Gaston is learning Polish—and liking it!

“Polish is a very difficult language,” says the typical American who doesn’t live in the Dorchester neighborhood known as the Polish Triangle.

That’s primarily because they want to buy a vowel when they see so many consonants. They look at a name like Grzegorz Brzęczyszczykiewicz and think it’s real—and typical. Secondarily it’s because they’re confusing writing (a representation of speech) with speaking (speech itself). Tertiarily it’s because Polish actually is difficult in some ways, though not as hard as Vietnamese (see below).

You may recall the distinguished linguist Gaston Dorren, author of Lingo and Babel, from three earlier posts in this blog: on 8/20/2016, 6/14/2019, and 10/6/2020. Recently Dorren has turned his attentions to Polish. His comments are, as always, engaging and worth reading. In this case the comments come in two pieces, partly in his blog—which is where the link in the previous sentence will take you—and partly in, a website you probably are not familiar with.

So why am I suddenly interested in Polish, a language that’s pretty clearly not in my wheelhouse? Mostly it’s because of Dorren’s recent article, but I also have a couple of connections from the past:

  • Part of my maternal grandmother’s childhood was in Poland. Why was it only “part”? No, it’s not because her family moved—that didn’t happen until they came to America when she was 14—but because the borders of Poland moved. Without going anywhere their shtetl was sometimes in Russia, was sometimes in Poland, and is now in Belarus. See the fascinating old map below; examine the borders not only of Poland but also of Denmark, Lithuania, Hungary, and the many countries that are now part of Germany and Russia. If you’re ambitious, figure out what year it’s from.
  • My “junior tutor,” the instructor who taught me a required one-on-one course for linguistics majors, happened to be a specialist in irregular verbs in medieval Polish. (In the famous words of Konrad Lorenz, “Scientists are people who know more and more about less and less.”)

Anyway, read Dorren’s article and you’ll be captivated by his extended metaphor of treating language families as human families. You’ll gain a fascinating perspective about Polish, and why he went there after the contrast between somewhat unsuccessfully attempting Vietnamese and successfully trying Russian and Czech:

For a while, I’d had enough of the Slavic family, and I explored the exoticism of Vietnamese. But that was like running into a solid stone wall. Covered in bruises, I returned, looked around and fell for Polish. I’ve been wooing her for over a year now.

Dorren does say that Polish is “far from easy,” but don’t let that discourage you:

Instead of slamming into a wall, as with Vietnamese, I now saw a door, I could rattle its handle, even peek through its keyhole. Studying Polish is like trying to pick the lock.

So read both of his articles. The second link takes you to some comparisons with Latin and other analyses worth reading. Try it, you’ll like it!

You’ll thank me later, as Monk says.


Categories: Dorchester/Boston, Linguistics