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True friends, false friends, unreliable friends and
friends in disguise

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Making friends with Polish
True friends, false friends,
unreliable friends and
friends in disguise
by Jonathan Marks

• Bilingual homographs, homophones and homonyms
• Cognates
• Classical borrowings
• Borrowings from English intact
• Borrowings with adaptations
• Borrowings assimilated
• False and unreliable friends
• Friends in disguise
• Metaphors
• Idioms
• A more subversive influence?
• Further reading
• Next in the series

Issue 23 of MED Magazine included an interesting article on borrowings and false friends between Polish and English. My purpose in this article is to look a bit more closely at some of the relationships between the vocabularies of these two languages, to identify some points of divergence and possible confusion, but also to reveal some hidden similarities.

If you look at a text in Polish – even though Polish is written in the Latin alphabet, unlike some of the other Slavonic languages – you won't spot many obvious similarities with English. And even then, some of the apparent similarities are misleading. You'll see the words to and ten, but in Polish these are determiners. You'll see do, but this is a preposition. You'll see ale, but this is a conjunction, rather than something to quench your thirst with.

In fact, there are more similarities than first impressions might suggest, although some of them need to be treated with caution by the Polish-speaking learner of English or the English-speaking learner of Polish.


Bilingual homographs, homophones and homonyms

Starting with purely coincidental similarities between English and Polish, here are a few examples of what I call bilingual homographs (same spelling in both languages, but different pronunciations), bilingual homophones (more or less the same pronunciation, as far as the pronunciation systems of the two languages allow, but different spelling), and bilingual homonyms (same spelling and more or less the same pronunciation).

Examples of bilingual homographs:

Polish word pronunciation meaning English word
ale /ale/ but ale
facet /fatset/ bloke facet
pies /pjes/ dog pies
pole /pole/ field pole (and Pole!)

Examples of bilingual homophones:

Polish word meaning English word
jak how yak
o elk, moose wash
ki meadows wonky
noc night knots

Examples of bilingual homonyms:

Polish word meaning English word
gap onlooker gap
lot flight lot
pan a form of address, lord pan
ten this ten



Polish and English, as a Slavonic and Germanic language respectively, have a shared Indo-European ancestry, and there are a considerable number of ancient cognates, though in some cases the similarity is more obvious than in others:

Polish word meaning related English word
brzoza birch  
buk beech book
dom house domestic
dwa two  
jabko apple  
koo wheel  
kot cat  
rzodkiewka radish  
sok juice succulent
ssa suck  
ssak mammal suckle
sto hundred cent
nieg snow  
trzy three  


Classical borrowings

From the Renaissance on, European languages in general have tended to borrow large amounts of learned vocabulary from Latin and Greek, either directly or via some other language such as French. Polish is no exception, and the result has been an enormous increase in the vocabulary that Polish and English have in common. Here are just a few examples:

Polish word English word
absurd the absurd, absurdity
celibat celibacy
cenzura censorship
dialekt dialect
epidemia epidemic
epoka epoch
horyzont horizon
humanitarny humanitarian
idealizm idealism
katastrofa catastrophe
obsesja obsession
patologia pathology
renesans renaissance


Borrowings from English intact

Polish has also borrowed from other languages, notably German, but in recent times English has been the predominant source. Some words have been borrowed from English more or less intact, with the spelling unchanged and no deliberate adaptation of the pronunciation:

happening (noun)
lunch (noun)
notebook (computer)
show (noun)

In Polish, show is something of a curiosity. If it was given the normal inflections for case and number, there would be bizarre consequences for spelling and pronunciation, and so, unusually for a Polish word (there are a few more such examples), it remains uninflected.

When words are borrowed ostensibly intact, some interesting fluctuations in pronunciation and spelling can arise among people unfamiliar with the original English versions. The word styling is used in the context of hairdressing, and is sometimes pronounced like 'stealing'. Hot dog sometimes appears as hod dog, and there are some creative spellings of cheeseburger, including chessburger.


Borrowings with adaptations

More usually, there is some adaptation to borrowed vocabulary, with the pronunciation being preserved at least approximately, and the spelling altered to fit with Polish spelling conventions:

Polish word Meaning
bryd bridge (the card game)
didej DJ
faks fax
grejpfrut (or grapefruit) grapefruit
interfejs interface
ksero /ksero/ Xerox
lider leader


Borrowings assimilated

Unlike show, borrowed words are generally subject to normal Polish morphological processes, and this sometimes has the effect of disguising the similarity with the original English version:

Polish pronunciation meaning
w barze /baže/ in the bar
w biznesie /biznee/ in business
w dobrym humorze /humože/ in a good mood
z liderami /liderami/ with the leaders
grupa outsiderów /autsaideruf/ a group of outsiders

(The phoneme /ž/ is a voiced palato-alveolar fricative and // is a voiceless alveo-palatal fricative.)

Borrowed words often form the basis for quite large word families. A very productive process is the formation of verbs ending in -owa. Many of these are well-established:

Polish word English word*
akceptowa to accept
decydowa to decide
finansowa to finance
formatowa to format

But others are increasingly invented on an ad hoc basis, and cause a certain amount of adverse reaction:

performowa to perform

Perfective forms of these verbs can be formed by adding prefixes:

Polish word English word
zaakceptowa to accept
zdecydowa to decide
sfinansowa to finance
przeforsowa to force/push through*
zmodernizowa to modernise

For nouns, productive suffixes are -acja, corresponding to English -ation (or -izacja/-yzacja, corresponding to -isation):

eskalacja escalation
prezentacja presentation
restrukturyzacja restructuring

and -owanie, which often corresponds to the gerund in English:

finansowanie financing
tolerowanie tolerating
zablokowanie blocking

For adjectives, a common suffix is -ny/-alny:

ekstremalny extreme
zdecydowany determined*
skomputeryzowany computerised

And there are corresponding adverbs with -nie/-alnie:

ekstremalnie extremely
zdecydowanie decidedly, also definitely*

Another productive adjectival suffix is -owy:

dolarowy dollar
komputerowy computer
jazzowy jazz

The suffix -ka is regularly used to derive feminine forms from masculine ones. So a barman is barman, and a barmaid is barmanka /bar'manka/.

Sometimes Polish forms expose lexical gaps in English. Solidarno is solidarity, but what are the English equivalents of the adjective solidarny or the reflexive verb solidaryzowa si?


False and unreliable friends

Not surprisingly, there are many cases where apparently equivalent items in the two languages have totally different meanings, or where there is some partial difference in meaning or usage.

In English, angina is heart disease, but in Polish angina is a throat disease. A Polish dekada can be ten years, but also ten days; the first dekada of December is the first ten days of December.

A pulpit in Polish is a music-stand, or a desktop in computerspeak. A drink is not a drink in general, but usually a strong alcoholic drink or cocktail. A konkurs is not a concourse but a competition. A rower is not a rover but a bicycle, named after the Rover company which made the first bicycles that became popular in Poland. Similarly, trainers are adidasy, after the brand name. More surprisingly, the singular form adidas is used informally to mean AIDS, or as a derogatory term for a person suffering from that condition. If something is fatalny, it might be unlucky, awful or pathetic, but not fatal. An audycja is a radio programme, not an audition. A kolega is a friend, who may or may not be a colleague. Pensja is a salary, not a pension; renta is a disability benefit, which may or may not be enough to pay your rent with.

In English you can resign from a job or some other kind of official position, but in Polish you can rezygnowa from any kind of activity – even before you start doing it! Telefon means a telephone, a telephone number or a telephone call. Muzyk and fotograf are musician and photographer, not music (muzyka) and photograph (fotografia). Hydraulik is a plumber. In English, a fragment is generally something broken and imperfect, but in Polish, fragment doesn't necessarily have these connotations; it can simply be a piece or part in a very general sense. Relax is a verb in English but a noun (relaks) in Polish. Chips, drops and notes look like English plurals but are singular in Polish (crisp (British English) or chip (American English); fruit drop and notebook, respectively) with the plural forms chipsy, dropsy and notesy. And so on.


Friends in disguise

Digging deeper into the vocabularies of the two languages reveals a great deal of similarity which isn't evident on the surface, but which results from parallel processes of combining lexical elements which are quite different in form but closely similar in meaning.

The Polish word wszechmocny and the English words almighty and omnipotent are formed from the constituents wszech/al/omni, meaning 'all' and mocny/mighty/potent, meaning 'powerful'. Indeed, another equivalent word in English is 'all-powerful'. Almighty uses Germanic elements in English, whereas omnipotent uses corresponding Latinate elements. There are many more parallels of this kind, where the English word is formed from Latin or Greek elements:

Polish word meaning constituents
samochód automobile samo/auto = self
chodzi = walk, go
mobile = moving
wspópraca cooperation wspó/co = together
praca/oper = work
wspóczucie sympathy wspó/sym = together
czucie/pathy = feeling
przeksztaci transform prze/trans = through, across, over
ksztat/form = shape
przekroczy exceed prze = through, across, over
kroczy = step
ex = out
ceed = go
wpyw influence w/in = in
pywa/flu- = flow

Recognition of Latin and Greek elements in English opens windows onto all kinds of parallels in Polish. To take just one example, the Latin element cur-, meaning 'run', appears in a large number of English words, such as:

course cursor incursion
current concourse precursor
curriculum cursive recourse
courier cursory corsair
occur discourse corridor
currency excursion succour

Some of these have close equivalents in Polish: kurs (course), kurier (courier), kursor (cursor), kursywa (cursive). But in many other cases the equivalents can be found in words based on bieg or bie-, also meaning 'run' ( is a regular alternation of g in derived forms) such as:

Polish meaning
bieg Dunaju the course of the Danube
bieg zdarze the course of events
z biegiem czasu in the course of time
przebieg choroby the course of an illness
woda bieca running water
biecy rok this year, the current year
komentarz na bieco a running commentary
biegunka diarrhoea, also known as 'the runs'
pobieny cursory
zbieno concurrence



Polish makes use of many of the same key metaphors as English. (You can read more about 'Metaphor' in the Language Awareness section of the Macmillan English Dictionary.) Here again, I'll give just one example: understanding is like seeing. In English, we say things like:

I see what you mean.
clarify/a clear explanation
shed light on a mystery
it dawned on me

Similarly, in Polish:

Polish meaning
widzisz you see
jasne clear(ly), obvious(ly), of course
wyjani explain
owiata education
owiecenie enlightenment

The elements shown in bold all have basic meanings connected with seeing and light.



Polish and English have a large number of idioms in common, including:

Polish English
chude lata lean years
goym okiem with the naked eye
krokodyle zy crocodile tears
lwia cz the lion's share
abdzi piew swansong
schowa gow w piasek hide your head in the sand

Sometimes there are slight differences although the basic idea is the same:

Polish English
wilk w owczej skórze a wolf in sheep's clothing
(literally: in a sheep's skin)
burza w szklance wody a storm in a teacup
(literally: in a glass of water)
kot w worku a pig in a poke
(literally: a cat in a sack)
czarny ko a dark horse
(literally: a black horse)


A more subversive influence?

In these few examples of English and Polish vocabulary, we have seen examples of:

items borrowed from one language to the other
items 'loan-translated', i.e. combined from elements which are different from, but which correspond to, items in the other language
items which remain from the early common origin of the two languages
items which develop independently but along parallel lines because they reflect a shared view of the world they relate to

These are all normal processes of vocabulary development. Borrowings and loan-translations can change the character of a language's lexicon to a greater or lesser extent, but they don't normally have any impact on the fundamental structure of the language that does the borrowing. But an example of a potentially more substantial impact is provided by a recent trend in compounding in Polish, under the influence of both English and German, in which it is a normal means of word formation.

It's exemplified in a word like automyjnia, corresponding to car wash in English and Autowaschanlage/Autowäsche in German. This style of compounding, with an uninflected modifying element placed in front of the base noun, is traditionally alien to Polish, where the expected compound would be myjnia aut – or, even more traditionally, myjnia samochodów – with the modifying element placed second and in the genitive case. Similarly, there are now compounds like euroturystyka, which would in a more traditional style be turystyka europejska, i.e. a noun followed by a qualifying adjective. Other examples of this phenomenon include:

Polish compound meaning
autokradzie car theft
autoalarm car alarm
europarlament European parliament
euroregion Euro-region
agrochemia agricultural chemistry
agroturystyka rural tourism, agrotourism
ekorozwój ecological development
ekoywno ecologically-produced food
telegazeta teletext
teleturniej TV quiz show

In other words, what's been borrowed is a morphological process which can be applied to native Polish elements as well as borrowed ones. So far the number of modifying elements it can be used with is limited, but who knows how it might develop?

In any case, it seems likely that Polish will be influenced increasingly by English as the overall level of knowledge of English rises among the population, and more and more people are involved in passive contact with, or active use of, English in their daily lives.


Further reading

Andrzej Markowski's book Polszczyna znana i nieznana (Gdaskie Wydawnictwo Owiatowe, 1999) is full of interesting reflections on the Polish language today.

A good source of information on the history of Polish words is Andrzej Bakowski's Etymologiczny Sownik Jzyka Polskiego (Wydawnictwo Naukowe PWN, 2000). Unfortunately, only two of the projected three volumes, A-K and L-P, have been published.

If you'd like to read more about the semantics of English borrowings into Polish, see MED Magazine's October 2004 issue.


Next in the series

The topic of the next article in this series will discuss the Maltese language and its borrowing from English.


* Note: Except where noted, the meanings are closely similar to the original English ones.