June 4, 2011 | Polish

Polish Nouns: Kind of Scary

Polish has seven cases, and I am frightened.

This morning I went to a Rosetta Stone event at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel at Columbus Circle. What a view!

New York As Seen from the Mandarin Oriental Hotel

New York As Seen from the Mandarin Oriental Hotel

The purpose of the event was to announce their new TOTALe Companion HD application, which allows you to run their course content on an iPad. I don’t currently have an iPad, but I can appreciate how this development would add to the language-learning experience by making it more flexible and mobile.

I will aspire to an iPad in the near future.

I think that after inviting me to two events, the Rosetta Stone people might possibly be getting tired of my tendency to derail new-release-related discussions in favor of my own agenda, which tends to involve listing in excruciating detail the pros and cons of my Rosetta Stone experience—or, alternatively, trying to talk broader language-learning philosophy that has nothing to do with whatever new release we are there to discuss.

I don’t meant to derail the discussions. I am excitable and can’t help myself. It’s not every day that you get to be around so many language-learning nerds at once. (That’s a compliment, Rosetta Stone people!) But they are very nice to me anyway.

Today I got the results for my oral French test, taken two days ago. I got a 9. That’s out of a maximum possible 12. My 9 is described as “advanced,” and it is two points higher than the 7 I scored back at the beginning of March, but still, I was hoping for at least a 10. I am a little sad, to be honest.

Polish Verbs & Essentials of Grammar, by Oscar E. Swan, with Latte

Polish Verbs & Essentials of Grammar, by Oscar E. Swan, with Latte

But I have to move it along! My attention is now on Polish. I have been doing Pimsleur Polish lessons—sadly, they offer only 30 lessons for this language—and reading my new Polish grammar book.

I will also be using Rosetta Stone as soon as I set it up.

One great resource is the women who work at my favorite local café. Most of them are Polish, and they are, generously, happy to help.

At least the Polish alphabet is familiar. It is after all the Roman alphabet, with some extra letters with diacritical marks. 

I was going to type them here, but I see they are not among my symbols in Microsoft Word. Grrr. I will write them instead.

Some Fancy Polish Letters

Some Fancy Polish Letters

Letters like these always make foreign languages look so, well, foreign! And mysterious! And exciting!

That the other letters are familiar is a good thing, because I can already see that the declensions in Polish are crazy. There are three noun genders (masculine, neuter, and feminine) and seven cases.

You know how in English there is only one form of the noun “store” no matter how you use it?

For example:

  • The store was open.
  • I ran into the store.
  • I robbed the store.

Well, that’s not true in Polish. Depending on how you use a noun in a sentence, the forms change. A lot. Shown here are the possibilities for “store,” whose basic form is apparently sklep.

One Noun (Store), Many Forms

One Noun (Store), Many Forms

Please don’t think for one second that because I’m writing these forms down, I already know them. I do not have the slightest clue at this point. I haven’t even memorized the basic word sklep, much less all its permutations.

And the thing about this kind of stuff is that it adds so much time to the learning process. I mean, if I want to learn how to say “store” in English, someone tells me “store,” and I am done with it.

Well, okay, that’s not quite true. I also have to know that “stores” is the plural. And then, much more significantly, I have to learn how to use articles (“a,” “an,” and “the”), which is an automatic thing for a native English speaker and extremely tough for someone whose native language does not even have articles.

Still, I think I’d take articles over this. If I had a choice. Which I don’t. So I will need to suck it up.

Comments (8)

mimi • Posted on Fri, June 10, 2011 - 10:24 am EST

you mean you didn’t learn Latin first?

that would help a lot since Modern Polish got a lot of its structure from Latin-speaking monks who thought Polish needed a little help.

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Fri, June 10, 2011 - 11:13 am EST


No, no meaningful Latin background for me. Some years ago I tried to address that deficiency by signing up for a Latin class at NYU, but it met at 9 a.m. on Saturday mornings, and I am more of a night owl, so I lasted only a few sessions.

That, and what I have read about Latin in old English grammar books (which in the 18th and 19th centuries, and into the 20th as well, seem to have been pretty heavily influenced by Latin grammar) is the extent of my Latin education.

Fortunately, the case concept is familiar to me from living languages, and Polish seems to be very similar to Russian in terms of the number and nature of the cases. But there are just so many darn forms/endings to try to memorize! :)

Luba • Posted on Fri, June 10, 2011 - 10:56 pm EST

Well, you’ve already studied the same system of cases and genders in Russian and you got through:) actually, a lot of endings in cases in Polish are the same as in Russian.

donna • Posted on Sat, June 11, 2011 - 6:54 am EST

Hi Ellen
You can change your apple to speak to you in polish (in the menu) and also you can change your keyboard to type different languages.  That should give you more practice with the diacritical marks.

Charles • Posted on Tue, June 14, 2011 - 2:25 am EST

Ah, but English nouns do change—in fact we’ve got two cases: nominative and genitive.  For example (using your illustration of the word “store”) The store’s policy is divisive.

In middle English (think Chaucer), to make a possessive one added “-es” to a word.  Over time, the “e” dropped out (replaced by an apostrophe) and now the genitive is simply “-‘s.”

Pronouns still show three cases (nominative, genitive and accusative); all three are demonstrated in the next sentence. He gave his book to him.

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Tue, June 14, 2011 - 10:14 am EST

Charles, thank you! You are so right! This is not the first time I have forgotten about genitive in English. And those possessive forms are not all that easy to learn, either!

As for pronouns, those are the source of many grammatical errors for native English speakers, I think largely because they are unaccustomed to having to consider case in other situations.

Luba • Posted on Tue, June 14, 2011 - 10:19 am EST

about native speakers’ mistakes in pronouns
Yeah, I was extremely surprised when I realized how often those mistakes are made - even in tv-series a lot of people say things like “between you and I”. it never occurred to me before that this rule can be a problem - I guess, because I’m more used to cases.

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Tue, June 14, 2011 - 10:27 am EST

I have heard multiple American presidents get pronoun cases wrong! It is just so common.

By the way, I teach grammar classes at corporations, and one interesting thing I have noticed is that non-native speakers from, say, Russia, tend to get pronoun questions right every time, and instantly. So even though they may make other types of errors in their writing, their grasp of pronoun case and form is perfect, to the point that they seem confused about why it even needs to be covered.

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