Polish Grammar Overview for Complete Beginners
A big part of language learning is paying attention to patterns. But when first starting a language, everything is so new, it's hard to even know what you are looking for!
I don't advocate starting to learn Polish by studying the grammar. But having a general idea of what the grammar is about, can help you recognize patterns and pick up some of the grammar naturally, just from exposure to the language.
What follows is a brief overview of Polish grammar. None of the actual grammar rules are given! Just a quick description of what you can expect to find in Polish, intended for the complete beginner.
In Polish, all nouns (person, place, thing) have one of three genders: masculine, feminine or neuter. Even inanimate objects have a gender! When the words refer to people or animals, the genders mostly match the biological gender. There are rare exceptions with very young humans and animals. For example, these words are neuter: "dziecko" (human child), "pisklę" (chick).
90% of the time, you can tell the gender of a noun from its ending. Of course, there are exceptions. But at least it's better than other languages where you have to simply memorize the gender (for example, with Spanish you learn all the vocabulary with "el" and "la" to help remember the gender).
When an adjective (descriptive word) is used to describe a noun, it must be changed to match its gender and case (more on cases below). All adjectives are listed in the dictionary in the masculine form. So, let's say you want to say "nice woman". You look up both in the dictionary: "miły" (nice) and "kobieta" (woman). The adjective "miły" has to be changed to "miła", the feminine form: "miła kobieta"
Like most European languages, verbs (action words) change depending on who is doing the action. For example, the word "to read" in Polish is "czytać". Here are its forms in the present tense:
|czytam||I read||czytamy||we read|
|czytasz||you read||czytacie||you (plural, ie. "y'all") read|
|czyta||he/she/it reads||czytają||they read|
In the past tense, the form also shows the gender of the thing doing the action, as well as who is doing it.
In English, there are many different verb tenses, formed by adding "helper verbs", for example: I read, I am reading, I have been reading, etc.. In total there are sixteen different tenses! In Polish, the system is much, much simpler. For example, all the tenses of "to read" I just listed would all be translated as "czytam" in Polish!
To form all the tenses, there are two types of verbs: imperfective and perfective. Imperfective can be in the past, present and future, while prefective in only the past and future. Those are the five tenses!
Almost all verbs come in pairs (one imperfective, one perfective) with the same meaning. A good dictionary will tell you which kind each verb is and what its pair is.
This is most often discussed part of Polish grammar. If you take a traditional Polish class at the University level, the first year will be spent simply learning all the cases. But it really doesn't deserve all that attention! As I said previously, you can largely ignore the cases when you are first starting.
Anyway, this what all the fuss is about...
In English, we use word order to tell who is doing an action and who the action is being done to. For example:
- "John loves Janine"
- "Janine loves John"
In the first sentence, it is John who does the loving. Maybe Janine doesn't even like him! But in the second sentence, Janine is doing the loving, and it is John who is loved.
In Polish, the word order doesn't matter. For example:
- "Jan kocha Janinę"
- "Janinę kocha Jan"
In the first sentence, Jan loves Janina. In the second sentence, it's still only Jan who loves Janina! How can we tell? The case!
In Polish, the ending of nouns (and the adjectives that describe them) change depending on their function in the sentence. Above "Jan" is the subject (the doer) so it doesn't change. "Janina" is the object (the one being loved) so she becomes "Janinę" ("a" -> "ę"). These different forms are called cases.
We have this a little bit in English. For example, "he" becomes "him" and "she" becomes "her" when those words are the object. We say "He loves her" not "He loves she", right?
Its the same thing in Polish, except it happens with all nouns and there are more than just two cases (seven in total). Words also change case when used as the "instrument" of the sentence (ex. We went by car), as the indirect object of the sentence (ex. I sent it to him), with prepositions (ex. We talked about him) and a few other situations.
In the dictionary, words are listed in nominative case (the one where the word is the subject of the sentence, the one doing the action). Good dictionaries will also have a table at the front showing all the endings for different groups of words. The groups are usually labeled with roman numerals and letters (ex. VIb) and these will be listed next to every noun in the dictionary. This way you can look up all the forms of that word.
Because of the cases, word order is very liberal in Polish. You can say the words in almost any order and it will still make sense! Polish poetry takes full advantage of this.
That said, there are definitely patterns in the way Polish people order their words. There are two basic tendencies:
- Subject Verb Object - The same word order as English is frequently the default and most neutral!
- Putting the emphasized words last - In English, we say a word louder and with a different intonation when we want to emphasize it. For example, "JOHN loves Janine, not Jack!" In Polish, they do this too but to a much lesser degree. Instead, emphasized words are moved to the end of the sentence.
Of course, there is more to Polish grammar, but those are the main things. This should be enough to help you know what to look out for!
In the future, I plan to write more articles discussing the basic rules behind some of these grammar points. Stay tuned!