The Intimate Stranger: Why I’m learning Polish – and liking it

A Polish metaphor, made in Denmark.

This article was written for, and first published at,, a website about Polish culture.

I love family reunions. Most of my aunts, nephews and cousins are near-strangers to me, which makes them fascinating to meet: so unlike me, yet with all these familiar facial features, speaking styles and character quirks. All of me is there, scattered across many individuals, diluted by unrelated genes and altered by different life histories.

As with relatives, so with languages. With some lonely exceptions – such as Basque – they too have siblings and cousins. Dutch, my language of daily life, has lots of relatives, but I’m on speaking terms with just a few of them. I’m conversant with German and English, two more children from the same Germanic household; and also with two of aunty Latin’s offspring, Spanish and French. But most of the other relatives feel like strangers, even though they’re members of the same Indo-European ‘clan’: the Celtic dwarfs in the Wet West, Sanskrit’s descendants in far-away India, very old uncle Greek and many more – including the Slavics.

Yes, there’s no denying it, I’m afraid: the Slavics too feel like strangers. For as long as I can remember, they seemed to be hiding: during my youth, behind an iron curtain; later on, behind a shield of sibilant sounds and śťřangě сайнз and szczpełłings. But at some point, I began to suspect that I was missing out on an attractive bunch of relatives not so far away. Therefore, I tried to get up close and personal with them. First with Russian, the great star of Slavdom. But being a celebrity, she proved remote, uninviting and capricious. Then with Czech, who was humbler, yes, but also introverted and cheerless. For a while, I’d had enough of the Slavic family, and I explored the exoticism of Vietnamese. But that was like running into a solid stone wall. Covered in bruises, I returned, looked around and fell for Polish. I’ve been wooing her for over a year now.

Is Polish easy to conquer? Far from it. There’s a peculiar spelling system to be learned (though fortunately, it’s quite regular and Latin, not Cyrillic), there are loads of irregularities to be memorised, et cetera. But many of her foibles feel like family foibles. Foibles of our common extended family, I mean: not Slavic, but Indo-European. Instead of slamming into a wall, as with Vietnamese, I now saw a door, I could rattle its handle, even peek through its keyhole. Studying Polish is like trying to pick the lock.

So what are these features that make studying Polish appear like visiting a language-family reunion? Read the answer at


labonachipOne of the many tiny things that nanotechnologists have developed is a laboratory so small that a mere sliver of silicon can accommodate it. I don’t know what to admire more: this feat of engineering on the littlest imaginable scale or the succinct and graphic name they’ve coined for it, lab-on-a-chip (with lab-on-chip as a fairly common alternative).

But while the word is excellent, the plural is somewhat problematic. Opinions – or perhaps I should say intuitions – are divided between several options, and they nearly all make sense.

My own grammar gut tells me that lab-on-(a-)chip is a case like sister-in-law, tug-of-war and secretary-general. Unusually for English nouns, their main elements (known as heads) come first, which is why their plurals are sisters-in-law, tugs-of-war and secretaries-general. That strongly suggests that labs-on-(a-)chip would be the way to go. At just over 50%, this indeed is the most common form that a Google search turns up.

But hot on its heels, at 46%, is the alternative lab-on-(a-)chips. This seems odd at first sight, but on reflection, it has two important things going for it. Continue reading

Going there, done that

[Introduction: A Dutch society for language lovers called Onze Taal publishes a page-a-day calendar about (you guessed it) language. This year, the Thursday is my playground, and I use it to frolic around with European languages. Not coincidentally, they are also the subject of my book-to-be ‘Lingo’ – not that the information on the calendar overlaps with the book. Below, I will reproduce some of the items that appeared on the calendar in recent months. I use the term ‘reproduce’ loosely; not being a translator, I will just try to render approximately the same information in English. After all, this is my work, so I feel it’s mine to corrupt, too.]

In what language does a sentence consisting of the words ‘she’ ‘goes’ and ‘eat’ not refer to the future (as in ‘she’s going to eat’) but to a past event (as in ‘she has eaten’)? Is this in a. Basque, b. Catalan, c. Portuguese or d. Spanish?

In many European languages, including English, ‘go’ can be used as an auxiliary verb to express the near future. ‘Elle va manger’ in French and ‘Ella va a comer’ in Spanish both mean ‘She’s going to eat’.

But in Catalan, the language of eastern Spain, ‘go’ fulfils a very different role. In ‘Ella va menjar’, though the words translate literally as ‘she’, ‘goes’ and ‘eat’, their meaning is ‘she has eaten’. How the Catalans have come to attach this meaning to ‘go’ is hard to tell. Worldwide (or cross-linguistically, as scholars would have it, or from a comparative perspective – ugh), the use of ‘go’ to imply past tense is rare. The same phenomenon does occur, though, in some dialects of Spanish and Occitan. This can’t be a coincidence, since these dialects are spoken just next door to Catalan and are closely related to it.

Incidentally, informal Catalan also has a Spanish-style construction with an added preposition a: ‘Ella va a menjar’, which is future tense all right. What one letter can do.

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