3 curious things related to language in Poland

About 4 years ago, I traveled for the first time to Poland and ever since I have gone there for two more times (in one instance, I spend two weeks in rather residential neighborhoods and constantly using the language with friends, acquaintances and shopkeepers, ticket sellers, et al). Of course, as a good language lover, I always pay attention to signs in the street or whatever is written on labels or message boards. Sometimes, they are the best way to learn words or grammar constructions people use in order to sound more natural and at a proper context.

However, many of them have called my attention due to their peculiarity; that they tell you about local history or that people use those same structures in other languages, which makes translations sometimes look awkward. Here are 3 things that have always called my attention in Poland regarding language:

  • NIEMIECKA CHEMIA / CHEMIA Z NIEMIEC, or German is better (when it comes to cleaning products)

    If you ever go to a residential area in Poland, you will find these signs all over buildings. Chemia means both chemistry and domestic cleaning products (chemia gospodarcza), yet… why Germany and why when you enter one you can even find German sweets and household items? Let’s go back to the early 90s. Many people were struggling with economical changes and so. For others, it became a business opportunity by setting up shops that sold German cleaning products bought by bulk from supermarkets in Germany and taking advantage of a local belief that German cleaning products were more effective (Remember kombinować). So, an independent network of Chemia z Niemiec shops were set up and they also started bringing German sweets (Haribo or Tschibo coffee) and so. Sure, most of those brands can be found in almost all shops in Poland (with Polish labels) and many times there have been announcements that cleaning products bought in Poland work as well as their German counterparts and are cheaper… yet, some people still get their cleaning products from these shops. Probably, they like their service and how close to them they are.

  • ZAPRASZAMY DO / POLECAM, or Polish politeness

    You are starving in Poland and you are looking for a place to eat so badly that you manage to find a nice-looking place looking at the street. Usually a sign promoting the restaurant will be there along with the words “ZAPRASZAMY DO RESTARAUCJI” as well with today’s menu or specialties. Most of them can be quite mouth-watering, but the sign will be in a very welcoming language. Literally “we invite (you) to the restaurant”. Other similar sounding expression is “POLECAM”, usually found in adverts with celebrities. They personally “recommend” buying or consuming a certain product. Comparing to other adverts I would see in other countries, language in Polish advertisements does seem more inviting, personalized and even polite to potential users and customers.

  • “We know, what You like” or Polish overpoliteness in English
    While going around a shopping center in Gdynia, I found this sign that I thought it was quite weird in its construction.

    I felt somewhat intimidated… they pretended to know what I like, but that wasn’t what I like! What I really like is good grammar and knowing where it is okay to use one form over the other.
    A common problem for many Polish native speakers is this kind of phrasal constructions and a language that may seem too formal for others. From what I have been told, capitalization in pronouns in Polish only happens with the second person, regardless of number and formality (unlike, for example, Spanish or German which only uses it in the second personal formal, or English which uses it in certain formal constructions and always the first person singular pronoun is capitalized). I am quite aware of the good intention, to show appreciation and respect for your fellow speaker, but these kinds of things in a different language do not have the same impact than in Polish. Yes, also the comma to mark subordinate clauses is also a common mistake with Poles, but I mainly wanted to focus myself in the use of You.

All of these things are commonly found in Poland and have called my attention for good and bad reasons. Of course, there are plenty of things that might be different in one place and the other, but the biggest conclusions I can draw from this piece of writing are: know your audience well and when in doubt, ask for someone to proofread things, even in your native language.

Are there more things that have called your attention in Polish or in other languages? Share them in the comments.

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