If you are having trouble using a particular grammatical structure in a foreign language, try identifying examples of where it is used in, say, newspaper articles or books, and ask yourself at each instance why the native speaker uses one form rather than another.
When you don't grow up in a country the grammar doesn't just come naturally to us. We have to make an active effort at identifying and reproducing it.
I owe a debt of gratitude to Irhan, my Turkish teacher, for his invaluable assistance and pointers on the finer points of Turkish grammar dispensed over many pides in the restaurants of Schaerbeek. “What is it like to speak a language which is so succinct?” I would ask. In Turkish you say “anladim” whereas in English we say “I see what you mean”, five words. Blank expression. Or “anlamadim”, where we say “I’m not sure what you’re getting at”. Nothing. Or “anlayamadim”, “how could I possibly have known?”. “Anlamam”, he said (“What do you mean?” )
My own view is that for every subtlety in Polish, a notoriously fiendish language, there is an equivalent difficulty in English, (wiadomo) a very easy language with no grammar to speak of.
I have long been puzzled by the genitive of masculine nouns, some of which end in –a and some in –u, with no rhyme or reason that I could detect. When I inflict my Polish on a native speaker I have a little question mark in my voice when I attempt a masculine genitive, “do koncu”, I will say, only to be told “-a”, or “Watykana” half expecting to be told “-u”, which of course it is. Tossing a coin would probably be a better bet.
It’s not fair, of course, because even if there are only two possibilities there must be some profound principle involved. If I’m capable of getting it consistently wrong why can’t someone just explain the rule to me in words of one syllable so that I’ll never make the same mistake again, but when I hear the rule my eyes glaze over, despite myself.
Over the summer I was reading Od Berdyczowa do Lafitow by Jerzy Stempowski, a travelogue around post-war Europe, all 544 pages, and I resolved to look systematically for instances, so I drew a little line in the middle of the margin and put all the genitive masculines ending in –a on top and all the –u’s on the bottom, just to see. How many masculine nouns can there be? A million? Each of them ending either in –a or –u, each of them a toss-up.
You quickly realise, perusing the margins, that actually there are many more –u’s than -a’s, so if you took a leaf out of Pascal’s book, you could always try –u and you would more likely be right than wrong, which would be an improvement on my dismal fifty-fifty, although I have a sneaking suspicion that by some miracle of counter-probabilities I get them all wrong.
You can make a little list of the –u’s and put the words “do tego” in front of them, like so: do tego kraju, do tego tunelu, do tego pylu and do the same with rumianek, nocleg, brzask, koszmar, fenol, cement, prowiant, bagaz, smalec, ekstrakt, las, grunt, snieg, cel, dokument, brzeg, teren, system, powrot, plan, azyl, Olimp, lud, wierzch, spod, egoizm, przyjazd, zapas, faszyzm, przepych, kryzys, upadek, smutek, wagon, Mediolan, rynek, kurs, autobus, tabor, powod, most, wiatr, mechanizm, udzial, ucisk, bunt, okres, przebieg, strajk, strach . At all times, though, remember that these words are –u’s, in the sense that they are not –a’s. You will be guaranteed a little smile of bemused exasperation if you try nigdy nie mialem takiego dobrego noclega, azyla, Mediolana, Olimpa, albo tunela itd itp.
But actually you don’t need to keep a log of both groups and if you do you’re inevitably going to be asking yourself is it an –a or an –u in which case you’re back where you started. Luckily the –a’s have it, in the sense that there are fewer of them and they seem to conform to a logical pattern. (I’m reading through the pages.) There’s swiat, bunkier, zegar, przemytnik, koniec, przemytnik, sojusznik (people doing things), there’s chleb, sojusznik, gospodarz, grosz, Matuszalem (someone living a long time), szczur, Saturn (someone eating his children), koniec (again), swiat (again), Wergiliusz (Thunderbirds), Machiawel, czytelnik, przemytnik, sojusznik, pierscionek, zascianek (ending in –k), klient (a person), tygodnik, klucz (nie mam klucza, nie mam kluczu would be ridiculous), swiat (as in do konca swiata ), hektar (as in ani hektara), mag, Berlioz, dyrygent, kosciol, podrecznik, technik, Ravel, dyktator, kardynal, skarbiec (skarbca), wachlarz, cielec (as in biblijnego zlotego cielca), nieprzyjaciel, Berlin, listopad (but also styczien, marzec, kwiecien, maj, czerwiec, lipiec, czerpien, wrzesien, pazdziernik, listopad und grudzien), dzien, Herkules, pieniadz, jezyk, aliant, dyktator, kucharz, wiezien, Judasz, Jezus, wachmistrz, przeciwnik .
A pattern? No, take out all the people doing things and you don’t need to worry about przemytnik (znam wspanialego przemytnika) , or dyktator, nieprzyjaciel, Herkules, Berlioz (dyrygent), mag, kardynal , and you can forget about the –ik’s as well, nie widze zadnego sojusznika, pierscionka, tygodnika, podrecznika, przeciwnika ). So actually you’re left with a select little band of –a’s you might not expect, but you can learn them easy peasy, swiat, bunkier, zegar, koniec, chleb, grosz, szczur, klucz (again), Berlin, dzien, pieniadz, jezyk. Which conveniently gets the number of avoidable choices down to manageable proportions. I hereby do solemnly resolve to remember that swiat, koniec, chleb, dzien and jezyk are all –a’s, they’re the ones I always get wrong.
Funnily enough, in Polish there’s usually a choice between two things, whereas in English, for example with the articles, there’s always a choice between a, an, a, the, the and nothing, which is six possibilities by my reckoning. I give my students the same incomprehending look when they pick the wrong one although I’m not sure why it is that you say Polish culture but the Polish economy. It’s just something you can’t get wrong if you’re a native speaker of English.
But if you read through a long book, say, Lend me your ears by Boris Johnson, all 539 pages, and make little notes in the margin, there’s a method to the madness. Take page 39 for example. You can take away all the a’s and the the’s and give it to an Englishman through and through and they’ll read it out to you loud and clear, supplying the articles, confident of their correctitude.
>>In chancelleries of Europe, it is nothing short of identity crisis. Mandarins mutter over their atlases; ministers are stumped. In few short weeks since final collapse of Soviet Union, glaring hole has been uncovered in diplomatic lexicon.
‘What is eventual size of Europe?’ one EC ambassador asked last week after Brussels commission announced delphicly that it would propose varying relations with ex-Soviet countries according to whether or not they were ‘European’. ‘Who is European?’ he asked querulously. ‘Where does Europe end?’
Britain knows, as it prepares to take over EC presidency in July, that question is central. Being ‘European’ gives country right, eventually, to participate in Community institutions in Brussels. After years of chafing at introversion of ‘little Europeans’ such as French government and M Jacques Delors, Downing Street is signposting ‘wider Common Market’ as key advance of British presidency. Foreign Office has been asked to provide position paper.
But while it is one thing to accommodate Poland, Hungary, even Baltic states, where does one stop? Mr Major has proclaimed new, wider Europe Community ‘from Atlantic to Urals’. Does he really mean it – that EC will one day embrace most of 150 million people of new Russia? And if so, what about Russians on other side of Urals?<<
Reading through this unarticled passage two things irresistibly spring to mind. Taking away the articles makes it sound like Lancashire dialect (there’s trouble down at ‘t mill) and like clipped military parlance, two boots, size ten, Corporal Higgins for use of, sah! But don’t take my word for it..
‘What is the eventual size of Europe?’ one EC ambassador asked last week after the Brussels commission announced delphicly that it would propose varying relations with the ex-Soviet countries according to whether or not they were ‘European’. ‘Who is a European?’ he asked querulously. ‘Where does Europe end?’
Britain knows, as it prepares to take over the EC presidency in July, that the question is central. Being ‘European’ gives a country the right, eventually, to participate in the Community institutions in Brussels. After years of chafing at the introversion of the ‘little Europeans’ such as the French government and M Jacques Delors, Downing Street is signposting the ‘wider Common Market’ as the key advance of the British presidency. The Foreign Office has been asked to provide a position paper.
But while it is one thing to accommodate Poland, Hungary, even the Baltic states, where does one stop? Mr Major has proclaimed a new, wider European Community ‘from the Atlantic to the Urals’. Does he really mean it – that the EC will one day embrace most of the 150 million people of the new Russia? And if so, what about the Russians on the other side of the Urals?>>
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