- -  Day # 322  + +

EU > Poland > Katowice

Language fun

Katowice, PL (View on map)

Many Europeans have grown accustomed to seeing words like `Piwo` (beer), `Polski sklep` (Polish shop) and `Polska Gazeta` (Polish newspaper) during the last couple of years. Also the word `kurwa` (`whore`, but used like `damn`) has become commonplace in cities across Europe, no matter how offensive its meaning may be if used in an improper context. What else is interesting to know about the Polish language?

Hanna (23):

`We Polish people will not react very happily when foreigners take our language for Russian`
Polish is not the most accessible of all European languages. In a way that seems almost opposite to Scandinavian languages, Polish seems to lack vowels. At a first impression, Polish looks and sounds like it`s organised around sounds like s-sh-ch-shch-z-zz and zzh. Any second, third or subsequent impression would prove the same. Some sounds seem to be copied from French or Chinese: `ą` is supposed to come out like French `on` or Portuguese `?o`. `ę` is supposed to sound like `ewng` in English. `ł`, the barred L, sounds like `oow` in English. The one positive thing there is to say about the pronounciation is that all letters are always pronounced the same way. Which cannot be said for English. Water, act and face produce three different `a` sounds that are hard to guess if you don`t know them by heart.

Not very easy
Few Polish will cherish the illusion that visitors to their country will learn how to speak Polish. Anybody willing to give it a try will be warmly encouraged, but only if he or she manages to produce sounds that actually make sense. The Polish like to refer to two of the their best known tongue twisters: `w Szczebreszynie chrząszcz brzmi w trzcinie` or `St?ł z powyłamywanymi nogami`. The only relief is that they themselves also have a hard time pronouncing those.

The grammar of Polish is complicated for non-natives. Polish has 8 different cases, which can change my first name Bruno (PL: Brunon) into `Brunona`, `Brunonowi`, `Brunonem` or `Brunonie` depending on the place and purpose in a sentence. Multiples are also variable. One ticket is translated as `bilet`. Two tickets would be `bilety`, just like 3, 4, 21, 22, 23, 24 and every next number that ends in 1, 2, 3 or 4. For other quantities bigger than one, you will be looking for `bilet?w` instead of `bilety`. Which change again according to the place in the sentence. Got lost? Read on...

Foreign languages
Foreign languages are becoming more and more popular in Poland, The level of foreign language education is not known to be excellent. As is the case in many countries, classes are too big and study methods are too much focused on theoretical knowledge. In the past, any student who scored well enough in written tests could skip all of the oral exams.

Along with the political system, the main foreign language to be taught in school changed from Russian to English. Second and third are now German and French, followed by Spanish and Italian. Russian is working on a gradual comeback. Growing numbers of young Poles have adopted it is as a useful language because of the Eastward business opportunities it offers. Russian to them does not have the same negative connotation as it has for older people who used to be forced to learn Russian in school.`

Hanna (23, photo) tells me that Russian and Polish share similarities but can hardly be confused by anybody with an `experienced ear`. Only Czech and Slovak are sufficiently similar to create confusion. `Somebody who thinks that I am speaking Russian is not making me happy. I am not to bothered when people mistake Polish for Czech or Slovak. Those are indeed very similar and make a good subject of conversation whenever I meet people from Czech Republic and Slovakia. Some words and translations are quite funny. `Divadlo` in Czech translates to `theatre`, while in Polish, `dzywadło` means `something strange`. The Czech word for squirrel is `drevnikot`. The Polish equivalent `drzewny kot` would mean something like `wooden cat`. In Polish, a squirrel is `wiew?rka`, which means nothing to a Czech person.`

Hanna works as a private teacher in English and she knows about the problems Polish people have in English. `They often mess up the word order. In Polish, the word order is not very important because the extensions after the words will decide how they relate to each other. English is different: it`s the word order that decides what the sentence means. Polish people further have problems with the sound `-ing`, which they change into `-ink`: `doing` becomes `do-ink`. They also have problems pronouncing the past tense. They will say `I have watchid` instead of `I have watched`.`

Hanna also indicates me some words that Polish has taken over from other languages. `Most of those are rewritten to match the Polish pronounciation. Mecz is `match`, biznes is `business`, garaż is `garage`. Probabilistyczny is a modernist Polish version of `probably`, while fokusować is supposed to represent the English verb `to focus`. Some of these modernist words are seen as fashionable in higher social classes and politics.`

Foreign language exposure is limited for Poles who do not go abroad, or make an effort to access foreign language media. Films and foreign TV productions are not subtitled, but dubbed. Or maybe the word `dubbing` may pay too much tribute to the Polish system. One voice, usually male, represents all voices in the entire production, with the original sound still present in the background. The voice of an agonized woman screaming for help would be dryly reproduced by a Polish man, indifferently reading out the Polish word for help: `na pomoc`.

Patricia (23) never realised that the Polish system is quite unique in Europe. `I never found it strange, not even when I was watching subtitled programs in other countries. Only when somebody pointed me to it, I found it completely normal to have one voice for everything and everybody.`

Like other languages, especially French, Polish has several words that are often used but do not have any distinct meaning. Po prostu, `just`/`normally` and dokładnie, `exactly`, are the most common examples. It is also acceptable to say nie wiem, I don`t know, more often than strictly necessary. In many cases, nie wiem doesn`t just stand for its litteral translation. Sometimes, it is used to glue sentences together in the way English uses `let`s say?.`. In many cases, a clearly pronounced nie wiem may well include: `I don`t know, I don`t care, I don`t want to help you and you have spent enough of my time by now.`

Except for first names and company names, Polish does not have a lot of abbreviations. SMSing in Polish can therefore be well more expensive than texting in English. One of the few existing abbreviations that may surprise some people is z.o.o. which usually follows a company name and stands for `corporation with limited responsibility`. Lukasz (24) is helping me find more, but we don`t get further than words that are cut after the first syllable: `Otw.` for Otwarty (open), `Godz` for gozinna (time/hour), `r.` for rok meaning `year`.

More common than abbreviations is the use of bad language. Swearing usually brings sexual deeds, sexual organs and possibly animals onto stage. Kurwa and its more polite derivative kurcze can be used in almost any situation. Do dupe refers to some situation that got mixed up. Cursing in the religious sense is not common, but God often peers around the corner when somebody is negatively surprised by something. M?j Boże, `My Holy`, can be a way to start whatever sentence, while it`s not difficult to catch people exclaiming Jesus Maria either.

Before concluding this article, I would also like to share some proverbs and sayings that I collected today, with special thanks to Tomek (23) and Ola (23). I learn that people can drink like a shoemaker ? or like a Russian. Nobody wants to be called `stupid like a shoe` or `stingy like a Scotsman`. Neither is is advisable to `fall like a plum into the juice`, which means arriving at the exact wrong moment. Last but now least, you don`t want to be found dead in `pipid?wka`, which represents what is referred to in English as `the middle of nowhere`.

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