Saturday, October 8, 2011

Russian vs. Polish: Linguistic Comparison

   Countries where a West Slavic language is the national language
   Countries where an East Slavic language is the national language
   Countries where a South Slavic language is the national language
Source: Wikemedia Commons
         People often ask me about the Russian language. I've studied two Slavic languages formally, Polish and Russian, and I find it useful to compare the two.

         Slavic languages, part of the Indo-European language tree along with Romance, Germanic, etc., are divided into 3 groups- Eastern Slavic, Western Slavic, and Southern Slavic. Russian is an Eastern Slavic language and Polish is Western Slavic.

Eastern Slavic
Western Slavic
Southern Slavic

      Some seem to think that the reason why Russian is a difficult language to learn is because of its use of the Cyrillic alphabet but I would disagree. The Cyrillic alphabet is actually fairly easy to learn as it is comprised of mostly Greek letters. In Russian there is no word "to spell" because the language is considered purely phonetic. By contrast, Polish uses largely the Latin alphabet but the addition of accents, etc., complicates the text.

         A Professor Emeritus at the University of Texas once told me a joke that illustrates in part why the Polish language is so difficult to master:

         "An elderly Polish man visited his eye doctor and was told to read from an eye chart so as to gauge his vision. The man volunteered to read the bottom line and, although it was the smallest, most difficult to see, the man correctly relayed each letter. When the doctor asked him how he was able to be so precise in his account of the seemingly random letters in the distance, the elderly Polish man said, "It was easy, I know a guy who's last name is spelled just like that!"

         Poles sometimes refer to the Russian language as 'baby Polish' because the sounds in Russian are softer and easier to recite quickly. Russian is filled with g's (gate), d's (dog), zhe's (pleasure) whereas Polish has k's (kite), sh's (sheet), and ch's (chapter). Polish has 7 cases whereas Russian has 6. Polish also has a neuter form for 'they' while Russian does not.

         The Russian language has no 'to be' verb in the present, instead it is implied.

         For example, in Russian if you were to say, "He is a dog.", you would say, "He dog." and the 'is' would be implied. However, one need include a "will be" or "was" to indicate either future or past tense. Polish, on the other hand, requires a "to be" in the present.

English- "He is a dog."
Polish- On jest psem. "He is dog."
Russian- Он собака. "He dog".

         In both Polish and Russian, "He" is the same word as the Polish On sounds like the Russian Он. In Russian there is no "is" whereas in the Polish translation, jest = "is". The word for dog differs in the two languages- In Polish psem is pronounced "pshem" and in Russian, собака sounds like "sobaka". Notice neither Polish nor Russian uses an equivalent to the English article "a".

         My favorite part of the Polish language is that it has a penultimate stress. Every single Polish word is stressed on the second to last syllable. That is perhaps the only instance where Polish is easier on the student than Russian.

1 comment:

  1. Dear Donna,

    thanks for the blogpost. It was really interesting, although short.

    There's a slight mistake with a dog. In Polish dog is 'Pies' (sound like p'es). In Russian there's a very similar name "Пёс" (Pios) but is used not as often as sobaka and refers to male dogs.

    I'd add here that the more basic words are, the more common they sound. E.g.

    Sun - słońce (swon'tse) - солнце (sontse)
    Happiness - szczęście (shczen'schtchie) - счастье (stchastie)
    Good - dobro - добро
    Evil - zło - зло

    And so on.

    Both languages, however, changed a lot and had changed to divert from each other. Some historians note that in XVII century Poles and Muscovites could understand each other much better than now.

    The best example is about the word 'island'. In both languages the old name is 'ostrow'. In Polish, however, it has changed to 'wyspa' but in some older Polish toponyms you can find "Ostrów"

    At the same time, there are certain basic differences that come from the dark ages. For example is the word "Thank you". In Polish is 'Dziękuję' which is in the Central European / Germanic tradition (Danke/Tack/Thank/Dziękuję/Dekuje/děkuji/Дякую/Дзякуй) while in Russia it's spasibo. Some translate it as "save God", however, this version is controversial, it rather meant "Save you" in old-Russian influenced by Finno-Hungarian.