A Grammar of the Polish Language

Part four

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Morphology – inflected parts of speech, p. 1

The Polish language is considered to be remarkably difficult not exactly for its complex phonetics, since there are many languages with more tangled and more difficult pronunciation, but rather for its morphology. It seems there are not strict rules without exeptions in the Polish morphology, and on the contrary, we may call in question the regularity of the commonly accepted language rules with reference to Polish, and for sure we may discuss the regularity of all repartitions and the range of meaning of the grammar conceptions (e.g. the conception of the grammatical gender). If anybody acknowledges subsequent argument as confused, do not let him accuse the author of it, but rather the subject.

Polish is an inflexional language. Most of its words is built with a number of particles called morphemes, each of them has individual meaning. Among morphemes, we distinguish lexical morphemes which are roots of words in most cases and which have lexical meanings, as well as grammatical morphemes which tie the former ones into certain compositions. There are also so called formative morphemes, which bind the other morphemes into words. Sometimes one cannot succeed to distinguish grammatical morphemes from formative ones, that is why we call them all affixes. Among them we distinguish prefixes preceding the root, suffixes (formative suffixes and grammatical endings) following the root, interfixes (links) welding two roots each with other, postfixes following endings (e.g. in ktoś ‘somebody’). For example, in the word językoznawstwo ‘linguistics’, we can separate in succession:

  1. lexical morpheme język ‘language’, ‘tongue’,
  2. formative morpheme (interfix) o,
  3. lexical morpheme zna ‘know’,
  4. formative morpheme (without specified meaning) w,
  5. formative morpheme (building abstract ideas) stw,
  6. grammatical morpheme (ending) o.

Also in English we can find prefixes (e.g. forget), formative suffixes (e.g. neighbourhood), inflexional endings (e.g. played), links (rather only in new latinisms, as arachnophobia or metallomania). So although English is more analytic than Polish, there exist mainly the same processes in it, only at less intensity. In English compare to Polish there are even more compounds, e.g. blackboard, apple-tree, goldsmith. Their Polish equivalents are simple words (blackboard – tablica) or they are built with affixes (apple-tree – jabł : apple – jabłko, goldsmith – złotnik : gold – złoto). In respect of degree of word complexity Polish does not beat world records at all. In German there happen words compounded from several roots, what is a very rare phenomenon in Polish. In other languages of the world there are also preformatives, i.e. grammatical morphemes preceding the root, infixes entering the middle of the root, e.g. in Latin linquo: ‘I leave / am leaving’ but li:qui: ‘I have left / left’, transfixes enclosing the root, e.g. German gemalt ‘painted’, with the transfix ge-t, but malen ‘paint’, as well as circumfixes entering the root in several places, e.g. in Arabian yaktubu ‘he writes / is writing’, kataba ‘he wrote / has written’, kutiba ‘he was / has been written’ (root k-t-b, preformative ya-, circumfixes 0-u-u, a-a-a, u-i-a). We can find formative transfixes in Polish, too: ułatwić ‘to make easy’ : łatwy ‘easy’, odsiarczyć ‘to desulphurize’ : siarka ‘sulphur’, nasłonecznić ‘to expose to the sun’s rays’ : słoneczny ‘sunny’.

In inflexional languages, also in Polish, morphemes influence one another when binding. Adding an affix may cause some far shifting changes of adjoining morphemes in some cases. Most of changes in inflexion is present on the stem / ending border. These changes fortunately are under some rules discussed in another place.

Sometimes the changes go farther on. For example compare: brać – biorę – bierze – zabieraj, dechtchu. Different forms of the morpheme may not always be explained only by phonetical changes, e.g. in forms cielę – cielęcia – cielęta – cieląt the variancies of the formative morpheme ę : ęć (in spelling ęci) : ęt : ąt can be explained only when analysing the very deep history of the language. Sometimes morphemes can join completely, compare German Mutter ‘mother’ – Mütter ‘mothers’ (here the morpheme indicating plural joins root and modifies it), Polish go, mu (enclitic pronominal forms), where one cannot separate a root from an ending.

A number of morphemes can have the same function, however the definite morpheme joins only specific morphemes, not the others. For example the ~u as well as the ~owi have the same meaning of a dative singular ending, but only the following forms are correct: ojcu ‘to father’, kotu ‘to cat’, though człowiekowi ‘to man’, piecowi ‘to oven / stove / furnace’. Rules determining which morphemes joins which, are not always clear (also Poles themselves happen to have doubts), that is why the Polish language is considered to be so difficult.

The second feature which distinguishes inflexional languages from agglutinative ones (as Hungarian, Turkish, Georgian) is concentrating different functions in one morpheme. It is enough to compare the lists:

Comparison of inflexional and agglutinative languages
  inflexional agglutinative
Polish Latin Hungarian Turkish
Nominative sg. dom domus ház hane
Dative sg. domowi domui: háznak haneye
Nominative pl. domy domu:s házak haneler
Dative pl. domom domibus házaknak hanelere

In the agglutinative languages a morpheme determining plural can be distinguished (Hung. ak, Tur. ler), in the inflexional ones each of the morphemes determines the number and the case in the same time. However also in inflexional languages we can find examples of agglutination, e.g. Germ. Kindern ‘to children’ (kind- is the root, -er- denotes plural, -n denotes dative), Pol. czytałem ‘I was reading (m)’ (root czyt- ‘read’, thematic suffix -a-, Past Tense -ł-, masculine gender -e-, 1. person -m), also in Eng. childrens’ (root child-, plural -ren-, genitive -s’). In Polish the agglutination concerns only certain verbal forms; the agglutinated endings may be torn away from the verb and joined another word in the sentence, e.g. gdzieś była but gdzie byłaś ‘where have you (f) been’.

Dividing of the Polish words into substantives, adjectives, verbs etc, discussed elsewhere, happens to be inconvenient in practice. We can divide all Polish words into 3 groups instead:

  1. Words inflected for cases (declinable).
  2. Words inflected for persons (conjugatable).
  3. Uninflected words.

Declension, part 1

Known from school grammar course substantives (including verbal nouns), adjectives (including participles), numerals and some pronouns undergo declension. We will discuss here also derived adverbs (from adjectives), often undergoing inflection by degrees of comparison, which may be acknowledged as special forms of adjectives. We call all these words nouns. I emphasize: “nouns” are not the same as “substantives”! They also include adjectives, numerals and some pronouns. Various forms of nouns may be characterized by the following categories:

Substantives are declined by numbers and cases, whereas they have constant and specified gender. The others nouns are declined also by genders, adjusting its form to the gender of the substantive with which they are in connection within clause. Some of them may be also declined by degrees. Numerals are declined by cases and genders, however they have constant and specified number.

It is worth to emphasize that Polish nouns are not differentiated in respect of the category of definiteness. So, an English equivalent for Polish człowiek may be a man, the man or man. If necessary, instead of a / an we use jeden, jakiś, pewien, instead of the we can use the demonstrative pronoun ten. Similarly in plural – for Polish ludzie you can use some people, any people, people or the people.

In today’s Polish there is only singular and plural number. There are substantives that have only plural (pluralia tantum), e.g. drzwi ‘door’, usta ‘mouth’, nożyczki ‘scissors’, urodziny ‘birthday’, spodnie ‘trousers’. Some of them have singular form but behave themselves as plurals, e.g. państwo in the clause ci państwo wreszcie przyszli (one of the possible translations is ‘these master and mistress have come at last’). There exist also non-count (mass) nouns in Polish which have singular form (collective nouns). In English we can find quite similar system, even if there are some differences in details. For instance, contrary to English equivalents, we have both numbers of substantives wiadomość ‘a piece of news’ – wiadomości ‘some news’ or mebel ‘a piece of furniture’ – meble ‘furniture’. Sometimes there is the other way round – English lives, plural to life, is not possible to be translated literally into Polish. Non-countness in Polish is not so rigorous as in English: ile is the equivalent to both how much and how many. Even if miłość ‘love’, życie ‘life’ or woda ‘water’ are non-count in principle, they may be used in plural however (dwie miłości jego życia ‘two loves of his life’, koty mają podobno siedem żyć ‘cats are said to have seven lives’, wody głębinowe ‘water(s) from depth’). In spite of many linguists’ opinion, in principle there are no substantives in Polish having only singular (singularia tantum).

In the old language there was also dual number, which traces (most often in the meaning of plural) have remained in dialects (robita instead of robicie, originally a form of 2. person of dual), in some proverbs (mądrej głowie dość dwie słowie ‘for wise head it is enough two words’) and in forms of some words (ręce, oczy, uszy ‘hands / arms, eyes, ears’). Compare also sto (‘100’, singular) – dwieście (‘200’, dual) – trzysta, czterysta (‘300’, ‘400’, plural).

In traditional grammars 3 genders of nouns are distinguished: masculine, feminine and neuter. When substituting the words mężczyzna, chłopiec, kot, statek, stół ‘man, boy, cat, ship, table (piece of furniture)’ we use the pronoun on ‘he’, instead of kobieta, dziewczyna, krowa, twarz, głowa, łódź, poduszka ‘woman, girl, cow, face, head, boat, pillow’ we say ona ‘she’, and instead of dziecko, dziewczę, cielę, krzesło ‘child, girl / maiden, calf (young cow), chair’ we say ono ‘it’. Is stół more virile than krzesło? Have dziewczę the undetermined sex? Then, the gender does not depends on real sex of the described object, but it is conditioned on language convention which demands formal adjustment of syntactically connected words.

A quite similar distinguishing of gender is present in English. When substituting man, boy we use he, substituting woman, girl – she, and table, chair will be substituted by it. We can say about natural gender here. Yet ship has feminine gender – she! In Polish such “exceptions” are simply much more numerous.

Things become more complicated, because Polish adjectives and demonstrative pronouns (as it was in Latin and as it is in German or French till now) have different forms according to gender of the substantive to which they concern. Let’s compare:

masculine feminine neuter
Polish mój dobry brat moja dobra siostra moje dobre dziecko
Latin meus bonus fra:ter mea bona soror meum bonum (opus)
German mein guter Bruder meine gute Schwester mein gutes Kind
English my good brother my good sister my good child

Alas, the complications do not end here. We say mój dobry brat, mój dobry kot, mój dobry stół and on the grounds of it we credit the substantives brat, kot, stół with masculine gender. It is enough however to examine the shape of these expressions in accusative (the case of direct object), and we will come to different conclusions: widzę mojego dobrego brata, widzę mojego dobrego kota, but widzę mój dobry stół (‘I can see my good brother, etc.’). The words brat ‘brother’, kot ‘cat’ will be counted among masculine animate gender, while stół ‘table’ among masculine inanimate (masculine objective) gender. These terms are quite conventional – in the masculine animate category we include such substantives like trup ‘corpse, dead man’, wisielec ‘hanged man’, names and marks of goods (papieros ‘cigarette’, mercedes, pilzner), money (dolar, funt, złoty) and dances (polonez, menuet). We do not acknowledge names of the greater part of plants as animate (widzę ten dąb ‘I can see this oak’, though widzę banana – animate!), we do aknowledge names of viruses, bacteria, fungi (ona ma HIVa (read hifa) ‘she has HIV’, znalazłem grzyba ‘I have found a mushroom’, chwyciłem gronkowca ‘I have caught staphylococcus’). In the spoken language gwóźdź ‘(metal) nail’, nos ‘nose’ (in the metaphor: mieć nosa ‘have a scent’) are masculine animate at times, just the same (in the youth language) smak ‘taste’ (mieć na coś smaka ‘have a taste for sth.’).

Instead of masculine, feminine and neuter, there exist masculine-personal and non-masculine-personal genders in plural. Peculiarities in their using are described in the chapter on syntax. Masculine-personal substantives are a subgroup of masculine animate substantives, while the non-masculine-personal ones include other masculine animate and all masculine inanimate, feminine and neuter substantives. These particular groups may keep different case endings, what is the only trace of their old gender differentiation in plural. And so, non-masculine-personal substantives that are neuter in singular, have the ending ~a in nominative and accusative plural, e.g. jaja, łóżka, pola, cielęta ‘eggs, beds, fields, calves (young cows)’ (sg. jajo, łóżko, pole, cielę). Other non-masculine-personal substantives have the ending ~y (or ~i after k, g) as a rule, e.g. masculine animate koty, papierosy ‘cats, cigarettes’, masculine inanimate dęby, stołki ‘oaks, stools’, feminine kobiety, nogi ‘women, legs’. This differentiation has no consequences for the form of the syntactically related pronoun or adjective, that is why we say as well te wspaniałe łóżka ‘these great beds’ as te wspaniałe kobiety ‘these great women’ (contrary to masculine-personal forms, e.g. ci wspaniali panowie ‘these great gentlemen’). But we sometimes meet the ending ~a also in masculine-personal substantives, e.g. brat, książę ‘brother, prince’ (ci wspaniali bracia, książęta), or in masculine inanimate, like akt ‘record’ – pl. te akta sądowe ‘these judicial records’. On the other hand, the neuters oko, ucho ‘eye, ear’ have not usually the ~a in plural (normally oczy, uszy and only in special meanings oka, ucha).

Ways of counting of substantives in plural give next complications. We can divide nouns into several groups, only partially conformable to genders.

  1. Non-count substantives, usually without plural.
  2. Masculine-personal substantives. Numerals 2–4 have for them special forms dwaj, trzej, czterej connecting with nominative plural. Besides we can use here a special construction of genitive like dwóch mężczyzn that will be discussed in another place. It is possible to use here a special collective form of a numeral (dwoje, troje, czworo, …) which however falls into disuse in such cases.
  3. Non-masculine-personal substantives (masculine animate impersonal, masculine inanimate, feminine and part of neuter (1)). The main form of the numeral is used here, but the numeral dwa ‘2’ has a special feminine form dwie.
  4. The other neuters (2), ending in nominative plural with ~ęta and others describing young beings need the collective form of the numeral.
  5. The same form is demanded by some substantives occurring only in plural.
  6. Part of substantives occurring only in plural may be counted only using the auxiliary word pary ‘pairs’.
  7. Some substantives occurring only in singular may be counted periphrastically, e.g. dwie sztuki bydła ‘two pieces of cattle’.

The troubles with determining the gender of Polish substantives are illustrated in the following tables:

  this is these are I can see 1 2
Nom.sg. Nom.pl. Acc.sg. Acc.pl.
1 masculine-personal ten brat ci bracia tego brata tych braci jeden brat dwaj bracia
dwóch braci
dwoje braci
2 masculine animate ten kot te koty tego kota te koty jeden kot dwa koty
3 masculine inanimate ten stół te stoły ten stół te stoły jeden stół dwa stoły
4 masculine non-count ten tlen   ten tlen      
5 feminine ta siostra te siostry tę siostrę te siostry jedna siostra dwie siostry
6 feminine non-count ta miedź   tę miedź      
7 neuter I to krzesło te krzesła to krzesło te krzesła jedno krzesło dwa krzesła
8 neuter II to dziecko te dzieci to dziecko te dzieci jedno dziecko dwoje dzieci
9 neuter non-count to zło   to zło      
10 neuter collective to bydło   to bydło   jedna sztuka bydła dwie sztuki bydła
11 plural having
singular form
  ci państwo   tych państwa jedni państwo dwoje państwa
12 plural only   te drzwi   te drzwi jedne drzwi dwoje drzwi
13 plural only, neuter   te usta   te usta jedne usta dwoje ust
14 plural – dual   te spodnie   te spodnie jedne spodnie dwie pary spodni
15 plural non-count   te pomyje   te pomyje    

masculine feminine neuter
animate inanimate (objective)
personal impersonal 1 2
brat, pan, chłopiec, gość, poeta, mężczyzna kot, grzyb, trup, wirus stół, statek, album, organizm siostra, kobieta, twarz, pani, dziewczyna, kość krzesło, jajo, pole, muzeum oko, dziecko, niemowlę, cielę

usually singular only
masculine inanimate feminine neuter
tlen, węgiel miedź, siarka zło, powietrze, bydło

plural only
with singular form non-neuter neuter (formally) dual non-count
państwo drzwi, skrzypce usta, wrota nożyczki, spodnie pomyje, wakacje, urodziny

Here you can read more on forming and syntax of Polish numerals.


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