Don’t be so ę-ą!

One of my many language-related interests is a certain focus on expressive vocabulary – those little words the meaning of which is so hard to describe, yet without them a sentence sounds bland. I mean by that the ideophones, the particles, the sound-symbolism…

Here, in this post’s title there’s one bit of expressive Polish for you, but first some explanations. As you probably know, Polish is unique among Slavic languages in that it has retained nasal vowels – a nasal /E/ written by ę, and a nasal /O/ written by ą (sic!).

The point is, these are not as much nasal as, say, the French nasal vowels. Since quite a long time our nasals are pronounced as a combination of regular oral vowel and a some kind of nasal sound (m, n, ng or a nasal glide; depending on what sounds come next – if you’re interested I can provide the examples later). Even more – ę at the end of the word is pronounced either with a slight hint of nasality only, or – more commonly – as a regular, oral e /E/.

An added twist is that in some rural (and proletarian) dialects, the nasality of “nasal” vowels has disappeared altogether. This means that if you pronounce them with no nasality in all positions (as I said before, ę normally loses nasality at the end of the word) you sound a bit boorish and uneducated. As a consequence, many people coming from lower social strata, who grew up without nasal vowels try hard to acquire them and -sometimes- overdo the nasality. This – in turn – makes them sound ostentatious, pretentious and “I-think-I’m-better-than-you”.

And this is where we get to this post’s title: “Nie bądź taki ę-ą / Don’t be so ę-ą” means “don’t be so stuck up, don’t insist so much on maintaining ‘proper’ forms”. Overdone ę and ą sounds apart from the “nouveau riche” effect described above (people betraying their origins by trying too hard to hide them) are also associated with the French (who have a reputation of being fancy-shmancy people) and our aristocracy (no longer with us, fortunately), and used often in mocking the speech of those groups.



Another stereotypical characteristic of posh aristocratic Polish was  r grasseye or Parisian r (they were usually educated in French), in place of normal Polish r which is pronounced as in Italian.

In writing (eg. in jokes) this pronunciation is represented by replacing r with h or – more commonly – ł (= English w), as in the following silly joke:

Count to his manservant:
Zasłałem łóżko = I made up my bed
To bardzo dobrze, panie hrabio = That’s very good, Mr. Count
Oj, nie bałdzo = Oh, not very much

What’s supposed to be funny here, you ask? The count’s last line has bałdzo instead of bardzo “very; very much; a lot”, which betrays that he speaks with that posh accent. Now, knowing this, let’s go back to his first line: zasłałem means “I made up (a bed)”, but with reversal of the count’s speech pattern we get zasrałem which means “I shat all over”.

Silly, I know, but I kind of like it.

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