Friday 17 April 2015

The Most Difficult Language in the World

Yesterday I went to my favourite hipster café and wrote about 180 words in Polish, mostly about Easter Sunday supper. I hadn't written anything in Polish in a while, and I don't want to get out of the habit. It was my practice to write gossipy letters to Polish Pretend Son, but as he hasn't sent me his new mailing address, I stopped. Writing emails in Polish is not much fun, as it entails a different keyboard. Meanwhile, I hope PPS is not living in a cardboard box. You can never tell with London. Friends go to live there and then are too proud to tell you that they are living in a hovel in Tower Hamlets, woken at dawn by the muezzin.

I find food an endless source of linguistic inspiration, so Polish Pretend Son has received an awful lot of menus. 

For one dinner party, a host cooked 'zupę (soup), pieczony udziec jagnięcy (roast leg of lamb) oraz "bread and butter" pudding czekoladowy ( chocolate bread and butter pudding)'.  

On Mothering Sunday, I ordered pasztet (paté), strzepiel z frytkami (seabass with french fries) and budyn (pudding). 

Yesterday I noted that for Easter I prepared 'żurek (Polish sour soup), udziec jagnięcy, groszek (peas), ziemniaki (potatoes), bułki wielkanocne (Easter buns, i.e. hot cross buns), i dwa ciasta (two cakes): baranka wielkanocnego (a three dimensional lamb cake) i Simnel Cake...tradycyjny brytyjski keks z marcepanem (a traditional British fruitcake with marzipan). 

While I was rewriting my scribbles into correctable form--for sometimes I get my Polish teacher to correct them in the break--a young barista came by to take away my coffee cup and tell me the café was closing for the evening. 

"Are you learning Polish?" he asked with interest.

"Yes," I said, gesturing to the dictionary, the verb book, the grammar and the notebook.

"I'm learning Bulgarian," said the poor young man with pride.

"Gosh!" I said with fellow feeling. "Bulgarian!"

"I can read Cyrillic now," said the fellow. "It uses Cyrillic."

"How long have you been studying Bulgarian?"

"A few months. My girlfriend is Bulgarian, and we're going there in a few months. Hopefully I'll be able to speak it by then."

"Gosh," I said, silently pondering my almost four years of toil. "Good luck!"

Fifteen minutes later, I told this tale to the classmate already in the new classroom (for Easter term has just begun) with some amusement. But he reflected that Bulgarian is simpler than Polish, for Polish has more cases and besides, everyone says that Polish is the hardest language in the world. But even as he said that, he looked dubious. I looked dubious, too. We are not convinced that Polish really is the most difficult language in the world.

"Poles love to say that Polish is the most difficult language in the world," I observed. "I think they're proud of the idea, so it's best just to agree."

My personal theory about squabbling with Poles is that unless you're willing to kill them, you have to just lose graciously and as soon as possible. Otto von Bismark said that they only way to deal with them is to beat them until they lose heart, which was a rotten Prussian thing to say. However, the big exception--I believe--is anything having to do with love of Poland, Polish or Polish culture. If you are determined to make the best pierogi in the world and a Pole tells you this is fundamentally impossible for a foreigner, go ahead and try to make the best pierogi in the world. As a frightfully stubborn people themselves, Poles in general admire perseverance if not out-and-out competition. Naturally loving Polish geography so much that you wish to take some away from Poles is not admired. 

For all I know, Polish is the hardest language in the world for a native English-speaker to learn, although I hear Arabic is a real headache, alongside Cantonese, Mandarin, Japanese and Korean. Polish is certainly harder to learn than swing-dancing. Plowing through Harry Potter i Komnata Tajemnic (Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets) is still very, very difficult, and reading is the easiest thing to do, followed by writing. This is why Polish class is so very important: a good teacher forces you to go and talk to other students in Polish. Ours forces us to  have little Polish conversations. As they are generally also about what we like and dislike, or about our daily or holiday activities, we quickly find things to say. For example, my favourite activity with my "partnerem"--as modernity has sadly added to the Polish language--note the obvious English origin of the word--can be expressed as follows:

Wolę lecieć do Rzymu z mężem i zjeść ogromny obiad w restauracji.

That most definitely shows my priorities in life and, meanwhile, finding the ć button, plus trying not to reverse Y and Z, has completely worn me out, so off I go to get on with the rest of the daz. 


  1. I don't know about Polish, but Farsi is a pain in the posterior because:
    1) The different alphabet. It isn't so bad by itself, but only about half the vowels are written, which makes reading difficult.
    2) There are fewer verbs than in English, and most of them are compound ("to do X", "to take X", "to eat X" (yes), etc). The words do a lot of double-duty, which is confusing. On the plus side, there are fewer to learn.
    3) It is technically Indo-European, but barely. Not enough to make anything easier. The Arabic loanwords are a nightmare.
    4) The language as commonly spoken is more poetic than English. Random expressions make no sense whatsoever unless you are familiar with poets from 500 years ago.
    5) Ta'arof. Ain't nobody got time for that.

  2. Ah! I am tempted by Farsi. It would be great fun to know Farsi so as to eavesdrop on even more conversations on the bus.

    1. The swearing is highly satisfying as well, if one is of the trooper persuasion.


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