A Look at the Polish Language

From here. A look at Polish to see how difficult it is for an English speaker to learn. Polish is probably the hardest I-E European language of all. Its only competition might be Albanian. Among non-IE European languages, we are looking at Basque, Finnish, and Hungarian as competition. The Poles are quite proud of their langauge and even take pride in its difficulty. It is certainly an amazing language. Polish is similar to Czech and Slovak in having words that seem to have no vowels, but in Polish at least there are invisible vowels. That’s not so obviously the case with Czech. Nevertheless, try these sentences:

  1. Wszczebrzeszynie chrząszcz brzmi w trzcinie i Szczebrzeszyn z tego słynie.
  2. Wyindywidualizowaliśmy się z rozentuzjazmowanego tłumu.
  3. W Szczebrzeszynie chrząszcz brzmi w trzcinie.

I and y, s and z, je and ě alternate at the ends of some words, but the rules governing when to do this, if they exist, don’t seem sensible. The letter ť is very hard to pronounce. There are nasal vowels as in Portuguese. The ą, ć, ę, ł, ń, ó, sz, cz, dz, , sounds are hard for foreigners to make. There are sounds that it is even hard for native speakers to make as they require a lot tongue movements. A word such as szczescie is hard to Polish L2 speakers to pronounce. Polish written to spoken pronunciation has some issues – h and ch are one sound – h, ó and u are the same sound, and u may form diphthongs where it sounds like ł, so u and ł can be the same sound in some cases. Kura (hen) and kóra are pronounced exactly the same way, and this is confusing to Polish children. However, the distinction between h/ch has gone of most spoken Polish. Furthermore, there is a Polish language committee, but like the French one, it is more concerned with preserving the history or the etymology of the word and less with spelling the word phonemically. Language committees don’t always do their jobs! Polish orthography, while being regular, is very complex. Polish uses a Latin alphabet unlike most other Slavic languages which use a Cyrillic alphabet. The letters are: AĄ B CĆ D EĘ FGHIJK LŁ M NŃ OÓ QPRSTUVW XY ZŹŻ. Native speakers speak so fast it’s hard for non-natives to understand them. Due to the consonant-ridden nature of Polish, it is harder to pronounce than most Asian languages. Listening comprehension is made difficult by all of the sh and ch like sounds. Furthermore, since few foreigners learn Polish, Poles are not used to hearing their language mangled by second-language learners. Therefore, foreigners’ Polish will seldom be understood. Polish grammar is said to be more difficult than Russian grammar. Polish has the following: There are five different tenses: zaprzeszły, przeszły, teraźniejszy, przyszły prosty, and przyszły złozony. However, zaprzeszły tense is almost extinct by now. There are seven different genders: male animate, male inanimate, feminine and neuter in the singular and  male personal and male impersonal in the plural. Male nouns have five patterns of declension, and feminine and neuter nouns have six different patterns of declension. Adjectives have two different declension patterns. Numbers have five different declension patterns: główne, porządkowe, zbiorowe, nieokreślone, and ułamkowe. There is a special pattern for nouns that are only plural. There are seven different cases: nominative, genitive, dative, accusative, instrumental, locative, vocative, and the genitive case, which is irregular. Verbs have nine different persons in their declensions: ja, ty, on, ona, ono, my, wy, oni, one. There are different conjugation patterns for men and women. There are 18 different conjugation patterns in the verb (11 main ones). There are five different polite forms: for a man, a woman, men, women and men, and women combined. There are four different participle forms, three of which inflect. Polish has seven cases, including the vocative which has gone out of most Slavic. Although the vocative is becoming less common in Polish, it is still used in formal situations, and it’s not really true that it is a dying form. In an informal situation, a Pole might be more like to use nominative rather than vocative: Cześć Marek! (Nom.), rather than Cześć Marku! (Voc.) However, in a more formal situation, the vocative is still likely to be used. In the case below, the Nominative would never be used by a Polish native speakers: Dzień dobry panie profesorze/doktorze! (Voc.), rather than Dzień dobry pan profesor/doktor! (Nom.) Case declension is very irregular, unlike German. Polish consonant gradation is called oboczność (variation). It also has seven genders, five in the singular and two in the plural. The genders of nouns cause the adjectives modifying them to inflect differently.

matka   mother (female gender)
ojciec  father (male gender)
dziecko child (neuter gender)
Modifying Adjective
brzydkiugly ugly
brzydka matka    ugly mother
brzydki ojciec   ugly father
brzydkie dziecko ugly child
brzydkie matki   ugly mothers
brzydcy ojcowie  ugly fathers
brzydkie dzieci  ugly children

Gender even effects verbs.

I ate (female speaker) Ja zjadłam
I ate (male speaker)   Ja zjadłem

There are two different forms of the verb kill depending on whether the 1st person singular and plural and 2nd person plural killers are males or females.

I killed     zabiłem/zabiłam
We killed    zabiliśmy/zabiłyśmy
They killed  zabili/zabiły

The perfective and imperfective tenses create a dense jungle of forms:

kupować - to buy
Singular  Simple Past         Imperfect
I (f.)    kupiłam             kupowałam
I (m.)    kupiłem             kupowałem
I (n.)    kupiłom             kupowałom
you (f.)  kupiłaś             kupowałaś
you (m.)  kupiłeś             kupowałeś
you (n.)  kupiłoś             kupowałoś
he        kupił               kupował
she       kupiła              kupowała
it        kupiło              kupowało
we (f.)   kupiłyśmy           kupowałyśmy
we (m.)   kupiliśmy           kupowaliśmy
you (f.)  kupiłyście          kupowałyście
you (m.)  kupiliście          kupowaliście
they (f.) kupiły              kupowały
they (m.) kupili              kupowali

The verb above forms an incredible 28 different forms in the perfect and imperfect past tense alone. The existence of the perfective and imperfective verbs themselves is the least of the problem. The problem is that each verb – perfective or imperfective – is in effect a separate verb altogether, instead of just being conjugated differently. The verb to see has two completely different verbs in Polish: widziec zobaczyc WidziałemI saw (repeatedly in the past, like I saw the sun come up every morning). ZobaczyłemI saw (only once; I saw the sun come up yesterday). Some of these verbs are obviously related to each other: robić/zrobić czytać/przeczytać zachowywać/zachować jeść/zjeść But others are very different: mówić/powiedzieć widzieć/zobaczyć kłaść/położyć This is not a tense difference – the verbs themselves are different! So for every verb in the language, you effectively have to learn two different verbs. 95 In addition, the future perfect and future imperfect often conjugate completely differently, though the past forms usually conjugate in the same way – note the -em endings above. There is no present perfect as in English, since in Polish the action must be completed, and you can’t be doing something at this precise moment and at the same time have just finished doing it. It’s often said that one of the advantages of Polish is that there are only three tenses, but this is not really case, as there are at least eight tenses:

Indicative         grać       to play
Present            gram       I play 
Past               grałem     I played
Conditional        grałbym    I would play
Future*            będę grać  I will play
Continuous future* będę grał  I will be playing
Perfective future  pogram     I will have played*
Perf. conditional  pograłbym  I would have played

*będę grać and będę grał have the same meaning
**Implies you will finish the action

There is also an aspectual distinction made when referring to the past. Different forms are used based on whether or not the action has been completed. Oddly enough, the present can be used to describe things that happened in the past, although this only applies to very specific situations. Juliusz Cezar po tym jak zdobywa Galie jedzie do Rzymu. Julius Caesar after that when he (is) conquer(ing) Gaul, he (is) go(ing) to Rome. Whereas in English we use one word for go no matter what mode of transportation we are using to get from one place to another, in Polish, you use different verbs if you are going by foot, by car, by plane, by boat or by other means of transportation. In addition, there is an animate-inanimate distinction in gender. Look at the following nouns:

hat      kapelusz
computer komputer
dog      pies
student  uczen

All are masculine gender, but computer and hat are inanimate, and student and dog are animate, so they inflect differently. I see a new hatWidze nowy kapelusz I see a new studentWidze nowego ucznia Notice how the now- form changed. In addition to completely irregular verbs, there are also irregular nouns in Polish: człowiek->ludzie However, the number of irregular nouns is very small. Let us look at pronouns. English has one word for the genitive case of the 1st person singular – my. In Polish, depending on the context, you can have the following 11 forms, and actually there are even more than 11: mój moje moja moją mojego mojemu mojej moim moi moich moimi Numerals can be complex. English has one word for the number 2 – two. Polish has 21 words for two (however, only 5-6 of them are in common use): dwa (nominative non-masculine personal male and neuter and non-masculine personal accusative) dwaj (masculine personal nominative) dwie (nominative and accusative female) dwóch (genitive, locative and masculine personal accusative) dwom (dative) dwóm (dative) dwu (alternative version sometimes used for instrumental, genitive, locative and dative) dwoma (masculine instrumental) dwiema (female instrumental) dwoje (collective, nominative + accusative) dwojga (collective, genitive) dwojgu (collective, dative + locative) dwójka (noun, nominative) dwójkę (noun, accusative) dwójki (noun, genitive) dwójce (noun, dative and locative) dwójką (noun, instrumental) dwójko (vocative) dwojgiem (collective, instrumental) dwójkach dwójek dwója dwójkami Polish also has the paucal form like Serbo-Croatian. It is the remains of the old dual. The paucal applies to impersonal masculine, feminine and neuter nouns but not to personal masculine nouns.

Personal Masculine
one boy    jeden chłopiec
two boys   dwóch chłopców
three boys trzech chłopców
four boys  czterech chłopców
five boys  pięciu chłopców
six boys   sześciu chłopców
seven boys siedmiu chłopców
eight boys ośmiu chłopców
Impersonal Masculine
one dog    jeden pies
two dogs   dwa psy
three dogs trzy psy
four dogs  cztery psy
five dogs  pięć psów
six dogs   sześć psów
seven dogs siedem psów
eight dogs osiem psów

In the above, two, three and four dogs is in the paucal (psy), while two, three or four men is not and is instead in the plural (chłopców). Polish, like Hungarian and Finnish, can also have very long words. For instance: pięćsetdwadzieściajedenmiliardówdwieścieczterdzieścisiedemmiloionów-trzystaosiemdzisiątpięćtysięcyczterystadziewięćdziesięciopięcioletni is a word in Polish (There is no dash in the word – I was just dividing the line). A single noun can change in many ways and take many forms. Compare przyjacielfriend:

                           Singular       Plural
who is my friend           przyjaciel     przyjaciele
who is not my friend       przyjacielem   przyjaciół
friend who I give s.t. to  przyjacielowi  przyjaciołom
friend who I see           przyjaciela    przyjaciół
friend who I go with       z przyajcielem z przyjaciółmi
friend who I dream of      o przyjacielu  o przyjaciołach
Oh my friend!              Przyajaciela!   Przyjaciele!

There are 12 forms of the noun friend above. Plurals change based on number. In English, the plural of telephone is telephones, whether you have two or 1,000 of them. In Polish, you use different words depending on how many telephones you have: two, three or four telefony, but five telefonów. Sometimes, this radically changes the word, as in hands: four ręce, but five rąk. There are also irregular diminutives such as pies -> psiaczek słońce -> słoneczko Polish seems like Lithuanian in the sense that almost every grammatical form seems to inflect in some way or other. Even conjunctions inflect in Polish. In addition, like Serbo-Croatian, Polish can use multiple negation in a sentence. You can use up to five negatives in a perfectly grammatical sentence: Nikt nikomu nigdy nic nie powiedział. Nobody ever said anything to anyone. Like Russian, there are multiple ways to say the same thing in Polish. However, the meaning changes subtly with these different word combinations, so you are not exactly saying the same thing with each change of word order. Nevertheless, this mess does not seem to be something that would be transparent to the Polish learner. In English, you can say Ann has a cat, but you can’t mix the words up and mean the same thing. In Polish you can say Ann has a cat five different ways: Ania ma kota. Kota ma Ania. Ma Ania kota. Kota Ania ma. Ma kota Ania. The first one is the most common, but the other four can certainly be used. In addition, Polish has a wide variety of dialects, and a huge vocabulary. However, the dialects are for the most part quite similar. Similar to Hungarian, there may be many different words for the same thing. There are 43 different words for ladybird. The following are 30 separate lexical items (not case-inflected terms) for ladybird, for which the main word is biedronka: maryszepka, sarynka, katrynka, petronelka, skobrunek, skrzipeczka, panienka, makówka, letewka, kruszka, kropelniczka, guedzinka, motilewka, matoweczka, dzegotka, podlecuszka, maleneczka, pągwiczka, popruszka, markowiczka, parzedliszka, prochowniczka, krówka jałowiczka, karkukuczka, rączepiórka, borowa matinka, motuszka kruszka, marianna, mróweczka, and boża krówka. Although Polish grammar is said to be irregular, this is probably not true. It only gives the appearance of being irregular, as there are so many different rules, but there is a method to the madness underneath it all. The rules themselves are so complex and numerous that it is hard to figure them all out. It is said English-speaking children reach full adult competency in the language (reading, writing, speaking, spelling) at age 12. Polish children do not reach this milestone until age 16. Even many adult Poles make a lot of mistakes in speaking and writing Polish properly. However, most Poles are quite proud of their difficult language (though a few hate it) and even take pride in its difficult nature. On the positive side, in Polish, the stress is fixed, there are no short or long vowels nor is there any vowel harmony, there are no tones, and it uses a Latin alphabet. Polish is one of the most difficult of the Slavic languages. It is probably harder than Russian but not as hard as Czech, though this is controversial. Polish gets a 5 rating, hardest of all.

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10 thoughts on “A Look at the Polish Language”

  1. Dear Robert
    I knew a British woman who had studied both Polish and Russian. She maintained that Polish is easier than Russian for English-speakers because, according to her, lexically and grammatically both languages are at the same level of difficulty but phonetically Polish is easier due to its regular stress pattern and regular vowels.
    In Russian, stress can fall on any syllable, and the pronunciation of a vowel often depends on whether it is stressed or not. An stressed o, for instance, usually becomes an a. Take the word moloko, which means milk. It is easy to remember because it has the same consonants as milk has. The pronunciation could be MOlaka, maLOka or malaKO. It happens to be malaKO, but it could just as well have been one of the 2 others.
    In Polish you don’t have such problems. In addition, Polish doesn’t put up the hurdle of a new alphabet. Maybe that British woman was right.
    Regards. James

  2. Hi,
    I am native Pole.
    Great article.
    I spot a typo in ladybird in polish: not bidedronka but rather biedronka.
    I want to also point out that there are no 70 characters in polish alphabet. Here they are:
    although X is not used in any polish words, so probably I should scratch that (schools do teach it). Note also the direction of a tail in ĆŁŃŹ.
    Oh spotted another : Personal Masculine
    five boys pięć chłopców -> should be pięciu chłopców
    six boys sześć chłopców -> should be: sześciu chłopców
    seven boys siedem chłopców -> siedmiu
    eight boys osiem chłopców -> ośmiu
    And one more typo: leter ł at the end : powiedział:
    Nikt nikomu nigdy nic nie powiedzia. -> powiedział
    Nobody ever said anything to anyone.

  3. Geez,
    the alphabet once again, now correcting my own mistake
    X and Q are not used in polish words, but remain in alphabet.

  4. Shame, shame on me….
    Q, V and X are not used in polish words, but remain in the alphabet.

  5. This is certainly the most insightful popular article on Polish I have read and among the top brilliant fun articles on language in general. Russian may cause some problems with its non-Latin alphabet but its grammar is without doubt less complex with less grammar cases, much less specific declination , especially in past tenses (for instance I went, you went, he went in Russian as in English is not differentiated: ya pashou, ty pashou, on pashou, versus Polish: ja poszedłem, ty poszedłeś, on poszedł, basically – in Polish almost everything conjugates and declinates), there is incredibly complex system of participles in Polish, some of which are active, other passive, all of which declinate like nouns with all three genders adding their endings to each declination pattern and sort of gerunds in the form of participles that in turn change according to the tense.
    Given the loads of instances from Polish the article is amazingly clear of errors. Minor typo to be noted is in “Szczebrzeszynie…” which lacks the initial “W” which means ‘in’. The interesting thing is, in the presented form, the “Szczebrzeszynie chrząszcz brzmi w trzcinie…” sentence ALSO would make sense, if ‘chrząszcz’ was after a coma because without the “W” the form of “Szczebrzeszynie” would be interpreted grammatically not as Locative (which in original it is) but as Vocative (which without ‘w’ or ‘in’ it could be).
    This would produce a captivating invocation to the anecdotal village of Szczbrzeszyn.
    The syntax plays with ‘Ania has cat” are all true, only it conveys slightly different meaning, a nuance, in each of these 5 examples.
    The passage on the 21 glimpses of ‘two’ as well as other instances are absolutely brilliantly composed.

  6. As Mikołaj said in polish is not 70 character, but, if we try count accuratly, probably we find 70 sounds – native, archaic and some possible to borrow or existing in old slavic alphabet or in some dialects – by this way probably (with diphthongs) even much more than 70…
    The frase like: “Dzień dobry pan profesor/doktor! (Nom.)” is never ever using. Only Russians, who speak polish can do such horrible construction. 🙂
    And here:
    Singular Simple Past Imperfect
    I (f.) kupiłam kupowałam
    I (m.) kupiłem kupowałem
    you (f.) kupiłaś kupowałaś
    you (m.) kupiłeś kupowałeś
    he kupił kupował
    she kupiła kupowała
    it kupiło kupowało
    You didn’t mention about two neutral forms…
    It is rare using but it is a normal thing.
    I don’t remember if you mentioned about grammatical aspects and dual number (this one mostly archaic, but still…)
    And about tenses… probably most of english so called tenses can be exactly translate in polish, but we don’t call this costrutions tenses.
    for exaple: he is writing = on jest piszący.
    It is a little strange to saying but not incorrect.
    Or present tense can be use to describe past things.
    Juliusz Cezar po tym jak zdobywa Galie jedzie do Rzymu.
    Julius Ceaser after that when he (is) conquer(ing) Gaul, he (is) go(ing) to Rome.
    I know, I know, it is all not helpfull – some more difficulties… 🙂

  7. Some errors I spotted:
    Zaprzeszły tense is pretty much extinct now.
    There are 5 genders actually total: male animate, male inanimate, feminine and neuter in singular and male personal and non male personal in plural. Somebody in your source probably just added the combined singular and plural genders and then added plural again.
    “Polish written to spoken pronunciation makes little sense, as in English” – actually it makes a lot of sense and is very regular once you learn it. It’s the other way that may cause problems, but it still makes comparatively more sense than English.
    That table with the verb „grać” has some misspellings (grać, grałem, grałbym, pogram, pograłbym), but the thing I wanted to note is that there is absolutely no difference in meaning between „będę grać” and „będę grał”. Like, not at all.
    “Oddly enough, the present can be used to describe things that happened in the past.” – it’s limited to the very specific situations, exactly like in English.
    You are also sometimes repeating same information. Making the language appear even more complicated than it really is (which, I admit, is quite complicated).
    “In addition to completely irregular verbs, there are also irregular nouns in Polish” – there are at the moment two such nouns that come to my mind right now, including the one example you had given.
    “Let us look at pronouns. English has one word for the genitive case of the 1st person singular – my. In Polish, depending on the context, you can have the following 11 forms” – or in other words, they decline with number, gender and cases.
    “Polish also has the paucal form like Serbo-Croatian. It is the remains of the old dual.” – if by “paucal” you mean “nominative case” as opposed to “genitive case”, then yes. It’s not exactly a separate form, just the use of different already existing cases depending on the amount.
    „pięćsetdwadzieściajedenmiliardówdwieścieczterdzieścisiedemmilionów-trzystaosiemdziesiątpięćtysięcyczterystadziewięćdziesięciopięcioletni” – true, but in practice we would write it simply as „521247385495-letni”. Also I spotted two typos there (which I just corrected).
    The table with „przyjaciel”: the vocative singular is „przyjacielu” (same as locative). The „w” and „z” aren’t actually part of the case – those are auxiliary to help Poles memorise them (Poles know how to use cases long before they learn what they are and how they are called). “who is not my friend” is also not right (that would take „przyjacielem”). I would give “who I don’t have” as an example. In total I counted ten forms of „przyjaciel”, not twelve
    You are repeating again. You mentioned (incorrectly) “paucal”, and then reword it later again with “plurals change based on number”.
    “There are also irregular diminutives such as psiaczek -> słoneczko” this is incredibly incorrect. Both of those are diminutive of totally different words. („pies” and „słońce” respectively).
    “Polish has a wide variety of dialects” in practice, they are very similar. Although out of all forms for ladybug, I only immediately recognize the standard „biedronka”, and it’s probably the most popular one anyway.
    “It is said English-speaking children reach full adult competency in the language (reading, writing, speaking, spelling) at age 12. Polish children do not reach this milestone until age 16.” I would like to see the research that would prove that.
    “Even adult Poles make a lot of mistakes in speaking and writing Polish properly.” – depends on education, care of user, and what one actually considers as “improper” Polish.
    The pro tip: if you really wish to learn Polish, don’t even think about starting with mastering grammar. Your head will explode and even native Poles aren’t taught the whole theory (like all, or even any, of the conjugation patterns).
    Didn’t the US diplomatic corp release a language difficulty ranking for English speaker? They probably has a lot of experience teaching languages to diplomats and would probably know more about it than the linguists and proud Poles (yes, you got that part right, Poles are even the part of the whole propaganda of it being incredibly hard) might tell you. Polish was classified as level 3 language, I think – harder than German, but on par with other Slavic languages and easier than Arabic or Japanese.

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