Ever wondered why some words look similar in different languages? With the majority of European languages, this is most often due to the fact that they all stem from a common ancestral language: Proto-Indo-European.
Provided you speak English ‒ and we will assume you do since you’re reading those lines, but this is also valid for speakers of German, French, Russian, Latin, Greek, Sanskrit or Farsi, among many others ‒ you can use this connection to jumpstart your knowledge of Polish language by starting with words you already know!
After this first lesson you’ll automatically have learned some Polish, or rather you will have discovered that you spoke some Polish already. (And you’ll pick up some Proto-Indo-European on the way.)
Let’s get started!
In the history of linguistics, numbers were an early indication that languages apparently far removed from one another, like English and Sanskrit and Polish, were all related.
Here are the numbers from one to ten in Polish:
Keep track of pronunciation with this useful guide
Don’t feel betrayed if most of these numbers don't look anything like their English equivalent (or to their equivalent in any Indo-European language YOU happen to be speaking). But rest assured that they all go back to one Indo-European word. Only in order to understand the Indo-European connection, amateur linguists must often compare more than two languages, and be willing to look for answers in the past.
Sons of *kwetwer, or the Indo-European 4
So what does the Polish cztery have to do with the English four, or the German vier, or the Italian quattro, or the Romanian patru? In order to find out, we need to go back in time. Like all Slavic languages, Polish is descended from an unattested common Proto-Slavic language. The language closest to Proto-Slavic is Old Church Slavonic (abbreviated to OCS). OCS is considered the first literary Slavic language and was based on the Slavic dialects of the Thesalonike area. It was probably intelligible across the entire area populated by Slavs, that is until the 10th century. In Old-Church Slavonic four was četyre. Experts believe that Proto-Slavic used the same word. And četyre itself, as linguists assert, was a development of the earlier *ketur, which is close enough to the Proto-Indo-European original reconstructed as *kwetwer. (Note that the * symbol signifies an unattested, reconstructed lexeme).
Looking at the above-mentioned evolution, it makes perfect sense to ascribe Polish to the Indo-European family. But what about four, vier, quattro and quatre? Well, they evolved differently, which you can see in the image below.
Looking at the image above you may have noticed that the Polish cztery is actually closer to, for example, Sanskrit catvāri, pronounced ‘chut-va-ree’, than the same word in most other, geographically closer, Western European languages, like English or French. Bravo, in a sense you’re right! You've just discovered the satem-centum isogloss. The what, you say?
The satem-centum division is a phonetic law that divides Indo-European languages in two groups. It relies on one simple criterion based on the phonetic shape of the word ‘hundred’ in different Indo-European languages In the course of the linguistic evolution this word which for PIE is reconstructed as *km-tom (or *dkm-tom-) gave either some variants of centum, which is 'hundred' in Latin (with the initial c pronounced as k), or evolved into variants of root word satem (which is hundred in Avestan). As an (imperfect) rule of thumb, everything west of Central Europe (including Germanic languages and Greek) falls in the centum category, and everything east of it (including Slavic and Baltic languages, as well as Iranian and Indic branch) fall into the satem category.
(As a side note, it might seem hard to believe that ‘hundred’ could derive from centum, but it does, trust us. But let us leave English etymology to braver souls. Polish, on the other hand is less cantankerous. The Polish word sto is clearly related to satem.)
Meet the family
You're bound to be learning these at the start of pretty much any beginner language course. Since we are focusing on recognisable words, the family may seem a bit rather incomplete:
Brat – maybe the most obvious. You’ve guessed it, it's brother, Bruder (German), brawd (Welsh), but also frère (French). Once again, it all comes together looking at ancient languages: Greek phrater, Latin frater, Sanskrit bhrā́tar and Proto-Slavic reconstructed form of *bratrъ all go back to the Proto-Indo-European bhrater.
Siostra – sister, Schwester, svásar, søster, soror, soeur, sesuo. The reconstructed Proto-Indo-European is swésor
Syn –son in English, in German Sohn. Sanskrit is also in on the party: sūnú.
Matka – is mother, Mutter, mère - and goes back to PIE mater. The -ka ending in matka is a Slavic diminutive suffix. The Old Church-Slavonic form was mati (compare: mać).
To arrive at a more complete family would actually require learning new words: father is ojciec (dad is tata), babcia is grandma, and dziadek is grandpa. Mąż is husband and żona is wife. Oops, that last one you technically know already – it's a cognate of the English queen, or the Greek gunḗ (compare: gynecology).
Dom – is an ancient word in Polish that means house or home. It is related to the Latin domus, and the Greek domos. The English word 'domicile' also fits here. The reconstructed Proto-Indo-European word is domos.
Mysz – All good Proto-Indo-European houses must have had mice, because the word had hardly changed across millenia. mouse. Polish mysz (Old Church-Slavonic and Proto-Slavic are both myš) is cognate with the Latin mus, the Greek mys, the Sanskrit mus, and the Persian muš. The Proto-Indo-European word is, unsurprisingly, mus. Etymologists trace the word back all the way to the root verb mus-/meus-, meaning to steal or rob. Those thieving little mice!
Nos - no problem here; nos is nose, Nase (German), nasum (Latin), nosis (Lithuanian), nasa (Sanskrit)
Oko - eye; oko will be familiar to Latin speakers (oculus) or to anyone who ever visited an oculist.
I’m afraid that to name more body parts you would need to invest more efforts into learning Polish: uszy, włosy, ręce, nogi, usta, zęby don’t really ring a bell.
Looking for Polish colours recognizable for the Indo-European ear, or eye for that sake, can be testing. We only found one.
rudy – means red in Polish, but unfortunately only when it comes to hair color (for everything else use the word czerwony). The Proto-Indo-European source is reudh.
Or what to order in the Indo-European Fusion restaurant:
mleko - milk; melko in Proto-Slavic, while the Proto-Indo-European reconstructed form is melg, quite close to the current Polish and English forms.
miód - honey, but closely related to mead. In Polish the word miód pertains to both the alcoholic drink and the sweet food made by bees.
piwo - beer; this is a word you may know for different reasons. Piwo originally denoted any drink, as it literally means something to drink (from verb pić to drink). The English word for beer likely followed a similar pattern as it goes back to the Latin verb ‘to drink’ bibere (vulgar Latin biber), a root also found in beverage.
wódka - vodka; the word for this popular alcohol literally means ‘little water’ in Slavic languages. Therefore the Proto-Indo-European root for both vodka and water is wod-or.
Common names of trees and animals in Indo-European languages once served to locate the Urheimat of Proto-Indo-Europeans, but they tend to be especially tricky, as you’ll see below.
Brzoza - birch; berza in Proto-Slavic, close enough to the English birch (Old English berc). Cognates can be found in most European languages: Danish birk, Swedish björk, German Birke, Lithuanian beržas; Same goes for the Sanskrit bhurjah.
Buk - beech; however beware, similarities can be misleading! While the two were once thought to be linked (along with the Latin fagus or the Greek phegos) most linguists today seem to single out the Polish word and place it in a different etymological context.
My name is...
We will conclude this first lesson of Polish for Indo-Europeans with a sentence that will allow you to introduce yourself. To say ‘my name is…’, say mam na imię…
And since we’re already deep into the Indo-European topic by now, let’s finish off by looking at the etymology of the Polish word imię:
Imię – name. In its singular form, the name may seem unfamiliar, but its plural, imiona, is helpful in understanding that the word is in fact related with the English name, the French nom, the Latin nomen, the Greek ónoma, the Sanskrit and Avestian nama, and so on. Compare: PIE *nmen -> PS *jmę, *jmene -> OCS imę, imene -> Polish imię, imienia
That’s it with lesson number 1. For more interesting finds in Polish-Indo-European linguistic study, just start learning Polish and compare it closely with your mother tongue. You’re bound to find myriads of Indo-Euro curiosities.
Author: Mikołaj Gliński, 3 September 2015