June 11, 2011 | Polish

Counting in Polish

Polish math mystifies.

As I mentioned in a previous entry, on a trip to Poland as a small child I learned 15 words of Polish, including the numbers up to 10.

Eleven days into my Polish studies, that basic starting knowledge is still coming in handy—way out of proportion to what I would have expected.

Rosetta Stone, Numbers Practice

Rosetta Stone, Numbers Practice

For one thing, I didn’t realize how much time was normally devoted to teaching basic numbers! They come up in Rosetta Stone repeatedly.

And it’s interesting psychologically, too, because those few Polish words—which have not come up very often in my life—connect me across a significant expanse of time to another age. Another age for me, and another age for Poland, too.

I don’t know why I remembered the 15 words I learned back in the 1970s, but every time Rosetta Stone starts an exercise on numbers, I get happy.

However, there are clouds on my language-learning horizon: Oscar E. Swan, writer of the grammar book I am reading, cautions, “The Polish numeral system strikes most people as complex. Indeed, it has probably never been exhaustively described, and usage can vary from speaker to speaker.”

Never been exhaustively described”? Really?!

Swan goes on to give what he calls a “basic outline.” His basic outline lasts pages. Many features of Polish numbers sound similar to Russian, which was the first language I studied as part of this project (back in July and August of 2009) and whose numbers amazed me.

The most important thing is, numbers change form—a lot! Which version of a number you use depends on case (i.e., is the number connected to the subject or the direct object or the indirect object or something else altogether?), gender of the thing being counted, whether the thing is a person or not, and probably other considerations I am not yet aware of.

(I intentionally ended that sentence with a preposition, by the way. I believe in it. It’s an old wives’ tale that you can’t do that.)

These are all forms of “two,” for instance: dwa, dwóch, dwu, dwom, dwóm, dwoma, dwiedwiema, dwaj. I am not kidding.

Probabilities apparently factor into the number choices as well. If you are referring to two students (this point applies to nominative case), and you know one is male and one is female, you would use dwoje. If you are not sure of the gender breakdown, but there might be one male and one female, you use dwóch.

As a language learner, this kind of thing inspires some dread, I confess. But I also find it fascinating.

There’s plenty more where that came from. “With compound numerals,” Swan explains, “the counted noun has the case indicated by the final numeral. Numerals ending in 2, 3, or 4 are followed by the nominative plural, while numerals ending in 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, or 0 are followed by the genitive plural.”

Translation: if you refer to 23 notebooks in Polish, the form of the noun “notebooks” is different from the form of “notebooks” you would use if there were 25 of them.

Another thing that takes some getting used to: in ordinals (e.g., “first,” “second,” “third”), both pieces of compound numbers change to ordinal form.

For example, you don’t say “twenty-first” in Polish. You say the equivalent of “twentieth-first.”

That may not sound like a big deal, but it actually requires a significant amount of brainpower (for me, anyway) to recall two ordinal forms at once and then stick them together without forgetting entirely what else I was trying to say. 

And finally: there are apparently special numbers for special circumstances. It cracks me up to read sentences like this (from Swan’s book): “A set of collective numerals is used with mixed male-female groups, with the young of animals, and with plural-only nouns. In poetic use, collective numerals may be used with paired body parts, such as eyes or hands.”

I am suddenly picturing incongruous collections that could require counting in this special way: awkward pre-teens at their first boy-girl dance, wide-eyed baby animals at Central Park Zoo, and disembodied eyeballs.

Trying to sort through stuff like this sometimes feels like the linguistic equivalent of bungee jumping.

Disclaimer: If I have made mistakes in anything above, I sincerely apologize. I am trying to highlight grammatical features I find interesting, but since I am brand new to this language, it is entirely possible I misunderstood something or got something wrong.

Mr. Oscar E. Swan is the expert. I, on the other hand, am still learning how to say things such as “husband,” “wife,” “plate,” and “I would like to drink a beer with you.”

Comments (2)

Luba • Posted on Wed, June 15, 2011 - 11:35 pm EST

As you said, in Russian the system of numbers is also extremely complicated (I suppose that Polish, for example, has dual number, too - the thing we all got from Old Slavonic), and even native speakers sometimes make mistakes! for instance, in Russian ordinal compound numbers only the last piece change (unlike in Polish), but a lot of people do change the first number too, though it’s wrong. in numbers like 2001.

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Thu, June 16, 2011 - 12:21 am EST

Hmm, I was actually thinking that in Russian both pieces of ordinal compound numbers changed form, as in Polish. I am pretty sure I have encountered that pattern with some language somewhere before in this project. I wonder which it was.

It is reassuring to hear that native Russian speakers sometimes make mistakes with numbers!

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