Rants and Raves

Opinion, commentary, reviews of books, movies, cultural trends, and raising kids in this day and age.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Adventures with language

In 1991, just before I left Oklahoma to go to Poland to teach English in a new "non-public" high school (only in the post-communist world does that term make sense), a friend of mine said, "Why do I get the feeling that a hundred years from now, linguists are going to discover a village in Poland where everybody quotes Kipling?"

That may yet come to pass, but I do sometimes wonder how many corruptions of the Polish language I am personally responsible for.

My students in high school were fascinated with English slang, and there was a bit of a fashion in parts of Eastern Europe (may still be for all I know) for writing grafitti in English. (I saw "Skateboarding is not a crime" on a wall in a town called Milanovek once.)

I remember teaching them "talking to the toilet" - (Aussie slang for "vomit") and how they howled with laughter.

Later I saw it on a wall, one town down the train line from mine.

Another one that made them laugh uncontrolably: I looked out the window and saw it was snowing. In Polish, snow is "snieg" (shh/nee-egg) "It's snowing" is "snieg pada" (literally "snow falls".) So I said, "Look, it's sniegging."

That one brought down the house.

Another that some of my friends liked was, "What are you doing today?"

"Just veging."

And then there was the time I almost caused a Polish girl to expire with exhausted laughter in Prague.

We were walking through one of that most marvelous of city's parks one night, and I saw a bat.

I asked, "Co to jest po Polsku?" ("What's that in Polish?")

I heard something I thought sounded like "topesh," so I tried to confirm, "Topesh?"

She replied, with emphasis, "Nietopesz."

Two things I must explain: one is that the negative prefix in Polish is "nie," meaning "no," but also as a prefix non-, un-, a-, ab- etc. It's one of two or three areas in which Polish grammar is actually simpler than English.

(Polish also has one negative suffix: -bez, meaning "without" or "-less.")

The other thing is that Polish has about 50% more basic speech sounds than English, including a number of subtly different sounds that sound to us like "sh," and represented by "sz" and "s" with a few different diacritical marks that I don't have the type for on this program.

So (back to the park), I thought the young lady was saying, "Not topesh" and kept trying various combinations like "TOE-pesh," "toe-PESH," "toe-pezh" while she kept saying "NIETOPESZ" while choking with laughter and holding her stomach.

I think she had literally collapsed to the ground when I finally realized that "bat" in Polish, is "nietopesz."

Always happy to be a source of such innocent merriment to my friends.

Some day I'll tell how I tried to put together a term for "yankee" in Polish, and came up with a construction that means "half a chamber pot."


  • At 7:55 AM, Blogger Jeremiah said…

    "half a chamber pot" might match up pretty well with the British/Australian "Septic" rhyming slang for Yank.

  • At 9:37 AM, Blogger gun-totin-wacko said…

    Being a Michigander, I once had fun teaching a coworker from Africa what a "Yooper" is. Once he was able to pronounce and define that, we moved onto the next step: The opposite of a Yooper is a "Troll", since trolls live underneath (or below) bridges.

    I wonder if he still remembers all that...

  • At 3:10 PM, Blogger Joseph Sixpack said…

    When I was in Iraq, I often made plans with my Iraqi counterparts for missions the following day. Eventually, we would hammer out a timeline. But punctuality is not a virtue in Arab culture. Rather than giving assurances that they would be at, say, location x at time y, they would only say, "we will be at location x at time y, insh'allah." Insh'allah - if Allah wills it - basically meant "maybe" or "if we feel like it" or sometimes even "no."

    One day I demanded of my counterpart that he needed to be at location x at time y regardless of whether Allah willed it. I demanded that he must be there because I, Joe, wills it. "Insh'Joe" I explained.

    Now, I thought that this was a pretty straightforward statement. God is "Allah" and Insh'allah is "if God will it." Therefore, in my English-speaking mind, Insh'Joe should mean "if Joe wills it." To my surprise it took me a full 5 minutes to explain to my interpreter what I was saying. Finally, he laughed, took a full minute to explain it to the Iraqi Officers, they laughed, and this became a running joke for the next 6 months.

    Everytime after that, as we agreed upon missions and timelines, the Iraqi would always conclude with, "ok, 6 AM, Inshallah" as he tried not to grin. He just wanted me to pound my fist and declare, "no, 6 AM, insh'Joe!" I humored them everytime and they all howled with laughter everytime. But they always seemed to show up on time if I did it.


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