The Polish flag. Photo by Michal Zacharzewski from FreeImages

Five reasons the Polish language is so special

Polish can feel like a real challenge as a learner. I should know – I’ve been at it for a few years, and progress still comes in fits and starts!

But studying Polish is incredibly rewarding, thanks to its fascinating features. Here are five very special reasons to give this unique Slavic language a go.

Strange…  but familiar

Coming to a Slavic language as a newbie to the group can be daunting. The vocabulary and grammar can appear quite alien at first, with few hooks and similarities to other languages you might know. Of course, that is half the charm for many learners. But it does add a certain level of challenge!

However, thanks to its geographical placement, Polish has absorbed more than its fair share of borrowings from neighbouring languages that might be more familiar. For example, Polish has a very productive verb-forming suffix -ować, which produces an abundance of easy-to-guess words formed from Latin roots:

akceptować to accept
awansować to promote
pasować to fit, suit
oferować to offer
sugerować to suggest

Not only that, but the neighbouring German language has also made its presence felt. Some common borrowings that German speakers will recognise include:

dach roof (from Dach)
handel trade (from Handel)
kształt shape (from Gestalt)
malować to paint (from malen)
reszta the rest (from Rest)
urlop holiday (from Urlaub)

Incidentally, the influence goes both ways: Polish donated to German the words Gurke (cucumber – from ogórek) and Grenze (border – from granica).

Like English, Polish has absorbed so much from its long history of interaction with other languages, but still keeps its very distinctive flavour.

Harking to the past

Sometimes, though, familiarity can be a bit dull. Many Slavic languages, like Russian, simply use the familiar Latinate calendar names for the months. How boring, eh?

However, Polish preserves some of its pastoral past by retaining the ancient Slavic terms to demarcate the year. They may be trickier to remember at first, but they have a beauty and storytelling magic all of their own:

styczeń January (from stykać – to meet, where the old year meets the new)
luty February (from an Old Polish word meaning ‘fierce cold’)
marzec March (from marznąć – to freeze)
kwiecień April (related to kwiecie – flowers)
maj May (this one is actually a gift from the Romans, celebrating the goddess Maia)
czerwiec June (from the word czerw, a lava used to produce red pigment)
lipiec July (from lipa – a linden tree, which blossoms in this month)
sierpień August (from sierp – sickle, useful for harvest time!)
wrzesień September (from wrzosy – heather, with its purple bloom at this time of year)
październik October (from paździerz, part of a flax plant used for making fabric)
listopad November (literally ‘falling leaves’)
grudzień December (from gruda – hard ground during frosty times)

You really get two-for-one when you learn the months in Polish. Learners can pick up extra off-the-beaten-track vocabulary like sierp (sickle) along the way!

A dash of Gallic

One thing that surprises newcomers to Polish is its pair of fancy-sounding nasal vowels ą and ę. The sound ą is reminiscent of the -on in French bon, whereas the ę is almost like -em in Portuguese bem. This handy video gives some nice examples.

If you have studied other Slavic languages, these nasal sounds can seem quite unexpected. But the whole thing lends a real Gallic twang to the sound of Polish that adds more than a dash of sophistication to proceedings.

Long but logical

Polish also has its quota of satisfyingly long words to get your language learning chops around. These occur frequently with some conjugated verb forms, and especially in the conditional tense. Although they appear beastly at first, they do display an order and logic (honest!) when you drill down. That said, add in the presence of consonant clusters typical to the Polish alphabet, and they can seem like fiendish tongue twisters.

Here are a few:

krzyknęłybyśmy we (f.) would cry out
podróżowalibyście you (pl.m.) would travel (from podróżować)
potrzebowalibyśmy we (m.) would need (from potrzebować)

Conjugations like those provide the kind of mental gym that will keep your mind positively chugging over.

Jumping particles

And that leads us to the last, quite magical feature of Polish in our special list: mobile morphemes. It’s those devilish verb endings above again, the ones that help create such long words. Well, you’ll never guess – they can actually break away and join other parts of the sentence. And not necessarily verbs!

For instance, a vanilla form of the question ‘whom did you see?’ (fam.pl.) would be:

Kogo zobaczyliście?

However, that -ście can have a mind of its own. It may just as well decide to join the ‘whom’, giving us:

Kogoście zobaczyli?

Yes, that’s a verb ending on the end of a question word. The mind boggles. Polish is truly a fascinating creature!

(For those wanting the linguistic nitty gritty, these endings behave as detachable clitics in their own right.)

Starting your Polish adventure

Convinced by the magic of Polish? Fortunately, there are some easy routes into the language.

An excellent place to start is the Duolingo Polish course. Although not the most extensive course on the free language learning site, it is nonetheless a pretty solid and comprehensive introduction. The course is particularly handy for vocabulary building, but also covers lots of drills on fundamental grammar principles.

Appetite whetted by those long verb conjugations? Polish Verb Blitz by Geoglot is an inexpensive app available on iOS and Android which takes a reference-drill approach.

Polish Verb Blitz for iOS

Polish With John is a superb blog for learners featuring reading and listening content for various levels.  Disclaimer: the site is created by my indefatigable Polish tutor on iTalki. But I can quite dispassionately say that the listening material is excellent and incredibly helpful.

Book-based materials

In terms of more traditional book-based courses, both Teach Yourself Complete Polish and Routledge Colloquial Polish are worth a punt. Now, both publishing houses offer their listening material for free online (Teach Yourself at this link and Routledge Colloquial here), so you can even listen before you buy.

Routledge, to be fair, have always been a language geek’s dream. The Polish catalogue also includes a concise, essential grammar of Polish, as well as a much heftier comprehensive overview of the language. Now that’s some real language learning fodder for the hungry.

And have I mentioned before how much I love the new Tutor series from Teach Yourself? There’s a Polish version of that, too!

Finally, much older coursebooks can be forgotten gems worth unearthing. I started my Polish journey in earnest with a 50p copy of the original Teach Yourself Polish, first penned in 1948. Those old tomes have a relentlessly systematic approach to grammar that is sometimes missing in newer books.

Polish can be a challenging language to learn, but also a fascinating and rewarding one. Have you given it a whirl yet? What are your favourite features, words and quirks? Let us know in the comments!

 

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