Dear Sir or Madam

In British English one person who has their own category of pronouns is the Queen. She is addressed as Your Majesty and when she speaks she rarely uses I. Instead she uses ‘we’ even though she’s only talking about herself. It’s called the ‘Royal We’ and prompted Mark Twain to joke that only kings, presidents and people with tapeworm have the right to use ‘we’.

British and American English also no longer differentiates between the familiar and formal forms of the word ‘you’. Once we had thou and ye (you), but it’s been hundreds of years since they were last used in everyday speech. So when a native English speaker learns how to address others in Polish, it comes as quite a shock.

I wasn’t surprised that Polish has a polite form of ‘you’. I speak German and learned French at school, and both languages have such forms. What shocked me was that the Polish polite form is in the third person, so actually, when I say czy Pan/Pani tu siedzi?, what I am saying ‘is sir/madam sitting here?’

This made me feel a little strange. Besides the standard opening to a formal letter (Dear Sir or Madam), the words sir and madam are rarely used in English. Indeed, I hate it when anyone calls me sir because it implies a master/servant relationship. And when I realised that I was saying sir and madam in Polish, I felt like a beggar in a Dickens’ novel, humbly bowing before any lady or gentleman who tossed me a penny.

So it took me a while to get comfortable saying Pan and Pani, but, to be honest, that was the least of my challenges. Selecting the right way of addressing others in Polish is a little more complex than in English:

table1

The equivalent table for English looks like this:

table2

We have come up with plural forms like y’all, yous or you guys, but they’re not considered a part of English grammar yet.

In Polish it’s pretty easy to decide whether to use the singular or plural – it just involves counting up to two. It’s working out your place in the social hierarchy that’s a little harder. How does a Pole decide whether to use Ty or Pan/Pani? Well, it seems to involve a mathematical formula based on the following criteria:

If (B/A) x S x R > 1, then use Pan/Pani

  • A = your age
  • B = the other person’s age
  • S = their social status (2 = professor, doctor etc, 1 = regular person, 0 = cham)
  • R = how much you respect them (2 = very much, 1 = somewhat, 0 = they just crashed into your car)

I’ve been working on the above formula for a while, but it’s ‘work in progress’. I still need to include the gender of the other person, family relationship, and one’s goal in the relationship (e.g. do I want to marry this man’s daughter?).

Yet, despite the calculations involved, choosing the right form of address in a one-off situation is fairly straightforward. It’s when the variable of time is added, that things get more complicated. The question of when to switch from Pan/Pani to Ty is one that puzzles me:

  • Who decides that the relationship is now close enough that we can switch from Pan/Pani to Ty?
  • Is it always the older person that makes the offer to switch?
  • Can a man suggest the switch to a woman or is that ungentlemanly conduct?
  • At what age does a Pole move from being addressed by Ty to Pan/Pani? Is this a rite of passage from childhood to adulthood?
  • How does alcohol impact this? If you get drunk with someone, do you automatically switch to Ty? If yes, after how many drinks?
  • Are there obligations when you move from Pan/Pani to Ty? If you switch to Ty, does that mean you need to call on birthdays and name-days, or return missed phone calls quicker?
  • Does switching to Ty mean that things you do for the other person become favours rather than transactions?
  • Can you give constructive feedback to someone with whom you use Pan/Pani or only those with whom you use Ty?
  • How do you keep track? Do Poles have a little notebook where they keep track of whom they need to address formally and with whom they’ve agreed to switch?
  • What happens if you switch to Ty, but then don’t meet for next ten years, do you need to start from Pan/Pani again?
  • Can you switch back to Pan/Pani if you fall out with the other person?
  • Can you refuse to switch? A Pole once told me that her professor suggested she call her by name, but she declined. Nie chce mi to przejść przez gardło (I couldn’t get the word out of my throat) she said, meaning the professor’s name. Coming from an Anglo-Saxon country, I was stunned by this.
  • What if you are a teacher and you are frozen for 30 years (like Jerzy Stuhr in Sex Mission) and when you wake up you are younger than your pupils. Should you use Pan/Pani?

I am also intrigued by the language that surrounds this. Jesteśmy na Ty (we are on you) sounds so odd when you translate it into English. Another one I like is when, at the start of a training session, the Polish trainer asks the group czy możemy mówić sobie po imieniu? (can we address each other by name?). At that moment, I usually think sarcastically how else are we going to address each other? By grunting and pointing?

If it wasn’t confusing enough, it seems there is even a hybrid form: Pan/Pani and the listener’s first name, e.g. Pani Małgosiu or Panie Piotrze. As far as I can tell, this form is used by elderly ladies with their friends and salespeople who want to create a false sense of closeness in order to try and sell you something.

dear maam1

I also wonder if this is changing? Does the internet, the influence of English and generational change mean that Ty is becoming more prevalent? It seems the internet and I have a Ty-relationship since most of its communications use this direct form. Perhaps this needs to be sorted – surely computers can handle my mathematical formula? And if they decided to re-brand YouTube under a Polish name, would it be called TyTube, WyTube, PaństwoTube… or perhaps the more Slavic PaństwoCiub?

But, after all these questions, I must say that there is one huge favour that Poles grant to foreigners:

We’re excluded from all this!

Poles don’t seem to care whether a foreigner uses Ty, Pani or whatever. I’ve never met a Pole that expected me to use it correctly or was offended when I didn’t. I wonder why this is. Is it because Poles appreciate that their language is extraordinarily difficult and give foreigners a free pass? Is it because Poles don’t have much experience of foreigners speaking their language and so have low expectations? Is it because all these norms and rules about respect only apply to native Polish speakers?

Whatever the reason, I am mightily relieved. I try to follow these linguistic and cultural norms as best I can, but, as you might have concluded from the number of questions in this post, I don’t have complete clarity around this language area yet.

Yours faithfully

Polisher

Like a Dog

People love dogs, but languages don’t. The English language treats dogs poorly with most dog idioms having negative meanings. A dog’s life is an unhappy one, you work like a dog and then die like a dog…and it’s not a happy ending.

On moving to Poland, I noticed that Poles were dog lovers, so I held out a hope that Polish dogs would get a better deal linguistically than they do in English. Yet before I even got to metaphors and idioms, the first challenge was learning the Polish word for dog.

The base form is easy – it just looks like the English word ‘pies’ as in apple pies. The challenge arises when the word is used in different cases:

pies, psów, psa, psem, psie, psi, psiego, psy, psu, piesek, pieskie…

I know that dogs come in many shapes and sizes, but does the Polish language need to reflect this? It isn’t instantly obvious to a foreign learner that psa, psem or psów are forms of the word for dog. Frankly, I see as much similarity between a Chihuahua and a Labrador than between pies and psa!

When I first learned the word for dog, I just assumed that the plural of pies was piesi (pedestrians). So, when I noticed a triangular road sign with an exclamation mark, warning drivers about piesi, I assumed it was an instruction to watch out for small dogs!

The animal may be cute, but the Polish word pies, and all its forms, is a dog to learn!

Fortunately, many dog idioms in Polish are less challenging because they are similar to those in English – pieskie życie (a dog’s life), zszedł na psy (going to the dogs) and traktować jak psa (treat like a dog) – but there are many more that are unique to Polish.

So is the Polish language kinder to dogs than English? Well, one way to verify this is to go through a checklist of needs, such as Maslow’s hierarchy, and ask if each of them are met. So let’s consider a typical Polish dog, perhaps called Burek, and check whether his needs are met according to Maslow’s hierarchy.

Physiological

Starting at the base of the pyramid, one can ask whether Burek’s basic needs (food, sleep etc) are cared for. As regards sleep, it seems not. Psia wachta (dog’s watch) is the worst watch in the middle of the night. While the rest of us sleep soundly, Burek is awake, keeping an eye out for intruders and thieves. And what reward does Burek get for keeping us safe? Certainly not kiełbasa as the idiom nie dla psa kiełbasa (sausage is not for a dog) clarifies. If he is fed at all, it’s low quality and given grudgingly.

Safety

Is Burek’s personal safety looked after? No, he’s not even given a roof over his head. The expression pogoda pod psem suggests that he has to sleep outdoors at the mercy of the weather.

The first time I heard the expression pogoda pod psem (literally, weather under a dog) I did wonder whether it meant good weather. I haven’t spent much time under a dog, but I imagine you’re sheltered and warm down there. Maybe it means hot, steamy summer weather? But no, as it turns out, it just means rotten weather. I should have known that if a dog’s involved, it wouldn’t be good news.

So it seems that Burek not only stays up all night, but does so in the cold, wind and rain.

Belonging

The next level of the pyramid is belonging. Surely, Burek is a loved and valued member of the family who will be remembered long after he has passed on? Well, no… the Polish language doesn’t pass this test either. The idiom zdechnąć jak pies pod płotem (literally, die like a dog under a fence) is used when someone passes on but isn’t mourned by any one. So it seems that poor Burek won’t be remembered for long…or at all.

Esteem

Is Burek respected as an individual? No, it seems not. The idiom nie jednemu psu Burek (there’s more than one dog called Spot) reminds us that Burek is just another dog. If you shouted his name in the park, half a dozen dogs would run over. If the wrong one followed you home, who cares!

So no, one can’t say that Burek’s owners help to build his self-esteem, he’s just another dog.

Self-actualization

Finally, we come to the apex of Maslow’s pyramid, the highest and most fulfilling need. Does Burek have opportunities for development? Can he grow personally and realise his full potential as a dog?

Nope.

Anything poor Burek achieves will be psu na budę (useless).

So as this quick run through Maslow’s hierarchy of needs shows, Burek isn’t any better off in the Polish language as Spot is in English. In fact, he’d be better off with Pavlov than Maslow… at least, he’d get fed regularly.

If languages truly reflected people’s affection for dogs, you’d think there would be a lot more positive idioms and expressions. After all, a dog is a man’s best friend, and as they say in Polish wierny jak pies (faithful as a dog). And how do the English and Polish languages treat them in return?

Like dogs!

dogs1

Given all the bad PR that surround dogs, isn’t it time they got organized and started demanding better treatment… at least linguistically? Dogs need to break free of their leashes, assert their rights and campaign for better idioms. If they were to raise awareness of their situation, lobby the makers of dictionaries and march through our cities’ streets, then perhaps one day, in the not too distant future, we’ll all aspire to live a dog’s life!

Financial Insecurity

In Polish there’s an expression skąpy jak Szkot (mean as a Scot). Being Scottish myself, I sometimes get irked by the stereotype that Scots are mean. It’s not that I’m offended, it’s just that I need to be on guard, monitoring my behaviour, to make sure that I’m not acting in a way that might reinforce the stereotype. So when learning Polish, especially language connected to money and financial transactions, in the back of my mind there was a voice saying ‘don’t pay too much attention, you don’t want people to think you’re obsessed with money.’

The first thing I learned about Polish money was the name of the currency, which most foreigners call zloties. To Anglo-saxon ears, zlot rhymes with slot and makes zloties sound like a bunch of tokens that you use to play slot machines in Las Vegas. Once I got used to the Polish name, I learned that złoty means golden, a word which creates a much better image for the currency than slot machine tokens.

One of the first financial lessons that I got in Poland came when I went grocery shopping. You see, there is one group of Poles who really know how to manage money carefully, and who fight tirelessly to teach others good financial habits too. I’m referring to Polish shop assistants, who are so focused with managing the change in the till, that they hound you to give them the right change. Any foreigner quickly learns expressions connected to giving the right change – nie ma Pan drobnych? Może końcówka? – because making a purchase depends on you having small coins and notes.

Polish shop assistants also give me numerous opportunities to dispel the myth that Scots are mean. Often, instead of giving you all the change, the shop assistant simply announces będę winna grosik (I owe you a penny) and doesn’t give you the full amount of change. Not being a skąpy Scot, I always agree immediately and don’t even think about the countless zloties I must have lost in this way over the years… nor the interest on the unpaid debt!

On the subject of debt, I did find it odd that the Polish word for ‘owe’ is the same as the word for ‘guilty’: winny. Does this mean that if you borrow money from a person, then you are guilty of some crime in their eyes? I also wonder whether this makes Poles more reluctant to take out loans?

The one major challenge when learning words connected money is that there’s so much slang. I quickly learned words like kasa and zeta, but slang words for quantities were more difficult. For instance, the first time I heard pięć dych was at a market when I was trying to buy a DVD, and I was disappointed when I discovered that it means five times ten and not five plus ten. Likewise, when I heard stówka (little hundred) for the first time, I did hold out a hope that it meant less than one hundred… otherwise why else would it be a diminutive?

To my ears, Polish slang words for money make it sound cute and innocent. At first when I heard any word ending in -ówka, it reminded me of the English word hoof. So złotówka (one złoty coin) sounded like a golden horse shoe, while stówka (hundred) sounded like a stone that is trapped in a pony’s hoof. Likewise, the first time I heard tysiak (thousand) it reminded me of prosiak (piglet) and I thought it was a cute forest mammal. At least bańka (million) sounded more serious and I assumed contained some good advice – if you come into a million, go straight to the bank. Yet, I later discovered that bańka means milk churn, which is the last place you ought to keep a million zloties!

money1

Of course, not wanting to look like a mean Scot, I can’t say that I don’t have any money in case people think it’s an excuse not to contribute. In English, we say, I’m broke (as if having money fixes you), while in Polish, I was surprised to learn that you say jestem spłukany (I’m rinsed). It sounds like you left your cash in the pocket of your jeans when you put them in the washing machine. And actually, this would work pretty well as an excuse for not paying. Sorry, can you pay for dinner, all my cash was rinsed at 60 degrees?

Another money topic I tend to avoid concerns saving money. In English we have an idiom ‘to save money for a rainy day’. It suggests that you should save money now so that you can cheer yourself up by spending it on a rainy day. I prefer the Polish version: trzymać coś na czarną godzinę (literally, keep something for a black hour). Cheering yourself up on a rainy day sounds trivial in comparison. Whatever nightmarish thing appears at this black hour, I certainly want to have some cash saved up… perhaps I can bribe it to go away!

One final expression, and one that I find particularly alarming, is the Polish proverb stating that pięniądze leżą na ulicy (money is lying on the street). You see, there’s an old joke that asks ‘how do you kill a Scotsman?’ The answer is to throw ten pence in front of a bus.

So if it’s true that money is lying on the ground in Poland, I just hope it isn’t lying on streets that the buses drive down!

The Granny Stopper

When building a footpath up a mountain, there’s a technique called a granny stopper. About 300 metres from the car park, the builders of the path include a challenging piece of terrain in which you have to scramble over a big rock. This is the granny stopper and its purpose is to give walkers a taste of what is to come later in the ascent. And if you’ve brought your granny with you, this is where, for her own safety, she gets discouraged and turns back.

Whoever designed the Polish language included a granny stopper too.

granny2

When a beginner starts learning Polish, the first hundred words aren’t too bad. You can make some progress and learn some basic statements and questions. But then, and with great irony, it’s when you come to the verb ‘to go’ that everything stops.

This issue is one that creeps up on the learner, slowly suffocating them like a boa constrictor. At first I learned simple sentences like idę do kina or idę do domu. Next up was chodzić which I learned is used for habitual actions, such as często chodzę do kina. Okay, I said to myself, instead of using different tenses like English, Polish just has different verbs. That’s fine… up to a point. But it went on and on. I would continually come across a sentence I didn’t understand, look it up in the dictionary, and out popped another go-verb. What does pójdziesz ze mną? mean? Oh, pojechać means go as well. Not another one! In the end I was scared of checking any word in the dictionary in case I discovered another verb for ‘go’.

In fact, there are three words meaning ‘go’ in Polish – chodzić, iść and pójść – and that’s just going on foot. There’s another three if you’re driving or riding – jechać, jeździć and pojechać. And it’s these Polish verbs of motion that bring learning to a complete standstill!

This is especially true when deciding which verb to use and in which form:

Student: How do I say ‘I’m going?’

Teacher: It depends. Are you going on foot?

Student: Yes.

Teacher: Are you male or female?

Student: Male.

Teacher: Do you plan on reaching your destination?

Student: Of course, why else would I be going?

Teacher: Some people just wander around, you know? We have a different form for that.

Student: Oh. No, I’ll be reaching my destination.

Teacher: Okay, then one more question. Is it a one-off trip or do you go there regularly?

Student: One-off, I guess. But if I like it, I might go back.

Teacher: Doesn’t matter. So you’re a man going by foot, you plan to reach your destination and it’s one-off trip… Where are you going?

(student stands up and heads towards the door)

Student: Lesson’s over. I’m going!

Teacher: But don’t you want to know the correct Polish verb form?

Student: Nah, forget it. Life’s too short.

Sometimes you just want to go someplace without overthinking it, for instance, to the bathroom.

I remember once trying to leave someone a note saying ‘I will go there at 9am tomorrow’. I was in a hurry and just wanted to scribble a quick message to reassure an acquaintance that I would take care of an issue. In the end I just wrote tam 9am jutro ja, stuck the note on the fridge and dashed out the door.

And that’s the problem. Going often means hurrying. When you’re in a hurry, you just don’t have time to sit down with pencil and paper and work out which Polish verb of motion is correct in this instance. It would have taken me a hour to work out that I should have written pójdę tam jutro o dziewiątej.

It’s the same with managing your personal space. In a flash of anger, you’re not in the mood to choose between saying idź do diabła or pójdź do diabła. There’s no time to consider whether the person should go all the way to the devil or whether it’s enough just to reach hell and wander around!

And that’s the dilemma. Do I want to invest enough time to communicate accurately in Polish or do I want to have a life?

If you choose not to have a life, then, once you have a basic grasp of chodzić, iść and pójść, you can spend the next few years on other verbs of motion – jechać, jeździć, pojechać, latać, lecieć, polecieć, biegać, biec, pobiec, pływać, płynąć, popłynąć.

It’s enough to drive you nuts, and I quickly developed a phobia about the verb ‘to go’. Yet it’s like having a phobia of breathing air because you can’t escape it. These verbs are everywhere and you are constantly reminded of your failure to master them.

If you look depressed, someone will ask ‘o co chodzi?‘ And they get a shock when you scream in reply ‘don’t say that word!’. You can’t take a step back, carefully consider your options and find the best solution because you don’t remember whether it should be iść po rozum do głowy or pójść po rozum do głowy? And you can’t shake your head and say  nie wierzę, że do tego doszło (how did it come to this?) because you know, deep down, that there’s another go verb buried in that statement.

And there’s no consolation when you finally do lose it, when the grammar finally drives you over the edge. It’s at this moment that the Polish language continues to twist the knife. Because, just like English which uses expressions like ‘go crazy’ or ‘drive someone insane’, Polish also uses a go verb for this fateful event. When you sit on the ground, put your arms over your head and mumble verbs of motion over and over, you are just acting out another go verb: odchodzić od zmysłów.

I really sympathize with teachers of Polish. It must be a real challenge hauling learners, kicking and screaming, over this gargantuan granny stopper. I assume that, as well as having teaching skills, they also require coaching and psychiatric skills to motivate, placate and possibly treat their students.

But perhaps this linguistic granny stopper is a kindness, separating the weak from the strong early in the learning process. Those who turn back may well have made the right decision. Because, as well as saving themselves a lot of blood, sweat and tears, perhaps, by choosing not to struggle with Polish verbs of motion, they’ve managed to preserve their own sanity?

The Lullaby Language

What does Polish sound like to someone who is hearing the language for the very first time?

The first time I heard Polish it wasn’t in a historic nor attractive location, it wasn’t Wałęsa nor John Paul II that was speaking, and the words didn’t mean anything to me. First dates can be disappointing.

Touring Europe as a student in 1995, my friends and I changed trains in Katowice as we traveled from Prague to Kraków. Waiting on the platform in the grey railway station, the loud speakers suddenly burst into life and I heard the Polish language for the first time. I assumed I was hearing an announcement about the arrival or departure of a train, but, of course, I didn’t understand a word. Although it was a completely alien stream of sounds, I could hear the tone, rhythm and emotion in the voice. Indeed, the main emotion seemed to be boredom and the speaker’s intonation was extraordinarily flat. I wondered whether Polish was a language that was specifically designed to be heard over loudspeakers.

Then, in the distance, I heard Polish for the second time. From somewhere further down the platform, I could hear a faint chanting. It sounded like a group of monks, but as it grew louder, my friends and I realised that it wasn’t a peaceful group of Hari Krishna that were approaching. We made the prudent decision to get out of the way and climbed some stairs to a balcony, where we watched the police escort around two hundred football fans out of the railway station. The fans were chanting something with a three-part rhythm: uh-uh, uh-uh, uh-uh-hu-hu.

So as we boarded the train to Kraków, I was left with those two impressions of the Polish language: flat intonation with a three-part rhythm.

Sound & Texture

Years later, having moved to Poland, I got the chance to hear Polish that wasn’t chanted nor transmitted through a loudspeaker, and I recall discussing the question of what Polish sounded like with a Canadian friend. We had both been in Poland for a few weeks and neither of us understood more than a few words of Polish. I said that, to my ears, Polish sounded like radio static, the sound that a radio emits when you are searching between frequencies for a station. The Canadian, Rob, said it reminded him of the sound you hear when you slowly pour sand onto a wooden floor.

While we disagreed on the best description, we definitely agreed that the key sound in Polish was sssszzzzz.

Apparently, Oscar Wilde described the sound of Polish as rustling, hissing and hushing that made his ears bleed. I definitely agree about the hissing and hushing sounds, but it doesn’t make my ears bleed. Quite the opposite in fact. I suspect that Oscar might have had a hangover that day, because actually Polish sounds soft and soothing. It sounds like something you’d want someone to whisper to help you fall asleep. Take for instance, the name Kościuszko:

Kosh – choosh – ko

It sounds like a lullaby, something a mother would sing gently to a baby as it drifted off to sleep. If the Prussians, Russians and Austrians had tried to turn Kościuszko in a bogeyman, they wouldn’t have fooled any of their children. ‘We’re not scared of Kosh-choosh-ko… he sounds sweet!’

baby1

Emerging Words

There’s always a sense of mystery when you listen to a language for the first time. Not knowing where words begin and end, utterances sound like long strings of syllables, and you struggle to hear individual words. Yet when I first started listening to Polish, there was one word that stood out. Within the dense chunks of language a word emerged. I didn’t know what it meant, but it was short, simple and familiar… and it seemed to be used a lot.

That word was pan or pani or pana.

Every other sentence, especially in post offices or shops seemed to contain some reference to the Greek god of nature. I did wonder why post office clerks were arguing with customers about ancient mythology. This must be a well-educated population, I concluded.

And pan was everywhere… like, well… pantheism. And there was also reference to another God that I didn’t know, but who sounded even more important: Proshaypana or Proshaypani… this one sounded more like a Buddhist god. Blah blah blah Proshaypana blah blah blah. I wondered whether, by invoking this God’s name, the speaker’s were uttering a plea, a prayer or a curse.

So I gained another impression – that Polish was an erudite, respectful and religious language… well, it can be.

Tempo & Intonation

Not understanding the words allowed me to focus on other aspects of spoken language – tempo and intonation.

Polish doesn’t sound particularly fast. As a foreigner hearing it for the first time, I wasn’t blown away by its tempo. It’s not like Arabic or Irish. I did wonder whether the reason for this is physical. It’s probably not the kind of language that you can say quickly – there are too many consonant sounds and you might injure your tongue, mouth or jaw if you tried to say too many hard Polish syllables too quickly.

As regards intonation, first impressions can be deceptive. When I first arrived in Poland, I remember being told that Wojciech Mann was a great presenter. Really? I didn’t understand what he was saying, but I could hear that his intonation was flatter than the countryside in Mazowsze. He just didn’t sound like an interesting speaker. And that’s what a foreigner hears when they hear Polish for the first time. It’s not like Italian in which the intonation rises and falls like the Alps. Polish is flat.

Yet Wojciech Mann’s speaking style is an acquired taste. It was only after I had learned Polish for a few years that I came to share Poles’ appreciation for his flat, deadpan delivery.

Summing up

So what does Polish sound like to someone hearing it for the first time?

In the end, it’s a subjective impression that’s tricky to describe. So maybe I’ll try to answer another way – with a Japanese Haiku.

Hissing sand falling … shushing the wooden floor … kosh choosh ko

thru static radio … a mann mumbles, deadpan tones … slow train approaching

a lullaby song … post office fans are chanting … old Proshaypana’s here.

The Fool’s Journey

When I switch from my native English to Polish, my IQ drops by at least 50 points… well, that’s how I feel.

So instead of assessing my skills against a system of language levels, I judge my abilities in comparison to how stupid I feel when I try to express myself in Polish.

Fortunately, Polish has some great words to describe stupid people. As well as English, there’s a group of words that started as medical definitions – imbecile, cretin, moron, idiot – but I prefer the folk terms like głupek wioskowy (village idiot). Call me old-school, but when I speak Polish I feel closer to the type of stupidity that’s been around the villages and backwoods for centuries:

Głąb Level

In this classification, in the place of beginner is the głąb level. The goal for a głąb learner is to inform others that he or she is a głąb (blockhead). When I first came to Poland, I remember saying nie rozumiem or nie mówię po polsku about 10 times a day. If I managed to pronounce the expressions correctly, then I could take pride in the fact that my interlocutor understood that I was a linguistic blockhead and walked away.

I chose the word głąb for this level because it just sounds dumb. The long, deep ‘omb‘ sound vibrates when you say it right and seems to express the emptiness inside my head when I can’t think of a Polish word for something.

Being a głąb in Polish, I once got confused between głąb and dąb (oak) and suggested to some friends that we take a blanket and lie down in the park under the big głąb. What can I say? If there had been a big głąb standing in the park, I’m sure he wouldn’t have cared if we sat beneath him.

The Gapa Moment

This is not so much a level as a moment of truth. Instead of running from encounters with the Polish language, the gapa learner stops and stares. Standing with their mouth ajar and eyes wide open, he or she gapes at the Polish language, its strings of consonants, funny letters and crazy words… oh my god… do I have to learn that?

Like the word gap in English, there is a huge chasm between the gapa (feather-brained) learner and being able to express oneself intelligently in Polish. This is the make or break moment. Does he or she commit to the learning process or flee in horror back to the głab level?

Gamoń Level

If the gapa learner commits and works really hard, then he or she can aspire to becoming a gamoń (bungler). Besides having a very limited range of vocabulary, the gamoń takes pleasure in constantly repeating the same phrases incorrectly. Don’t bother correcting them – eventually they’ll get it right by accident. The best word to describe the communication style is gamoniowaty (bungling). A gamoń hopes that if they say all the words they know, then eventually, like a monkey at a typewriter producing poetry after a million years, they might stumble on an intelligible sentence in the end.

I came across the word gamoń in an exhibition about the Orange Alternative. It included a description of an election committee called Gamonie i Krasnoludki (Fools and Dwarfs). Their election slogan was Głosując na Gamonie – głosujesz na siebie (a vote for fools is a vote for yourself). What’s a gamoń, I wondered? And what a pity I can’t vote!

When I learned that gamoń meant ‘bungler’, it was my favourite word for months. There’s something so pleasurable in saying the words ty gamoniu! to myself because I’ve made the same language mistake for the tenth time that day.

Fajtłapa Level

At this level, the fajtłapa (clumsy) learner is like a bull in a china shop. Because he or she has learned a broader range of language, there is significantly more opportunity for making clumsy mistakes. The key goal, or mission, for the fajtłapa learner is to inadvertently destroy the language he or she is learning. They do this by breaking as many rules and patterns as possible, happily smashing every linguistic convention they come across.

It can be tiring for Poles to interact with a fajtłapa learner – put simply, they mess with your head. But, please be patient, it’s all part of the learning process.

As well as being clumsy with Polish, I’m also rather clumsy in the kitchen, where I handle fragile things with the delicacy of a bear wearing boxing gloves. Wine glasses don’t have a long shelf-life in my home… just about as long as the wine, in fact. The word fajtłapa seems to captures the feeling that I’m engaged in a battle with my own hands. I don’t know what fajt means but when I first saw it, I understood it as fighting with my own łapa (paws).

Frajer Level

There are no shortcuts to get from the level of fajtłapa to frajer (sucker). It’s a long, hard slog to correct all the errors that are ingrained in the learner’s head, and you could question whether it’s worth the effort. But this level is called the frajer level because the learner, having come this far, is usually suckered into continuing.

Like a gamoń, I misunderstood the word frajer at first. To my ears, it sounded jolly, almost aspiration. When the world is too depressing, wouldn’t you rather just be a happy frajer? It also sounded too much like the English word ‘fryer’ – so I imagined some simpleton that works in a fast food restaurant frying the burgers!

In Scotland, we don’t make smart decisions when it comes to eating habits. For example, in some fish n’ chip shops you can buy a deep fried Mars Bar – a local delicacy that you can order if the battered fish and chips is too healthy for your tastes. If I ever set up a deep fried Mars Bar food truck in Poland, I’ll call it ‘The Happy Frajer‘.

But, as it turns out, my understanding of the word frajer was wrong – just another mistake that I need to iron out at this level!

loser1

Pechowiec Level

The final and highest level for a learner is to become a pechowiec (loser). At this level the language learner is almost able to express his or her full level of intelligence. They can speak fluently, handle complex interactions and understand the nuances of the language. However, from time to time, no matter how hard he or she continues to learn, they can’t avoid looking silly from time to time. You see, the thing is that no language is completely logical. Eventually, they will inadvertently discover an exception to a rule or use a false friend incorrectly.

It’s just their bad luck that no language is perfectly rational and logical…

and the most you can aspire to… if you work hard for years and years and years…

… is to outgrow your głąbhood..

… and one day… become a loser!

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.