Dots, Accents & Little Tails: The Origins of Polish Orthography
#language & literature
default, Dots, Accents & Little Tails:
The Origins of Polish Orthography, 'Multigotki', a multimedia and music event in Gotki organised by the 'Zielona Gmina' Association, photo: Andrzej Sidor / Forum, center, litera_a_forum.jpg
How did Polish vowels grow little tails? Who put the dot on the letter 'ż'? When do letters sing and how have typos altered the sense of literary works? Join us on a journey into the intricacies of Polish orthography.
With a tail & an accent
Jolanta Bysiek, one of the pioneers of Polish computing, talking with reporter Karolina Wasielewska for her report Ciphergirls about her work in creating a Polish spreadsheet program, recalled the following:
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I remember that I created a design for Polish letters for that program, drawing in the little tails [on the letters ą and ę]. It was possible to approximate the letters until they came down to the pixel level and then their component parts became visible. You had to either darken them or partially erase them in order to achieve a tail similar to the printed version.
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Polish language lesson, learning spelling, Sosnowiec, photo: Roman Lipczyński / Forum
Where did Polish get its topdots, accents and little tails, i.e. its diacritical marks? Let's go back to the Middle Ages. Scribes wrote in Latin, but that language didn't reflect all the sounds of Polish. So they began to experiment: they created digraphs and trigraphs (e.g. 'ch’' represented the sound 'tch’' and 'ssz’' was read as 'sh’'), carons (tiny 'v's) were placed atop letters ('š' was used to represent ‘sh’), soft consonants had a 'y' added to them (zyemya [ziemia, earth], swyat [świat, world]), vowels were doubled (wooz = wóz), nasal vowels were indicated (møøka = mąka or møka = męka). And written words ballooned and were simply hard to read. Jakub Parkoszowic tried to take control of the chaos that reigned in Polish writing. He proposed that each sound should be represented by a single character. In practice, however, his system created complex character combinations and only served to complicate matters.
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As long as documents were being created by hand, there were no hard and fast orthographic rules. The problem arose with Gutenberg's invention of the printing press. Printers took matters into their own hands and developed consistent spelling, also gradually introducing punctuation marks. A turning point came with Stanisław Zaborowski's tractate on Polish orthography (written in Latin) in which he introduced diacritical marks for the first time. It is precisely this professor of the Kraków Academy that we have to thank for the diagonal stroke in the letter l (that is, ł) and the topdot on the letter 'z' (ż). At the time, Zaborowski's novelties were not accepted, but with the passage of time modified versions of his orthography were broadly adopted and his topdots and acute accents yielded the new letters 'ć', 'ś', 'ź', 'ń' and 'ó' (this last letter disappeared from the alphabet for a while but was reintroduced towards the end of the 18th century by Onufry Kopczyński).
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Soon after, there appeared the tails. While it's true that the letter 'ę' was already known in 17th-century Latin, the so-called 'tailed e' was an abbreviation of a different diphthong entirely. Polish printers found another use for the caron mark with which we are familiar today. The letter 'ą', however, was entirely their own innovation. New tractates were produced by Stanisław Murzynowski and Janusz Januszowski. The latter author in his The New Polish Character contrasted the views on spelling of Jan Kochanowski, Łukasz Górnicki and his own. You could say that Polish orthography was a battlefield of tails, accents and topdots. Various reforms were undertaken over the subsequent centuries, eventually leading to modern times.
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Plebiscite in Warmia and Mazury and Upper Silesia 1920, photo: rep. Piotr Mecik / Forum
In 2013, the creators of the campaign 'Polish is ą-ę' argued for the importance of diacritical marks to the Polish language. Renowned Polish linguist Jerzy Bralczyk said at the time:
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Today, a great threat is posed to the Polish language by the tendency not to use uniquely Polish letters. The more we write sms-es without diacriticals, the likelier it is that those unique Polish letters will quickly disappear from our language. I would greatly regret that; it would greatly impoverish the language. I get the feeling that we're giving it all up in the name of pragmatism, though we may lose a lot in the process – the language will give us ever less joy, ever less satisfaction. I would prefer that our life be rich not only in the financial sense.
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Giant letters protected against theft, Kraków, photo: Jakub Ociepa / AG
The absence of tails can often lead to misunderstandings. Stanisław Barańczak wrote in 'A song from behind the right-hand wall':
Mroźny wicher lodową płytą
Kładzie się nam na słowa i głowy
dech zapiera i łopatą płytką
w zamarzniętej ziemi ryje groby.
[The frosty wind with a glacial sheet
Descends upon our words and heads
takes away our breath and with a flat spade
digs graves in the frozen earth.]
But the London edition dropped the tails in the third line ('łopata płytka w zamarzniętej ziemi ryje groby'), changing the first two words from the instrumental case to the nominative case, thus making the flat spade the active subject of a sentence: The flat spade digs graves in the frozen earth – as if the spade is an independent actor.
In search of a lost typescript
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They are small, but it's easy to trip over them. They look innocent enough, but they interfere, obscure irony, speak in the name of others, and even save lives. They inquire? They shout! Punctuation marks stand in for our voice – they convey its tone and tempo, they express emotion. For Witold Gombrowicz, for example, they sing.
In his correspondence with Jerzy Giedroyc, the author of Trans-Atlantic wrote: '(…) I am v. sensitive to rhythm and I produce my texts with great forethought in that regard'. For example, his putting a hyphen in the title of his story in disregard for the rules of orthography, which the editor of Kultura pedantically removed, making it Transatlantic, was a deliberate choice on his part. On the other hand, in a letter to the translator Olga Scherer, Gombrowicz pleaded: 'Please translate “Crime” as your heart dictates: but, if it is at all possible, please try to maintain its rhythm'.
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But the greatest problems for the author and his editors were caused by his Pornography. The fate of its typescript could serve as the plot of a detective movie. This story is told by Łukasz Garbal in his book Editing: How to Publish Modern Literary Texts. It looked more or less like this: Gombrowicz's manuscript was typed up in two copies (that we know of), one of which went to Giedroyc. Gombrowicz intended to publish Pornography in French, so he asked Giedroyc to send the typescript to the translator, Anna Posner. When, several months later, the editor of Kultura decided to publish the story in Polish, it turned out that both the typescript and the translator had disappeared. Garbal recalls:
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Giedroyc suspected Gombrowicz of malicious intent; for his part, Gombrowicz feared that the typescript had been stolen. After a while, both of them began to suppose that the whole affair was an operation of the Security Services, intended to prevent the publication of the story by the Literary Institute.
As it turns out, Posner was in communist Poland, so the writer – with some misgivings – sent Giedroyc his only remaining copy by registered air mail. This 'back-up' copy successfully reached its recipient and became the basis of the first Polish edition of Pornography; today it can be found in Maisons-Laffitte. The 'official' copy was soon located (along with the translator, who had decided not to do the translation); it served as the basis for the French edition and is now held in the collections of the Literary Museum in Warsaw.
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Why was one copy more important than the other? Both copies contain handwritten revisions by the author and a dozen or so pages lack Polish diacritical marks. The punctuation in the 'original' copy was corrected in several places in blue ink, which was Gombrowicz's preferred ink. The 'back-up' copy was corrected with far more commas and in black ink. Several phrases are also corrected in black ink and the handwriting does not appear to be that of Pornography's author. So one can surmise that the Polish text as published did not correspond with the author's own wishes. Garbal argues that Gombrowicz had bad luck with his editors, who inconsistently modernised the punctuation and spelling in his work.
Gombrowicz maintained a considerable distance from the norms of composition and logic. This is why his longer phrases are dense, overheated by an overabundance of words unseparated by commas, yet somehow more natural to the ear. His frequent repetitions beat out a rhythm: the author used to say that writing to him was like composing music. The characteristic ellipses in Pornography slow down the action and the compact sentences ending in full stops or exclamation points abruptly stop it. Here is an excerpt:
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He was innocent! He was innocent! An innocent naiveté radiated from him! I looked at our couple. They smiled. Like typical youngsters when they can't get out of a messy situation. And for a second, they and we, in the midst of our catastrophe, looked each other in the eye.
Józef Czechowicz also gave his works a particular melody. Polish literary historian Kazimierz Wyka observed:
(…) these images must somehow merge in the perception of the reader, they must connect with each other with echoes that race between them and linger on, even as the next image is heard. This need for rhythmic connection through concise phraseology Czechowicz seeks to fulfil by doing away with capital letters and punctuation.
The poet began presenting the world with two aspects of his verses: in periodicals, he embellished his verses with commas, but, in book form, the very same works appeared 'raw' – bereft of punctuation. Some considered this abandonment of punctuation as bizarre and his publishers in most cases persuaded him to reconsider. This would be understandable if the presence or absence of punctuation did not affect the sense of the message. But this was Czechowicz, an individualist. Where would you put a comma in the poem od dnia do dna?:
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twarze płaszczyzny ścian słońce bredzi i brodzi
miałkim upałem południa sypie się w świat codzienny
a zabawa to tak wiatraki wód senność krzyże na runi
raczej trzcin kołysanka tam jawory w owsach
albo czy "Prowincja noc":
w ciemności przegonny powiew
na dachach strzelistych jak pacierz
noc czarną jamą
niewidzialni trzepocą orłowie
rynek to staw kamienny
z ratusza przystanią
kolumn kroki senne
the faces of the plane of the walls
the sun raves and wades
the mild heat of the noon pours into the everyday world
and fun is like windmills of waters sleepiness crosses on the sward
rather reeds a lullaby there are sycamores in the oats
or whether 'Province night':
in the dark a chastening breeze
on soaring roofs like prayers
the night is a black cave
the eagles flutter invisible
the market square is a stone pond
from the town hall by a marina
columns of sleepy steps
If this were written according to the rules of standard usage, would it be the same poem?
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The poet used to mock his own style. In a 'catalogue of non-existent books' published in Nowości Lubelskie in 1931, there appears a book by one J. Czechowicz entitled Methodological Notes on Punctuation in Poetry, Volume One Improved. In addition, he wrote in one of his articles that his disuse of punctuation and capital letters was the result of a wager he had made with his friend Konrad Bielski for a bottle of champagne.
Czesław Miłosz also had issues with commas. The manuscript and first edition of his poem Campo di Fiori has fewer commas than the version published in the anthology Rescue in 1945. Perhaps the poet had in mind reading the poem in a single breath? In conversation with Jan Błoński, Marek Edelman and Jerzy Turowicz (a recording of the meeting was found after many years and the transcript was published in the Tygodnik Powszechny weekly in 2005), Miłosz acknowledged that he'd lost control of the many copies of the poem that were in circulation. He preferred the original version to later versions and he said that he regretted even his own later changes – mostly in choice of words.
The devil's in the details
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There are classic instances in which a single comma in the wrong place can diametrically alter the meaning of a sentence (e.g. Have you eaten, Grandma? - addressed to Grandma - vs. Have you eaten Grandma? - addressed to a cannibal). A full stop – a single period – can end a conversation, yet three of them in a row indicate a moment of hesitation. And what if you told a story – at least in part - using only periods? That was achieved by Mariusz Szczygieł in his Nike-awarded reportage There is None in the chapter 'The River' in which he made extensive use of periods. The speaker's thoughts are interrupted frequently and dissolve into ellipses. This graphic device creates a sense of a river flowing and indicates a lack of words, allowing the reader to fill these voids with her own thoughts.
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On the Internet, typographical symbols often appear in another role: emoticons. Various combinations of symbols can express a smile, tears, a joke, a grimace of disgust or a kiss. It's possible that the members of Young Poland were precursors of this Internet language. They utilised in their work a special glyph of their own creation consisting of a comma and a dash: ,– What did they have in mind? The answer surely depends on the context of the words used and each occurrence must be interpreted individually. The author of the previously mentioned book Editing suggests 'this digraph can be understood as something in between a comma and a dash – a pause longer than a comma, yet shorter than a dash.' The Young Poland and later poets would use this symbol at the end of lines of their poems. Unfortunately, editors didn't always respect the authors' creativity, deleting the commas without a second thought. This is what happened to Bolesław Leśmian. Here are the original opening lines of the first edition of Urszula Kochanowska:
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I odszedł, a ja zaraz krzątam się, jak mogę, –
Więc nakrywam do stołu, omiatam podłogę –
And he left, and I bustle about, as I can, –
So I set the table, sweep the floor –
But in the Collected Poems of Leśmian published in 1995, the commas were eliminated. While that makes little difference to the semantics of the verse, it does affect the sound of the poem when read aloud. The presence of the commas slows down the recitation just a bit; without them, the rhyme becomes too commonplace.
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No one knows a text as well as its author. Maria Pawlikowska-Jasnorzewska gave copies of her books of poetry to many people, among them literary critics, that contained her handwritten corrections and revisions. It was a dubious decision by the publisher to publish the works of Bruno Schulz with two side-by-side versions: the original spelling and punctuation and 'a version consistent with today's proper usage'. The entire joy of his futuristic extravaganzas is found in the reader's deciphering of words written in part phonetically, in reading the text slowly and enunciating the sounds. The 'Prologue' of his Song of Hunger starts like this:
w wielotyśęcznyh, stuulicyh miastah
wyhodzą codźenńe tyśące gazet,
długie, czarne kolumny słuw,
wykszykiwane głośno po wszystkih bulwarah.
[Trans. note: The literal meaning of the above is not relevant here. What is of importance is the spelling. A popular joke about the idiosyncrasies of English spelling suggests that the word 'fish' should be spelled 'ghoti': 'gh' as in cough; 'o' as in women; and 'ti' as in motion. The poem above uses a similar approach: every opportunity to portray a sound with a letter other than the correct one has been used (si>ś; ch>h; zi>ź; ni>ń; ó>u; rz>sz). The result is a poem which can be read correctly phonetically, but which looks entirely peculiar on paper.]
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Stanisław Lem in his apartment in Kraków, 1971, photo: Jakub Grelowski / PAP
Stanisław Lem's editors also had difficulty in understanding the sense of his work. His son Tomasz recalled a situation in which the editors misread the author's handwriting:
(…) my father's behaviour often ranged far from the principles of savoir-vivre. Some of these behaviours I consider justified, for instance when my father received a copy of his book directly from the printer only to discover in reading the Table of Contents that his 'Ciemność i pleśń' – 'Darkness and Mould' – a story about artificially created bacteria-like organisms that destroy matter – was creatively renamed by the editors 'Ciemność i pieśń' – 'Darkness and Song'.
Zbigniew Herbert would surely not have been any less upset when, in his posthumously published work Mykeny, instead of 'Cały dzień prawie / Na prześcieradłach krew zakrzepła' (Almost all day / The blood congealed upon the sheets), he would have seen 'Cały dzień pranie / Na prześcieradłach krew i sperma' (All day long laundry / Blood and sperm upon the sheets). Happily, Ryszard Krynicki, who edited the poet's collected works, caught and corrected this error.
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Besides the vanishing commas in Miłosz's work, mistakes of another kind occurred. In the final years of his life, the Nobel laureate's eyesight worsened and his printouts often required the insertion of missing letters. This was the case with the poem 'Okazy' in which one of the verses as typed by the author read: 'Razem z pnem w korkowym hełmie, kroczącym łąką' - the word 'pnem' seemed to be missing a vowel. A careless editor inserted an 'i', making the word 'pniem' and yielding the nonsensical 'Along with a tree trunk in a cork helmet, crossing the meadow'. Miłosz noticed this curiosity in time and, in blue ink, corrected the word to 'panem', yielding 'Along with a man in a cork helmet, crossing the meadow.' Another typo slipped undetected into another edition of Miłosz's poetry, however, when his original metaphor 'kosmatość dobra' was altered by an overzealous proofreader into 'kosmatość bobra' – the word 'dobra' ('of goodness') being replaced by 'bobra' ('of a beaver').
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Originally written in Polish by Agnieszka Warnke, translated by Yale Reisner, July 2020