The Universe of Discourse

Mon, 31 Jul 2017

Sabotaged by Polish orthography

This weekend my family was doing a bookstore event related to Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. One of the movie's characters, Jacob Kowalski, dreams of becoming a baker, and arrives to a bank appointment with a suitcase full of Polish confections, including pączki, a sort of Polish jelly donut. My wife wanted to serve these at the event.

The little tail on the ą in pączki is a diacritical mark called an ogonek, which is Polish for “little tail”. If I understand correctly, this nasalizes the sound of the a so that it is more like /an/, and furthermore in modern Polish the value of this particular letter has changed so that pączki is pronounced something like “pawnch-kee”. (Polish “cz” is approximately like English “ch”.)

I was delegated to travel to Philadelphia's Polish neighborhood to obtain the pączki. This turned out to be more difficult than I expected. The first address I visited was simply wrong. When I did find the bakery I was looking for, it was sold out of pączki. The bakery across the street was closed, so I started walking down Allegheny Avenue looking for the next bakery.

Before I got there, though, I passed a storefront with a sign listing its goods and services in blue capital letters. One of the items was PACZKI. Properly, of course, this should be PĄCZKI but Poles often omit the ogonek, especially when buying blue letter decals in Philadelphia, where large blue ogoneks are often unavailable. But when I went in to ask I immediately realized that I had probably made a mistake. The store seemed to sell toiletries, paper goods, and souvenirs, with no baked goods in sight.

I asked anyway: “Your sign outside says you sell PĄCZKI?”

“No,” replied the storekeeper. “Pach-kee.”

I thought she was correcting my pronunciation. “But I thought the ogonek made it ‘pawnch-kee’?”

“No, not pawnch-kee. Pach-kee. For sending, to Poland.” She pointed at a box.

I had misunderstood the sign. It did not say PĄCZKI, but PACZKI, which I have since learned means “boxes”.

The storekeeper directed me to the deli across the street, where I was able to buy the pączki. I also bought some interesting-looking cold roast pork loin and asked what it was called. A customer told me it was “po-lend-witsa”, and from this I was able to pick out the price label on the deli case, which said “POLEDWICA”.

After my embarrassment about the boxes I was concerned that I didn't understand ogoneks as well as I thought I did. I pointed to the ‘E’. “Shouldn't there be an ogonek on the ‘E’ here?”

“Yes,” he said, and shrugged. They had left it off, just as I had (incorrectly) thought had happened on the PACZKI sign.

I think the only way to win this one would have been to understand enough of the items in blue capital letters to guess from context that it really was PACZKI and not PĄCZKI.

[ Addendum 20170803: A thirty-year-old mystery has been cleared up! When I was a teenager the news was full of the struggles of the Polish workers’ union Solidarity and its charismatic leader, Lech Walesa, later president of Poland. But his name was always pronounced ‘walensa’. Why? Last night I suddenly understood the mysterious ‘n’: the name was actually ‘Walęsa’! ]

[ (Well, not quite. That does explain the mystery ‘n’. But on looking it up, I find that the name is actually ‘Wałęsa’. The ‘W’ is more like English ‘v’ than like English ‘w’, and the ‘ł’ is apparently very much like English ‘w’. So the correct pronunciation of ‘Wałęsa’ is more like ‘va-wen-sa’ than ‘wa-len-sa’. Perhaps the people who pronounced the ę but not the W or the ł were just being pretentious.) ]

[ Addendum 20170803: Maciej Cegłowski says that “paczki” is more like “packages” than like “boxes”; Google translate suggests “parcels”. He would also like me to remind you that “paczki” and “pączki” are plural, the singulars being “paczka” and “pączek”, respectively. Alicja Raszkowska she loves my use of “ogoneks” (the English plural) in place of the Polish “ogonki”. ]

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