Tag Archives: myths about Poland

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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Interesting things you didn’t know about Poland #1

According to the excellent blog Angels Do Speak!:

Did you know that Poland is the World’s Smallest Country (The Late Pope John Paul II is the First Polish Pope) and that Vatican City is the World’s Smallest State?

There are so many hilarious confusions going on here we can only assume it was written by an American. Now I see, the Polish Pope was the Pope of Poland! Of course, it all makes sense now!

Interestingly, a couple of days before the above post we were informed:

At 10:18am on 12/5/2008 I had a vision of the late Pope John Paul II:
He predicted ends of wars, Angels Beings consulted with him.

I suspect Angels Do Speak! might be experiencing another miraculous visitation very soon in which JP II smacks her upside the head with an atlas.

I’m tempted to leave a comment pointing out her error, but a wise man once said “Correcting a mistake on the internet is tantamount to subtracting one from infinity.” And anyway, why would I want to deprive other people of the pleasure.

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Myth #8: Polish water is safe to drink

The first thing us soft westerners ask when visiting a foreign country is “Can I drink the water?” In Poland the answer is far from simple, naturally. In fact Polish tap water is perfectly safe, but the social consequences of drinking it can be serious. I’ve been drinking the stuff for years and it’s never done me any physical harm (I will, of course, be dead from some obscure form of water poisoning within a week of writing this) but I’m regarded as some kind of madman by my Polish acquaintances. For reasons that I’ve never been able to clearly discern Poles regard their tap water as a kind of slightly diluted strychnine cordial. They’re quite convinced that it tastes foul, has the life-preserving qualities of 40 cigarettes a day, and is almost certainly laced with some kind of vaguely evil “chemistry.” Tastes like water to me.

The practical upshot of the Polish nation’s fear of their public water supply is a vast homegrown bottled water industry. Even the smallest local shop stocks at least three dozen varieties of bottled Polish water; the internationally famous brands don’t stand a chance when you can buy water straight from the manure polluted soil of a hundred different Polish spa towns. Many of these are, admittedly, very nice indeed, but you have to wonder about the ecological cost of constantly pumping the ground dry of its water reserves, not to mention transporting it around the country in trucks. I’d be willing to bet the stuff costs more than petrol. The first thing Coca Cola did when it got a foothold in the Polish market was to buy up hundreds of small water bottling plants, the stuff comes right out of the ground and you don’t even have to add sugar.

Muszynianka: very tasty stuff, got lots of magnesium in it apparently; is that a good thing? If somebody told me there was magnesium in my water pipes I think I’d be worried.

Mentioning no names, but I know families in villages that persist in getting their water from wells rather than connect to the public main, despite the fact that it’s dark brown and only flows one day in three during the summer months. On the news tonight I heard a story about a series of small towns in the extreme south of Poland where they are considering building a pipeline to bring water across the border from the Czech republic. The local Polish public water supply representative was tearing his hair out and jumping up and down in sheer desperation at the idiocy of the whole idea, but he can’t win – Grandma Basia, pictured in her kitchen filling her kettle, says the Polish stuff tastes weird and it’s not natural; you can’t argue with logic like that.

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Myth #14: Polish is hard


Utter nonsense.

There are two reasons why this myth is so prevalent; number one because Polish looks hard to an English speaker and, number two, because Polish people are endlessly telling foreigners that it is hard. Let’s examine these two heinous misrepresentations more closely.

It looks hard

To a native speaker of English a word such as:


looks completely absurd. We have absolutely no idea how to pronounce it. The letters just don’t work together, we can’t even guess. Polish uses the Latin alphabet, which we’re familiar with, but in a completely different way. Letters, and especially combinations of letters, stand for different sounds than they do in English. The same word (which means ‘thank you’ in case you didn’t know) spelled as if it were an English language phrase would look something like:

Jin kwee eh


When I was a kid there was a standard joke that cropped up all the time on TV shows. Here’s an example from the classic British sitcom of the 1970s Steptoe and Son:

Harold and his elderly father are playing Scrabble:

Father: It’s your turn, what have you got.

Harold: z, v, x, w, r, and c

Father: You’d be alright if you were Polish!

Bear in mind this was the early 1970s. Nobody in the UK knew where Poland was and certainly hadn’t been there or met any Polish people. But still we had this image of the Polish language as an impossibly complicated thing with bizarre spelling. This was the only thing we knew about Poland, this and some vague connection to Hitler and the war.

The Polish method of spelling is far superior to the English method. In fact English doesn’t actually have a method, it’s more or less random. Once you learn the Polish method you can pronounce any word you come across. In English you’ve got no chance; in the phrase above I could have used ‘Gin’ instead of ‘Jin’ for example, how much sense does that make?

They tell us it’s hard

Poles are incredibly precious about their language. They’re convinced that it’s god’s gift to creation, despite the fact that 99 percent of the world’s population don’t speak it. Here are two telling facts about the Polish language. Number one; there are popular television programs that feature professors who rule on correct Polish pronunciation and grammar. Number two; one of the most prestigious degrees one can obtain at university is Polish philology. Both of these things are inconceivable in the English-speaking world. A show featuring the ‘correct pronunciation of English’ would be laughed off the air in five minutes and there is no such degree as ‘English philology’ nor any hint of what it could possibly mean.

Polish people generally look upon those trying to learn Polish with pity and mutter about the extreme difficulty of pronunciation and grammar for foreigners. Complete nonsense. There aren’t any sounds in the Polish language that are alien to the English native speaker. When a foreigner does speak Polish he or she is generally looked upon as a freak of nature. In reality I could teach some basic Polish phrases to my grandmother without any difficulty. I know a Japanese guy who learned passable Polish in a few months, and he’s the subject of awe from Polish people for absolutely no good reason. Of course a lot of this is down to the sheer novelty of hearing foreigners speaking Polish, a novelty that wore off about 50 years ago for speakers of English. Yes Polish grammar is complex, but it’s nowhere near as complex and random as English grammar, and when it really comes down to it, perfect grammar is the last thing to worry about when learning a foreign language.

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Myth #1: Polish people are rude


I’ve thought about this long and hard. Everybody I’ve ever met who’s been to Poland has wrestled with this question. And almost everybody thinks it’s kind of true and kind of not true. This is the current state of my understanding:

The truths

1. Polish people in shops, businesses, and government departments often appear rude to foreigners visiting Poland (not to mention to other Polish people).

2. Polish people are extremely polite and hospitable in private social situations.

3. Polish people sometimes are, in fact, extremely rude because they like being extremely rude.

In other words, there is no simple answer to the question ‘Are Polish people rude?’ Sometimes they are, sometimes they are not. The problem arises because the occasions on which they are rude and the occasions on which they are not rude do not correspond to the expectations of the average Western visitor to Poland. This is known as culture shock.

The reasons

1. Polish people working in shops, businesses, and government departments at the ‘customer relations’ level are usually poorly paid and utterly disinterested in the public perception of the institution they work for. In these situations they tend to feel powerless and undervalued. It’s not difficult to understand why these people fail to interact with customers in a positive and smiley way. I wouldn’t, and neither would you.

2. The woman behind the post office counter who treats you as if you were slightly less important than the dirt she wipes off her shoes would, if you met her in a private social situation, be a paradigm of politeness and hospitality. The private and the public spheres are strictly but unconsciously divided in the Polish mind, If a person is introduced to you by a friend you treat them with genuinely impeccable politeness and generosity. If you happened to meet the same person in the guise of a customer or passerby on the street you treat them as if they were a potential child molester.

3. And this is the ace in the hole that adds spice to the issue. Rudeness is an art form in Poland. Polish people take great, but secret, delight in the devastating insult or social slight. It appeals to the essentially black nature of Polish humor. In other words, sometimes Polish people are rude because it’s extremely funny to be rude. Just about every Polish film regarded as a ‘classic’ features endless scenes of incredible and extremely funny rudeness. After many years I have to admit, it IS in fact devilishly funny.

Poland myths, Poland myths, Poland myths…