Category Archives: Linguistic Meandering
Normally, it takes about 2 years to become fluent in a language. How can a polyglot speak 15-20 languages? That’s 40 years of learning.
Gluttons for punishment, or for self-realisation?
You talk about 40 years of learning as if it were some huge punishment, but the thing about a polyglot is that he or she has that as a hobby. Not many folk get paid for it. It relaxes them and fascinates them to learn languages and so they do it. The fact that some spend 40 years indulging this love is really no more remarkable than someone who spent 40 years over a lovely big garden.
More of less or less of more?
Whether it really is forty years or more or less depends on intensity of learning, committed time in an average week, choice of methods, choice of materials, how efficient the learner is at getting a lot of mileage from a vocabulary of only, say 2,000 words, and if the learner has chosen a lot of similar languages and all of them are similar to his native tongue, or if a person has chosen languages with little common grammar and few common lexemes, and even a very different phonology and alphabet to his or her own.
By the numbers
The minimum time to get to 20 lots of 2000 words (40,000 words) with a reasonable cover of 20 not totally dissimilar grammars is something like 4,000 hours, although it could be with more efficiency done in closer to 3,200 hours. Let’s go with the 4,000 and allow the learner a thousand hours of learning time a year. What’s the result? Just four years. You’re not getting massive fluency but a solid base in 20 similar languages. On the other hand another person might work leisurely and start at about the age of 14 when the bug often hits and suddenly at age 90 die of natural causes on a tricky piece of Javanese polite form. That’s 76 years of learning. Let’s take the average of 76 years and 4 years and we get your 40 years, so it’s a perfectly reasonable estimate, but you see how the mileage can vary.
Original YT playout date: 2 April 2010
Driving from the Amber Hotel through Olesnice towards Namyslow I start to talk about why Polish language has more exotic elements in it, more aspects usually more associated with oriental languages, than Russian has. This is really developing a thesis of mine that Poland has an oriental culture.
Learners of Slavic languages will love this one, as will those of you who use my videos to go to sleep, as some have told me…
Read the rest of this entry
“Knowing” a language is too vague a term and even if we agreed here what we mean by it, that wouldn’t have any meaning in the wider world, where it would remain vague.
On the one hand you have people like me who can say you don’t really know a language until you are really intimate with the way it handles all manner of nuance and situation, in the way you can be said not to fully know your wife or husband after forty years of marriage. There used to be a show in which married couples would be quizzed about each other and some surprises would come out about things they didn’t know about each other, this was the whole premise of the show and I believe that similar content has been on the TV or radio channels of most countries.
Then you have the 80:20 approach, where you get 80% of what a native of similar intelligence and education to you would have of his language, but Vilfredo Pareto, that famous Esperantist, discovered by throwing his pocket money onto a table that this only takes 20% of the time it would take to actually get as good as that equivalent native speaker, in the language.
I tend to aim for this kind of thing, if I get to be 80% as good in the language as my equivalent native speaker, then I can already communicate as sophisticatedly as I like and that ENS will take up the slack. That way, I get 5 languages for the price (the ‘time-price’) of one, which is a good bargain and also highly usable.
A lot of people using English comfortably in international business are at something like the 80% level. Whether they used the time saved to learn four other languages to the same good but incomplete level, learn some other thing, do more business or just spend more time with their guinea pigs is up to them.
Further down the scale you have people who claim to know 20 or 30 or 80 languages. These are the polyglot equivalents of social networkers who have contact lists well in excess of the Dunbar number. For those who feel “dunbar” than they did before when I say that, I am referring to the lovely gentleman in the featured image, Professor Robin Ian MacDonald Dunbar, the head of Experimental Psychology at Oxford University. Some people say he is the one Diana Gabaldon had in mind when creating the character Roger Mac in the Outlander series. He represents the theory (more than an opinion, as he has got lots of data and it’s all been per reviewed and that) that humans can have meaningful and stable social relationships with somewhere between 100 and 250 people. Most typically this number seems to peak at about 150 people. I have to say I personally have little resonance when it comes to this theory, as I have a social media network which extends to (at the last count and I count it once a quarter) a little over 12,000. Allowing for the overlap between Facebook and LinkedIn that would still likely be over 9,000 being conservative.
Now continuing this analogy between knowing languages and knowing people, the 9,000 maybe symbolises the languages which there are in the world. How many there really are is probably fewer than that by now, as languages have a tendency of going extinct before they even achieve literacy and an archive. Manx and Cornish are among the lucky ones. I reckon there are probably something more like 1,500 which could be learned without recourse to field linguistics and a lot of malaria shots. There are currently 1,353 languages in the Gideons Bible App (my hearty and ongoing recommendation to all interested in the Bible and in languages, and it is free of course, and contains plenty of audio – available on all good App stores) and I am kind of going on that and things also I read in SIL resources. A lot depends on how you place the cut-off between what is another language and what is a dialect. There are more difference between forms of English and Arabic than there are between some clusters of two, three, four or more languages recognised as being separate. There are various tests for this, but in practice no overall consensus seems to have been reached, and of course politics rears its Gorgon’s head and turns objective thought to stone at regular intervals.
Then let’s consider analysing this into the people who asked to connect with me and I agreed, but probably if I cleared them out it wouldn’t make a great deal of difference – well I did at one point produce a cut down database of my contacts (pre GDPR, you understand) and the people I considered valuable contacts that I means to be able to email and phone with ease came to around 800 and now it may be more like 1000, so really maybe only 10%. This, in my languages/people analogy, is a good equivalence to the long lists of “Languages I would like to learn” which some of the less powerful intellects in the Polyglot universe seem to feel compelled to posting from time to time. Yes, we probably all would like to have the time to look at to a greater or lesser extent 10% of the languages that there are, listen to 10% of the songs there have even been, watch 10% of the movies, read 10% of the books, but because there are so many in reality we are going to cover a much smaller sample than that, whether we be persons of leisure or fanatically careerist sarariiman who take inemuri rather than reading breaks because they are too tired, and take zero leisure, apparently.
Of the 800, I would say that I know to greet on the street from the LinkedIn list 500 and another 500 from the facebook or YT side, and as far as really writing on a regular basis is concerned, sending memes privately, playing Quiz Planet or ItsYourTurn and chatting in a way that gets to know even a faceless person, maybe 300. But this is because I make an effort. This may represent the languages that an ambitious polyglot learns a few words of, learns maybe the Korean hangul, learns a bit of Koine to read some passages of New Testament, knows a few words or sentences of for touristic purposes, or looked at for philological research.
When it comes to actually knowing people very well, as it knowing how they will react in a certain situation, it is just a handful of people. And the same goes for languages.
And then you have to wonder whether you really know any person, or language, at all.
So in summary, the whole use of the term “knowing” a language is unhelpful, and I would simply refer the gentle reader to the sentence of Socrates via Plato: “ἓν οἶδα ὅτι οὐδὲν οἶδα“, or “All I know is, I don’t know Jack”.
And for sure, we all do know a lot less than we think we do.
Today I can segue quite nicely from both the fact that I mentioned “Orange” last time and also the fact that the day I started writing this was the 8th March or International Women’s Day – Międzynarodowy Dzień Kobiet, a day associated with flowers, to approach a large and interesting topic.
Recently I was walking past the main headquarters of Orange (they have a lot of buildings and some of them are old telecoms-offices no longer needed with modern infrastructure, and these are for sale. If you want to buy one please let me know and I am sure I’ll be able to wangle a commission out of it, but this is their flagship office on al. Jerozolimskie) and it looks like this:
As you see, the green space in front of the office is looking rather unkempt but the reason is clear from the information board, which explains all. This is in fact a collection of natural meadow plants which have been optimistically planted in the green space in front of the Orange building in the hope that the exhaust from the cars won’t destroy the growing plants. In fact since we practically don’t have lead that much any more and the main pollutants coming off car fuel are CO2 and NO2, there shouldn’t be much harm to plants nearby, although maybe you wouldn’t want to eat them. These are both good fertilisers and their nuisance value comes from their being greenhouse gases. They can’t both be greenhouse gases and fertilisers at the same time, of course. On a molecule-by-molecule basis it has to make up its mind if it is going up or down, and such green spaces are indeed valuable oases of carbon sinkage.
The meadow plants that can possibly be protected in spaces like this may indeed find it harder to survive in an agricultural environment. Even forage grasses for pasture tend to be planted pure having had “weeds” or “impurities” removed, and only certain species left in. These mixes are then applied to land which has been tilled. So many species of wildflower are these days just as likely to be encountered in the protected environment of a corporate HQ green space as they are miles from anywhere in a place where the cropping is intensive. Some farms do look out for this, even some large agribusinesses, but sadly some don’t. The subsidies for set-aside are not always very specific about the species you need to be protecting in order to qualify and maybe for certain types of set-aside they should be.
If not, then it’s easy to see how many of the plants we are going to talk about today will simply disappear and never come back.
Now, to focus on the linguistic side, as this blog is Much Ado About Polish and not Much Ado About Agriculture, one of the things learners will soon note about Slavic languages generally, not only Polish, is that they are very good at making names up for all manner of plants, animals, fungi, places, illnesses and other natural phenomena where many Germanic languages default to Greek and Latin, and the way they go about it tells us a lot about the deeper workings of the language. I have noted precisely the same thing in Russian and Czech, where for every plant, insect or tropical fish there is a common name in the local language. In English or German on the other hand there is a tendency to find some having a whole bunch of common names, some with one and some with none at all because people simply default to the scientific name and use that as the common name.
Those are the general principles. Another principle is that often the base word underlying the Slavic common name for a living thing will be a verbal root, whereas often in Germanic languages it will be a noun or adjective. All are possible in each of the languages, but there is more of a frequency of verbal roots in Slavic and noun roots in Germanic.
Now I thought we could look at the information board set up by Orange as an independently drawn sample. I didn’t pick them so in a sense it is like a challenge set to me also to analyse these plant names in the light of the above theoretical talk and show you some insights about how Polish word creation works and how it compares to English in this area. It may also dispel this old chestnut about English being the richest language and other languages not having as many words as we do. You hear this again and again and it really is some properly warmed-up nonsense.
Here goes, first the close-up of the board itself:
- PoppyFirst we see the well-known poppy. In Polish you have “mak polny” or “field poppy” whereby “polny” comes from “pole” meaning “field” and is at the base of the name of the Polanie, the early tribe who became the Polacy, or Poles. You could regard them as the people of the fields. Mak itself means “poppy” but often you will encounter it referring to a sweet mass of poppy seeds in sugar used in cake fillings in Poland, the Czech Republic and Russia, all of whose languages have the same word “mak” for the poppy, “mak” of that what you will.Poppies are not known here so much as a symbol of the fallen in the World Wars. Poland obtained its independence only at the end of the First World War, when the Flanders fields and their poppies became an indelible symbol of war deaths, especially as they are neophytic, and quickly settle on newly-turned earth; for example, earth dug for entrenchments or for battleside graves.Papaver rhoeas, the scientific name, is a very typical mix of Latin (Papaver means milk or food, the Latin term was also “papa” for food, and this is also a Polish slang term like “grub” and its use here may refer to the milky substance obtainable when the seed head is cut (don’t try this at home, boys and girls, at least not on some species) the term rhoeas is a Greek word for “red”. Now whereas Polish simply has “mak” or the fuller “mak polny” for this species, English has common poppy, corn poppy, corn rose, field poppy, Flanders poppy, or red poppy. Perhaps most people would just say “poppy”, and be unaware of the fact that there are numerous kinds which look similar, including the “blindeyes” or “long-headed poppy”, Papaver dubium, known in Polish (as in the “Latin”) as “the doubtful poppy” or “mak wątpliwy”, but if in doubt, check the stem. Red poppy proper has the hairy stem.If you want a key to the etymology of “mak”, the Latvian “magone” and Picardy French “mahon” suggests an older term used across Europe. Most Slavic languages have “mak” and so does Romanian, probably borrowed from Slavic. German has “Mohn” and this is also clearly derived from a “magon” style base. “Mogra” is Arabic for Jasmine and may (or may not) be cognate.Bulgarian has “polski mak” but they don’t mean “Polish poppy” – that’s their way of saying “mak polny”.The English version follows most languages including Greek to have words based around Pap… and then there are the few exceptions, such as the French coquelicot (which isn’t their remembrance flower, by the way, theirs also happens to be on this board so we will get to it) or the Spanish “amapola” just like the song which you can see me making a proper mess of here.
Polish consciousness does have a wartime memory associated with red poppies however, even if it is different to ours. A song exists “czerwone maki na Monte Cassino” which can be seen here . This refers to the Polish war dead at Monte Cassino, around one thousand people. Not a lot in comparison with the total war dead in Poland in the Second World War, but a very iconic battle which was one of the best achievements of the Poles in the war, along with breaking the Enigma Code and the resistance breaking the supply lines to the Russian front. All of these things will be the topics of future articles.
- ChicoryThe next plant around is the blue (can be pink or white, but it’s blue here) Cykoria podróżnik or Cichorium intybus. Now this is common chicory whose leaves you’ll have eaten in fancy salads without knowing what they were, and you’ll have also drunk it as a coffee substitute or flavour enhancer. It’s a good forage crop for animals too. Other than common chicory, English can refer to this as blue daisy, blue dandelion, blue sailors, blue weed, bunk, coffeeweed, cornflower, hendibeh, horseweed, ragged sailors, succory, wild bachelor’s buttons, and wild endive. On top of that people sometimes erroneously call this the cornflower, but the real cornflower is coming up and that’s the French remembrance plant I already hinted at. Cykoria in Polish, or Chicory in English come straight out of the Latin. The plant is well attested in classical literature, even appearing as early as Horace “me pascunt … cichorea” in his 31st Ode, written in 30BC. For most of us there is no need to invent a word for this. But it has travelled very well, hence the Polish term “podróżnik”, or traveller, from “droga”, road. Here the German word “Wegwarte” is similar in meaning.Most other languages including even Japanese チコリー derive from the Latin.Often the Polish name will follow the scientific name re-slavicising the Latin or Greek. That’s not the case here. If you look at the term “intybus”, which after many alternative namings the scientific community has settled on, you’ll see it has no appearance beyond being the species name for chicory. Most commentators seem to pass over the point, but if you are stubborn in your research as I have been, you’ll find someone claiming that it is a mix of Latin and Greek as a way of describing the structure of the leaf, as being cut around a tube. Well, I am not really seeing that piece of etymology myself, but for sure the observation that it seems a mix of Latin and Greek is at least justified in that you won’t find many “y”s in Latin, while the Greeks were ever wont to consider themselves “y”s.Although Chicory, unlike some of the plants in this list which we think about almost on a daily basis and others which are barely known at all, people know about chicory, but they don’t tend to know it well. The endive which is much more broadly consumed as a vegetable, was thoughout history usually Cichorium endivia and to cap it off there’s a wild one also called Cichorium pumilum. Each of these is pretty similar, and no doubt hybrids exist and certainly there are numerous cultivars, so that identification becomes a tricky business. Polish here calls endive cykoria, whether we would call it endive or chicory. So in this sense Polish tends to be a bit simpler than English.
- Bluegrass/meadow grassPoa pratensis is known in English as bluegrass, especially Kentucky bluegrass (also lending its money in America, and as a range of things such as sweet meadowgrass or common meadow grass in British usage. In the scientific name you have the Greek “Poa” of fodder and the Latin “pratensis” from the meadow. Poa is the base genus of the Poaceae, or the grasses and cereals which make up the majority of the worlds caories, spread over 12,000 species and several times that many varieties, of which only a minority of species are eaten by humans or given as fodder to animals and these species account for the majority of the varieties which are bred out from wild-tye exit versions.Poa as a genus has on its own 500 species and while English has no word for them other than grasses (which applies just as well to numerous other genera) the Poles call all the members of this genus “wiechlina” which is an old word, sounding a bit like “wiek” and “wieczny” but probably not related. the łakowa part simply translates “pratensis”.This grass is not something you’d consider at all endangered, it must be one of the most common plants on earth, and indeed if it goes too far north in the North American subcontinent it is considered invasive. It is not native to America in the first place, having been carried over by the Spanish as part of the Colombian exchange. Nevertheless, the image on this board can’t be what it says it is by any stretch of the imagination. I am still trying to work out if that’s a real plant or something which Orange’s botany consultant borrowed from the Voynich Manuscript. Probably that was supposed to be the lamb’s tongue (coming up), but if so they got the leaf-shape rather wrong.
- Meadow ClarySalvia pratensis, which in English has the common name meadow sage or meadow clary (derived from “clear-eye” – a reference to it’s former use as an ingredient in eye drops prior to the advent of industrial brands) is rendered into Polish as Szałwia łąkowa. We saw above how łąkowa means “meadow” so there’s no real need to walk over “łąkowa” again.Szałwia, like the Latin Salvia, is used for any kind of sage and as you see Polish follows the Linnaean idea of placing the descriptor after the noun, which is a natural place for Polish adjectives anyway, a huge topic to come back to in the future. The szałwia you will find used as a herb is Salvia officinalis, or medical sage, and the name in Latin Salvia, from salvere to heal, save, make whole also attests to the long history (recorded in Pliny, Galen and in the instructions for monastic gardens created by Charlesmagne), but Salvia is a very large genus with a thousand species, and most of these are not referred to with the term “Sage” in English, but rather “Salvia”, whereas it is rare for Polish not to use Szałwia as a simple default, so that we can say that in Polish, “szałwia” stands in for cases both where English uses “sage” and where we use “Salvia”. This is a common phenomenon.
- Brown knapweedThis plant is a close relative of Centaurea (not “Centaurera” as shown on the board) cyanus which is the cornflower and the French remembranc flower for similar reasons as the poppy to us, but pre-dating the poppy. The French call these bluets, and the same term is one of a series of English language terms describing the 350 or so species in the genus Centaurea, a pretty bunch of hardy flowers resembling a thistle crossed with a daisy.English has for the genus generally the terms knapweeds, bluets, centauries, starthistles, centories, and loggerheads, the last of these being a dialect word in certain parts of southern England.
The specific identification of species within this group is often not bothered with as they are rather troublesome weeds in arable crops and have no economic use themselves, although some have alkoloids which could be developed into cancer drugs potentially. They are important however in the ecosystem as a whole as they attract and support pollinating insects. And here we come on to the Centaurea jacea or brown knapweed (aka brownray knapweed) specifically – it has its very own butterfly, the knapweed fritilllary. Often we see however crosses between C. jacea and C. nigra – they may be subspecies of each other.
In Poland this mauve-coloured meadow flower is once again termed “łąkowa” or “meadow” – this time not following the Latin as jacea actually means “hyacinth” and is no doubt a reference to the colour of the flower. Certainly it is not “brown” as the English puts it, not in full flower anyway. The term “chaber” is used alone to talke about the cornflower C. cyanus and is also used to stand in for Centaurea generically.
Centaurea as a genus refers to the name given in Latin, and this is supposed to have come from a story that Hippocrates stated that the flower had been shown to man by the centaur Chiron. Whether Hippocrates himself believed that or merely regarded that as a cultural meme is anybody’s guess.
- Lamb’s tongueLamb’s tongue is just one of many names for Plantago lanceolata, also known as ribleaf, ribwort plantain, narrowleaf plantain or English plantain. It is however not only English, as the Poles also have it in abundance and use “lancetowata” as the species name to follow the Linnean form, while the general term for a plantain in Polish is “babka”, which normally refers to a small woman, like a grandmother, babcia.The image here is a grass not a plantain, so my best guess is that this was supposed to be Poa pratensis or the Kentucky bluegrass above, that they simply got them muddled up. Don’t tell them this in Kentucky. Or in KFC for that matter, thinking of which this may explain something…
Again this plant is overlooked economically and regarded as a weed these days, although a tea made from it was a popular cough medicine in the past. It is of course useful as a home to pollinating insects.
- Ragged robinOrange’s team of botanists have once again shown up their skill by getting the scientific name wrong. It is no longer Silene flos-cuculi but Lychnis flos-cuculi. Linnaeus himself placed the flower with the campions in the genus Lychnis, but the genuns Silene also has campions, and they told the Lychnis members “WE are the campions, my friend”, which persuaded some to get Lychnis members like Lychnis flos-jovis or Lychnis flos-cuculi to go over. Poland’s wikipedia is about the only one to accept this uncritically though, and Orange seems to take their side. Deutsche Telekom and BT probably follow the German and English wikipedias and go for Lychnis, while the French try to keep everyone happy and have both.The Latin and the most common forms in most European languages refer to this as the cuckoo flower, flos cuculi, although opinion is mixed on whether this is due to the timing of its flowering in May (probably not the case as many flowers come out then) and the fact that it is favoured by froghoppers and spittlebugs to lay their eggs, which they do in a protective foam known as “cuckoo spit” in most European languages. Russian has “Kukushkin” also referring to the cuckoo also, as does almost the whole European area, with the Polish “firletka poszarpana” (practically meaning “ragged campion”) being not far from the English, which uncharacteristically has only one name for the species. Why robin? Nobody seems willing to venture an opinion, and probably that mystery is lost in the depths of time.
That’s all the botanical etymology for this time. In a few weeks we’ll come back and look at some more of these.
Maybe in the future, when I read over this article again, it will all have blown over and will seem like another Y2K big fuss over nothing, but right now, in February 2019, with Brexit a month away and no major plan still in sight after 95% of the time available for negotiation has been wasted, it looks actually very tense for British people in Poland and Polish people in Britain.
In fact, Poland has been one of a minority of countries making generous overtures to the British living in their land that nothing bad will happen, they will get a transitional period and be able to get residence if they have been here a while. At this point I said that finally the moral debt incurred when the UK allowed Poles full working rights on entry to the EU when all the axis powers, Germany and France especially, blocked them for years in a way not known when they had their own referendum on joining, but we UK or Irish people (soon followed by Sweden and Spain) had no returning advantages over the Germans or French living in Poland. As far as the UK is concerned, the concern that Poland has had to let us know that we are still welcome has gone a long way to cover that. Although some may say that 800,000 Poles in the UK are closer to their heart than 8,000 Brits in Poland, many of whom by the way already did obtain Polish citizenship or who have rights accorded to them by virtue of marriage with a Polish citizen, which is not my case, although I do intended to apply for Polish citizenship.
What is not so clear, though, even with Poland’s display of goodwill, is the issue of whether we will be able to exchange our driving licences so easily or indeed drive on our British driving licenses after leaving the EU. Probably we are not going to penalise them for their EU licenses. After all, before 2003, they could use their licenses in the UK and nobody really policed the issue of whether they changed them after a specific period. The idea was that people were supposed to be allowed to drive around wherever they liked, as part of the general freedom of movement. After all, it is hard to talk about freedom of movement and then have Soviet style restrictions on driving from region to region in your car.
As it is now, in February 2019, UK citizens can still simply exchange for any other country’s licence in the EU if they live there for six months or intend doing so. I am talking in rough terms. In fact you are supposed to do so, so as to make it easier to get your points if you are driving in a particular part of Europe and we farm animals should make jolly sure we don’t make it harder for Old Farmer State to get a full bucket of milk out of us, nevertheless if you do decide to “laisser passer sous silence” this petite nuance of EU living in practice nothing happens. I did have the police moaning and groaning about it, but given the way the laws are set out in a way that smacks more of guidance than absolutes, the Polish police were not ready to take anything further and were content to take the money without the points, this being, after all, what is most important to Farmer State, be that in Poland, the UK, anywhere you like to mention. They can’t give themselves pay rises out if drivers’ penalty points.
In the looming uncertainty of Brexit though, in which Heisenberg might as well stand in for Juncker, Tusk, May et al for all the uncertainty it is giving us, in fact I would not be surprised if the noted physicist cum drug dealer came back from the dead and launched a leadership challenge to the 1922 committee, things start to take a different turn.
I decided I had better change it while I am still entitled and while it is still easy and get at least one EU ID doc I can flash around and not get the worst case scenario maybe if everything goes pyriforme at the twentynides of March.
And so I did what is necessary, and I urge any UK readers living in the EU who have this little matter outstanding to go thou and do likewise. It takes a month to do it, we are one month and 12 days away from Independence Day, so you have about 10 days from the date of publishing to get there and do it. What happens after that might be something or it might be nothing, but changing the licence seems to be a personal hedging move with more upside than downside. Even if we need to go back to the UK, I don’t think the holding of an EU license is going to stop anyone driving while they are in the UK, or prevent us from being able to take it back withoout doing lots of tests again, and the tests to be done in Poland are much tougher, including psychometric tests, which we just don’t have.
But this is a Polish language blog series rather than a European Union driving one, so let’s get to the language points which emerged from the exercise.
The first thing is, you need to go to your Urząd Miejski, or Town Office. For those in village areas it could be an Urząd Gminy – Gmina is like a Borough, but not in the sense of a London Borough – the larger Polish cities have Dzielnicy. My own one in Warsaw is called Ochota – after an old Inn on the way out of Warsaw that gave its name, meaning “feeling like something” – and the Urząd Dzielnicy Ochoty is translated as “Ochota District City Hall”. I am not sure what a “District City” is, but okay. Arriving there in the actually very well-redesigned and renovated building (with full disabled access and very friendly and helpful staff – as well as love-heart sweets to help yourself to for Valentine’s) and saying what I wanted to do, I was given a place in the queue (only one person ahead I hasten to say) for the Wydział Komunikacji.
This means “the Department of Communication”, or at least it looks as if it does, but the usual use of the word in Poland is not so much for communication between people. It can indeed mean that, but there is a perfectly good Polish word “porozumiewanie się” and therefore this Latin term (which loses the double “m” it has all over western Europe in the interests of being true to Polish spelling conventions) is more likely to be heard as one of the words talking about road use, rails, etc., in short getting from a to b. The word “transport” exists and is practically a synonym other than also being used for goods transport. So if you want to talk about traffic you could use komunikacja, or “road movement” which is “ruch drogowy”. The word “Trafik” is used as the name for a bookshop which I think went under a few years back, but it isn’t used for traffic or even drugs trafficking which is “przemyt narkotyków”, or even human trafficking which is “Handel ludźmi”, in honour of Handel’s song on the subject with the lyric “Did you not see my lady?”.
The word “telekomunikacja” exists, but the Company that was the state phone company Telekomunikacja Polska S.A. was bought by the French and included in Orange, as described in the song lyric “Bien sûr nous eûmes des Oranges, vingt ans d’amour ça fait bien de coups de téléphone…”.
So we see a number of false friends going on here. Komunikacja doesn’t necessarily mean communication, which does rather make things difficult for communication. “Ruch” is the main word for “traffic” but is also said when it’s your move, “twój ruch” or turn at Chess. (Backgammon is barely known or played by Poles, by the way).
The actual driver’s licence is a good example of how collocations trump isolated vocabulary in language learning every time. If you know that a driver of a car in Polish is known as a “kierowca” and a licence is usually called “licencja” (in fact numerous words exist depending on what kind of licence we are talkinga bout, but being the cognate form, that’s the one you might think of first rather than “zezwolenia”, “prawo” “koncesja” or all sorts of other permit words that there are. So you might expect the Polish for “driver’s license” (in US English) or “driving licence” (in UK English) might well be “licencja kierowcy”. This is likely to give rise to blank looks in Poland though, and if they do understand they are likely to explain that the term is “prawo jazdy” which in turn iterally means “a right of ride”, which is not really a very precise term as everyone of course has the right to ride along as a passenger, with or without this piece of paper, but this is the term which has become a fixed expression. You will usually find it as the full “prawo jazdy” or just abbreviated to “prawo”. When the police stop you for speeding or not having your lights on (24/7 all year round in Poland, by the way) then they might come up to your window and say “prawa” – “your rights”. This is shorthand for “prawo jazdy” just as “dokument” is shorthand for your vehicle registration document and “dowód” (‘proof’) is shorthand for your ID card or passport. These tend not to be the meanings assigned to these singe words in dictionaries and so anyone dealing in these situations with the police who has learned Polish with a dictionary only, and not delved into this blog or lived here and learned the hard way, will find their interaction with the police or municipal wardens, “straż miejski” rather confusing. These days, the officers are able to speak basic English as too many people were getting away from their fines by not being able to speak Polish.
There used to be a story told of how a couple of traffic police stopped a motorist and asked him for his dowód, dokument and prawa, and the motorist said he couldn’t speak Polish, could they speak English, then he tried the same in French, German and Italian. Everyone got bored so they simply let him go. Then the younger policeman says to the older “maybe I should have another go at learning foreign languages” at which the older replies “Why bother? He knew four and it didn’t get him anywhere.”
At the start of February, it is worth having a look at some of the things likely to be going on in the coming month which you may be involved in if you live and work in Poland.
First, let’s consider the name of the month, “luty”. Note that months are not written with capital letters in Polish unless they are in headers or beginnings of sentences. “Luty” is an adjective, functioning here as a noun, and is therefore called an ‘adjectival noun’ and these are common in all the Slavonic languages. Therefore you’ll hear versions of it like “lutego” in the meaning “of February” or “w lutym” in February. If you wanted to talk about a lot of Februaries from various years, you could see forms like “lute” or “lutych” but they would be as rare as “Februaries” as such is in English. They are in any case always masculine with the word for month, “miesiąc”, understood.
The meaning of “luty” is “severe”, “wild”, etc, and conjures the idea of difficult weather, which indeed you have every right to expect if you are in Poland that month, although no refunds will be given should the sun actually come out and all the snow and slush melt (don’t get the sun cream out yet, though). As an adjective in its own right it is archaic and you might encounter it in its original meaning only in poetic or historic texts.
Slavic names for months vary between the countries and the Czechs have the term “únor” from “nořiti se”, to float, referring to partially thawed ice floating down the rivers. In Poland the ice in the rivers is likely to be fairly solid rather than floating around, although you never know. Croatian has Veljača, meaning the month when day length starts to increase. As we know, this already happens in the last ten days of December, but it is a question of perception, in the absence of scientific measurement. Slovene, Serbian, Bulgarian, Macedonian, Russian, and Slovak all follow Latin months like most West European languages. You probably already know how this word comes from Februa, the “purgings” or “purifications”, and is cognate with “fever” and I wonder why that is… Read the rest of this entry
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”. Read the rest of this entry
Henryk Sienkiewicz, whose memorial in Kielce is pictured, wrote the famous novel “Quo Vadis”, and many of you might be asking the same question: “where are you going” with this? There are, after all, many existing courses on how to learn the Polish language, whether beginner courses, intermediate or advanced. Well, this is certainly not one of them. This is a series of articles intended to be of use whether a person intends to learn to speak, read and write Polish fluently, or simply dip into some curiosities about the language. When finished and if finally published as a collection, it might be a companion volume to any of the existing course books or grammars, or it may become a coffee table (read “toilet”) book to dip into and, with each dip, learn a thing or two to add depth and background (or “tło”, as they say) to what the you know about Polish.
This series takes a patchwork approach and covers all manner of questions around Polish spelling, loanwords into or out of Polish or how some words in Polish can be “false friends”. Also examples of Polish sayings and proverbs, sometimes outlines of the people or events behind common street names. We will find out why Poles say certain strange things while speaking English – usually they are things that make perfect sense in Polish. It will help to give more understanding to those living in Poland to explain things which are going on or note some things to look out for. To those not living in Poland, maybe it will encourage some of you to come for a visit.
Most of all, I hope that these articles will make for interesting reading.
The books “About Chinese” by Richard Newnham and “Beyond the Imaginable – 240 Ways of Looking at Czech” by Dr Karen von Kunes are both inspirations for this series. I note that there are some very interesting books about the Polish experience, and this cannot help but overlap with the themes here, but the focus is primarily philological, rather than culture divorced from language. Read the rest of this entry
Original playout date: 13 January 2008
The promised answers to the Linguistic Quiz I put up a little earlier.
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Original playout date: 19 December 2007
This was the first of several linguistic quizzes and “guess the language” style films on the channel, originally made as a Christmas Special.
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Original playout date: 21 September 2007
Peter Pączek gives us a second lesson on English homophobes, which is a major stumbling block for those struggling to “leorn wor English langwidge”.
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Playout date: 16 March 2007
Views at the time added to HTV: 95,109
Likes at the time added to HTV: 552
Dislikes at time added to HTV: 26
Popularity % ” ” ” =L/(L+D): 95.5%
Comments at time added: 179
Total interactions at time added: 757
Total interactions to views 0.8%
Camera: Logitech Webcam
Post Production: None
Other people featured: Sophie
Genre: Linguistic Meandering
Music used: None
Languages used: English and a panorama of others
Animals/plants featured: Ameca in the background
This is one of my most viewed and appreciated videos because, as I know from the ten percent of lepers who return, it has actually enabled people to crack getting a rolling r. It would appear that literally hundreds of people got the hang of it by listening to this explanation after failing with other explanations. The problem is, to put the tongue in the right place but the muscles of the tongue don’t get involved beyond placing the tongue where it will be a reed. The exhaling breath moves it then. It’s impossible to make the sound while breathing in, while French r can be made this way.
The video gives a dpdpdp techique to get the tongue in the right place, and after that talks about other values for “r” in a number of other languages, from Polish to Old English, Icelandic and Hungarian, as well as ideas for Latin practice.
Quote of the clip: “Just my Russian humour, we always like to joke about weapons, you know?”