Just in Case! Polish-Language Tips for Intermediate Speakers
#language & literature
default, Citizens of Warsaw near Wisła, photo: Mateusz Włodarczyk / Forum, center, warszawa_fot_mateusz_wlodarczyk_forum-0448471259-2.jpg
So, you’ve mastered your ‘cześć’, ‘dziękuję’ and ‘nazywam się John Smith’ and can hold your ground during a casual conversation? You might just be ready to take your Polish proficiency to the next level. Culture.pl presents the quirks of Polish language that intermediate learners should keep in mind!
We all know people who have done their best to learn a new language but still get tripped up by the little things. And even if, as an English speaker, you don’t mind if somebody drops the occasional ‘should of’ in your presence – or texts you something like ‘your right’ – the awareness of making such simple mistakes can really undermine the confidence of a future fluent speaker. Here’s a list of things to learn about before you make out your mind that speaking Polish is literally the most difficult thing in the world…
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Poles love adding prefixes to simple verbs and participles in order to change their meaning. You probably already know the verb ‘robić’, meaning ‘to do’. But what about ‘podrobić’ (to forge), ‘przerobić’ (to make alterations), ‘zarobić’ (to earn money) or ‘dorobić’ (to make more of something or to earn money on the side)? The list goes on, but it gets even trickier if you make some of these verbs reflexive by adding ‘się’ to them (meaning that the person doing the action is also the object of the action).
‘Zarobić się’ becomes ‘to overwork oneself’ while ‘dorobić się’ means ‘to become affluent’. Just as with English phrasal verbs, the combinations are endless and there is no real rule, so… you guessed it! In order to avoid embarrassment, you’ll simply have to learn everything by heart. You should want to avoid the mistake of our friend who wanted to turn down an extra assignment by saying ‘jestem strasznie zawalona’ (I’m terribly busy), but said ‘jestem strasznie nawalona’ (I’m terribly wasted). After all, people should appreciate (‘docenić’) your Polish, not judge it (‘ocenić’)!
But prepositions might also be tricky on their own. Sometimes, you might be asked to meet ‘przy kinie’ (near the cinema), but ‘nad rzeką’ (near the river) or ‘pod miastem’ (near the city). Determining which preposition to use with which noun can be a nightmare. This makes life difficult even for native speakers – if there’s no size available for the shirt you like w sklepie (in the store), the shop assistant will often offer to check na magazynie (in the warehouse, even though the correct form is w magazynie).
7 Words in English You Didn’t Know Came From Polish
Cases are the nemesis of all Polish learners. We know: there are just so many of them (seven, to be exact!) and they’re all so similar. If you’ve never heard of them, the idea is quite simple: nouns change their ending depending on their function in a sentence. So, you might say ‘łóżko jest brązowe’ (the bed is comfortable), but ‘leżę na łóżku (I’m lying on the bed). Although the declination of nouns varies depending on factors such as their gender, their number, the structure of the word and other similar factors, there are so many exceptions that, in the end, it could depend on moon cycles and nobody would notice the difference.
As a result, there is only one good solution to mastering cases – study hard! That’s what all Polish schoolchildren have to do, and believe me, it was torture. There is some hope, though! Poles themselves hate some cases so much that a few of them may even die out in the future. Genitive and accusative are often so similar that people sometimes overuse the former, as it’s more common. So don’t be surprised if somebody says the genitive ‘podaj pilota’ (pass the remote) instead of the weirdly-sounding but grammatically-correct ‘podaj pilot’.
The vocative case also tends to disappear. If Poles want to refer to or call somebody, they most often just use the nominative: ‘Cześć, Michał!’ (Hello, Michał!), and not: ‘Cześć Michale!’ – as the latter sounds a bit old-fashioned. Most seem to have agreed that the vocative should stay where it belongs... and that is in the famous first line of the Polish national epic poem Pan Tadeusz: 'Litwo, ojczyzno moja!' (Lithuania, my fatherland!)
Other than that, however, we’re sorry, but cases are here to stay and make life in Poland difficult. Did you find a cool place in one of Culture.pl’s Polish articles you’d like to visit? Good luck deciding what the nominative of its name should be! Phrases like ‘wakacje nad Jeziorem Okonińskim’ (holidays at Jezioro Okonińskie), ‘kawiarnia na Saskiej Kępie’ (a café in Saska Kępa) and ‘wieś niedaleko Gorzowa Wielkopolskiego’ (a village near Gorzów Wielkopolski) might make it a little tricky to find these places on the map.
And let’s not forget that in order to get there, you’ll need to purchase some tickets (bilety). ‘Jeden bilet’ (one ticket), ‘dwa bilety’ (two tickets), ‘trzy bilety’ and ‘cztery bilety’ make a lot of sense. You just use the nominative. But travelling in larger groups gets more complicated, even if you plan well in advance. If you need five tickets, you should ask for ‘pięć biletów’ not ‘pięć bilety’, and you need to continue using the genitive ‘biletów’ as you add more tickets. That is, unless you reach 22, 23 and 24 (or 32, 43, 164, etc.). Any number of tickets larger than 20 that ends with 2, 3 or 4 will once again use the nominative form ‘bilety’.
Got it? That’s great, because as soon as you order the preferred number of tickets, you’ll have to go through the same ordeal with money (and anything else, really). The price of admission might be ‘dwa złote’ for children and ‘pięć złotych’ for adults, and bargaining that down to ‘dwa złotych’ or ‘pięć złote’ is not really possible.
Why You Should Learn Polish
You probably already know that all Polish nouns have their own gender and that it’s always completely obvious which gender you should use (especially in plural!). But Polish wouldn’t be Polish without some additional quirks, so verbs in the past tense and imperfective future tense (as in the English ‘I will be doing’) are also gendered and have to agree with the gender of the subject. So, to use the example of ‘robić’ once again, a man should say ‘robiłem’ (I was doing) and ‘będę robił’ (I will be doing), but a woman would opt for ‘robiłam’ and ‘będę robiła’.
This rule applies to all grammatical persons, and don’t forget about the neuter gender – if you want to say that a child (‘dziecko’) was doing something, you should say ‘robiło’ (it was doing). Be careful, however, as the neuter gender is used only in third-person verbs. Apparently, noone will mind if you refer to their child in third person in a neuter-gendered manner, but try to extend that to second person (or to first person, if you’re a child at heart and want to say something about yourself)… and everybody, not just the purists, will lose their minds.
As such, say ‘dziecko robiło’ but ‘robiłeś’ or ‘robiłaś’ (you did), depending on their non-grammatical gender. Some non-binary activists are trying to change that by referring to themselves using first and second person gendered-forms like ‘robiłoś’ and ‘robiłom’, but it’s too soon to tell how much these will catch on among the general Polish-speaking public. Be on the lookout, as Polish, like all languages, is constantly evolving!
If the above seems like a piece of cake, things get trickier when it comes to plural forms. You won’t have to worry about neuter-gendered plural verbs, because they simply don’t exist. But, Polish being Polish, there’s always a way to make things even more confusing. Actions performed by male and mixed-gendered groups of people are described using masculine-gendered verbs – ‘robili’, ‘robiliśmy’ or ‘robiliście’ (they were doing; we were doing, you were doing). Actions undertaken by every other kind of subject, including non-human subjects that are grammatically masculine in the singular (I know, right?), are described using non-masculine verbs – ‘robiły’, ‘robiłyśmy’ and ‘robiłyście’. But this is Polish I’m writing about, so of course it doesn’t always work that way.
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Imagine two male dogs doing something in the past. The proper way to describe this situation would be ‘te dwa psy coś robiły’ (these two dogs were doing something), or by using a non-masculine plural form of ‘robić’ even though dog – pies – is masculine in singular. But if you are a woman, and these are your dogs, doing something with them could become an issue. Like it or not, to describe the activities of this group, you should use masculine-gendered verbs, because the dogs are male: ‘robiliśmy coś’ or ‘robili coś’ (we were doing something; they were doing something).
Had you done something with another woman, you would have to use the non-masculine form ‘robiłyśmy’, but had the dogs been female the choice would have been yours – you would have been able to use ‘robiliśmy’ (referring to the combination of your gender and the dogs’ grammatical gender) or ‘robiłyśmy’ (because the dogs are biologically female). Please don’t ask too many questions – we know precisely how much (meaning: little) sense this makes.
Speaking of gender, did you know that many numerals, most notably ‘jeden’ and ‘dwa’, are also gendered? If you already feel confident enough ordering tickets in Poland, consider this: you should say ‘jeden bilet’ and ‘dwa bilety’ (as tickets are masculine in Polish), but ‘jedna kawa’ and ‘dwie kawy’ (because coffees are grammatically feminine). If you’re still not impressed, there are also neuter nouns (and in this case, there’s a difference in whether they refer to people or not) and plural-only nouns (such as ‘drzwi’ – door), which constitute a greater challenge.
Think about this: ‘jedno dziecko’, ‘dwoje dzieci’, ‘pięcioro dzieci’, ‘siedmioro dzieci’ (seven children) and ‘jedne drzwi’, ‘dwoje drzwi’, ‘pięcioro drzwi’ and ‘siedmioro drzwi’. But wait: the rule of ‘five or more is genitive’ still applies, but the nominative and genitive forms of such nouns can sometimes be identical. Neuter nouns that do not refer to people are more regular, but who cares at this point, right? ‘Jedno drzewo’ (one tree), ‘dwa drzewa’, ‘pięć drzew’ and ‘siedem drzew’.
If you’re lost, the best solution would be perhaps to consult a resource or two, but ordering them might also prove tricky: ‘książka’ (book) is feminine, but ‘podręcznik’ (textbook) is masculine!
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An important thing to remember when speaking Polish is that nobody cares about ‘you’. Nobody cares about ‘I’, ‘he’, ‘she’, ‘it’, ‘we’ or ‘they’ either.
In Polish, each grammatical person uses unique verb endings in all of the possible tenses. You don’t need anything other than the verb to describe who’s performing the action: ‘robię’ will always mean ‘I do’ or ‘I am doing’, and ‘robimy’ will always mean ‘we do’ or ‘we are doing’. As a result, it’s standard to drop pronouns whenever possible. The language is more efficient this way and, frankly, ‘ja robię’ will most often sound bizarre!
The quickest way to speak like a native speaker is to think like a native speaker. Forget about including the subject in every sentence – unlike your English, your Polish will be all the better for it. Polish verbs are capable of standing on their own, so include the subject only when you want to add emphasis (like in the sentence ‘Ja jestem Spartacus’ – I am Spartacus) or when you want to refer to someone or something specific in the third person (krzesło jest brązowe – the chair is brown; Anna biegała – Anna was running; oni będą pływali – they will be swimming).
When in doubt, just remember: świetnie mówisz po polsku (you speak great Polish)!
The 9 Most Unpronounceable Words in Polish
Avoid false friends! This piece of advice works well both for speaking foreign languages and life in general. And while Polish people are generally genuine and well-meaning, the number of false friends awaiting English speakers in the Polish language is quite impressive.
Here are a few worth remembering:
Aktualnie means currently, not actually;
list is a letter, not a list;
patetyczny means solemn, full of pathos, not pathetic;
lunatyk is a harmless sleepwalker, not somebody out of their mind;
genialny means genius (adj.), while geniuses are not always genial;
ewentualnie means possibly, not eventually.
Flexible sentence structure
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In English, the structure of a sentence is largely dictated by the rules of grammar. A typical English sentence follows the SVO structure, meaning that in order for the sentence to make sense, the subject has to be followed by the verb, which then has to be followed by the object: Anna eats breakfast.
While Polish tends to follow the SVO structure as well (Anna je śniadanie), in practice, things are not quite so obvious. You already know that the subject can often disappear in Polish, but even if you decide to stick with that, it doesn’t mean your phrases have to strictly adhere to the structure to make sense. Even the simple sentence mentioned above can be rephrased in multiple ways and still retain its meaning. ‘Śniadanie je Anna’, ‘je Anna śniadanie’, ‘je śniadanie Anna’, ‘Anna śniadanie je’ and ‘śniadanie Anna je’ are all acceptable phrasings, even though they will sound somewhat weird in most contexts.
Such machinations are sometimes used for emphasis and are particularly loved by poets and dramatists wishing to find a compromise between poetic form and the meaning of their words. Juliusz Słowacki was especially skilful in manipulating sentence structure. The following lines from his famous poem Grób Agamemnona (Agamemnon’s Tomb) can serve as a great example:
Mnie od mogiły termopilskiéj gotów
Odgonić legion umarłych Spartanów;
If somebody wanted to express the same unlikely sentiment in an ordinary conversation, it would probably have the form of ‘legion umarłych Spartanów gotów odgonić mnie od mogiły termopilskiéj’, even though both expressions have the same literal meaning: ‘a legion of dead Spartans is ready to chase me away from the grave in Thermopylae’. As for the poetic qualities of Słowacki’s rendition, let’s just agree with Witold Gombrowicz’s famous quote (also inverted!) from Ferdydurke: ‘Słowacki wielkim poetą był!’ (Słowacki was a great poet!)
Now, just try to imagine how many possibilities await everyday Polish speakers willing to experiment with sentences that contain slightly more elements. It would be a shame if one of those sentences contained words you don’t understand, and in order to determine what’s going on, you’d need to find the subject and the verb…
Fear not! Polish can be easy
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Monument to the infamous beetle in Szczebrzeszyn, photo: Iwona Burdzanowska / Agencja Gazeta
Do you hate the fact that it’s often near impossible to decide how to spell something you hear in English or, when reading aloud, how to pronounce a word you’ve never seen before? Polish is (surprisingly enough) the right language for you!
Contrary to English, Polish is a phonetic language, meaning that each letter or a group of letters (like ‘dz’, ‘sz’ or ‘rz’) always corresponds to a single sound. Sure, Polish people might be prone to create horrors like ‘chrząszcz’ (beetle) and ‘źdźbło’ (stalk) – or even city names like (yikes) Szczebrzeszyn – but once you get a sound right, you should never have to think about it again.
If that isn’t enough to convince you, remember that the easiest way to communicate with a Polish person often means not speaking Polish at all! Over the years, Poles have developed a comprehensive systems of grunts and sighs. There are dozens of wordless sounds you can make to instantly express your agreement, satisfaction, disagreement, disappointment, suprise and countless other things.
If that fails, there is always the famous ‘no’, which, depending on the context, could mean anything ranging from a resounding yes to indecision. So, remember: whatever happens during your conversation in Polish, you can always just say ‘no’!
Written by Michał Wieczorek, Jul 2019
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