#language & literature
Weighty in one’s hands, the new book from Culture.pl, 'Quarks, Elephants & Pierogi: Poland in 100 Words', certainly anticipates generous insight into a language which has flummoxed many across the world.
The book is a tour de force of investigation into what makes Poland Polish, traversing 100 words specifically picked out to demonstrate the essence of the country, alongside the elasticity of its language and multi-cultural background.
Glimpses of gold against the charming baby-pink cover pick out intriguing titbits from the title; a foretaste of the abundance the book seeks to deliver. Though the front-matter only quietly pays homage to the talented individuals who played a part in the project, the vast number of those involved demonstrates how comprehensive the book aspires to be. The project began with 30 words, and then 50; slowly blossoming into the 100 words of the tome of today. And, with the front page declaring ‘Culture.pl presents’, the promised content certainly appears more like a revue extravaganza than a merely informative non-fiction book. Like the pierogi-deity on the cover, it is bursting from the seams – packing as much of Poland inside its vibrant pages as possible.
Its introduction by Culture.pl’s English section Editor-in-Chief, Adam Żuławski, describes it as a ‘curious book’ – but it seems to do much, much more than this acknowledges. It is an enquiry not merely into etymology, or culture, but rather an exploration into the foundations of a whole nation, and its place in the world. Page after page is dripping with inquisitive perspectives on Polish life – quite literally, with Magda Burdzyńska’s immaculate drawings of liquefied, seemingly-alive objects peppered throughout.
And, after formalities, the book really does fold out into a true cosmos of Polish history. With a pull-out drawing of a gaudy winding path snaking through Polish lettering, there is a short guide to pronunciation of the Polish alphabet – and then the book hurtles head-first into this alphabet itself. All the titles in the work appear in a striking and bold circus-like typography – well-suited to the first entry, ‘Apsik’ – Polish for ‘achoo’.
As the entry for ‘Apsik’ begins, this term ‘doesn’t seem like a very important word’ – a stumbling start for a book that promises to be a guide to the most influential features of the Polish language. But ‘Apsik’ does ‘make you sound like a Pole’; and the entry goes on to a ‘guide to Polish sounds’, detailing colloquialisms which will certainly be of use to the Polish-language learner and etymology enthusiast – though perhaps not to those who come to the book with a more general interest in international cultures. It is, however, a comfortable introduction to the mechanics of Polish, and the quirks present in every language which only a native can impart.
The account is completed with a Burdzyńska sketch of what can only be described as a stylised tissue – with, you guessed it, the remnants of a volatile explosion of ‘Apsik’ smeared across it. It may have been worthwhile to supply a more detailed examination of ‘Apsik’ for this entry: the etymological links present in other entries are noticeably absent here, and while the term is deemed ‘trivial’, its position as the opening to the book warrants a greater exploration of the word’s history. But what is fascinating are the related words in the bottom corner, a feature present on every page of the book, which really ties together the varying topics covered throughout. And, of course, ‘Apsik’ is just the beginning of the paroxysm of Polish which the book contains.
It was refreshing to see that the words picked had been pulled from every aspect of Polish life – from tradition to everyday – and the references to international language etymologies were a beneficial reminder of the multicultural influences which have forged the Polish state across its long and rich history. The entry on ‘Bohater’ (hero) was especially revealing on eastern influences, from Ukraine to Turkic-Mongolian, and ‘Ferajna’ (gang) demonstrated a widespread Yiddish influence on Polish, and vice versa, which has traversed generations. The recognition of the complex oddities of the Polish language was also a comfort – particularly to those of us who are still trying desperately to get to grips with its insufferable forms. The entry on ‘Malusieńko’ was a case in point; though the repeated declensions gave one the impression of a ceaseless nesting doll.. The copious insertion of related words and forms did occasionally err on the side of overwhelming – while the small notes at the bottom of every page were useful, the inclusion of so many different terms in the text itself detracted from the importance of the central word in focus. After reading ‘Malusieńko’, I was left thinking that I didn’t exactly know what the word meant – a quick Google enlightened me as to the fact that ‘Malusieńko’ meant precisely what I was feeling in relation to the book: a diminutive form of ‘little’.
But the interspersing of entries alongside pithy quotes from renowned international figureheads was a useful space to pause and consider the extensive influence that the Polish language has had across the world. Henry Miller’s conclusion that Polish puts him in ‘ecstasy’ seemed apt for the euphoric investigation of the language that the book entails – and the use of quotations around various key moments in Polish history was a valuable touch.
And there were some real gems in the book, too – Burdzyńska’s drawing for ‘Matka’ was endearing, alongside an examination of the use of the word in both familial and religious context; and the revelation of the Polish etymology for the word ‘quark’, which originates from ‘Twaróg’, was a complete eye-opener. And every entry contained a smattering of that deadpan humour so ingrained in the nation – ‘Twaróg’ actually denotes ‘curd cheese’, but its etymology was described as ‘tastiest of all’.
The last word covered was ‘Żubr’, or bison – a word which will no doubt be familiar to any non-Polish audience from the well-known Żubrówka bison-grass vodka, which, quite rightly, the authors also namedrop in their chronicle. Żubr could stand for the book itself: an emblem of Poland and Polishness, sometimes intoxicating, sometimes overpowering – but mighty with majesty.
And at the back, hidden at first glance, is a minimalist fold-out poster with the Polish word for love, ‘Miłość’, emblazoned at the bottom. It reminded me of that old classic Polish song, Miłość ci wszystko wybaczy (‘Love will Forgive Everything’) – and certainly my love for the detail and wit of each entry will forgive the book its tendency to include ‘everything’ in its pages.
If extravagance is the price to pay, then so be it.
Written by Juliette Bretan, Feb 2019
guide to polish culture
'Quarks, Elephants & Pierogi: Poland in 100 Words'
Text: Mikołaj Gliński, Matthew Davies, Adam Żuławski
Illustrations: Magdalena Burdzyńska
Graphic design & typesetting: Magdalena Burdzyńska
Concept & production: Sylwia Jabłońska
Published by the Adam Mickiewicz Institute operating under the Culture.pl brand as part of the international cultural programme POLSKA 100 accompanying Poland’s centenary of regaining independence. Financed by the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage of the Republic of Poland as part of the multi-annual programme NIEPODLEGŁA 2017-2022