in a Cracovian dialect. It wasn’t until later that I learned that kłaniam się actually means ‘I bow’.

I can’t help using kłaniam się sarcastically from time to time. Like when I was summoned to give a presentation to a board meeting – I delivered the presentation, answered some questions and left so they could move on to the next topic. So I picked up my laptop, bowed slightly and said kłaniam się as a I backed out of the door.

Cześć.

Pa.

I wish you a wide virtual highway.

Kłaniam się.

Welcome to the end of this post 😉

The Ham Trap

The problem isn’t that a brain learns too slowly. Problems occur when it learns too fast. Instead of methodically and rationally working out what a word means, sometimes my brain races towards some wildly inaccurate conclusions.

It’s as if my brain were a wild horse, and there are times when I wish I could pull back on the reins and say ‘whoa brain…slow down…let’s get there one step at a time‘.

A friend, Jacek, and I were running for a bus, frantically waving to the driver that we wanted to board. Just as we reached the back door, it slammed shut and the bus began to pull out. When Jacek banged his fist on the bus door and said ale chamstwo, the school of life presented me with a language learning opportunity.

I knew that -stwo meant something like -ness in English, a suffix that turns an adjective into a noun. So hearing chamstwo, I immediately chopped the word into two halves: cham and -stwo. Despite knowing it was nonsense, I couldn’t stop my mind from leaping to the conclusion that I had just heard the English word ‘ham’ in its Polish form.

Ham-stwo…hamness…What could that mean?

Normally, when experience gives you such a learning opportunity, it’s best to pay attention to the context. What happened? Who said what to whom? What was their motivation and what was the impact of their words? Acting like a detective, a clever language learner should be able to deduce what the phrase means, memorize it and store it until they find themselves in a similar situation.

I, on the other hand, couldn’t stop thinking about pork!

ham

I did notice that Jacek was either criticising the bus driver’s behaviour or cursing our bad luck. So, despite knowing it was a waste of time, I searched for English idioms connected to meat that could also describe people or luck:

  • ham: if someone is ham in English, it means they try to show off a talent that they don’t really have. Did Jacek mean that the bus driver was an unskillful show-off?
  • pig: in English, pig is a insult, maybe in Polish they use the meat as an insult instead of the animal?
  • lean: the word lean describes a slim person, as well as a thin slice of meat. Perhaps it means our luck is as lean as a slice of ham?
  • thick as mince / mutton: both these comparatives mean stupid. This could definitely apply to the bus driver!

But none of these seemed to fit the context.

Because we were running late for a match, it wasn’t a good moment to stop Jacek and ask some probing questions on the meaning and usage of the expression ale chamstwo. In any case, he didn’t look in the mood for a linguistic discussion. So I decided to ask him later.

The next day, recalling the incident, I searched my Polish-English dictionary for the word hamstwo, but it wasn’t there. Then I remembered that Poles spell ‘h’ as ‘ch’ or ‘cz’. And there is was…chamstwo…translated as ‘boorishness’, while the adjective chamski was translated as ‘boorish’, and cham as boor. These words are rarely used in English and rather old-fashioned. I don’t think I’ve ever used the word ‘boorish’ in my life.

Leaping to the wrong conclusion again, my brain even suggested, ‘maybe Jacek speaks old-fashioned Polish? He must have picked up the expression from his grandfather’.

But I kept hearing the word chamstwo, chamski or cham…in different situations…and from many different people. And it was rarely used lightly – few people said trochę cham.

Why is there so much boorishness in Poland?, I wondered. If the word boor isn’t used in the UK anymore, does it means that our society has successfully eliminated boorishness?

I decided to take a more methodical approach to learning this piece of vocabulary, and started to ask around. When answering, most Poles responded by giving personal examples and got visibly upset while they were sharing their anecdotes. Indeed, most of them didn’t want to discuss the word chamstwo in much detail, and changed the subject as quickly as possible.

Oh, this question touches a nerve, I thought. The word boorish doesn’t elicit any emotions in a British person, but talking about the word chamstwo definitely make Poles feel awful!

And in this way, I learned that chamstwo describes behaviour that is rude or offensive, and that the word was once used to refer to peasants.

And of course, we haven’t eliminated boorishness in the UK, in fact, I’d say it’s back in fashion. There’s a new British English word which would be a more accurate translation of cham and actually looks very similar. That word is ‘chav’, but it didn’t appear in dictionaries until 1998. The Oxford English dictionary defines it meaning as ‘a young, working-class person who displays loutish behaviour’ so it’s similar to cham in that its definition relates to rude behaviour and social status.

So, for me, learning the word chamstwo was a challenge. A challenge in not jumping to wrong conclusions:

  • it’s not related to pork
  • it’s not old-fashioned
  • and we haven’t eliminated it in the UK, in fact, we’re creating new words for it.

Whoa brain!

Combine Harvester

When you’re learning a foreign language, you tend to learn one word or expression at a time. There are some words that you can learn in a few minutes, some require repetition over a few days, and some words take years to learn.

That’s how it was with kombinować. It took me years to fully understand what it meant.

At first, I thought it was a no-brainer. Yep, that’ll be the Polish version of ‘to combine’. Easy-peasy.

But in practice, no one ever said what two things were being combined. They just said on coś kombinuje, and in my head I was thinking combine what with what? As a beginner, it’s rude to correct a native-speaker of a language, but I felt like correcting Poles by asking ‘doesn’t that verb need an object, well actually, at least two objects?

I bit my tongue and decided to do some research instead. My pocket dictionary translated kombinować as ‘to wangle’. I hate it when you check the meaning of a word, but you don’t understand the translation into your own language. Wangle, what does wangle mean? No one ever wangles where I come from!

Fortunately, the dictionary also translated the expression on coś kombinuje as ‘he’s up to something’. Okay, I thought, so it’s negative and means that someone is trying to hide their true intentions in order to achieve something.

But, one day when we were driving around looking for a parking space, a friend said ‘coś wykombinujemy‘ and parked the car on the pavement between a lamp post and a bus stop. He wasn’t suggesting we enter into a conspiracy or try to hide anything. To my ears, it sounded like he was saying ‘let’s try something creative’. So kombinować had a positive meaning as well, especially if you add wy- at the beginning.

Just when I thought I was getting to grips with kombinować, next up was kombinator. Oh great, not only do I need to work out what the verb means, there’s a noun as well!

To foreign ears, kombinator sounds like a profession in the engineering sector. There’s a branch of mathematics called ‘combinatorial analysis’, and I imagined some Wyższa Szkoła Kombinowania where you study for years to master the science behind kombinowanie.

As far as I could tell, kombinować can be positive or negative depending on the context, but it seemed that calling someone a kombinator was always derogatory. If you took the kombinowanie too far, then you crossed a line and became a kombinator. But what was the deciding factor? Does a kombinator need to break a law, infringe on others’ interests, or simply do it too frequently?

And how to translate kombinator? The best English equivalent is wheeler-dealer from the idiomatic expression to ‘wheel and deal’. Most people associate this with selling used cars, a business activity that certainly offers plenty of scope for kombinowanie.

The more I encountered this word, the broader its meaning became. The more dictionaries I checked, the more possible translations – be up to no good, deceive, contrive, scheme, figure something out, work an angle, fiddle, hustle, wheel and deal, get creative, juggle, try something, conspire, live on one’s wits! And every dictionary gives a different set of translations – I must admit that I’ve never seen such variation in the translation of a single verb. The publishers of English-Polish dictionaries should hold a conference just to agree one set of possible translations…and see if they can narrow it down to four or five English options!

I began to realise that kombinowanie is no ordinary word describing an ordinary activity. It’s part of something deeper, more significant to Polish culture. It’s something of a skill – a problem-solving ability that Poles are particularly good at. The only way to really understand what kombinować means is to observe Poles in action over a number of years, example after example, context after context.

And that’s what I did.

One of my favourite examples of kombinowanie that I’ve observed concerns a removal company. I once employed a guy to move some furniture and actually traveled with him from city to city. He was bald, unshaven and permanently wore a bluetooth headset in each ear which made him look like a pirate. He had two mobile phones and explained that he had two sim cards in each one. He advertised as four different removal firms with four different numbers. When a client called and asked for a price, he would quote a high figure. When the client called him again, thinking they were calling a different firm, he would change his voice and quote an even higher figure. The client, assuming they had shopped around and found the best price, would call back and hire the first firm.

Genius!

oscar

There’s a lot of creativity in kombinowanie. If there were Oscars for the best global examples, then Poles would win every year!

Of course, in this Oscar category, Poles would have one huge, unfair advantage – only they’d know what the word kombinować actually means!