Welcome back to Indo-Europe

PoolsIt’s happened again. In spite of good resolutions, and before even making a full recovery from the previous bout, I’ve contracted a new language.

For over two years, I suffered from Vietnamese. That was for – my idea of – a good cause: the writing of a book, Babel. The experience was instructive and fascinating, but not rewarding in any practical sense. In reading, I never got beyond picture books for toddlers. My chats in Vietnamese were few, and it’s probably an overstatement to call them chats – or Vietnamese. Early last year, I beat the virus and began my recovery.

A few months later, the Polish publisher of Babel invited me to Warsaw and Cracow for some interviews. I went, I liked the places, I loved the people I met and I discovered how near they all are: if I walk out my door at 7 in the morning, I can set foot on a railway platform at Warszawa Centralna or Kraków Główny the very same evening, and still have time for a drink. How was I to resist these temptations? Once more, the language learning virus overcame my weak immune system, aka better judgement.

They say that Polish is a hard nut to crack. Or rather: we say so, the speakers of Western European languages. And it’s not a groundless claim either. Polish nouns have three genders (sexes that is, but without the organs or the fun). So does German, but German has only four cases, whereas Polish has almost twice as many: seven. And while it may not have as many verbal forms as French or Spanish, the catch is that no single verb can be said to be entirely regular – they always have something unpredictable about them. Call it a mystique. Or, if you’re more like me, call it fuckedupness obnoxiousness.

Unsurprising for a Slavic language, its vocabulary is mostly Slavic. Which is fine for Slavs, but not so much for Germans, Romans or their hybrid linguistic offspring, the speakers of English. Also, Polish has twelve different hissy sounds (the name Szczecin alone has three of them) spelt in accordance with a somewhat complex but consistent system. .

All of this explains why Poland is the only place in the world where people like to say, ‘Łatwo zrobić, trudniej mówić’ – ‘that’s easier done than said’. Because most things really are more easily done than said.

I’m kidding, of course I am. They don’t say that, nor do they have any reason to. Indeed, my own short experience points in the exact opposite direction: after less than two months of studying, I can read and even say more in Polish than I’ve ever been able to read or say in Vietnamese. Not a lot, mind you, but more all the same.

What’s going on here?!

Common ground, that’s what. No matter how intimidating Polish writing looks and Polish grammar appears, the language shares its oldest origin and many centuries of common history with all the languages I’m comfortable with. That origin is Indo-European (more about that soon). So is the common history, but without the ‘Indo’ bit: it’s European.

To begin with, a goodish amount of basic vocabulary is similar in much of the Indo-European family. The Polish word jabłko may not immediately reveal itself to mean ‘apple’, but once you know, it’s a lot easier to memorise than its Vietnamese counterpart, táo tây. The same is true for dwa ‘two’, mi ‘me’, siostra ‘sister’, mleko ‘milk’, nie ‘not’, noc ‘night’, móc ‘might, may, can’, nowy ‘new’, mysz ‘mouse’, nos ‘nose’, et cetera. Other words are closer to their Romance cousins: jest ‘is’ (French, Latin: est), ‘(they) are’ (Portuguese: são, pronounced almost identically), dom ‘house’ (Latin domus, think domestic), morze ‘sea’ (Latin: mare, as in marine and the rather grand name Weston-super-Mare), nasza, twoja, and wasza ‘our’, singular ‘your’  and plural ‘your’ (Latin: nostra, tua and vestra), pieszo ‘by foot’ (French: à pied), sen ‘sleep, dream’ (Spanish: sueño), gospoda ‘inn’ (Latin: hospitium, think hospice).

Even more helpful is the fact that many Polish words are structured in recognisable ways. Prefixes are a case in point: w(e)-, wy- prze- and others have functions similar to our in or en-, out or ex- and through, across or per-. I’m not suggesting that Polish and English consistently use them in identical ways. But once you know that a wejście is the way into a building, odds are that a wyjście is the way out and a przejście a way through or across. And indeed, the three words simply mean ‘entrance’, ‘exit’ and either ‘aisle’ or ‘crossing’. Close enough, isn’t it?

Polish grammar too is Indo-European down to the bone. (A lot more so than English, as a matter of fact.) Take those notorious seven cases: Polish has five of them in common with Latin. Only the Latin ablative is represented by two different Polish cases, the instrumental and locative (which have much more intuitive names, if not endings). There are even formal similarities between Latin and Polish: you can count on neuter words always having the same endings in the nominative and accusative cases, and in the plural, these consist in -a.

The verbs have quite evidently been baked in the same oven as well, only for various lengths of time. Just look at the conjugation for the present tense, which takes the following endings (I’ve omitted the repetitive vowel):

verbal endings

Further fun is to be had in the past tense, which shows yet another family trait: here, the form of the verb depends on the gender as well as the number of the subject. Germanic languages don’t have it, but part of the Romance family does. The French passé composé is a good example: il est venu (he has come) is masculine and singular, whereas elles sont venues is feminine (whence -e-) and plural (whence -s). Okay, so perhaps we would prefer to smother this feature in an unlit tunnel and flush it down a rest area toilet, but we can’t claim never having met it before: remember how it tried to trip us up in French tests at school?

Finally, there are all these things that we believe to be normal and universal, but which, in point of fact, merely happen to run in the family – our very own Indo-European language family, that is. We hold these truths to be self-evident, that the subject determines the form of the verb; that nouns have a singular and a plural and that we use the plural whenever there’s more than one of something; that the degrees of comparison are three in number and are formed by adding more and most or -er and -est, et cetera.

However, none of this is even remotely universal. Verbs do not universally get conjugated at all, and where they do, the object or some other thing besides the subject may poke its nose in. In many other families, plurals are used more sparingly, or they are differentiated into duals (for pairs) and real plurals (for triplets and beyond). Elsewhere yet, degrees of comparison use a verb or some other trick that is nothing like more and most. Not only that, but what we call the superlative may just be a special case of the comparative – something like ‘more than all’ or ‘the more’. (Exotic? As exotic as French.)

Not so Polish. On all these counts, Polish is exactly what we like our languages to be like. Indeed, its degrees of comparison are the spitting images of ours: syllables tagged on for simple adjectives, similar to English -er and -est, and words for ‘more’ and ‘most’ when things get more complicated. (The Polish idea of ‘complexity’ may leave us a bit shame-faced though.) Granted, Polish pronouns are more complex than ours, but they’re complex in a grammatical, Germanicky sort of way, not subject to all sorts of interpersonal nuances that East Asians have a penchant for. Polish even shares in the widespread (especially continental) obsession with the reflexive pronoun: enjoy oneself is bawić się, similar to s’amuser and divertirse.

In spite of everything, there are numerous troublesome differences between Polish and the languages  of Western Europe. Unpleasant surprises, unwelcome obstacles of the ‘why on Earth?’ type. That’s what makes Polish a foreign language – or język obcy as the Polish say, literally ‘a strange language’. But the really amazing fact, the wondrous gift, the unexpected boon is that studying Polish feels, to me anyway, like a home-coming. A return to the fold. As if I’m welcomed back by my long-lost Indo-European next of kin.

It’s also like a return to my hometown. To Europe, that is, where over the centuries we have deeply influenced each other’s manners of speech and writing. And boy, does it show. But that’s for next time.

14 thoughts on “Welcome back to Indo-Europe

  1. It is alway interesting to get at the very aspect that makes a particular language or rather a group of languages “tick” so to say. And for germanic languages that is their alliterative quality. A very common identity factor.

    That particular common factor with words like “snoek, snuit, snavel” (pike, muzzle, beak) is the sn-sound that denotes a particular form, like this form > Think of the form of a pike at the head, a muzzle, a pointed beak. I wonder whether the scholar Jacob Grimm also knew about this quality, when he formulated his linguistic laws like the pater (latin)- vader (dutch) alterations, etc.

    Interesting to find what characteristics other languages function by for instance Polish with
    all its typical endings, so formation at the end of words, like e.g. -y, ierze, -ość etc.( jak Młodość)
    So much to ponder about.


    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Gaston,thank you for your “BABEL”!!! I found it by accident in January, in one of the bookshops in Poznan, Poland. Without any exageration: it is one of the most inteesting books i have ever read! The Polish translation by Anna Sak is EXCELLENT! I tried to learn Vietnamese befere going to this beautifol country to work as an interpreter (English,French) in 1974. It was really a pleasure!

    As you probably know,in Poland we had to learn Russian as well.I as a teacher of Spanish in a school under argentinian sponsorship holding a name of José Francisco de san Martin. I worked as a journalist for Radio France Internationale in Paris for 30 years. Nowadays I reget that I didn’t know your BABEL when I was working there – so that I could discuss all the problems from your book with the native speakers! Anyway, being a pensioner now,I was enjoying the whole of your latest book & all the details of it. Like we would say in Polish “pilem nektar z kazdego slowa”…,
    I took a real pleasure especially by reading chapters of Spanish and Vietnamese. They are the best! Take care! Piotr Rosochowicz

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you very much! I’m not sure if I mention this in Babel, but Phong, my kind host in Hanoi, learned Polish when in Poland as a young man.
      And yes, I’ve heard from many people that Anna Sak’s translation is wspaniała. I’m so pleased!


      • To add to my personal story, I was married to a Vietnamese girl, and actually I have a Slovak wife (all my three daughters are at least three-lingual!) – so you see that my “linguistic interests” are very important in my life…What will happen with my grandchildren 😉 . Keep going with your research and writing such interesting books! Piotr

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Hey Gaston,

    I am not that convinced about the example with wejście, wyjście and przejście. That is, it’s not always that easy to infer what given word means if we know another word with the same root but another preposition. I would say a similar problem exists in English, but to a lesser extent in Vietnamese.

    – wkład (share/input), wykład (lecture) and przekład (translation)
    – wpadać (fall in), wypadać (fall out), but przepadać (to vanish)

    I did like the other examples, I hope more people will realize soon how “easy” Polish is.

    Fun to read as always. You will nail Polish soon, for sure!


    • Hi Kamil! I agree, Polish compounds are certainly not always transparent. But:

      1. I’ve noticed that some become more transparent when you translate them into German (or even my native Dutch) rather than English. For instance, wy-pić more or less stands to pić as ‘aus-trinken’ (drink completely) stands to ‘trinken’. There’s also prze-pić ‘ver-trinken’: prze would normally be vor, but as an unstressed prefix it becomes ‘ver’. Same with u-pity ‘be-trunken’: u as a preposition is bei, but as an unstressed prefix it’s become ‘be’. Also, once you know that pisać translates as ‘schreiben’ (and pismo as ‘Schrift’), the nouns prze-pis and pod-pis cannot hide their secrets: Vor-schrift and Unter-schrift. Just one more for good measure: chodzić is gehen; odchodzić: fort/weg/davongehen. Et cetera et cetera.

      2. Even in the numerous cases where the match is imperfect, the compounds are relatively easy to learn.

      Sometimes that’s because they kind of make sense: a przy-pis is a ‘Dazu-schrift’, so the meaning Fußnote/footnote is unmysterious. Przetrwać is ‘to over-last/über-dauern’, so ‘to survive/überleben’ is fairly obvious.

      In other cases, the compounds do not make evident sense, but they still conjure up an image that helps memorising: zamówić is obviously something you do by mówić, so ‘to speak for’ (a meal and a beer) is easier to remember than the apparently meaningless sounds of ‘zahmooveech/samuwitsch’. And roz-mawiać (‘zer-reden’) can be visualised as ‘to talk to pieces’, even tough undoubtedly that’s not its true origin.

      Undoubtedly Vietnamese has similar logic hidden somewhere in its software, but I have never managed to crack that code; at best I caught the occasional glimpse. With Polish, it comes naturally. Indo-European!


  4. Oh, Gaston, good luck with your Polish — really: GOOD LUCK. You will get it all: complexity and especially irrationality (!) of the Slavic languages + you chose the language the most distant phonetically from the Slavic roots. I LOVE the beautiful Polish language, but you have to know that there exists this: “Nie pieprz, Pietrze, wieprza pieprzem, bo przepieprzysz wieprza, Pietrze!”. If you are still OK, consider this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GHizInxsBz8&feature=youtu.be&t=7s . Listen, it’s not too late to choose now an easier entry to the Slavic world. Maybe Serbo-Croatian, no?.. Whatever — hoed af!


    • I guess Polish is a bit of an outlier within the Slavic family, rather like French (not to mention Romanian) within Romance and English within Germanic. Still, even French is a good introduction to Romance, I would say. Also, Polish is the language of a large country, spoken in a place that I can easily travel to (like Czechia, but that’s too insignificant) and it has an impressive literature. Also, my book has created a personal connection to Poland. Serbo-Croatian in the other hand is much farther away and smaller, has all these dialects and denies its own existence. Nah, I’m good with Polish.
      What do you mean when you call the Slavic languages ‘irrational’? In what sense are they more irrational than other human languages?


  5. Glad to see you now take a closer look at the other half of Europe! IMHO one cannot consider himself a European polyglot without knowledge of at least one language of each of the three main families.
    It always dazzles me how exotic Slavic languages/countries are considered by Western Europeans, especially here in Berlin where Poland is just an hour’s drive away. Grown up in West Berlin, some have never even set a foot over the border and don’t really differentiate between Poland, Czech and Ukraine – all Russia to them. Learning French and Spanish is common, but nobody learns Polish, whereas (or because?) many Polish speak German.
    Just like with the Romance languages, knowing one Slavic language gives you a big head start in the many others. Polish and Russian is much closer than the Polish like to admit.
    Anyway, bear in mind: Poland is Central Europe and Europe stretches way beyond.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Exactly, it feels silly to linguistically ignore such a great part of the continent (though frankly, Russia feels to me less European and more like a continent in its own right). I tried to learn Slavic languages (Russian, Czech) before, but that was before the internet created loads of new resources that facilitate learning.
      As for German spoken in Poland: so far, I’ve met more people (under 50) who speak Spanish. German still seems to be in their bad books.


      • Oh yeah, it’s a great time to be alive as a language addict with internet and a smartphone.
        Oh, really? Spanish in Poland? That surprises me but it also makes sense: Spanish tourists also go to Poland, touristy Krakow reminded me of Barcelona. Well, maybe it differs with the region/city. I must admit, I made my potentially non-representative observations mainly in Poznan with my friend’s family, friends and a random neighbor wanting to show off his German. His grandfather dusted off his pre-war German. (To top it off, a cousin told me in decent German that he didn’t like to speak Hochdeutsch because, living in Zurich, he’s more at ease with Schwyzerdüütsch!).
        Having never been called a Nazi just for being German neither in Poland nor in France, I hope that to be an outdated stereotype, but given the current political agenda of the Polish government, a comeback is not unlikely.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Does Polish have only three tenses but two aspects, like Russian? I’m thinking of learning Farsi, myself. Also, I may be brushing up my German.


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