A Grammar of the Polish Language

Part six

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Morphology – inflected parts of speech, p. 3

Conjugation, part 1

Those that undergo conjugation are verbs, contrary to above discussed nouns. Various forms of verbs may be characterized by the following categories:

Finite (personal) forms act as predicate in a sentence, they are also defined in respect of person. The other forms (infinitives, participles, impersonal forms) have nominal character, they also undergo declension in general and do not indicate person by themselves. As a matter of fact, these forms are connected with verbs by their ability to be made from verbs under some defined rules, so they become a part of verbal paradigms. Some verbal nouns are also formed from verbs regularly; it is not worth discussing whether this issue belongs to word-formation rather than inflection – they will be treated here in the same manner as infinitives and participles.

The infinitive has the specified ending in Polish ( or ~c), just like in German (~en, ~n) or French (~er, ~ir, ~oir, ~re), and unlike in English. It cannot be conjugated by cases or numbers. It is the lexical form of verb which cannot acts as predicate individually. In Polish there are not infinitives for particular tenses, thus the difference like in to write – to have written is indicated by other means. Just like the other impersonal (infinite) forms, the infinitive cannot differentiate person, number or gender either. There exist however infinitives for particular voices and aspects. Forms of the type by napisać are hard to interpret. They look like the conditional form of the infinitive. More widely about them below.

Considering some aversion of Poles to using the passive voice, Polish, like the other Slavic languages, is full of various impersonal constructions and forms (not allowing using a subject in the sentence), which are formally conformable to other forms of verbs. You can meet Polish sentences whose predicate has seemingly a form of an infinitive, e.g. znać po nim przebytą chorobę ‘it can be seen on him his disease gone through’, tu słychać lepiej ‘here you can hear better (clearer)’, stąd widać dalej ‘you can see farther from here’, stać mnie na to ‘I can afford it’. Such forms have developed by facultative ellipsis (optional omission) of the predicative jest ‘is’, whose proof is also the past tense, e.g. tu było słychać lepiej ‘here you could hear better’.

Participles are adjectives or adverbs in point of fact and they are treated so by some linguists. To be sure, they are not submitted to comparison (just like many other adjectives), though not without exceptions, they are declined by numbers, genders and cases (it concerns adjectival participles). There exist only several forms which can be determined regarding aspect and voice, and also tense (but in different manner than finitive forms):

In the spoken language the anterior adverbial participle declines. In the old days there existed also the past adjectival participle, active and reflexive whose forms accreted with personal forms of być in Old Polish language creating the past tense. Now this participle, in its adjectival form, has survived only in some few cases by verbs meaning transformation, becoming, like uschnąć ‘shrivel, wilt, wither’ – uschły ‘shrivelled’, sczernieć ‘become black’ – sczerniały ‘(which has) become black’. The short (substantival) form of this participle is used today only in composed forms of the future tense, e.g. będę pisał ‘I shall be writing’.

Participles fulfill attributive functions, so they do not express predicate. Passive participles are also part of passive personal forms.

Verbal nouns ending in ~nie, ~cie resemble English Gerund forms with the applying. They can often be replaced with the infinitive, but they have another syntax (lubię czytanie książek (genitive) ‘I like reading books’, but lubię czytać książki (accusative) ‘I like to read books’, the same as czytam książki ‘I read books’) and thus their relationship with other verb forms is controversial. Verbs used with particles się or sobie do not usually lose them when in the ~nie, ~cie form, e.g. banie się ‘fearing’, wyobrażanie sobie ‘imagining’. These forms are made regularly and we can treat them as part of the paradigm. Besides they preserve the order of the verb when it requires dative, e.g. pomaganie przyjacielowi – pomagać przyjacielowi ‘help(ing) sb’s friend’, while other verbal nouns need not obey this rule – pomoc dla przyjaciela ‘help for a friend’. So, other manners of making verbal nouns certainly belong to word-formations and not to inflexion.

Impersonal forms ending in ~no, ~to are another illustration for above mentioned relativity of partitions in Polish grammar. They do not indicate person, they are formed from passive participles (also from the “theoretical” ones, i.e. not existing on account of intransitivity of the verb) even if they have active meaning – these proprieties explain numbering them among infinite forms. However, on the other hand, they act as predicative by themselves even if they do not allow of existence of a subject. They have past meaning. Reflexive forms preserve the particles się, sobie, e.g. odżywiano się ‘one fed’, życzono sobie ‘one wished’, troszczono się ‘one cared’. The construction of the sentence zabito chłopca is very exotic, not only for an Englishman. The shade of meaning of this statement seems to be closer to rarely used in Polish passive voice został zabity chłopiec = a boy has been killed rather than to the strict translating one has killed a boy because of total absence of any rendering of the subject one in the Polish sentence.

The category of person is closely connected with the categories of number and gender. We can find separate forms for each of the 3 person in both numbers in Polish conjugation. Moreover in the past tense there exist distinct forms for masculine (m), feminine (ż) and neuter (n) gender in singular and for masculine-personal (mo) and non-masculine-personal (nmo) gender in plural. This can be viewed in the following table:

Present tense
Number singular plural
1 czytam czytamy
2 czytasz czytacie
3 czyta czytają
Past tense
Number singular plural
Gender masculine feminine neuter masculine-personal non-masculine-personal
1 czytałem czytałam   czytaliśmy czytałyśmy
2 czytałeś czytałaś   czytaliście czytałyście
3 czytał czytała czytało czytali czytały

Warning: Forms of neuter gender, 1. and 2. person of singular (theoretically czytałom, czytałoś) are not used in principle. Even when speaking to a person of the neuter gender (a child), the verb must be used in the proper gender accordingly to the sex: dziecko, dlaczego nie przeczytałaś lektury? (‘child, why haven’t you read the reading matter?’ – towards a girl).

The existence of so many separate forms builds a very complicated system in comparison to not only western languages but also some other Slavic ones, e.g. Russian. Presence of clear formal markers of person eliminates necessity of using of personal pronouns – they are employed only for emphasis, distinguishing, contrast. Using them in another situation is a glaring style error. As opposed to Polish, in English there is lack of endings and one must use personal pronouns. It is interesting that the only English personal ending (~s) occurs in the 3rd person of singular of the present tense while in Polish an ending is absent just here.

When the subject is a recipient of the content of the sentence, what requires using 2nd person theoretically, in fact various forms are used, as opposed to English, where only one form exists now, e.g. you read. In relation to an unknown adult person one must use the polite form: pan czyta (to a man) or pani czyta (to a woman). The word pan or pani acts as a pronoun here (it cannot be omitted however) and requires the form of 3rd person of the verb. In the past tense this form is gender-differentiated of course: pan czytał, but pani czytała. When we address a group of men, we will use the plural form panowie czytają, panowie czytali. We will say to women: panie czytają, panie czytały, to persons of both sexes: państwo czytają, państwo czytali (masculine-personal gender!). In the informal speech the forms panowie, panie, państwo show tendency to be linked to the 2nd person, e.g. czy przeczytaliście państwo tę książkę?.

In relation to a child “proper” forms of the 2nd person are used: (ty) czytasz (in the past tense czytałeś or czytałaś, depending on the sex of the child). We address also members of our family per “ty” as well as close friends who are turned to be addressed per “ty”. Changing the way of addressing into per “ty” is a specific act, sometimes connected with a special ceremony, in any case it requires clear agreement of both sides. Both addressing per “ty” someone whom it has not been squared with, as well as returning to the form “pan”, “pani” in relation to the person which was addressed per “ty”, are considered to be insulting.

When we address a group of children, members of the family or persons whom we address per “ty”, we use forms of 2nd person of plural: (wy) czytacie, czytaliście, czytałyście. In the past the same form was used as a polite form towards a single person: it is sometimes used till today in this meaning towards persons well on in years, especially in the country, e.g. babciu, jak się dziś czujecie? ‘old woman, how are you feeling today?’. By the by, this form was also used formerly (and sometimes is used still) by children towards their parents and other adult members of their family. Until quite lately adressing per “wy” was in use among members of the party, in the army, militia, as well as by relations of the forces with civilians. Such forms are perceived now as a language copy from Russian; in connection with political changes these forms have fallen into disuse. More on honorificative forms can be found here.

There exists a group of verbs which allow of no subjects. Their English renderings are phrases with it, sometimes also with one or “general” you. Beside the above-mentioned infinitival constructions of the type słychać with ellipsis of the copula jest, there exist verbs in Polish which are used formally only in 3rd person, like świta, świtało ‘it dawns, it dawned’ (it is impossible to add the pronoun ono ‘it’ here!), pada, padało ‘it rains, it rained’ or ‘it snows, it snowed’ (literally ‘it falls, it falled’; you cannot add the pronoun ono here, but forms deszcz pada ‘it rains, it is raining’ (literally ‘the rain falls / is falling’) or padał śnieg ‘it snowed, it was snowing’ (lit. ‘the snow fell / was falling’) are correct), grzmi, grzmiało ‘it thunders, it thundered’ (speaking ono grzmi we have in our mind a thundering (crying) baby rather, not an atmospheric phenomenon), also modal należy, należało ‘one should / ought to’ (by the by, close by meaning trzeba does not belong here, cf. past form trzeba było; this form is a substantive by origin). Of “normal” verbs, the impersonal forms with ~no, ~to are built, moreover forms of 3rd person singular neuter are used in impersonal meaning, e.g. urwało mu rękę ‘he has been torn off his arm’ as well as forms with się, e.g. do naszego kościoła idzie się pod górę ‘our church is walked uphill’.


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