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Language Portrait: Polish

Does Polish really deserve its reputation as a fearsome and difficult language? We look at the history of the language to get to its true essence.

Though the sound of it resembles a breeze through a forest, Polish has acquired a reputation for being both strange and fearsome. Could it be the thorny tangle of diacritics which make up a page of Polish text that earns it such foreboding? Its barred ł and dotted ż, the ę and ą with hook beneath, or the ś, the ź, the ń, and the ć with their flying acutes? Or perhaps our dread stems from those letters which should be familiar, but are thrown into such unlikely couplings as rz and cz? This is, after all, a language that calls itself polszczyzna. Could it be the dense undergrowth of grammatical complexity that makes us shiver? That special set of numbers used solely to count male humans? The three declinations, and seven cases? Nominative, accusative, genitive, dative, instrumental, locative, vocative, imperfective, perfective, animate, inanimate… must every discussion of Polish sound like a bevy of linguists at a conference in Białołęka after five Żubrówkas too many? Even our very first steps into Polish are fraught with peril; simply conjugating the verb ‘to want’ — chcę, chcesz, chce — is enough to make us wail, “Chcę uciec!" (I want to run away!) Should we flee then, as if it were the Polish language itself that the dramatist Żeromski described? "Nagły, daleki, jadowity głos drgnął w lasach." (A sudden sound, far-off and baneful, stirred in the forest.)

This great language deserves better, however, than such timorous quaking. Examine the heart of Polish, and we find it not so fearsome. Indeed, it is a kindness of spirit and compassion that we find in the 13th century Latin text where the very first words in Polish are written down. Day, ut ia pobrusa, a ti poziwai, said the miller Bogwalus to his weary spouse, lovingly (I’ll grind for a while, you rest). The first true flowering of Polish came in 1580 nearly three centuries later, and was equally tender:

Wszytki troski na świecie, wszytki wzdychania
I żale, i frasunki, i rąk łamania
Wszytki a wszytki za raz w dom się mój noście…

All the world’s sorrow, grief, and worries,
All lamentations, and wringing of hands
All, but all, enter my house at once…

Across nineteen Treny (threnodies), or poems of grief, Jan Kochanowski lamented the sudden death of his two-and-a-half year old daughter, Urszulka. While now a classic of Polish literature, this sharing of intimate pain kicked up an initial furor, bucking as it did, prevalent trends to commemorate only the brave and warlike deeds of the great and military good. From these gentle beginnings, the poetry of the Polish soul marches forth across the centuries to greet us, a parade bearing names such as Mickiewicz, Słowacki, Krasiński, Miłosz, Szymborska, Zagajewski, Tkaczyszyn-Dycki. Nobel Prizes in Literature jangle at their chests like medals.

What good though, if the soul is gentle, yet alphabet and grammar are still a bristling armory surrounding it? The apparent strangeness of Polish, like its fearsomeness, is merely a product of a kinship yet to be acknowledged. While it may take us a moment to find the signs of shared blood, Polish is a cousin to English; both are members of the Indo-European family which also includes Greek, French, Persian, and Bengali. Poland lies not so far from where I now sit writing in the west of England — a mere thousand short miles. I could walk that in just 13 days and a morning (assuming I didn’t stop to eat or sleep), while it would take me 41 hours more to get to Rome. English finds its home among the daughters of Germanic — Dutch, German, and the Scandinavian set — willfully individualistic creatures one and all. Polish is a Slavic sister, a more harmonious group, even closer to one another than the Romance sisters Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish are. With Czech, Slovak, and western dialects of Ukrainian and Belarusian, Polish forms such a close-knit huddle that the company of translators can often be avoided. More distant siblings include Russian, Serbian, and Bulgarian, though in eschewing the Cyrillic of the Eastern Church, Polish is more hospitable with her Roman letters.

Diacritics or no diacritics, a bird (ptak) in Poland might sound unfamiliar at first, yet its Russian counterpart, пти́ца, gives up nothing of its song to the uninitiated. Our closeness is also reflected in a host of words that are near-identical — most a result of shared history and culture. Film, teatr, komputer, autobus, satelita, student, telefon, tekst, fakt, bank, lampa, mapa, grupa, minuta, gazeta, dokument — none require an introduction. Yet other familiar words hail from a much earlier shared horizon, a dimly remembered childhood when our ancestors lived side by side. Are nos and "nose" not almost identical? Isn’t there a noticeable similarity between woda and "water?" Can we not recognize the root of dom (house) in "domestication?" When we turn to those most fundamental of words, the first ones we learn, like nursery rhymes — one, two, three, mother, and brother (jeden, dwa, trzy, matka i brat) even there, that which unites us is clear.

This article originally appeared in Cereal Magazine Volume 4, published on 17/11/13.

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