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 makes little sense, as in English – 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 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.
Further, 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. There are seven different genders: male, feminine, neuter, animate and inanimate in the singular and animate and inanimate 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 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. There are four different participles, 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:
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.
matka mother (female gender)
ojciec father (male gender)
dziecko child (neuter gender)
brzydka matka ugly mother
brzydki ojciec ugly father
brzydkie dziecko ugly child
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
you (f.) kupiłaś kupowałaś
you (m.) kupiłeś kupowałeś
he kupił kupował
she kupiła kupowała
it kupiło kupowało
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 very verbs themselves are different! So for every verb in the language, you effectively have to learn two different verbs. 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. 95% of verbs have these maddening dual forms, but for 5% of verbs that lack a perfective version, you only have one form.
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 grac to play
Present gram I play
Past gralem I played
Conditional gralbym I would play
Future będę grać I will play
Continuous future będę grał I will be playing
Perfective future bogram I will have played*
Perf. conditional pogralbym I would have played
*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.
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:
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:
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.
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
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 different forms. Compare przyjaciel – friend
who is my friend przyjaciel przyjaciele
who is not my friend przyjaciela 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! Przyajcielu! Przyjaciele!
There are 12 different 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
psiaczek -> 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 different 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 or 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. 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 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.