Fighting is not something that serves either a language or its users well. If we set good examples, there will be no battles to be fought – says Prof. Andrzej Markowski

Interview with Prof. Andrzej Markowski
Council of the Polish Language (affiliated with the PAS Presidium) 

Academia: What kind of changes is modern Polish undergoing?

Andrzej Markowski: Comprehensive ones. One issue is lexis – we are borrowing new words and expressions, for instance with the prefixes euro-, eko-, bio-, auto- and many more. Secondly, a lot of expressions are taking on new meanings, usually under English influence. There are also certain changes in the grammatical system. These are qualitative – less visible, yet important. If we start to say things like biznes informacje for “business information” instead of informacje o biznesie, that reveals an important syntactic change. Whole English phrases are being calqued into Polish, such as w czym mogę panu pomóc (“how can I help you”) instead of the older czym mogę służyć, or even miłego dnia życzę! (“have a nice day!), and then we are dealing with a more profound, structural change.

Another such structural change involves a certain tendency evident for several decades now, to leave certain types of words undeclined. For instance, surnames ending in -o (like Bańko or Bójko) or in -e, -i (Kolbe or Boni), are increasingly being treated as indeclinable, even though they do have declension patterns. Things are similar with geographical names, both foreign and Polish. For instance, in the 19th century Polish people used to say they were travelling do Bonnu (“to Bonn”), whereas nowadays they simply say do Bonn. Train-station announcers now say that a train is departing do Bielsko-Białej (“to the town of Bielsko-Biała”), instead of the former doubly-marked genitive, do Bielska-Białej.

Things are also changing in phonetics, because we have gained a new consonant: a soft “cz,” as found in the pronunciation of tschibo or chipsy. This is neither a hard “cz” nor a soft “ć” but an intermediate, soft “cz.” A sound that was used in Polish several hundred years ago, but disappeared.


Let’s get back to the new words. One can overhear people using worlds like hejter “hater”, lajki “likes”, dyslajki “dislikes”…

They exist due to the rise of Internet communication. Here we should note that some such words are limited exclusively to the language of teenagers and young adults, whereas others have made their way into the general language, no one knows for how long. But this is a kind of fashion, and so perhaps they will eventually disappear. We should strive to make sure that the kind of Polish used in general is more careful, and I would leave young people’s slang up to them. Because every generation wants to speak in its own way. I have always thought that if young people also know how to speak the general language, let them communicate in their own slang. There is always a tendency for part of the vocabulary in young people’s slang to be camouflaged – closed off and incomprehensible to others. But that is not so dangerous, generally speaking, as long as those incomprehensible phrases do not dominate the speech of young people.


Are new words of that sort excluding people of the older generation?

In a certain sense, yes. But young people are also excluded from using certain sectors of the language. There are words that are going out of use or are already outdated, which young people do not know at all or understand incorrectly. Few young people nowadays are familiar with such words as karesy (“caresses”), dubeltowy (“double”), or rejterować (“retreat”). What is more, they tend to understand the word sensat as meaning “sensation seeker” (whereas for older Poles it means “someone who puts on serious, scholarly airs”), and the phrase pokazać lwi pazur (lit. “to show a lion’s claw”) as meaning “to reveal a previously concealed strength, to demonstrate that one can be dangerous” (as opposed to the traditional meaning: “to reveal the hallmarks of great talent in just a small fragment of work”).


Not many of us can claim to write or speak without mistakes…

…I myself would not make such a claim.


Indeed, nearly everyone makes mistakes. Where should we look for models to emulate?

That’s a very difficult question. The circles that were such a model for many decades, namely the traditional intelligentsia, have unfortunately long ago ceased to be so. When Poland emerged from the communist era, politicians who had been involved in the former opposition played such a role for a short time, but that is no longer the case. Since the end of communism, the mass media sources have risen to become models. The language that is used by journalists has the greatest impact on society. While it is true that everyone complains about that language, in fact it is the model that everyone refers to.

There is also another, relatively new model of online communication: blogs, interviews, and online chats. But here there is not yet any concrete model for what has been dubbed “transcribed Polish” (a relatively new term used to describe the kind of language used on the Internet, alongside the established norms of “spoken Polish” and “written Polish”).


Whom do you especially appreciate for speaking nicely refined Polish?

Without a doubt, certain actors of the older and middle generations. I will not name names, so as not to miss anyone out. But they mostly speak words that are not their own, so my appreciation is more for their manner of speech, their articulation, for the fact that they know how to use language in a way that draws out all of its positive values. I am very fond of the language used by the historian Prof. Janusz Tazbir, who speaks in a very clear and at the same time relatively expressive way. And what he says is never boring: the form and the content are harmoniously bound together in his statements and written texts. I also appreciated Jan Nowak-Jeziorański’s language.


Which particular linguistic errors irritate you most?

Although I try to keep mistakes in the proper perspective, I do get irritated by ones that stem from snobism or ignorance.

For instance, the year 2005 should be read out in Polish as rok dwa tysiące piąty, not as rok dwutysięczny piąty. This is a common mistake made even by university professors, and that kind of thing is quite irritating. Obviously, if a particular mistake ends up being made by everyone, it will eventually become the norm. But for the time being, it is definitely a mistake.

Another pet peeve is the nonstandard form włanczać “turn on (iteratively)”. In this case there is a certain justification: we have other such pairs in Polish, such as robić “do” vs. porabiać “do (iteratively)” and chodzić “go on foot” vs. chadzać “go on foot (iteratively)”, so by analogy włączyć “turn on” has given rise to an iterative form włanczać. But that does not change the fact that its use irritates me.

I am also not fond of senses borrowed from English. Hockey players are now said to play in the first, second, or third dywizja “division” and employees at various companies say that they work in a particular dywizja “division,” irrespective of the fact that the Polish word traditionally describes a military formation. I get very irritated when someone speaks about kondycja języka, the “condition of the Polish language”: a more proper way to describe the notion is stan polszczyzny. Such thoughtless transferring of senses might indicate that someone knows English well, but at the same time it demonstrates that they do not know Polish well.

The same could be said for “Brussels-isms,” spread through Polish translations of EU documents. The most popular of these are implementacja “implementation” and aplikować “apply,” often used instead of native Polish equivalents, such as wdrożenie and wnosić podanie. This can also be irritating.


I myself get most angry at the increasingly widespread pronunciation of “om” instead of “ą” at the ends of words, such as z Polskom “with Poland” instead of z Polską.

That’s an example of regional and dialectical variation: the “om” pronunciation is typical of southern Poland. Its shifting into the general language is due to the fact that people simply fail to notice that they are speaking with regional, dialectical phonetics. Vice versa, Poles from the south cringe when they hear someone from Mazovia pronounce “waiter” as kielner or “linden tree” as lypa. Such things are very hard to counteract, because they are in the realm of the subconscious.



This year’s medal for “Distinguished Service to the Polish Language” was bestowed upon Prof. Jadwiga Puzynina by First Lady Anna Komorowska. Photo: Piotr Molecki/KPRP 



Hyperbolic descriptions also seem to be on the rise in Polish. People are saying super instead of dobrze “good/well.”

Yes, but that’s nothing new. When radio-program listeners complain to me that they are not fond of the word strasznie (“terribly”) in the sense of “very much”, I tell them that Linde’s dictionary cites a 18th-century example: Żal mi go, bo go strasznie kocham “I feel sorry for him because I love him terribly.” One has to be very careful when asserting that something has suddenly started happening in a language.



Vulgarisms are becoming increasingly widespread. How should we treat them?

Those are not language errors, but cultural gaffes. Such words are indeed part of the Polish language, but they have a certain limited scope. And they definitely should not be used merely to shock people. Very frequently, various people, unfortunately often young, vulgarize their language because they don’t know how to cope with the world otherwise. Saying something vulgar, breaking taboos, helps them feel relief, but otherwise they are unable to express their emotions in a controlled, civilized way. It is worth noticing how certain vulgarisms become worn out through such overuse. For example, the word zajebisty has ceased to be indecent – for young Poles it is merely a synonym for “tremendous” or “distinctive.” But people from the older population still find it offensive.


The language of politicians, for instance, is also full of vulgarisms.

I am not certain that is the case. It seems to me that the biggest shortcoming of the media lies in attracting attention to issues due to their form, not their content. Journalists hone in on every vulgar or inappropriate word or behavior. Here, unfortunately, the priority is just to try to steal a bit of the limelight. I greatly respect most journalists, but I can also see how they try to outdo one another with sensational news. I feel it is unnecessary to devote media attention to the fact that someone used a very insulting, uncouth word. If such practices were not talked about, they would naturally disappear because no one would care about them. It is sad that if someone speaks nicely and sensibly, no one writes about it. But if someone talks senselessly and uses a couple of nasty words, it immediately gets reported far and wide. Why is that? Apart from that, you can insult someone or show them what you really think about them using euphemistic phrases, rather than direct ones.


Such as?

There is a whole dictionary full of euphemisms that enable us to say something that is harsh in content, but delicate in form. For instance: “you son of an impotent mule!” (laughs). A mule is impotent by definition, so the overall combination is quite expressive. There are no vulgar words, and the phrase itself is relatively civil. But the person on the receiving end will likely feel quite insulted. If not, that means they do not understand the subtlety of the language.


How should the Polish language be protected?

At this point, English is undoubtedly dominant in the world. But in the EU, all the languages of the member states are official languages, which means that a sizable share of the EU budget goes to translators. There exists a European Federation of National Institutes of Linguistics (EFNIL). Its Polish national committee is the Council for the Polish Language, affiliated with the Presidium of the Polish Academy of Sciences. The task of this federation is to promote the national languages and multilingualism in Europe. That means there is a conviction that we can never permit English to end up as the only language used in Europe. Of course using English is convenient, but we cannot permit the national languages, including Polish, to disappear, for instance from research publications. I myself am concerned that we ourselves forget about this, as is evident for instance in various regulations issued by our ministerial officials: academic papers published in English score more points than those in Polish. Perhaps that might make sense in the hard or natural sciences, but not entirely so in the humanities. Many research councils and university faculty councils in the humanities have lodged protests, arguing that this could lead to the significant impoverishment of Polish scientific terminology. We have to pay special attention to that.

As for the colloquial language, I would not be worried. We Poles will never end up speaking English in our day-to-day, home lives. We did not speak Latin, even though the language once had a very strong influence. We did not speak German or Russian at home during the partitions of Poland. I therefore think that English is not a threat in that sense.


What role does the Council for the Polish Language (affiliated with the PAS Presidium), a body that you chair, play in protecting or popularizing refined Polish?

The Council is an opinion-issuing and supporting institution; it does not set any norms or models apart from orthographic and punctuation rules (on which it has constitutive power). Every two years we present a report to both houses of Polish Parliament about the status of the protection of Polish in various fields. The recent report pertained to the official Polish used on the websites of selected ministries and other central institutions. We also work to propagate good Polish. Every two years we organize a forum on refined communication, with a different leading topic each time. The topic of the next, ninth such meeting, held in Szczecin in early October, is spoken Polish. We also co-organized the Polish Language Congress in Katowice in 2011 and we have twice organized a “Ambassador of the Polish Language” competition, honoring the individuals who speak and write the best Polish. The first winner was Tadeusz Konwicki, the second Krystyna Bochenek, who had initiated the competition. Awards are given in five categories: spoken Polish, written Polish, young ambassador, regional Polish, and Polish abroad.

The Council also takes part in awarding medals for “Distinguished Service to the Polish Language,” which are conferred by the President of Poland on International Mother Language Day and have already been received by Prof. Walery Pisarek and Prof. Jadwiga Puzynina. Moreover, the Council is also involved in various campaigns and efforts aimed at promoting good, well-refined Polish (rather than combating errors). In fact, I do not like the notion of “combating” errors in the first place. Fighting is not something that serves either a language or its users well. If we set good examples, there will be no battles to be fought.


Interview by Anna Zawadzka  

Photo: Jakub Ostałowski 



Andrzej Markowski
Prof. Andrzej Markowski
a linguist, earned his MA in Polish Studies (with honors) from Warsaw University in 1971, followed five years later by a PhD for his thesis on “Adjectival Antonyms in Modern Polish.” In 1990 he earned his DSc (habilitation) degree for a book on “Lexis Common to Various Varieties of Polish,” then in 1996 he gained the title of professor. Now, as full professor, he lectures at the Section for Lexicography, Theoretical Stylistics and Culture (Institute of the Polish Language, Warsaw University). He has authored or coauthored more than 40 books and dictionaries, more than 180 research papers, and several hundred popular-science articles. Since 2000 he has chaired the Council of the Polish Language (affiliated with the PAS Presidium). He devotes much time to popularizing better awareness of the Polish language, especially among the teaching community. In 2010 he received an Honorary “Golden Microphone” award for “outstanding achievements in promoting refined Polish on all the stations of Polish State Radio.”

© Academia nr 2 (38) 2013


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