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.

Something sharp in that sock

Etymology is like chocolate: dispensable but irresistible. Words hopping from one language to the next, shape-shifting, gaining new meanings…

Take our sharp. Or rather skarpo, the word used by the Goths (a Germanic people who neither built cathedrals nor dyed their hair black) for ‘sharp thing’ or ‘pointy thing’. In the Early Middle Ages, this was borrowed into Italian, where scarpa came to mean ‘shoe’. After all, most shoes are somewhat pointy, and mediaeval fashion sometimes prescribed them very pointy indeed. A common alternative was the diminutive scarpetta, which somehow sounds even pointier.

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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

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. Continue reading