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Category Archives: Much Ado About Polish – series

Much Ado About Polish #4 – a question of “communication”.


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 thsdrem 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.”

 

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Much ado about Polish #3 – Let get nasal.


Although, as I mentioned in the introduction, this series is not meant to be a course in Polish as such, some discussion of the alphabet is certainly necessary and this will be a topic we will need to come back to on numerous occasions, as the orthography of Polish, when properly understood, not only enables you to pronounce what you read probably but also understand the reason why things are spelled as they are, avoid errors and also spot the history and origins of words.

Attempting Polish Ą and Ę for the first time.

Attempting Polish Ą and Ę for the first time.

Polish is written obviously with a version of the Latin alphabet but there are various adaptions for the particular needs of Polish, which includes hard and soft consonant versions for sibilants, fricatives and liquids, as well as nasal vowels.

We’ll hold back the whole sibilants and fricatives discussion for another time, and for today we’ll just address the issue of the nasal vowels.

In Polish there are two nasal vowels, arguably three but only two are shown, perhaps because o with a line under would resemble Q, but more probably because Old Slavic already had the nasals described in terms of just two, Ѫ known as big yus and Ѧ, known as little yus which in time became У and Я in Russian, as it had abandoned nasal vowels and so had little use for little yus and no major use for big yus either, but most probably there were really three in Old Slavic also.  In French people talk about three, but not to be outdone, there are those who say French has four. I always managed OK with three in French and two in Polish, I have to say. And the two you find in the Polish alphabet are namely Ąą and Ęę.

Nasality basically means there is a reduced ‘n’ after them, n being one of the letters that comes out of your nose. You can think of the little tail on these letters as a reduced n on its side and joined to the letter, and in a sense that’s a very good way of showing in an image what is going on with ą and ę. Read the rest of this entry

Much Ado About Polish #2 – Smacznego lutego!


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

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”. Read the rest of this entry

Much Ado About Polish – Series Introduction


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

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