Linguistic Lapses?

As I’ve noted previously, my spoken and written Polish is, at best, extremely limited (I might drop “extremely” when describing my reading skills). I did, however, study Russian for 3 years at university, and the two are linguistically similar, although Polish is a West Slavic language, while Russian is an East Slavic Language.

What exactly does that mean? Well, at some point in history, Polish, Russian, and the rest of the Slavic languages share a common ancestor, Proto-Slavic (a proto-language is a linguistic term used to describe an ancestral language frequently not known and constructed by comparing descendant to find commonalities). But Proto-Slavic was broken up into dialects – the ancestors of the modern languages – by the 7th century. So, basically, Polish and Russian have been going their separate ways for about 1300 years.

This does not, however, mean that the two are dissimilar. In fact, closer study reveals quite the opposite – there are many similarities, and many differences in words can be accounted for by looking at different mutations that have occurred over the years. In fact, about 60% of the words are the same or similar.

For example, the Russian word for “fish” is рыба (ryba). What’s the Polish word for fish? Ryba! Same word! But what about the word for “fire”? In Russian, it is огонь (ogon’), but in Polish, it’s ogień. Similar – but different. There is something called the Swadesh list that documents these differences using basic words found in every language, and it’s clear to see that there are patterns to the differences.

Having studied linguistics a bit, I’m somewhat familiar with these patterns, but will this help me on the street? Doubtful. I’m not going to be standing there pondering palatalizations while a merchant waits for me to name my price. My eventual plan is to actually learn Polish (and address my fear – that despite my not-so-hot-these-days Russian, I will somehow end up speaking Polish with a Russian + American accent! Horrifying!). But in the meantime, if I know how to say it in Russian, I think I’ll do that, but garble what I say a bit in the hopes that whomever I’m speaking to will repeat what I’ve said correctly, and I’ll just be able to exclaim, “Tak!!!”

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