After John, after jam

When you’re learning a new language, prepositions seem nice and easy at first. But after a while they prove to be pesky little buggers, keen on causing mischief. That’s certainly true for Polish, currently my favourite nuisance. One of its mischievous prepositions is po, followed by the locative case. Its most frequent meaning is ‘after’ – but what an ‘after’ it is sometimes!

In English, John’s wife becomes John’s widow after John’s death. Not so in Polish. Here, after John’s death, John’s wife becomes the ‘widow after John’: wdowa po Janie. One sees the logic: post-John, she’s a widow. But ‘widow after John’ would most definitely raise a lot of eyebrows in English. And not only in English: I don’t know of any Germanic or Romance language where a widow is said to be ‘after’ her dead spouse. Nor a widower – let’s not forget the bereft men.

It doesn’t take dying. Much less tragic events have the same effect of creating an aftertime, so to speak. Eating jam will do. Drinking beer will do. Even unboxing a pair of shoes is enough. I’ll explain.

A Polish ‘jar of jam’, filled with the sweet stuff, is very similar to an English one: słoik dżemu, in which słoik is a jar, dżem is how Polish spells ‘jam’ and the u-ending means ‘of’. But a ‘jam jar’ is a different matter. A jam jar no longer contains jam, it’s beyond jam – it’s after its jam phase. So there’s po again: słoik po dżemie, ‘jar after jam’. The same with beer bottles and shoe boxes: they’re ‘bottles after beer’ and ‘boxes after shoes’. (Just so you can verify: Butelki po piwie, pudełka po butach.) These are just examples, of course.

What I don’t know is how Poles call jars, bottles and boxes that are waiting to be filled with jam, beer and shoes. Jars for jam – słoiki na dżem? Of perhaps they follow the deep-rooted Slavic tendency to create special adjectives: jammy jars – słoiki dżemowe? My impression is that both constructions are not exactly wrong, but neither are they standard. I’m happy to bow to superior wisdom though. And I’m well aware that over 40 million people have such wisdom.

I’m also not sure how far this ‘after’ logic can be stretched. For instance, you’ve nearly reached the end of this blogpost. Does that make you a ‘reader after blog’ (czytelnik po blogu)? Makes sense to me. Not to the Poles, alas.


(Update) Days after publishing the above, I came across another case where Polish can use its word for ‘after’ in a way that English can’t: with the word ślad, ‘trace’. ‘The dog’s traces’ can be translated quite literally as ślady psa, but it’s also possible to say ślady po psie, ‘the traces after the dog’. I’m not sure if there’s a semantic nuance here; when there are two options, there often is.

11 thoughts on “After John, after jam

  1. „Ślady po psie” has broader meaning usually. That might refer to damages done after playing with the dog. “Ślady psa” is specialised and refers to characteristic signs of the legs of a dog. It refers to imprints.


    • That’s very surprising, thank you! Amazing how Polish manages to distinguish these meanings with a preposition. Come to think of it, in Dutch I would probably call ‘ślady psa’ hondensporen (‘dog-ślady’), but for ‘ślady po psie’, I might prefer ‘sporen van de hond’ (‘ślady of the dog’). But they’re ultimately interchangeable.


  2. Dear Gaston,
    I agree thar the use of prepositions in one language often seems to be at random from the perspective of another language.
    Cf. German:
    “Ich fahre nach Frankreich, nach Paris, in die Schweiz, nach Dänemark.”
    English: always “to”,
    French: “en – à – en – au” (article included)
    Or the French ptifall that suggests to chauvinists that foreigners – like barbars – cannot distiguish between art and sports: jouer de la guitarre – jouer au football; English and German always without preposistions.

    But ‘widow after’, eine “Witwe nach” is possible in German, even though it sounds old-fashioned or courtly. Have a look at “Anna, Witwe nach Erzherzog …”
    Best wishes and thanks for your fascinating language posts.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Wolfgang, I’m delighted to learn that this ‘wdowa po’ is another example of similarity between German and Polish. The more Polish I learn, the more similar these languages seem to be. I usually assume that most of the influence is from German on Polish, and here again, the other Slavic languages (I checked Russian, Ukrainian and Slovak) don’t seem to have this ‘po’ construction. Still, it may also be the other way around sometimes, and not just with granica and tvaróg. For instance, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Polish (and Czech) case system has played some role in the conservation of its German counterpart, though I’m not sure there.

      As for the verb ‘to play’: here, Polish makes a distinction that’s similar to French. Play the guitar is ‘grać na gitarze’, but ‘play football’ is ‘grać w piłkę (nożną)’, so ‘on’ versus ‘in’ or ‘into’.


  3. Funny that most European languages have a similar word for widow while the Scandinavian languages have a totally different word


    • Yes, ‘widow’ is usually pretty recognisable: veuve, viuda, vedova, Witwe, weduwe, widdo, wdowa, vdova, gweddw (in Welsh), vidhvā (in Hindi), etc. Apparently, in Scandinavian the word was replaced with a different Germanic word, ainakjǭ, in which aina- means ‘separate, lonely’; I can’t find an explanation for the ending -kjǭ. But then, other Indo-European languages have also adopted new words. The Armenian word literally means ‘manless’, the Greek word may mean ‘left behind’.


  4. We say ‘słoiki na dżem’, not ‘słoiki dżemowe’. The shoe box can also be ‘box for the shoes’ (pudełko na buty) if we plan to store the shoes there. Great blog post, really interesting to look at my language from a different perspective!


      • It might be a regional preference (I’m from Warsaw). I don’t say ‘słoiki dżemowe’ and I don’t think I’ve ever heard it before but it might be because I rarely talk about them 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Hi Gaston, thanks for this insight on Polish prepositions! I can’t comment on Polish, but I speak Czech which is a quite similar language. In Czech the jar of jam example would read as follows: a jar of jam is “sklenice džemu” (in fact, sklenice is a glass, but jam is practically always packed in glass). an empty jar, after the jam has been eaten and you look at the now empty jar, would be “sklenice od džemu”. The preposition “od” has the basic meaning “from”, but with some variations. The preposition “po” has the same basic meaning in Czech as in Polish. it wouldn’t be impossible to say “sklenice po džemu”, but it would be unusual, and it might imply a glass or a jar which once has been used for jam, but isn’t anymore (and might never again be). So even quite similar languages show niceties and subtleties you can savour… Thanks again, and enjoy! Paul


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