Aug 232008

Polish is widely perceived by those who have English as their first language to be very difficult, not least – to take just two examples – because few words bear any relation to their equivalents in English and because verbs have not only seven cases (nominative, accusative, genitive, dative, locative, instrumental and vocative) but two “aspects” (whether the action has been completed or not). Words are heavily inflected to indicate all the cases and other grammatical niceties and there are many exceptions to the elaborate rules.

Yet on the other hand, pronunciation of Polish to an acceptable basic standard requires little more than the practice of unusual combinations of consonants (getting used to saying “ch” after “sh” in many words seems less strange with time!) and the spelling of words is almost uniformly regular. The orthography of Polish is a wonder. Somehow methods were devised to transcribe the slavic sounds of Polish using an augmented Latin alphabet – whereas the related Russian language was deemed by missionaries to require its own specially invented alphabet.

Polish is spoken by almost as many people outside Poland as inside Poland, and cities throughout Europe are now blessed with shops owned by Poles, selling their totally adequate beer and refreshingly bitter jam. So there are plenty of opportunities to practice baffling Poles with attempts at speaking their language. In practice, most Poles seem very surprised that anyone not born to the language would try to learn it. In fact, that puts it mildly. There are two reactions: speechless astonishment that a native speaker of English could pronounce the language at all and the sort of incredulous laughter one might produce when confronted with a talking dog (if one finds such incongruity funny). But they are often also very nice about it, and happy to help with the pronunciation of such words as chrząszcz (“beetle”).

As you may have discovered at school, learning a foreign language can be a hard, unrewarding graft, but if you choose one that has some arbitrary appeal (rather than knuckling down because it might be “useful”), it’s a more rewarding use of brain muscle than, say, sudoku. Learning even just a little bit about a foreign language gives interesting perspectives and it’s also an absorbing diversion, but few of us in the UK are confident linguists and as the famed philologist Dirty Harry said in Magnum Force (available with subtitles in Czech), “a man’s gotta know his limitations”.

(Some very useful resources for beginners have been prepared by the University of Pittsburgh).

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