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Language of the Month: Polish

by Saaropean

Polish, called polski in the language itself, is an Indo-European language of the Slavonic branch, thus closely related to languages like Russian, Bulgarian, Serbo-Croatian and Czech. To be more exact, Polish, Sorbian, Czech and Slovak form the West Slavonic sub-branch for this family.

the flag of Poland Polish is the national language of Poland, a central European country with almost 40 million inhabitants. If you live in North America or Germany, you might know some people of Polish origin. They often have surnames ending in -ski such as Kowalski.

Poland is by far the biggest of the ten countries that are going to join the European Union in May 2004.

The country can be seen as a bridge between west and east, because the eastern border of the EU will move from the west of Poland (towards Germany) to the east (towards Belarus, Ukraine and the Russian exclave Kaliningrad).

As all languages in catholic Slavonic countries, Polish is written in the Latin alphabet. It uses a number of diacritics that make the Polish alphabet unique: Ą Ć Ę Ł Ń Ó Ś Ź Ż.

Particular features of Polish pronunciation are nasal vowels (like in French or Portuguese), palatalized consonants (like in Russian) and consonant clusters such as in wzdłuż.

Here’s an example of a small Polish text (the first article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights):

Wszyscy ludzie rodzą się wolni i równi pod względem swej godności i swych praw. Są oni obdarzeni rozumem i sumieniem, i powinni postępować wobec innych w duchu braterstwa.

This looks worse than it actually is, because many sounds are written with two letters. SZ, for example, is the same sound as the English SH (written Š or Ш in other Slavonic languages).

Polish is an inflected language, what means that, for example, verbs are conjugated in persons, genders, tenses and aspects; and nouns are declined in numbers, genders, animacy and cases.

As in many other Slavonic languages, in Polish too there is a strict distinction between perfective (what has been finished) and imperfective aspect (what is happening), for example:

mówić – to speak, to be speaking,
powiedzieć – to have spoken,

and:

czytać – to read, to be reading,
przeczytać – to have read.

Polish has seven cases that indicate the function of a word in a sentence as in the following sentences:

I have caused the accident (=accusative).
Don’t hammer nails in with the new meat tenderizer (=instrumental).
I’ll bring you (=dative), mum (=vocative), some water…
Mark’s* (=genitive) book (=nominative) was on the table (=locative).

*The English possessive is one of the endings used once in the English declension in the genitive case.


Babel Babble interviewed Luís from Portugal, a UniLanger who is learning Polish.

Babel Babble: What does Polish sound like?

Luís: It sounds Slavic; very soft to your ears, very consonantal. It’s definitely not a good language for singing. I think it sounds more pleasant than Russian. It’s rather easy to listen to.

Babel Babble: Why did you learn Polish?

Luís: I started learning Polish out of a whim really. I already had the idea of learning a Slavonic language in my plans, but — unlike most people — I didn’t really feel attracted to Russian. Plus, I had materials for learning Polish in Portuguese, and Fenek (who is a good teacher) ready to help. Afterwards I realised Polish would be rather useful now that Poland is joining the EU this year, being a large country with a very interesting and mostly unexplored economy. Polish is also on the top most spoken Slavonic languages and uses the Latin alphabet, which is a plus. Overall, I believe Polish can indeed be useful in the future.

Babel Babble: How difficult was it so far, compared to other languages you learned?

Luís: I’d say it is the most difficult language I had learned so far. I have studied mostly Romance and Germanic languages, and they’re much easier to deal with. It’s a bit hard to start off, but after a while, when you start making your first sentences, you feel it pays off.

Babel Babble: What is the most difficult part about the language?

Luís: I’d say verbs! Verbs are terrible! The aspects (basically for every English verb there are 2 Polish ones), the tenses, all the conjugation (which depends on gender in some tenses) and the consonantal mutations that occur on stems when adding the endings. The cases aren’t as hard as I had thought, though. With the exception of the genitive (which can be a bit unpredictable), most declensions follow a regular pattern.

Babel Babble: And what is easy to learn in Polish?

Luís: The spelling is pretty straightforward. It might seem strange at the beginning, but once you know the rules, it is completely phonetic, and you can basically read anything. Finding the gender of a word is also pretty easy, which helps in applying the cases later (unlike German, for instance, where it is difficult to determine the gender of a word).

Babel Babble: How long have you learned it? How fluent do you think you are now?

Luís: I’d say around 6 months now. I’m not fluent at all. I can understand and say pretty basic stuff, though I can understand written language the best. I can hold a very basic conversation, but that’s about it. I’m still in the process of learning. For saying basic stuff in Polish, you need to understand all the 7 cases and the verb system first or else there’s no way you can form sentences!

Babel Babble: Which resources did you use to learn Polish?

Luís: I have a Polish textbook (in Portuguese), a Portuguese-Polish-Portuguese dictionary and a Polish Grammar (in English). Fenek’s classes in the Virtual School of Languages were also very useful.

Babel Babble: Thank you for this interview. :-)


Are you interested? Here are some links to start learning Polish:

At the UniLang Virtual School of Languages there is the Polish Corner, where you can ask questions related with Polish.

Here you can learn some basic vocabulary.

If you want to listen to Polish, go to the Sounds of the World at UniLang


Online courses:
- by Piotr Pikuta

Dictionaries:
- Polish-Polish (shows inflection)
- English-Polish-English
- Byelorussian, English, Polish, Russian, Ukrainian
- English-Polish (long HTML files)

Grammar:
- by Polish-Translators.com
- by Grzegorz Jagodziński (incl. pronunciation)

Other:
- Polish alphabet (Omniglot)

More links

Written and translated by Saaropean

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Originally published in Babel Babble

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