How do we Poles communicate? How do we converse in casual, everyday situations? How do we talk in the media? How do the speakers at various meetings, gatherings, rallies, and demonstrations address the public – and, by extension, the wider Polish society?
I have long observed the evolution of our verbal interactions with great curiosity, even though I am not a professional linguist. I observe and I wonder, because I find the process confusing, even self-contradictory.
Firstly, note that that profanities and vulgar phrases appear to be growing increasingly socially acceptable in Poland. I am talking about the sort of words that simply wouldn’t have been used in the past among circles of people who are cultured and educated – and if they had, it would have been under extraordinary circumstances, generally outside of codes of politeness, be they written or unwritten. Even though they might have been used in response to shocking or extreme situations, they remained an inappropriate violation of social customs. They were also once something exclusive to men; even if they did infiltrate the speech of womenfolk, it was even more rarely, and generally resulted in an uproar. Nowadays, however, this male-female divide seems to have become increasingly blurred, as easily overheard in the chatter of young women; a bright pupil remarked to me once that he believed girls of his acquaintance to be more inclined to use Polish profanities than boys (although I suspect the lad may have been exaggerating somewhat).
Such cross-the-board convergence – here underlying the recent phenomenon of “unisex” language – also reveals itself in public discourse, regardless of the speaker’s political or ideological leanings. Profanities are as common in the statements made by the aggressive, rightwing member of parliament Krystyna Pawłowicz as the words of the theatre director Ewa Wójciak, two people who to my knowledge move in quite different spheres of public life.
But at the same time, this increasing use of profanities somehow coexists with the rising popularity of puerile, childish phrases, and in a sense even supports it. In fact, an infantile style of speech is now considered to be a marker of politeness, mildness, or even elegance (albeit rather kitschy). For instance, this manifests itself in the creeping invasion of the use of diminutives in Polish, encroaching on areas where it would previously have been unthinkable (to cite just one case in point: diminutive “pieniążki” seems to be gaining ground vs. the standard Polish “pieniądze” for “money”). This applies not so much to the language used in politics, but rather the part of public discourse concerning personal matters. The style has even carved out a peculiar niche in obituary notices in the press. Until relatively recently, notices of the passing of someone’s “mummy” or “daddy” would only have been used to address children or perhaps young people; however, they are now fast becoming the norm. Condolences on the loss of a “mum” or “dad” (“mama” or “tata”) are commonly sent to directors, lecturers, doctors – mature adults, often of some serious social standing. The words “mother” and “father” (“matka” and “ojciec”) have all but disappeared in this context.
Such use of infantile phrases can be found in other everyday situations, such as grown men finishing telephone conversations with a certain childish “bye-bye” style phrase in Polish (“pa pa”) that was traditionally said to toddlers rather than adults, often accompanied by a cheery wave. Perhaps this shift can be attributed to the fact that today’s public sphere is dominated by a generation brought up on television and cartoons.
What does all this mean? Does the rise of uncouth profanities in public speech, coupled with the simultaneous spread of diminutives and other child-like elements, indicate that we Poles becoming a society of infantile savages? I’m afraid I don’t have an answer.
Prof. MICHAŁ GŁOWIŃSKI
PAS Institute of Literary Studies
© Academia nr 2 (38) 2013