Understanding the Polish Language – Interpreting Levels of Formality

The Polish language can be a complex one for non-native speakers. One of the difficulties foreigners in Poland encounter is with the unspoken rules which govern everyday interactions. You may know the words you want to say to someone, but you may not know how to address that person, and you may not know if you are somehow offending them unknowingly.

In Polish, there are levels of formality which govern how you address people, from relatives and friends to business clients and strangers. In addition, the sex of the person being addressed often plays a role in how you address them. Furthermore, your own gender plays a role in how you should address others.

The Slavic languages, which include Polish, are closer than modern English to what linguists believe was the original Indo-European language spoken thousands of years ago. In Polish and the other Slavic languages, verbs are conjugated (change their form) depending on person, number, gender, aspect, and tense. For example, to say the phrase “I saw it” in Polish, a man would say Widziałem to, while a woman would say Widziałam to.

The above example demonstrates how verbs can change according to who is speaking. However, when you are talking to someone in Polish, that person’s status and/or gender also plays a role in the conversation.

The main thing to remember about Polish is to not speak to strangers or business colleagues in the second person unless you are acquainted with them very well, or are on personal terms with them. Strangers (people who are not related to you, whom you do not know intimately) and professionals are referred to first and foremost in the third person.

While it may seem awkward to refer to someone in the third person while they are standing right in front of you, this is the correct way to do it. The equivalent of “Sir,” “Madame,” or “Miss” is used. The corresponding forms in Polish are: Pan (Sir), Pani (Madame), and Panna (Miss).

After Pan/Pani/Panna the person’s last name is used–if known; otherwise it is omitted–unless they have a professional title, in which case the title is used instead. When addressing a professional or a business executive, it is customary to refer to that person by their rank or title. For example, a woman with a doctorate degree would be referred to as Pani Doktor.

Note, however, that doktor in Polish does not mean the same thing as “doctor” in English. Doktor refers to a person with a doctorate degree (Ph.D.) from a university, not a medical doctor (though you can obviously be both). The word in Polish for the English concept of a medical doctor is lekarz. Note also, that if someone happens to both have a doctoral degree and be a doctor, they are referred to as doktor rather than lekarz.

Furthermore, names in Polish sometimes have two forms (a male and a female version). The male version usually ends in -i, and the female version in -a. It is important to remember to use the correct form. Thus Mr. Dobrowolski would be called in Polish Pan Dobrowolski, while Mrs. Dobrowolski would be referred to as Pani Dobrowolska.