Polish 101

You can never understand one language until you understand at least two. ~Geoffrey Willans

Polish is often said to be one of the most difficult languages for non-native speakers to learn; of course, this depends on one's native language. While difficult for English speakers, it is relatively easy for speakers of Russian and other Slavic languages. It has a complex gender system with five genders: neuter, feminine and three masculine genders (personal, animate and inanimate). There are 7 cases and 2 numbers.

Nouns, adjectives and verbs are inflected, and both noun declension and verb conjugation are highly irregular. Every verb is either perfective or imperfective.

Verbs often come in pairs, one of them imperfective and the other perfective (usually imperfective verb plus a prefix), but often there are many perfective verbs with different prefixes for single imperfective words.

The tenses are:
construction (for perfective verbs) (for imperfective verbs) example imperfective example perfective
verb+ic' infinitive infinitive robic' zrobic'
verb+suffix future simple tense present tense robicie zrobicie
past participle+suffix past perfect tense past imperfect tense robilis'cie zrobilis'cie
(this suffix can be moved)
cos'cie robili cos'cie zrobili

Movable suffix is usually attached to verb or to the most accented word of sentence, like question preposition.

Sometimes the sentence may be emphasised with a particle -ze- (-z).

So what have you done? can be:

~ Co zrobiliscie?
~ Coscie zrobili?
~ Cózescie zrobili? (It could be derived from Cóz zrobiliscie? which actually sounds odd and is not used)

All the above examples show inflected forms of the verb "zrobic" for the subject "you" informal plural ("wy"). However, it is of note that none of the above examples include the subject itself. The inclusion of the subject is not necessary here because Polish is a pro-drop language. This means that a subject does not need to be used with an inflected verb. Instead, the reader or listener can tell which subject is implied through the type ending on the verb. This is different for each pronoun in Polish with the exceptions of on/ona/ono (he/she/it) which all have the same verb ending as each other and oni/one (they - of a group including male humans/they - of a group of people or things not including male humans) which also have the same verb ending as each other. Because the subject can be dropped, if the subject is used with an inflected verb it places the emphasis of the sentence on the subject. Of the above three examples, a native speaker would not include the subject in the middle sentence and would be unlikely to include a subject in the last one. The below examples show how the subject could be included in such sentences, where possible:

~ Co wy zrobiliscie?
~ Coscie zrobili? (a native speaker would not use a subject here)
~ Co wyscie zrobili? (this example places the stress strongly on "you" -- "wy"+scie)
~ Co zescie zrobili? (this example includes the use of the ze- particle - considered very colloquial)

Past participle depends on number and gender, so 3rd person, singular past perfect tense can be:

~ zrobil (he made/did)
~ zrobila (she made/did)
~ zrobilo (it made/did)

Word Order

From Wikibooks' Polish Language Course. Basic word order in Polish is SVO, however it is possible to move words around in the sentence, and to drop subject, object or even sometimes verb, if they are obvious from context.

These sentences mean the same ("Ala (Alice) has a cat"):

~ Ala ma kota
~ Ala kota ma
~ Kota ma Ala
~ Ma Ala kota
~ Kota Ala ma
~ Ma kota Ala

Yet only the first of these sounds natural in Polish, and others should be used for emphasis only, if at all.

If apparent from context, you can drop the subject, object or even the verb:

~ Ma kota - can be used if it's obvious who is being talked about
~ Ma - answer for "Czy Ala ma kota?" ("Does Ala have a cat?")
~ Ala - answer for "Kto ma kota?" ("Who has a cat?")
~ Kota - answer for "Co ma Ala?" ("What does Ala have?")
~ Ala ma - answer for "Kto z naszych znajomych ma kota?" ("Which of our friends has a cat?")

Note the marker "czy" which is used to start a yes/no question, much as the French use "est-ce que".

There is a tendency in Polish to drop the subject rather than the object and you rarely know the object but not the subject. If the question was "Kto ma kota ?" (who has a cat ?), the answer should be "Ala" alone, without a verb.

In particular, "ja" (I) and "ty" (you, singular), and also their plural equivalents "my" (we) and "wy" (you, plural), are almost always dropped.


Conjugation of "isc" ("walking" in Present Continuous):

~ Ja ide – I am walking
~ Ty idziesz – You are walking
~ On/ona/ono idzie – He/she/it is walking
~ My idziemy – We are walking
~ Wy idziecie – You are walking (Plural)
~ Oni/one ida – They are walking ("Oni" masculine, "one" feminine or neuter)

Featured Video