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

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 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.

 

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!

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!

Lessons from Traffic Cops

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I know.

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

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

He paused for a moment.

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

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

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

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

So I decided to put the ball in his court.

How much does that cost?‘ I replied.

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

Nothing!‘ he said.

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

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

police2

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

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

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

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