Wednesday, June 09, 2010


Polish is not an easy language for an English speaker to guess at, but there sre ways of getting a toehold. You start with the international brand names—Toyota, Tesco, KFC. You move on to the stuff that is part of the universal language of tourism—kebab, pizza, sport. But then you continue to what look like foreign borrowings bust with a Polish twist: antyki, apteka—here's a sign that says “cygara, cawa, alkohole” (I don't know how to categorize “motory skutery”). Not all are English borrowings: we see restaurajca and delikatesy, also bizuteria, kuchina and fryzjerskiy (hairdresser) not to mention “kosmetyci naturalni.”

But there are more general cases where western culture seems to have carried its language with it. Academic life is clearly one (and come to think of it, I recall reading somewhere that “academy” is one word that is the same in all European languages)--consider also “muzeum archaeologiczne,” and “ogrod professorsky” (professor's garden).

And here in this heavily Catholic country, it is perhaps not surprising that some of the heaviest borrowings are in the realm of religion. Cracow is the city where Karol Józef Wojtyła was archbishop, so it doesn't take much to guess your way through “Universytet Papieski Jana Pawla II”--but then you also see “katolicka basilice” and “zakrystia.”

Aside from the Western Europeanisms, I suspect you could do a lot better with Russian but you'd have to (a) transliterate from the Russian alphabet to the fussy Polish script and (b) know Russian. I do like it that you see “ochrana,” which echoes Russian “okhrana,” the old tsarist secret police: these days in Poland it seems to mean “security guard.”

None of this gets you very far, of course, expect perhaps to put paid to the idea that we are all homogenizing into English. Rather the point is that we are not homogenizing into English at all but developing a linguistic soup in which all languages participate.

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