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:
- Wszczebrzeszynie chrząszcz brzmi w trzcinie i Szczebrzeszyn z tego słynie.
- Wyindywidualizowaliśmy się z rozentuzjazmowanego tłumu.
- 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, dź, dż 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.
Noun matka mother (female gender) ojciec father (male gender) dziecko child (neuter gender) Modifying Adjective brzydkiugly ugly Singular brzydka matka ugly mother brzydki ojciec ugly father brzydkie dziecko ugly child Plural 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 Plural 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:
Widziałem – I saw (repeatedly in the past, like I saw the sun come up every morning).
Zobaczyłem – I saw (only once; I saw the sun come up yesterday).
Some of these verbs are obviously related to each other:
But others are very different:
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% of verbs have these maddening dual forms, but for 5% of verbs that lack a perfective version, you only have one form. The irregular forms may date from archaic Polish.
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 hat – Widze nowy kapelusz
I see a new student – Widze nowego ucznia
Notice how the now- form changed.
In addition to completely irregular verbs, there are also irregular nouns in Polish:
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:
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)
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)
dwojgiem (collective, instrumental)
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:
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 przyjaciel – friend:
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
Sometimes, this radically changes the word, as in hands:
four ręce, but
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.