It’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), są ‘(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):
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.