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How to be on the case of Polish cases?

You learnt your first words in Polish and when you see them written or hear Polish speakers using them, you recognise them and of course you feel good. Great, a coffee is kawa, milk is mleko... you carry on learning new vocabulary, but then you spot that these words keep changing their endings. 

Chcesz kawę?
You may hear your Polish friend asking you if you want a coffee.  Hold on, you think, why kawę and not kawa?

Z mlekiem czy bez mleka?
Now, you are completely lost. Your friend holds a bottle of milk and you know that she means with milk or without, but why mleko changed to mlekiem and then to mleka?
It can be frustrating when you realise that Polish words constantly change their endings. You ask your Polish partner, friends or teacher and they tell you: that’s because  in Polish we have seven cases… It doesn’t help you at all. A case? You still don’t know why you drink kawę z mlekiem and not kawa z mleko… 
Well, you are learning ….. An inflected language. Completely confused? Are you having grammar trauma now?
You may give up on this subject now and keep asking for kawa z mleko when you order your drink. The truth is that you will still be understood and will get your drink. If you are about to visit Poland, don’t bother about those cases and learn set phrases or get a phrasebook to get you by while visiting Polish places.
However, if you want to be on the case of Polish cases, then carry on reading.
Understanding Polish structure and how we construct sentences will help you to avoid direct translations from English which may confuse your Polish friends. It’s a different system in comparison to English and you have to accept that Polish nouns, adjectives and pronouns change their endings all the time!

THE SECRET TO UNDERSTAND  POLISH NATIVE SPEAKERS BETTER

To understand the function of the cases, you first need to discover an important secret – Polish word order – in other words what is the word’s position in a sentence. I have already talked about it in one of my previous posts.
Did it happen to you that you couldn’t get what a Polish speaker said even though you knew all the words? 
Let’s start with a sentence in English:
Ewa loves Adam
In Polish, Ewa kocha Adama, but you may hear a native speaker saying Adama kocha Ewa and it still the same meaning: Ewa loves Adam. And you are stuck! 
If you say in English Adam loves Ewa, it’s a completely different love story! Now it’s Adam who is “the doer “of loving, not Ewa any more, she is the receiver of Adam’s loving!
Usually, beginner learners often get confused when they hear familiar words in a very strange order. This is because it never happens in English.
But it does happen very often in Polish!
Remember, the word order in a Polish sentence is not fixed as in English and you cannot rely on the word’s position to tell who is doing what. 
So you may ask how do we know who loves who if the word order is so flexible?
The key to not getting confused about who is loving who, it’s to distinguish between various roles that words play in a sentence. 

Let’s use our previous example:
Ewa loves Adam
Ewa kocha Adama
To better understand this love story, use your imagination and think about it as a scene of a movie. We need a leading actor (Ewa) and some action (to love) Plus, we have one supportive actor (Adam).

In Polish: 
Leading actor – Ewa
Action – kochać
Supportive actor – Adam

And grammatically speaking :
  • -Ewa  is the sentence subject, she is the doer, someone who does the action of loving
  • -Kochać – is an action word – verb , that you need to agree with the do-er (hence Ewa kocha)
  • -Adam – is the direct object of the action, meaning that the action of loving is done to. And because it is not the sentence subject ( that’s Ewa’s role), it changes its form to Adama)

An English love story can be represented only in one way:
Ewa loves Adam
As you already know English order is fixed Subject-Verb-Object, but not in Polish.
So our love story in Polish can be very dynamic! And to express the same idea, we can say:
Ewa kocha Adama
Adama kocha Ewa
Ewa Adama kocha
Kocha Ewa Adama
Adama Ewa kocha
Kocha Adama Ewa

 

Wherever Ewa is placed in those sentences she is still the grammatical subject, she keeps her leading role! And Adam is the object of the action, so he is in every sentence in a supportive role! It clearly shows that Polish does not primarily use the word order for indicating noun roles.
Yes, it’s all grammatically correct! Of course these sentences mean more or less the same – Ewa loves Adam! But by selecting a different word order we can emphasise a different shade of meaning. 

BACK TO THE CASE OF POLISH CASES

Ok, if you digest the information that Polish words move around in a sentence, you will easily understand why we use cases. 
Imagine that we don’t have cases and as in English the words just have one form. Do you think it would be easier for you? Well, I don’t think so. Knowing how mobile Polish nouns are in a sentence, just imagine the chaos and confusion it may create to find out who loves who!
Ewa loves Adam
Ewa kocha Adama
That’s why our Adam changed his ending to Adama, so we know that he is the object of loving, and even if we place him at the beginning of the sentence he will remain in his object role! And Ewa, although at the end, she is still the subject.
Adama kocha Ewa
Imagine now, we don’t have the case system and we place Adam at the beginning, in his basic form Adam. It would mean that he is now the leading actor, he loves Ewa. 
Without changing the endings we don’t know who loves who!
Adam kocha Ewę
Well, now Ewa needs to be changed to the supportive role, she is the object of the sentence, the receiver of Adam’s loving, hence she gets a different ending to give us this information!
Adam kocha Ewę
Thanks to those annoying you endings that keep changing all the time, you can say who is the subject main actor = the do-er of the action, who is the receiver of the action = object.
As I said at the beginning, we have seven cases in Polish and they have various roles which are important for everyday communication. In this post we have just looked at two cases to tell us who is the subject and the object. 
So, why do we need cases in Polish? You  want them to create correct sentences and avoid any confusion! As you have seen from the example with Ewa and Adam, the knowledge of cases is vital in forming even simple sentences.

TO TAKE AWAY

  • -The most important thing I want you to remember from this post is that the word order in Polish is not fixed. In order to understand who does the action and who is the receiver of the action, you need to look at the words ending and identify the right case.
  • -Learn to distinguish various roles of nouns in a sentence ( who is the subject = leading actor, who is the object = an actor in a supportive role). There are more roles, but getting your head around the difference between subject and object will save you a headache when decoding a Polish sentence.
  • -Knowing that the word order is very mobile in Polish, you can better understand a Polish speaker. As a beginner, use the first word order, as in English if you want to start communicating, however get used to Polish order flexibility and practise using simple sentences with different word orders.
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02/04/2020

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