Everyone has heard the joke about the Panda who only to live up to his description in one poorly punctuated dictionary, shoots an innocent waiter in a restaurant after eating, and proceeds to casually leave the joint. Unfortunately for the waiter, a Panda, according to the grammatically-ignorant dictionary, is a ‘tree dwelling marsupial of Asian origin characterised by distinct black and white colouring that eats, shoots and leaves’. Who could have thought that one’s life may hang on a single comma?
The point here, and the point that this (admittedly rather poor) joke has been used time and time again to illustrate is that grammar is an absolutely central component of understanding meaning in language. Many language learners, especially the aficionados of the new computer immersion programs like Rosetta Stone (that seem to avoid dedicated grammar teaching altogether), see grammar as a laborious and exhausting exercise that should be avoided in favour of expanding vocabulary or memorising conversation to ‘get the hang of it’. However, the reality is, that for adult learners especially, who may be less ripe for the ‘listen-and-repeat’ learning style that children seem to thrive in, it is often best that grammar is confronted head-on, and in Polish in particular, there really is no way of getting around it.
As it has been said have said before, one feature of Polish grammar that often throws up huge problems for native English speakers is the heavy use of cases. Cases, simply put, are ways to identify the meaning or function of a noun in a sentence. In English, cases haven’t been a central component of the grammar system since the medieval ages. Instead, prepositions like ‘of’, ‘with’, ‘for’ and ‘in’ are used to indicate a noun’s function, and (more good news for students of English grammar) there are only three distinct cases – the nominative, accusative and genitive.
Now to the, not one, not two, not three, but seven cases used in Polish, and you can begin to see why Polish grammar has the notorious reputation it does amongst both, English speaking learners of the language and Polish students, who study grammar as a separate subject right through university. So, before you plunge in, take heart that even the natives find this hard!
For nouns in each gender – masculine, feminine and neuter – there are different endings in each of the seven cases. Sometimes these will change the word entirely, other times no change occurs at all. It’s this seeming unpredictability that makes Polish grammar ostensibly so hard; but there is method to the madness, I promise.
Despite the exceptions that no grammatical rule can exist without, each case has clearly defined rules on when and how it should be used. There are different rules for singular and plural nouns and, just to make it that little bit more confusing, Polish also requires you to decline (change the ending of) both the noun and the adjective in each case.
Difficult as it may seem, using cases does mean that identifying the function of a particular noun or pronoun in a Polish sentence is relatively easy. What’s more, is that once you have learned the general rules that govern how and when to decline nouns and adjectives in certain ways (and I’m not saying that will be a walk in the park!) you will be able to express a whole range of different meanings with the vocabulary you already have.
Among other things, cases in Polish are used to express possession (Genitive case), negation of particular verbs (also the Genitive), the subject of an action (Dative case), particular actions (Accusative case), how something is done (Instrumental case) and the subject of a sentence (Nominative); trust me, the list goes on and on. I hope you will see how dynamic you can be with your language once you tackle this grammar!