Myth 22: The kombinować myth

I may have mentioned once or twice before that Poles are immensely proud of their language. To the casual observer it’s by no means obvious why this should be so; nobody else in the world speaks it and those hapless fools who try often end up with bent vocal apparatus. It turns out that these two facts are among the very reasons that Poles are proud of their language.

It’s only comparatively recently that Poles have found themselves free, independent and at liberty to argue volubly with each other about case endings and imperfective verbs. For centuries the Polish desire to engage in fist fights over points of grammar was severely hampered by occupiers who weren’t sure they wanted Poles speaking Polish at all, let alone arguing about it. There is evidence to suggest that the partition of Poland by neighboring powers was actually an attempt by Germany, Austria, and Russia to get some peace after having been kept awake for two centuries by an argument over irregularities in the verb być.* And when I say “there is evidence to suggest” I mean it wouldn’t surprise me.

There is one particular word in Polish around which the patriotic glow is particularly fierce. Engage a Polish person in discussion about their language for long enough and the following exchange will certainly take place.

Pole: Of course, the verb kombinować cannot be translated into any other language.

You: Oh really? What does it mean?

Pole: I cannot tell you because, you see, the verb kombinować cannot be translated into any other language.

You: I see.

Pole: Yes. I read it on the internet.

Unfortunately, like most myths about Poland, this turns out to be complete nonsense. In fact kombinować exists because Polish has a severe paucity of verbs referring to activities that have become popular since the 16th century. It’s a catch-all term for a range of activities involving the circumnavigation of laws, rules, or normal procedures. Where in English you might use botch, fiddle, swindle, cook, plot, rig, fix, doctor, hoax, con, bilk, dodge or even invent, in Polish you just use kombinować.

For example:

Me: Why are you swapping your number plate with your neighbor.

Pole: It’s a kind of kombinować, you wouldn’t understand.

Me: Okay. What are we having for lunch?

Pole: I don’t know, we will kombinować something.

Me: Sounds good. Do I have to eat number plates?

There’s a world of difference between a word that cannot be translated because it refers to a very specific object or set of circumstances and a word that refers to a set of activities that have numerous possible descriptions in other languages. Kombinować is in the second category. The truth is that kombinować is easily translated in context. It can’t be translated in general because it lacks clarity.

If you need me I’ll be hiding out in a very deep, very flameproof bunker.

*Być, in case you’ve never heard of it, is the Polish verb ‘to be’ and is pronounced exactly like bitch in English. This leads to endless amusement for English speakers since the popular phrase może być, meaning it can be or colloquially something like yes, that’s okay, is easily half-translated into English as it could be a bitch, which is true nine times out of ten.

For example:

“We have received your money but we can’t connect you to the internet until some time in 2015. Może być?”

“Yes. Może być”

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80 thoughts on “Myth 22: The kombinować myth

  1. guest says:

    For Polish people the word “kombinowac” means more than just botch, fiddle, swindle, cook, plot, rig, fix, doctor, hoax, con, bilk, dodge or invent…

    “kombinowac” was especially used in times when Poles were behind the iron curtain, and had to “kombinowac” something out of nothing…often against the local communist regime.

    Here you can see “kombinowac” …

    h ttp://www.printo.republika.pl/warszawa/80te1.htm

    So, of course you can translate the word “kombinowac” but only Poles will have the special “nostaligic” feeling when they say it.

  2. Gabriela says:

    I guess every langiage has its own kombinować…

  3. Brad Zimmerman says:

    Hah! One of the first words I learned was kombinować and how it was untranslatable! I think the problem is two-fold: that it is, as island1 says, used many different ways. So there is no single translation for it. But the same could be said of lots of English words. Since I’m an uncultured jerk, “Fuck” is the first word that comes to mind that nicely illustrates my point; I’m sure you’ve seen the little email forward about how “Fuck” can be used 30 different ways or whatever.

    The other issue is that everyone tries to find a single word in English to translate kombinować into. I think it is best if you find a phrase or at least some slang of some kind: jury-rig, finagle, work-around, that sort of thing. I keep thinking there is something better but it’s late and I’m tired.

  4. Brad Zimmerman says:

    Come to think of it: are there Polish equivalents for acronym-words like “SNAFU” (which I normally think of as just a regular, lower-case “word”), TARFU, FUBAR? I don’t often here “dubya tee eff” though I have heard it spoken that way a few times. “Snafu” just seems like a “real word” to me but it obviously isn’t despite the fact that it does get used like a “real word”.

  5. BitchONtheBEACH says:

    island1,

    “after having been kept awake for two centuries”.

    Polish partition was: 1772 (partially) ; 1795 (completely)-1918.

  6. MaterialGirl says:

    Another time I’m confessing without hitting: that BitchONtheBEACH was really me! :-)

  7. Scatts says:

    Maybe we should buy you some army style camouflage clothing, MaterialGirl? That way you can sneak around and nobody would even know you’re there! :-)

    Perhaps something with posts, comments and blogrolls stuck all over it?

  8. Ania says:

    There’s one more reason why it ‘can’t’ be translated. When we learn English in Poland, we take classes in a foreign language, which are always based on some programmes of teaching. That way, even though I had a native speaker teacher, I was only able to use the limited creative means. When we go abroad for at least a year, then the fluency comes. So until I’ve lived in the States, I was convinced that there are things in life that English cannot convey.

    Anything can be done, so if I told you that I could not translate kombinować into English, it would simply mean that my English was not perfect.

    BTW: I suppose from talking to people in the UK, that you MIGHT believe that Poland was partitioned because she got invaded. Not so. It was due to democracy: the MPs at Sejm Niemy got ‘convinced’ by various means to change the system from a parliamentary democracy with a life long representative (‘king’) to a monarchy with Catherine the Great as the Monarch. After all, this was the only Democracy, and surrounded by absolute Monarchies. It was seen as a threat, and could not be left alone.

    Such are the perils of representative democracy.

    So, tell me, when did England, Scotland, Wales overthrow the Normandian invaders and took control over their own countries? And whatever has happened to the Anglo-Saxon language?

  9. Anonymous says:

    Typical English :) Polish people can’t be proud of their language but English can.
    Why? Because English is the best language in the world (heard from a native speaker), isnt’t it, island1?

    btw: Polish might think that their language is kind of superior to the other ones from one simple (ignorance), ok, two reasons: they have never travelled abroad, just started a few years ago – so haven’t come across with differrent languages in the real world, secondly – well, they don’t speak foreign languages too much, they dont know them.

    It just takes a couple of years :) living abroad to sort out that Polsih language has poor vocabulary (160.000 words whilst English let’s say 1 milion – read somewhere on the internet haha) and that the Polsih girls, food, beer is NOT the best one in the world. Travelling broadens your mind :)

  10. Anonymous says:

    to the Polish readers – please, do not correct my grammar mistakes and typos, I can see them; to the British ones – you will let it go I reckon :)

  11. Scatts says:

    The most common use of the word that I hear is in the form of “co ty kombinujesz?”.

    In these cases the English would vary between – “What are you – playing at / plotting / messing around at / suggesting / trying to do….etc”

    It is, in fact, one of those Polish words that I no longer bother trying to translate because in my opinion it does have a clearer definition po polsku than it does when translated.

  12. Bogusław says:

    guest
    ““kombinowac” was especially used in times when Poles were behind the iron curtain, and had to “kombinowac” something out of nothing…often against the local communist regime.”

    Yeah right, beacause before so-called communism we were not using this word. Sorry dude, but “kombinowac” has much deeper roots in our culture.

  13. island1 says:

    guest: Great link! I’ve been looking for something exactly like this. I love the idea of nostalgic verbs :)

    Gabriela: Probably. Any you know of in Spanish?

    Brad: That’s kind of my point. In a specific sentence you can translate kombinować, you just can’t translate it in general because it doesn’t have a specific meaning.

  14. island1 says:

    MaterialGirl: The two centuries I was joking about came before the partition, they were not the period of the partition.

    Brad: Acronyms that have become ‘real’ words in Polish? Don’t know, probably. Anybody know any examples.

    Ania: Good point. Poles learning English who look for a single word meaning kombinować wont find one.

    The Polish partition is taught in British schools, or at least it was when I was in one. However, you’re probably right. The average Brit who has heard of the partition would assume it was the result of invasion. I know better of course :)

  15. island1 says:

    Anonymous: I never said Poles shouldn’t be proud of their language. It’s just quite startling when you encounter it because English-speakers generally aren’t, we wouldn’t think of it. Any pride associated with English usually concerns literature written in English and its flexibility. Nobody thinks English is inherently particularly clever, logical, or smart because it clearly isn’t. Polish actually is quite a clever language, it’s much more logical than English. It is also true that Polish vocabulary is limited.

  16. island1 says:

    Scatts: “Co kombinujesz?” is a good example. I would translate it as “What are you up to?”, which is cheating of course since “up to” is one of those weaselly phrasal verb thingies that also don’t mean one particular thing.

  17. Sylwia says:

    LOL There are plenty of words like that in both English and Polish when it comes to looking for a literal, all meanings encompassing, translation. Take the English “love, hate, friend, fornication” for example. It really matters only when one wants to translate a wordplay, since in such a case it’s difficult to convey the humour. That’s probably why the word “kombinować” registered as such (although I never heard about the difficulty before), but one would have similar problems with “palić” in “Miś”, or at least I never heard of English people smoking in a hearth.

    The Partitions of Poland – it really depends on which place in Poland one has in mind. Frombork was under occupation for 173 years for example.

    160.000 words in Polish vs. million in English? That’s quite a myth! The OED – the largest English dictionary so far – has ca 600,000 words. When you count words do you count “słowo” or “wyraz”? English dictionaries, the OED included, tend to count “słowo”, while Polish mainstream ones focus on “wyraz”. Moreover Polish words simply aren’t countable, so no one counts them, but the largest Polish dictionary so far, used by scrabbles players, has nearly 2,5 million words (słowo), and, unlike the English ones, doesn’t contain all archaic words, obsolete or from dialects. Exactly how many English people know what such an English word like “pospolite” means?

    There are some estimations that there are 10 million words (słowo) in Polish, but no linguist will commit to the number. In Polish you’re free to make up a new word daily. In English you’d have to first teach people the definition. One simply doesn’t compare languages like that, unless one can take two very similar ones.

  18. island1 says:

    Bogusław: How old is kombinować? I’ve always imagined it was a fairly recent invention, mainly because it feels like a Latin-based loan word with the typical ‘-ować’ suffix you see on many recent coinages in Polish.

  19. ansien says:

    I can see similar situation with the English word “enjoy” – there is no one Polish word we could use as a translation but – it can be translated in many ways, depends on the context…

    I really enjoyed this film = Podobał mi się ten film.
    Enjoy the trip! = Udanej wycieczki!
    Did you enjoy the party? = Fajnie się bawiłeś?

    I think we could find many examples like this.

  20. Andi says:

    Just to spoil the untranslatable myth: kombinować can be easily translated into Hungarian (for example) -> kombinál. Besides its first meaning of “to combine’, it has a second meaning, mostly informal, which is exactly kombinować.
    So Poles saying that it can not be translated, simply do not know enough foreign languages. :)

  21. Sylwia says:

    Acronyms? “Ufo” for example. There’s even “ufoludek”. :D

  22. Ania says:

    Island:
    Of course! :)

    I agree, one might be able to find many similar words, but not a direct translation. Which is cool, because then if I want to translate a conversation for somebody, I may end up saying two words for one sentence. The puzzled looks are pricelessss…

    I’ve read somewhere we Poles believe that animals understand only Polish – and I secretly agree with that. I am certain that my two dogs and the fat kitteh understand what I say to them. e.g.:

    ‘ Ares, chcesz suche ucho?’
    ‘ufff’

    so that might add to the belief that foreigners, not being Słowianie (speakers), are Niemcy (mutes). And how can one let them know the meanings???

    You’re not mentioning this, but of course Polish is only one of many languages in this group, and we understand them to some (insufficient) extent. So it’s not as though we are so remote and nobody has any clue what we are saying. Czechs and Serbians may.

    And it really is not that hard: the grammar for example is very close to Latin grammar, because it got simplified in this direction from an older form, even closer to Sanskrit. (and they had 10 cases). Nowadays we don’t use double number in addition to single and plural, aorist tense, we have 3 conjugations by gender instead of 5 by theme etc…

    you know, when I went to Norway to travel from south to north, I was also surprised to find how many softened consonants they use. For example, Trondheim or pronounced… trond-śiem. That was a small surprise the great wide world held in store for me, because I had thought that only we use the softened consonants. And here: look at the gentle Vikings, they mumble as well.

    Brad:
    I think we do use the acronyms, but they are declinated, so hard to spot:
    e.g
    Zakład Utylizacji Odpadów
    ‘Gdzie się wybierasz?’
    ‘Walczyć ze ZUem’

    Pałąc Kultury Zagłębia
    ‘spotkamy się pod pekazetem’

    Polskie Koleje Samochodowe
    ‘przyjadę pekaesem’

    OMC Inżynier: O Mało Co Inżynier (student)

  23. Dawid says:

    English has about half a million words (I know this from Professor Gerhard Nickel, one of my English teachers) and Polish has about 200 thousand. It doesn’t mean that all those words in both languages are used – much of them are confined to dictionaries and average Poles/Brits would not understand them. The truth is that the only people who would complain that Polish vocabulary is poor might be those who don’t know the language well enough or simply don’t understand cultural differences and specificities. It’s as simple as that.

    As for kombinowac, another word that is sometimes given as an example of the difficulty of Polish is “załatwić”, whose meanings range from “take care of sth” to “steal”. As always in such cases, it can be translated in context in just the same way as when you translate similarly general words from English to Polish. No big deal.

    Some people get carried away with all this supposed untranslatability when in fact they can do no more with Polish that scratch its surface and have hardly any experience translating into English. People, regardless of their nationality, will look for any means to appear better than others. Poles often brandish their language and I perfectly understand it can be tiresome for foreigners. The funny thing is, the examples they use can be easily dismissed (like kombinowac and zalatwiac); and better instances of the peculiarities of Polish are too difficult to explain. It would require a person perfectly bilingual in Polish and English and more importantly a person with deep interest in linguistics to compare both languages in any meaningful way. Is anybody of this kind available around here? I’m afraid not.

    Anyway, having lived in both worlds, I’ve become really tired with comparisons between all things Polish and British. I can’t listen to Poles talking about their history/culture/language without grinding my teeth, in the same way I can’t stand foreigners encountering a different culture (be it Polish, Chinese or Zambian) and passing judgement as if they knew better just because they are Westerners. I’m not aiming this criticism at anybody in particular – just saying that Poles have emerged from Soviet-imposed communism with a woefully distorted self-image, and Westerners, particularly Brits and Americans, still think that they bask in the glory of the British Empire or the American Dream, when in fact the world has moved on.

  24. guest says:

    “Yeah right, beacause before so-called communism we were not using this word. Sorry dude, but “kombinowac” has much deeper roots in our culture.”

    ————————

    Before the so-called communism there were the partitions. So this was a pretty similar situation….you had to “kombinowac” against a regime, and do someting out of nothing.

    h ttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Drzymala_car

    Drzymała’s wagon (Polish: wóz Drzymały) was a symbol of Polish resistance to the official Germanization policy in Imperial Germany. During the Partitions of Poland, Michał Drzymała (1857-1937) with his wagon became a Polish folk hero in the Prussian- and later German-occupied sector of Poland.

    In 1886, Prussia created a Settlement Commission to encourage German settlement in the Prussian partition of Poland. The Commission was empowered to purchase vacant property and sell it to approved German applicants. The Prussian government regarded this as a measure designed to counteract the German “flight from the East” (Ostflucht) and reduce the number of Poles. In Polish eyes, the establishment of the Commission was an aggressive measure designed to drive Poles from their lands.

    The campaign against Polish landownership produced a strong opposition with its own hero, Drzymała. In 1904 he purchased a plot of land in the district of Wollstein (Wolsztyn) but found that the Colonization Commission’s rules forbade him as a Pole to build a permanent dwelling on his land. To get around the rule, he set himself up in a gypsy wagon and for more than a decade tenaciously defied in the courts all attempts to remove him. The case attracted publicity all over Germany. It was typical of the conflict of nationalities in Prussia, where the Polish movement was dominated by peasants, while the state authorities confined themselves to legal methods of harassment.

    The German Kulturkampf and the Colonization Commission succeeded in stimulating the Polish national sentiment that they had been designed to suppress.

  25. Pawel says:

    Island1, I hope you know what deep trouble you’re getting yourself into with a post about Polish language;) This post will live months on various internet fora, and you’ll get hundreds of comments how typlically American your post is;)) Prepare thyself;)

    It has to be however objectively acknowledged, that Polish language is superior to all other languages. Why? Because it’s mine.

    The thing about vocabluary is more complicated in my opinion. When you say that Polish has less words than English – it may or may not be true http://www.askoxford.com/asktheexperts/faq/aboutenglish/numberwords, but it should also be taken into account how “words” are being added to dictionaries. English linguistics is more decriptive, while Polish is usually prescriptive – and only “legitimate” words usually enter dictionaries, rather than all the words people actually use. But in Polish prescriptiveness makes more sense, as you said Polish is more logical than English.

    What is more important, in my opinion, when languge is concerned – is how it is able to convey meaning. It’s quite possible Polish has less words – as the same text is usually longer in Polish than in English – which would suggest it takes more words in Polish to say the same thing.
    On the other hand, many words might not be needed in Polish, a language that has the word inflection, or a more extensive agglutination (new words by adding prefixes and suffixes).

    Polish and English are also “designed” as a map tools for different realities. Thereofre the number of words probably fits the realities in which the Polish language functins.

    And, to finish off, a link to those who think there is only one word for kombinować:) http://www.synonimy.pl/?word=kombinowa%C4%87&search=Szukaj

  26. Sylwia says:

    Pawel is right that Polish dictionaries include only legitimate words, but it’s more than that. English dictionaries treat words such as “she” and “her”, “endear” and “endearing”, “Catherine”, “Cathy” and “Kitty” or “thing” and “thingy” as separate ones. In Polish each of the sets would be treated as one word no matter how many forms one could come with. Simply, by default, we can come with a huge number of forms of any word so no one bothers to count them. So really whenever one says that English has 600,000 words one should compare it to the 10 million in Polish. But in fact we all use ca 100,000 no matter the language, only that when it comes to inflection Poles use many more because of the grammar.

    I don’t think though that Polish version of a text is necessarily longer than English. It depends one the theme and which language one translates from. It’s easier to say “rydz” than “lactarius deliciosus”, “saffron milk cap” or “red pine mushroom”. Simply talking to English speaking people about mushrooms is like talking about colours with the blind. Languages are a kind of ideas relevant to a culture, so it’s always easier to express something that is inherent to the culture than translate a foreign concept. Then the text gets longer.

    It has nothing to do with a vocabulary being rich or not. It’s just that people see different things differently. Take “fornication” for example. There’s no way a Pole would ever label his visit to a prostitute with the same word that a night spent with his fiancée. In effect the English can fornicate and Poles can’t. If we ever had the same set of morals we’d have the same words for relevant concepts.

    I used to think that English has more synonyms and is more precise than Polish, but it’s not true either. It just depends on a word. Sometimes English has more simply because of borrowing from different languages in other periods of time, but Polish has more because some ideas were used more often or in more detail. I.e. the noun “love” translates as “miłość, kochanie, umiłowanie, ukochanie, umilenie etc” in just the one basic meaning of deep affection for another, but “love for books” would be “zamiłowanie” and so on. And none of them means “admiration, fondness, affection, adoration, infatuation” etc that would yet translate differently. Practically the entire emotional sphere has a richer vocabulary in Polish than in English, but at the same time the business sphere in English is much more developed, and that’s where we borrow words for lack of their Polish equivalents. Just as the English have the middle class and Poles have the intelligentsia.

    P.S. I though that Island posts about Polish language because he pursues fame. ;)

  27. Bogusław says:

    sylwia
    “If we ever had the same set of morals we’d have the same words for relevant concepts.”

    Downright. When Poles have sex with a prostitute they just dont talk about it ;)

    island1

    Well, my grandma did *kombinowac during Nazi occupacion, as well as in polish pre-war quasi-fascist state, so i guess this time polish communism is not an explanation ;)

    I also heard a story long time ago that the word derives from 17 century, but i am not exactly sure if this is true.

    * she was using kombinowac verb at that time

  28. adthelad says:

    http://www.thefreedictionary.com/wangling whilst http://www.thefreedictionary.com/concoct almost does it but not quite

    p.s. did you know that wangling is the world most popular hobby – no hang on, that’s angling.

  29. Sylwia says:

    Boguslaw
    “Downright. When Poles have sex with a prostitute they just dont talk about it ;)”

    Quite true!

    The funny (or tragic) thing though is that fornication did mean just sex with a prostitute in the beginning, but English people broadened the definition to encompass any pre-marital intercourse, even with one’s beloved. In effect English can’t be lingua franca in heaven, because according to many versions of the English Bible fornicators don’t go there.

    Surely it explains the Victorian mores et al. I’m just very happy we don’t have a Polish equivalent. :D

  30. Sylwia says:

    Ania
    “I’ve read somewhere we Poles believe that animals understand only Polish”

    That’s interesting. My two cats don’t understand any language at all. I suspect they’re positively deaf. Unless one stands in the kitchen. Then they hear anything they want to hear, no matter the language.

  31. Gabriela says:

    You what, island1? Since I’ve read this post I’ve been thinking of the Spanish kombinowac. So far, I’ve been unable to find it, but I’ll let you know when I do it… if I do it.
    Saludos.

  32. Bob says:

    Not the dreaded: Professor Gerhard Nickel

  33. BitchONtheBEACH says:

    Polish originally came from English!
    The tracks of it we can find in polish legends and customs.

    Example:

    When the first Englishman put his leg on Cracow’s ground he said:
    HEY NOW, HEY NOW, the dream is over!
    From that day every hour from the tower of St Mary’s Church in Cracow’s Main Market is sounded and broadcasted HEJNAŁ!!!

  34. Jubal says:

    This time in Polish: “wpis jest niezły, ale nieco przekombinowany” ;-)

  35. Gabriela says:

    Hello again:
    After giving this a lot of thinking, I couldn’t find a single word, but instead something that is more like a very much used custom. In Spanish, it’s very usual to use adjectives in their pet form.
    You say “El bebé está dormidito” or “El bebé está sentadito”, where dormidito or sentadito are the diminutive forms of dormido = asleep and sentado = sitting down.
    And the list can go on and on.

    Note: el bebé = the baby boy.

  36. mario says:

    Kombinujcie dalej. Trzymam kciuki.

    To wykombinujcie: Kombinatoryka stosowana :)

    A swoja droga to fajnie was widziec w Polsce. Sprawiacie, ze ten kraj robi sie bardziej różnorodny. A jesli chodzi o nasze wady, to przede wszystkim sa one spowodowane trudna historia oraz dlugotrwala bieda.

    Keep trying. Fingers crossed.

    Try to get this: Kombinatoryka stosowana :)

    And by the way, I am so pleased to see you guys in Poland. You make this country more diversed. And talking about our shortcoming, there are mostly caused by our dificult history and longterm poverty.

  37. Ania says:

    Is there a film with Billy Nighy and Colin Firth acting together? Or are we stuck with Scot and Jamie only?

  38. island1 says:

    mario: Thanks for the encouraging words :)

    Ania: No matter how hard I think about this comment I can’t work out what you mean. Please repeat in a form understandable by idiots.

  39. island1 says:

    Sylwia: Shrewd analysis as always. It’s a common observation among foreigners that Polish vocabulary is limited. I don’t know enough Polish to rule on that but I suspect you’re right, you tend to notice where a language you are learning lacks vocabulary but you are blind to the areas where the vocabulary is richer.

  40. island1 says:

    Gabriela: But isn’t there vocabulary used in South America that doesn’t exist (or would rarely be used) in Spain?

  41. island1 says:

    BontheB: That’s certainly what I said when I arrived so it could be true.

  42. Anonymous says:

    “kombinowac” sounds like “extemporize” to me

  43. Contact says:

    “guest wrote”
    For Polish people the word “kombinowac” means more than just botch, fiddle, swindle, cook, plot, rig, fix, doctor, hoax, con, bilk, dodge or invent…”

    For starters it doesn’t have the negative connotation that some of the English words have.

    A similar word to kombinować is the word załatwiać. It, sort of means, “to take care of something”.

  44. Contact says:

    Anonymous wrote:
    It just takes a couple of years :) living abroad to sort out that Polsih language has poor vocabulary (160.000 words whilst English let’s say 1 milion – read somewhere on the internet haha) …

    It’s because when we don’t have a word for something we kombinujemy. We don’t need all those separate words.

  45. Contact says:

    Andi on April 3, 2009 at 3:25 pm
    “Just to spoil the untranslatable myth: kombinować can be easily translated into Hungarian (for example) -> kombinál. Besides its first meaning of “to combine’, it has a second meaning, mostly informal, which is exactly kombinować.
    So Poles saying that it can not be translated, simply do not know enough foreign languages. :)”

    Polak, Węgier, dwa bratanki, i do kombinowania, i do szklanki.

    Apparently.

  46. Contact says:

    Anonymous on April 7, 2009 at 2:43 am
    “kombinowac” sounds like “extemporize” to me

    No sorry. Kombinowanie usually takes preparation and thinking outside the box.

  47. Gabriela says:

    Me again, island1.
    There are lots of examples. I guess each Spanish speaking country (and there are quite a few) has its own language uses and costumes. It’s funny how sometimes two people speaking the same language can’t understand each other. I’ve been there.
    I guess I won’t be bothering you in a while.

  48. Popems says:

    This seems like a good word to know. I am learning Polish, maybe from now on when I can’t think of the correct verb I will just use kombinować.

  49. pinolona says:

    I always assumed that ‘kombinować’ was a Romance borrowing: the Italians have ‘cosa stai combinando?!’ (why have no Italians mentioned this yet?!). I guess the French have an equivalent in ‘quest-ce que tu fabriques?!’. It’s hard to think of a good exact English equivalent for these verbs.

    I certainly don’t think Polish is poorer than English in terms of vocabulary: I’m still trying to get my head around the various permutations of -rzucić, -puszczać, -nieść, itd…

  50. Sylwia says:

    I always assumed that ‘kombinować’ was a Romance borrowing

    It certainly is; from Latin ‘combinare’.

  51. lol rolf says:

    być is not pronounced like bitch …

    you brits amaze me every time …

  52. island1 says:

    yes it is, just like ‘beach’

  53. Kiki says:

    It’s hilarious!
    Especially the bit about eating the numer plate – absolutely love it. And so true.
    We are crazy about our language and we are crazy in general.
    How on earth do you poor Brits cope with it ?

    I live in the UK now, so I am looking from the other side of the mirror now… :) Very interesting too.

  54. […] developed over centuries of hard times and is usually summed up in the elusive Polish word “Kombinować.” In a way it’s the ultimate form of DIY. Unfortunately this often leads to Poles […]

  55. […] oppressive that day. Drzymała was undaunted. In a classic early example of the Polish tradition of kombinować he bought a circus wagon and lived in that instead. I like to think the following conversation took […]

  56. P says:

    I’m sorry, but ‘być’ really is NOT pronounced exactly like ‘bitch’. Check the IPA. Regards

  57. Dinolaure says:

    I understand that Kombinowac has something to do with “schtroumpfer” (refers to the smurfs in English) or to several French verbs : bricoler or bidouiller ? Will try it with my Polish Pole teacher !

  58. cristian zantedeschi says:

    or like italian COMBINARE

    you see italian and polish are very similar :P

  59. Joe says:

    “być” does not sound at all like “bitch”, “beach”, “bicz” or anything else. Honestly, dude, would it hurt you to try and actually learn a little pronunciation before you start playing smart-ass? Anyway, I’m Ukrainian and I speak Polish, so there goes your rule about “nobody speaking Polish” too.

  60. K says:

    As someone who grew up speaking both Polish and English at home, I can back you up. “Być” in Polish is pronounced EXACTLY like the English word “bitch.”

  61. dublinu but polish (VERY pround of my language of course) says:

    ‘być’ will never-ever be pronounced exactly like ‘bitch’, not even an inch close to it. there is no english word which would sound like it. ‘ć’ is very soft in pronunciation and british cannot actually pronounce it correctly as their tongue is quite stiff ;-)))

  62. kasia says:

    Maybe it depends how you say “bitch” eg: if you were from New Zealand, then it would sound different, wouldn’t it? eh?

  63. Leszek says:

    Simply put, the CH sound at the end of ‘być’ has a significantly more flattened sound than does the English CH. It is, however, the closest the native speaker of English can get to it.

  64. Dawid says:

    As a Polish citizen who has spent the majority of his life in Canada, I can vouch that “być” sounds almost exactly like the English “bitch” (Or at least how they say it here in Canada)
    And only a master linguist would be able to actually tell the immediate difference.

    There’s more of a difference in the “i”/ (“y” in Polish) sound than the correct pronunciation of “ć”; in my opinion anyway.

    And if these comments aren’t proof to this blog’s article, I don’t know what is.

    Oh yeah,
    Szczesliwego Nowego Roku!

  65. […] breakfast tea? Suitcases open, tea shown, swift and simple, no worries! In Poland they call it kombinować. In Brazil it is called jeitinho (literally, ‘little way’). It is often frowned upon […]

  66. Magdalena says:

    As a native speaker of Polish and a teacher of English I can tell you there is actually NO SIMILARITY between the two WORDS: ‘być’ and ‘bitch’. And I know a few Chinese who can perfectly distinguish between them, that’s why I’m surprised why Polish people can’t! Unfortunately, as someone said before, for a native speaker of English it is almost impossible to pronounce ‘być’ correctly. And I think for some Polish people that live abroad and speak VERY GOOD English (not what you can usually hear in London or Dublin – words may be correct, grammar – perfect, but Polish flat intonation and ‘dry’ accent = no accent at all, is one of the easiest to hear). The best example of an acquired Polish accent disability I know is my cousin, 16, moved to Ireland when she was 8. Now when she speaks Polish at home you can easily recognize the words, but they don’t sound Polish and that’s obvious, ’cause even t, s, p, k sounds differ in the two languages. What used to be the Polish ‘zupa’ became a Hiberno-English ‘soupa’, with an aspirated ‘p’.
    Back to this ‘bitch’ – Polish people, try to pronounce ‘być’ and ‘bycz’ a few times and see how ‘ch’, ‘ć’ and ‘cz’ differ. But if any of non-Polish wanna try, here’s what you should practice (if you have a Polish friend who can correct you): distinguish between SZCZERA and ŚCIERA. It’s about SZ & Ś and CZ & Ć differences. The English ‘sh” and ‘ch’ are just mixtures of the pairs. First one is rather harsh, the other is soft. Well, the expression ‘szczera ściera’ means ‘an honest rag’ (or swab/cloth):D But it works as an excercise. Actually, that’s the way people are taught to recognize the two Polish sounds.

    Well, sorry for the lecture. ‘Być’ or ‘nie być’ – Hamlet! :D

  67. invidu says:

    I agree with Silvia, it may be derived from Latin. Poles might be surprised, but in Romanian, while the general meaning is “to combine”, colloquially it has exactly the same meaning as “kombinowac”, plus it also means to hook up with someone.

  68. Monika says:

    Poles are not suprised… they know that many of polish words have latin roots… We have also many words taken from Franch, English, Italian, Dutch and German – and that’s why it’s easy to us to learn foreign languages – half of words we already knows from our own language, the only difference we are exchanging nouns,adjectives, numerals, pronouns and patriciples by cases…And the reason why some people cannot translaate the meaning of slang words is that not every Pole is a linguist… You could try to speak with other people about this, not those lazy or uneducated ones who cannot help you in any way, and just use weak excuse that it’s impossible…
    And the joke about why polish peole are proud of polish language is lame imho… Like Ireland almost completely lost it’s irish gaelic language because of English occupants and now they just use English in most of the places, Poland although have the most vicious occupants very often and for a long time sometimes – speaks in whole country in Polish. Not in Russian. Not in German. Not in any else language. This is the reason to respect it. In every war and occupation, people had to speak in a language of the occupant – and that made them bilingual not converted, and when they only have possibility to use again they own language they were doing it. There are polish people everywhere in the world – some people can laugh from it, but I respect their ability to learn any language in the world. I’m thinking about learning Chinese myself, which for me have very easy grammatical construction:)

  69. Monika says:

    Brilliant Joe:) Thank you for your remark:)

  70. Patrycja says:

    whaat? are you kiddin me? I live in Poland, and I can tell you that they don’t sound simillar at all! there is major difference between BITCH and BYĆ. ‘-tch’ sounds more like polish ‘cz’, but that is another story.

  71. island1 says:

    For heaven’s sake people, calm down about the whole ‘być’ thing. It’s one line in the whole post!

  72. jalfredprufrock says:

    yet, this discussion over być/bitch pronunciation just seem to prove your point about the causes of the partition of Poland;)

  73. Ania says:

    Then clearly your pronunciation is way off. “Być” is nothing like “bitch” or “beach”

  74. island1 says:

    AAAAHHHHHHH!!!!!

  75. Outsider says:

    To all those who claim “być” sounds nothing like “bitch” – you’re wrong and Island1 is right, especially if we’re talking American English. There may be a difference if you speak either non-standard English or non-standard Polish, but otherwise these two words sound very much the same.

    @P: The English IPA transcription you see in everyday use is simplified and reflects neither the various possible levels of palatalization of plosive consonants nor the standard variations of vowel quality among native speakers.

    Let’s have a close look at this być, shall we:

    B – a voiced bilabial plosive, identical in both Polish and English;
    Y – a close central unrounded vowel, so close to the standard English near-close near-front unrounded vowel that only a phoneticist would be able to tell the difference;
    Ć – a voiceless alveolo-palatal affricate, identical to the standard AmE rendering of the voiceless postalveolar affricate used in some varieties of BrE.

    Life’s a być, folks – you have to accept the fact that some innocent Polish words will make foreigners giggle, and for legitimate reasons. :-)

    And yes, many Poles are absolutely convinced no foreigner will ever be able to pronounce Polish correctly or to fully grasp its “untranslatable” subtleties – nothing farther from the truth. It’s just a bunch of exceptionalist nonsense (which many, if not most, other nations like to indulge in as well, might I add).

  76. […] website van een paar buitenlanders die al lang in Polen wonen) heeft over het fenomeen geschreven. Klik!. Of in ieder geval één van de schrijvers heeft zijn eigen invulling gegeven aan het begrip […]

  77. anna says:

    “Where in English you might use botch, fiddle, swindle, cook, plot, rig, fix, doctor, hoax, con, bilk, dodge or even invent, in Polish you just use kombinować” .
    It is a total nonsence . All these words have their separate meaning in polish , a word” kombinować could be substituted by others exactly what you have just written : majstrować – fiddle ,
    swindle – szwindlować ,
    cook – nawarzyć
    fuszerować – botch ,
    plot – knuć
    rig – wikłać
    fix-załatwić etc
    I have no time for the rest . Just take a dictionary , so you will find its translation ;The simple proof that English is more simple language , it is comaparing the amount of words used in bothe languages . Check it .

  78. anna says:

    I milion english words !. – hahahahahaa, do you count: get in , get on, get off, get out , get along , get into as one word ?????? If not, you have to multiply also polish nouns times 7 ., verbs times 8 , pronouns times 3 . Polish – english contains 180 000 phrases , English- Polish – 100 000 , which means less English words used to translate Polish words . If you have different view on that subject you have to study more mathematics and logic . English is simple language , no question about it

  79. […] worst that the government could throw at them, then why can’t democracy be forced? The art of kombinować would have ensured that people survived (maybe even thrived) despite […]

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