Monday, 30 March 2009

Pardon my... er ... French?

We've been learning Polish for almost two years now, girls and boys, and it's time to address the sticky topic of register.

I've already covered some of the problems of the second person formal [loud snoring noises] here.
Admittedly in the wrong language, but let's consider it covered. No, when I talk about register, this time I mean Naughty Words, things that you wouldn't tell your babcia, potoczna polszczyzna.

I don't know about you, but I find it impossible to swear in a foreign language. Maybe this means that I have yet to fully 'internalise' my languages. On the other hand, I want to speak 'real' Polish, French and Italian, as naturally as possible, and it would feel highly unnatural to bang my knee on the table and shout anything other than 'f*cking hell!'.

Pani Kinga, who teaches mówienie, explained that there are three circumstances under which everyone reverts automatically to their native language: swearing, counting (really important! think about it) and prayer (even if you're not religious: everyone says 'Oh God' or 'Oh help!' on occasion). I'd be inclined to agree - except when counting salsa steps, which are etched in my mind as 'raz, dwa, trzy ... pięć, sześć, siedem'. I now have trouble remembering to include 'cztery' when counting in Polish at the market, for example.

I think part of the problem is that profanity is expressed in different formats in various languages. In English, obviously - and I'm assuming everyone knows how to swear in English: isn't it the first thing you look up when you buy your first dictionary aged thirteen and a half? - expletives come in the form of nouns and adjectives. Verbs are less common. French, on the other hand, has alternative verbs to faire: instead of doing something, you're f*cking doing it. Or something like that. The Italians have a complex system of metaphorical blasphemy: porca miseria is already very expressive, but from what I've heard things can get even more convoluted. Various saints and Madonnas are compared to various lowly animals, and it even sounds pretty, whereas our more Anglo-Saxon expressions tend towards the onomatopoeic.

Polish I'm only just starting to get used to. Obviously there's the universal Slavic ejaculation (my keyword stats for this post are going to be awesome). Apparently this can be squeezed into a sentence a lot more than you'd think, in several different permutations.

But then there's a family of verbs as well, with various suffixes and prefixes, all of which make me think of various kinds of pepper - although that's probably just a quirk of the frontal lobes. I simply have to be careful when seasoning in company.
My own PL-EN dictionary tending to the prudish, I was forced to resort to the famous I was surprised to find some helpful synonyms and explanations: 'pranie mózgu', 'dostać surową reprymendę'; 'bezsensowne zajęcie'; 'wyraz ostrej odmowy'. However, I still don't understand how you can say 'ja... (wyrażam ostrej odmowy)'. I'd be happier with a nice impersonal noun or something if I were going to express my irritation/frustration/total lack of engagement with the task underway.

And then there's another expression that I learnt quite recently. I have trouble understanding how this works as well, because it doesn't refer to bodily excretions, interpersonal relations or the anatomy of anyone's mother. Basically it seems to mean 'awesome', only not just 'awesome', but 'really f*cking awesome in a way you wouldn't express in front of your grandmother'.

At the language school, we are taught on a 'good cop, bad cop' basis. On the one hand, we have loooong grammar lessons in which we sit in silence and read out sentences in turn from a brick of a volume bearing the incongruous title 'Przygoda z gramatyką'. I often pack it in my handbag if I'm planning to walk home late at night through the Planty. Our good cop is a young phd student who teaches with worksheets, videos, role-play and plenty of pictures for the hard of thinking. As it happens, we often find ourselves writing imaginary advertisements, posters and general marketing blurb, and today was a typical example: we were instructed to write a short piece of publicity for an imaginary gadget, allocated in secret on a slip of paper. It was the end of a long session which had started at eight thirty in the morning, and no-one was really concentrating.

One of the quieter girls in our class started to read out her composition, in polite, measured tones:
'Do you like to swim? Do you love music? Why not try our new underwater headphones? For just 150 zloty you can continue to enjoy your favourite songs wherever you might be: in the pool, on the beach.... your holidays will be (to use the translation) bitching!

Peals of laughter shook the room and our classmate looked extremely embarrassed, but when it came to choosing our favourite product at the end of the class, she won hands down.

Which just goes to show I suppose that the best marketing is memorable marketing.

Maybe I should change my CV: 'pinolona, bloody fantastic translator'...

How to curse elegantly in French, as demonstrated in Matrix Reloaded


Anonymous said...

Hi Pino:
Loved your post. I can totally relate to your situation. I simply don't know how to curse properly in Polish. Until the age of 20, I was convinced there were very few curse words in Polish (as my parents never cursed other than to utter "psia krew" or "cholera jasna"). I simply don't know how to do it properly. Over the years, I have picked up a few choice words obviously, but I still don't feel comfortable punctuating sentences with the appropriate emphasis.
I do quite like the word zaje*** .
Going to Poland this summer so I'm sure my vocabulary will expand. ;)

pinolona said...

Thanks Basia!
I suspect that Polish readers are going to laugh at me over this post... I can hear the rumble of mirth already.
It's very confusing with words like that when you have no idea whether they're genuinely, shockingly rude, or whether they're sort of milder, like damn or sod it. In which case, I've been a little trigger-happy with the censorship star.

Incidentally, des gros mots can also help you with grammar:
pieprzony facet>> pieprzeni faceci: an excellent way to remember the -ony >> -eni (not to mention t > c) change in męskoosobowy adjectives.
(is that very very rude? Do I need to delete this comment? How will I ever remember masculine plurals without it?!)

What are you doing in Poland this summer? Hols? Sounds like a much more sensible idea than rocking up in the middle of winter :(

Anonymous said...

You should use:

"piepszony" = damn (damn guy, damn language...)

"kurcze" = shit

In Polish they are not rude and not vulgar.

Anonymous said...

ps: "kurcze(chicken)" is much less vulgar than "shit"...even children or diplomats can use "kurcze".

pinolona said...

thank you anonymous! Any more suggestions? Maybe I can make up a glossary!

I'll have to look out for potty-mouthed diplomats in future...

Anonymous said...

Of course there are many other similar (not rude-not vulgar)words. But I think you just do not need them.

All you need is "piepszony" and "kurcze".

For example, you can say...kurcze ! my piepszony heel has broken off ;)

pinolona said...

anon: thanks, but it's winter in Poland... I'd sooner fly to school than wear high heels :)

Darth Sida said...


"swearing, counting [...] and prayer"? I beg to differ. None of these. I was able to be a swearbarian and numbarian in a non-native language. (Not every insult is aimed outside, one can get away with insults given in a not too widespread language. The dirt not understood [by the external observer] is not insulting.) I was taught that the only situation a person could not flee their native language was the point of climaxing (provided it goes sonorant and verbal). Yoaps.

And sociolexical trivia. Once I made a paper, in which I tried to observe whether the speaker's choice of certain consonants should have influence on or reflection in the gravity of their Polish pardon-my-French-words. The results were not too conclusive but certain things held (hold?) valid:
1. Voiceless spews are tenderer (less insultive) than their voiced equivalents. (Consider "pupa" and its stronger version, for example.)
2. The sound [r] (the Polish, not the English [r] (but Scots [r] welcome)) is necessary to produce some 60% of realy strong words in Polish. (The per cent note may be different now, time passed, the leid changed.) "B" and "D" scored high, too.
3. Can't recall much more.

pinolona said...

I've noticed that the length of the R appears to be directly proportional to the level of ire expressed by the expleting party (as in 'kto kurrrrrrrrrrcze ci dał prawo jadzy?!?!')

What you say about voicing is interesting though: our two most common - uh - Anglo-Saxon expressions both use voiceless consonants.

Anonymous said...

Does anyone actually use pieprzone and it's various forms? Maybe popieprzone sometimes.

I tend to think you either get the people that swear full out or the ones that don't. In everyday speach at least, not counting swearing for emphasis/humour everyone now and then. I'm shocked the amount of Poles I overhear on a London bus throwing around kur*a like it's going out of style. But the same can be said when taking the train to Edinburgh and a group of people from Newcastle get one, except replace kurw*a with c*nt or f*ck.

Using a lot of pieprzone will be a bit like Ned Flanders saying gosh darn it all the time.

Anonymous said...

Oh yeah, to add to my post above, I will definitely throw in a kurrrrrrrrrrrrr*****a hear and then when a shot in tennis (or most other sports) does not go my way.

Anonymous said...


just go to the place the workers are building new building or to the football stadium and hear especially pseudo/quasi footbalfans!!!

Anonymous said...

Back to the importance of the long rolled "r" in Polish.

When thinking about a name for our younger son, we considered the name "Curtis" for a while. When I considered how my mother would pronounce the name, (with her heavy Polish accent), we quickly reconsidered. LOL.
We named him Thomas instead.

Basia said...

garrrrr, i wish i could have stuck with polish a little more....well, a whole lot more.

i've been told i speak (speak, ha that's a laugh) polish with an italian accent. suppose that's better than with an english accent. hmmm.

oh, i'm on another blog now. yes, i know i keep flitting around but i've bought the domain so i have to stay now ;)

there's a post with 20 ways to be happier. i hope you like it :)


Michael Dembinski said...

Whatever happened to that fascinating post about how men should chat up women?

A veritable tour de force that one was!

pinolona said...

hahaha I realised that one or two of the research specimens that I had quoted and/or paraphrased might actually read it, so I withdrew it to draft, to be sneakily re-published at a later date when no-one is looking...

Shaunj said...

I dunno but I am twisted anyway, but swearing in Polish is one of the only aspects of the language that I have mastered like a true pro.

It's dangerous as hell. People have been killed for less. What could be viewed by a native speaker as the worst insult imagineable for me is just a funny bunch of sounds that get a reaction everytime.

pinolona said...

aww I'm crap at swearing in Polish. Only on Friday we were learning cooking verbs in class, and we got as far as:

- przeprawić?
- (us, in chorus) dodać przeprawy
- solić?
- (chorus) dodać sól
- pieprzyć?
- *undisguised mirth*
- (emphatically) to znacze dodać pieprz. I tyle!

Sylwia said...

If it might be of help it's much easier to me to swear in English than in Polish. In English 1.) it means nothing to me 2.) many people say it.

Mild, inoffensive swearing words in Polish are "kurczę" and "cholera", plus all of the variations of the name of God, Jesus, Mary and saints. I.e. "Boziu", "Jezu", "O Boże", and older people might say "Jezus Maryja" and "Przenajświętsza Panienko". However, it's sin so be careful not to use them around priests and nuns. :D

"Pieprzyć" is stronger. Diplomats wouldn't use it. "Kurde" is halfway between "kurczę" and "pieprzyć".

Some that are used mostly for humorous effect are "kurka wodna", "motyla noga", and "chorobcia".

"Olaboga" is used when you'd rather not comment on something, but it's funny as well.

Polish is much richer when it comes to heavy swearing, but usually I don't use those words outside of my car.

The word "zajebisty" came via a total revolution during the last 20 years, and today it might mean 'awesome', however, one still wouldn't use it with one's grandmother. I think that Franek Dolas called the English "Fajfokloki jebane", but in the verb form the word is still very strong. Stronger than the English equivalent I think.

Generally it seems that Brits use swearing words more often than Poles, at least Poles in Poland, because people overuse them once they set their foot outside of the country when they think that no one understands. When Seksmisja premiered in the mid-1980s no one talked of the tens of naked women there, only of this one scene:

pinolona said...

Thanks Sylwia! It's good to have some guidelines on how polite or rude things really are...

I'll be back soon, honest!

Michael Dembinski said...

"Generally it seems that Brits use swearing words more often than Poles, at least Poles in Poland"

Disagree. What bugs me about the unwashed uneducated half of Polish youth is its unthinking use of the 'k' word (as in k**** zobać jak k**** jestem k**** dojrzały/twardy/męski, k****,). I don't mind people swearing when they are cross, but just casually interspersing the word into one's speech is chamstwo.

Swearing is just prop used by unimaginative, semi-literate fuckers.

[irony alert]

Sylwia said...

Michael, you might be right. It's just that in my generation that is in its 30s now people almost never swear, at least not those I know, unless they’re really angry or for a humorous effect. But, you know, the youth is always worse. ;)

Yet, can we apply the habits of young people to the whole? After all they're only a fraction of the society, and most likely the majority of them will stop once they become more mature.

My assumption referred more to popular culture than habits. Swearing words appear in English language movies more often than in Polish ones. It's in transition of course, that's why I brought the example of Seksmisja. Back then it was a shocking occurrence on a national scale, but we had Psy since then, and it seems that the words are becoming more casual. Yet it's still not the same, and in fact, when you're watching a foreign film here, swearing words are usually not translated. Maciej Stuhr made an excellent parody of that, with a special dedication to translators, and it provides more words for Pinolona: ‘zasmarkany’, ‘do diaska’, and ‘terefere’. Enjoy!

Michael Dembinski said...

My 91 year-old father-in-law told me over Easter than back in 1930s Kozienice (90 km south of Warsaw), the k-word was in everyday usage just as common (if not more so) than today.

The difference is that in some households (educated, middle class), it is frowned upon while in domy prostych chamusiów it's like verbal flatulence that leaves a bad smell but is entirely natural.

I think it was the British comedian Frank Skinner who said that swearing in comedy is like ketchup - used in moderation it can have the right effect, but you can't construct an entire meal from it. As true in England as anywhere else.

Anonymous said...


przYprawić = dodać przYprawy

przEprawić you can on the other side of the river


przEprawy you can have doing it many times or in the metaphorical meaning, you can have got przeprawy (pl.)/ przeprawę (sing.) with your boss or husband or anybody you can't find the same words or you quarrel with.

pinolona said...

Thanks anonymous! as you can probably tell, prze- and przy- are a source of no small amount of trouble for me... :)

Sylwia said...

Watching Liverpool vs. Arsenal today I recalled one more. 'Holender' is a milder version of 'cholera'. Although I'm not sure it's politically correct. For what it's worth it's after the flying one, not a regular Dutchman.