Much Ado About Polish #1 – A Good Day to Start.

A proper greeting can melt the ice like nothing else…

One of the first things you’ll need to do when arriving in Poland is to be able to greet people and say “hi” or “hello”. Just as in English, there are more and less formal ways of doing this, and until you’ve got your head around the idea of the different forms of “you” that there are in Polish, it is enough to say that the most common greeting “dzień dobry” meaning literally “day good” is fairly formal. Often you can follow it with “Panu” or “Pani” meaning “to you”, spoken to a man or a woman respectively, in a formal way.

This formula is good from when you get up in the morning until the evening time, usually around 6 pm (or as the Poles, like most Europeans, say: 18:00). There are not separate formats for morning, midday, afternoon, etc as in Czech, Russian or in fact most of the languages in the world. This is one of the few areas where Polish is relatively easy. Hold that thought.

“Dzień dobry” is used as a greeting when beginning an interaction with someone and not as a leave taking. The two other times of day involved in greetings are “dobry wieczór” for “good evening” and “dobranoc” for good night, which are both used in greeting and also leavetaking, by contrast.

So here, immediately, any sense that Polish might not be so difficult, begins to fly out of the window. Quite apart from the unusual spelling “cz” to make a sound like the “ch” in “church” only with the tip of the tongue turned back a bit further than we normally would unless impersonating David Attenborough, there is also the issue that an “o” with a grave accent over it – “ó” sounds like an “u”, and is indeed an “u” but one that reserves the right to turn back into an “o” again when changing to a different part of speech. So the Evening Express, or “Ekspres Wieczorny” has an adjectival ending-ny on the end but the “ó” loses its accent and is pronounced like a normal o again. This is a relic of Old Slavic differing vowel length, which endured in Polish until the Middle Ages, when it was replaced by vowels of basically identical length and a change in the vowel itself became necessary in order to differentiate what linguists call “cognitive pairs”.

Another immediate question might be ‘why is it adjective first with the “good evening” and “good night” and adjective following the noun in the “good day” form? The answer to this is merely that in language you simply get certain fixed forms that became that way through long historical usage and changing fashion. How we get to “Good bye” from “God be with you” in English is something we tend to take for granted and such is also the case in Polish. Russian and Czech are Slavonic languages with very similar sounding phrases but these are consistently adjective before noun. In Poland the adjective is very mobile and can be before or after the noun, better get used to that from the very beginning, and these common greetings will help.

One final point is that the “good” of “good night” is feminine because “night” is a feminine noun in most European and all Slavic languages (cf die Nacht, la nuit, etc) The final -c is a soft consonant, so nouns ending in it can be masculine or feminine, (most of the monosyllables ending in –c such as koc, piec, kloc, etc are masculine and we’ll look at them in more detail another time, but moc, pomoc and noc are feminine).  A feminine adjective (they have to agree with the noun they describe in terms of number and gender) ends in “-a”. Here we have one final irregularity – “dobranoc” is turned into a single word over time and is therefore stressed on the ‘a’, since Polish tends to be stressed on the penultimate syllable. This also is a question of its being a fixed phrase where logic has been superseded by usage over time.  A phrase “dobrej nocy” which is a genitive and which therefore implies “I wish/bid you good night” also exists, but is slightly higher register, and less common.

There is also a term “dobranocka” which means a bedtime story told to children, and every evening you can watch a children’s cartoon before the evening news, although now it is on TV Polonia, while TVP1 has recently replaced this with a quiz show, the Polish version of William G Stewart’s “Fifteen to One”, only Polish uses the metric system, so it is “Ten to One” here.

Hopefully this level of detail will not result in any of my readers saying “Good night” to Polish and switching off the light. In coming episodes we will look at some less formal greetings.


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