Do we respect our own languages?

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The Do we respect our own languages series has looked as whether this demonstrates a lack of respect for one’s native language. This edition questions what Polish speakers think of their native language. Being relatively far from the nearest English-speaking country, how is English affecting Polish people’s sense of pride for their mother tongue?

Marta Stelmaszak, an English/French to Polish translator and interpreter, divides her life into two sides: the English one and the Polish one. “When I think of my life, I think about in Polish up to the age of 17, and in English henceforth. Polish is all about the childhood, my parents, my family home, my school and growing up. All of my business life, earning money, being an entrepreneur, doing my degree, becoming qualified, is in English.

To reflect on what Polish means to her and other native speakers she knows, Marta has used the answers she gave in response to a questionnaire by Kate Hammer, Birkbeck, University of London. (The questions below are intellectual property of Kate Hammer, Birkbeck, University of London – publication in preparation).

If you had to choose only one language to use for the rest of your life (and everyone would understand you), which language would you choose: Polish or English?

“Instinctively, I’d choose English. Polish is a language where people are more formal, more distanced from each other. We don’t use first names that often; we prefer to stay with Mr and Mrs as long as we can. Polish is also more direct. We don’t say ‘Could you pass me the salt, please’. We’d say ‘Pass me the salt’.

But when you look at it from a historical perspective, you’ll find out that our language was sometimes the only thing that made us Polish, under the Nazi or Soviet occupation. Our difficult political situation led to the decomposition of our culture, education, and even religion. For years, the language kept us together. I think this history behind our language is deeply imbedded in us and makes us automatically respect it. When I give it a second thought, I think I’d prefer to use Polish for the rest of my life. I want to be a part of the history.”

When being in a majority English-speaking company, which version of your name do you prefer that people call you (be it spelling or pronunciation or both): Polish or English?

“Definitely Polish! I even make sure no-one pronounces “th” instead of “t” in Marta. And trying to teach my colleagues how to pronounce my surname is an excellent ice-breaker. My surname is rather rare in Polish as well, but it’s still recognisable. I’m proud of my name, and it’s also not that complicated.

I can imagine that my colleagues Małgorzata, Katarzyna, Przemysław and Wojciech would rather have their names in English versions. Why? Because it’s terribly difficult for a non-Polish speaker to pronounce them! I think it has nothing to do with respecting our native language. It’s a matter of respect towards the company and the maxims of communication.

But on the other hand, it’s increasingly popular to give foreign names to new-born children in Poland. Luckily, the naming problem is regulated by the Polish Language Council.The role of the Council in protecting our naming heritage has been widely accepted. The Council recognises that names are an important part of every language, therefore protecting them from foreign influences equals protecting of the language in general.”

Imagine that you are on a plane and the crew are bilingual, so they can assist you in both English and Polish. What language do you use to make an order: Polish or English?

“I’d use Polish, because it gives me so much pleasure! I’m used to speaking English all the time, so whenever I hear Polish spoken, I usually make contact with this person. I cherish these little moments of speaking Polish because they make me feel like I’m a part of a larger community, that I belong to a group. It’s almost like meeting someone who’s like a very, very distant relative of yours.”

How much do you agree or disagree with this statement: There are words in Polish that I am very attached to and would never translate them in my mind into their English equivalents.

“I agree with it very much! And it’s not a matter of untranslateables, of words that exist only in one language. It’s more a matter of this sublime attachment to the tone and associations. Some Polish words I know have so much history behind them, that using an English equivalent would feel weirdly blank.

On the other hand, if there’s a word I know in English and I’d like to use it in Polish, I’d never do that. I’d sweat over a dictionary until I find the right equivalent. Now that’s what I call respect to my native language! Do other Poles do that? Hmm… No. It’s trendy and fashionable to use English words rather than trying to come up with suitable Polish equivalents. My brother uses ‘omg’ and ‘lol’ all the time, not to mention profanities (busted!).

In terms of more official usage, our Polish Language Council and indeed most of our philologues recommend using borrowings or “innovations” when they enrich our language or diversify our vocabulary when needed. We have “komputer” (computer), “mikser” (mixer) or “serial” (series) because they name pieces of new technologies that we had no names for before. But what about words that we had and some people decided to use borrowed equivalents? It’s a matter of style. And translators are the firewalls here.”


by guest blogger, Lloyd Bingham, In-house Translator
Lloyd Translates

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