The geography of language – forest

Each language has its own shining feature. Spanish and French are romance; German and Arabic are guttural; Italian and Japanese are bouncy while Chinese is up and down. English is ubiquitous.

I have already written about Arabic and the desert analogy. Within my new stable of languages, I think that the obvious candidate for the woodland situation would be Polish. The natural landscape of northern Europe with snowy winters and forested terrain seems to be fertile ground for the cultivation of a special linguistic crop – consonants.

Consider some of the Polish words that have graced my Twitter feed: krzyżyk, wykrzyknik, męczeństwo, spadochroniarstwo. Which mean (in order); hash (as in hashtag), exclamation mark, martyrdom and parachuting.

Incidentally, if any reader can come up with a sentence (in English) which includes the four words above, please do so in the comments. No Polish efforts please – my insurance won’t cover readers’ attempts to decipher the outcome.

Even a simple number like three becomes “trzy”. Thirty-nine is “trzydzieści dziewięć”. Although, to be fair in the opposite direction, one of my Polish contacts did raise the English “thirty-three” as the linguistic equivalent of a covert nuclear program. Perhaps we’ll call numbers a draw.

But pronunciation is just half of the battle. Let’s talk about Polish grammar. One usual suspect in terms of grammatical brutality is German. The English writer Saki (H.H. Munro) wrote a short story about a savant who taught his cat to speak. The punchline to the story concerned the death of the savant at the Dresden Zoo, trampled by a formerly docile elephant. One guest opines, “If he was trying German irregular verbs on the poor beast, he deserved all he got.”

German has four cases (endings which show the relationships between nouns, pronouns and adjectives). Nominative (subject), accusative (direct object), dative (indirect object) and genitive (possessive).

Polish in all its glory fronts up to the counter with seven cases. These are:

Nominative, accusative, genitive, locative, instrumental, dative and vocative.

I can’t even begin to imagine where the language wants to go with all of these cases, but I suspect (I hope) that this will become clearer as I progress.

In addition to this, we can’t go past gender. English natives think that French is bad enough, assigning every noun to either masculine or feminine and requiring appropriate particles and adjectives. Polish goes the German route and adds the neutral gender to this, offering a choice of three options, or as I like to think of it – two ways of getting it WRONG.

Incidentally, the grammatical data included in this post is way beyond my true capabilities in the language. I need to acknowledge Dana Bielec, author of Polish, an Essential Grammar. (Click on the book title to learn more).

Nevertheless, the language is tremendous fun. The tongue-twisting of the pronunciation and the mind-mangling grammar simply add to the sense of accomplishment when one is able to trot out so basic a phrase as “Czy może nam pani przynieść dwa piwa?” – Can you bring us two beers, please?

I have also been fortunate enough to run into a couple of Polish natives who have been kind enough to listen to my feeble attempts and to give me good advice on improving my Polish and even travel tips should I ever get there. (More on that much later – I hope).

So, is Polish difficult? Indubitably (and try teaching that word to a non-English speaker). Can I see the woods for the trees? I’m getting there and I’m having a ball on the way.

Incidentally, Polish is also a crowd pleaser. I have been using language-learning software and sometimes my wife or kids will listen in on one of the lessons. Responses have ranged from, “You’re kidding!” to “You’re joking!” But they have all been impressed at my ability to converse at the Polish deli at the market. It may sound funny to the untutored ear, but from Krakow to Warsaw to Gdansk, it’s music.

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