A Swiss in Krakow – some language insights with the twinkling of an eye

Polish – the third most difficult language in the world?

When flying to Poland, my neighbor told me that a recent evaluation rated Polish to be the third most difficult language in the world.

I could not find that ranking. I found this quote: “Polish grammar has more exceptions than language rules… Furthermore Polish people rarely hear foreigners speak their language, so… pronunciation must be exact or they will have no idea what you are talking about” (most difficult language to learn).

Is really everything so difficult?

What about pantofle? A German speaking Swiss easily recognizes “Bantoffle” and people of French mother tongue understand “pantoufles”. These are slippers.

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Or what about “sruby”? Absolutely clear to anyone from The German speaking part of Switzerland: These are Schruube (screws) and in the Bernese Alps they are called exactly like in Polish… Schruubi.

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And what about “obuwie”? Any Russian understands, what he can buy here… обувь or shoes.

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But most Polish words look frightening – can this be pronounced at all?

My Kauderwelschführer “Polnisch” (Reise Know How) asks: “Polnisch – unaussprechbar?” (Polish – unpronouncable?).

A friend of mine is of Russian origin. He sighed contending that the Polish language would be much easier to read, if they used cyrillic letters. I agree, cyrillic letters would make the hissing sounds such as “szcz” and the soft consonants such as “ń” easier to read, but what about the nasal sounds (ą or ę) and the “ł” that reminds me of the “uu” in the Swiss Bernese dialect – they do not exist in the cyrillic alphabet.

Polish uses breathtaking combinations of the Roman alphabet to express their many hissings, soft consonants and nasals. When I see such congestions of consonants such as szcz or rz, I have to stop and translate them into something known to me (in this case щ and ж). I have to be careful to recognize the consonant combinations that make up a hissing sound. I try not to miss the little nasal tails added to vowels and I always get stuck, when the “ł” (uu) appears between two vowels.

Here are some examples of words that I find hard to read:

  • I often forget to spell “rz” as ж: warzywa (vegetables), pieprz (pepper), and in Mongolia I came across the Przewalski horses.
  • The “ł” between vowels:  ołówek (pen), południe (midday)
  • Congestion of combined letters such as rz, szcz or ści, in particular when combined with the nasal ą or ę: chrząsczc (beetle), rzeczywiście (really),  wewnątrz (inside), mężcyzna (man) or część (part).

and here is the frightening Polish word for “pull” that sounds soft and perfectly flowing, when Radek pronounces it, while I keep on stumbling over it.

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In addition Polish causes all the problems of Slawic languages for Western European speakers

What I find most difficult in Russian also holds for Polish. It is the concepts of verbs, with the perfect and imperfect action modes, overlayed by the modes of movement and the slawic  variation of the gerund. When I tell my Polish friends that I struggle with the difference between приходила (she came and left again) and пришла (she came and is now waiting here), they do not understand the problem and the difference is clear to them. In German, we would say: “Sie war da und ist wieder gegangen” (in English “she was here and left again” – an imperfect action) and “sie ist gekommen und wartet hier” (“she has come and is waiting here” – a perfect action). We simply do not have the notion of using different verbs for an imperfect (or canceled) and a perfect action. What makes it even more difficult is the fact that there is no rule to derive the perfect from the imperfect verb or vice versa – often they are two completely different words. An example for Polish is the verb “see“: widzieć (imperfect) and zobaczyć (perfect).

And to complicate things even more, the basic forms of the verbs of movement describe an imperfect action, but differentiate it by the direction (“one direction”: идти versus “back and forth or around”: ходить – and then there are many more details to remember to use the verbs of motion correctly and not be misunderstood).

Another difficulty of slawic languages is that the numbers are declined which can become complicated for composed numbers.

Yes, Polish is not easy to learn for us Western Europeans, but for my ear it is one of the most sonorous languages that I know.

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