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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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