On a warm July evening we sat in the garden of a friend’s summer house. In the growing darkness the only illumination was a lamp on the wall of the cottage, which acted as a magnet for insects from the local forest. Moths and flies flew in circles while beetles and bugs crawled up the cottage wall towards the source of light.
I noticed something huge…slowly making it’s way up the wall…and now it was only a few centimetres from my friend’s head. I had to warn her.
Emm, Ola…uważaj bo blisko twoja głowa jest ogromny koń polowy.
(Look out Ola because there’s a huge field horse near your head).
She looked surprised, but turned around to see what I was referring to. Realising that it was only a harmless grasshopper, she started laughing, ‘Kon polowy!’ and the rest of the group started giggling too.
In English we have an idiomatic expression to butcher a language, i.e. to cut it into pieces until there’s just a big mess. Well, I’ve been butchering Polish for years…changing the word order, inventing completely new expressions, combining words that shouldn’t be combined, adding sounds to the pronunciation of words and using expressions in the wrong context. What’s left after this butchery is a bit of a dog’s dinner. Honestly, it’s never been my goal to speak perfect Polish, but to have fun interacting with Poles. I usually give them a good laugh.
Of course, when you want to warn someone that a huge bug is about to jump on their face, it’s useful to use the right vocabulary. Saying that a horse (koń) is climbing the wall instead of a grasshopper (konik polny) helps to get the listener’s attention…even if it doesn’t convey the correct level of danger.
But these mistakes are logical. I mean, I knew that the Polish word for grasshopper was related to a horse! And it was such a big grasshopper than the diminutive konik just didn’t do it justice. So, there’ some rational behind my butchery…I hope.
For instance, when someone says dziękuję, I always respond with proszuję. I prefer it when one expression mirrors the other.
Or with the word order in the sentence nic się nie stało… even when 55,000 Polish football fans are singing this in the National Stadium, I still can’t get the word order right. Switching the order of nie and się, I always say nic nie się stało. But, Polish word order is supposed to be flexible, isn’t it? … so don’t blame me if I take liberties.
Then there are words into which I add additional sounds…they just sound better to my ears. Most often this involves adding the letter z into words connected to animals:
- pajęczy-z-na (pajęczyna / spider’s web)
- ro-z-pucha (ropucha / toad)
Finally, Polish has too many comparative expressions and I only have enough free memory space for one…which happens to be the shortest and simplest: jak bela (as a bale) which is used in the expression pijany jak bela (drunk as a bale)
Now I compare everything to a bale:
- szybki jak bela (fast as a bale)
- zimno jak bela (cold as a bale)
- lubić kogoś jak bela (to like someone as much as a bale)
and just assume that the listener understands that I mean ‘a lot’ or ‘very’.
So I butcher Polish…which works for me… but that’s not good news for those around me.
I live in Poland and interact in Polish around 90% of the time. The consequence of this is that my Polish skills improve, while the Polish of those I interact with gets worse!
Those friends from the summer house also use the expression kon polowy from time to time.
And my wife got so used to jak bela that she started to use it herself. Now we both use jak bela. It’s a nice shortcut, but, technically, her Polish is now worse.
So I invite you to start using jak bela too.
I wait for the day when it spreads out into society and I hear it in everyday situations. For instance, when I visit the doctor and he or she says, after completing the medical examination, that I’m zdrowy jak bela or when I’m watching football on TV and the commentator says Rasiak walczył jak bela.
I’ll be able to laugh and say…hah!…I started that…that’s my creative butchery!