Polish Language Blog

Plural, Singular or Something In-Between? Posted by on Jul 4, 2008 in Grammar

This last post about wakacje (holidays) made me a little bit confused. OK, not a little. A lot. While writing it, I was unable to fully determine the grammatical gender of “wakacje”, and a random selection of my countrymen to whom I posed that question just looked at me with utter bewilderment.
You mean it has a gender?” and “I’m sure it’s not masculine” were two of the most sensible answers. And mind you, we’re Poles discussing Polish grammar.

The “wakacje” question eventually turned into an even bigger problem when we discovered just how inconsistent Polish grammar books are. And boy! Are they ever!

We finally determined that the grammatical gender of “wakacje” is not quite neuter in the strict neuter sense, but can be called neuter for all intents and purposes here. It’s also an uncountable noun, which exists only in the plural form. And guess what? It’s not the only one. There’s more.

Here are some other examples:

pomyje = dirty dishwater, hogwash, slop, general yuck after washing something filthy
urodziny = birthday
graffiti = mercifully, the meaning is the same, and get this – because it’s a foreign loan word – it does not decline! Woohoo!

All of these are neuter uncountable nouns that exist only in their plural forms. You know what surprised me here? “Urodziny”. I always thought that we could count them just fine. And yes, we actually can, but not in a way you’d expect, and since it’s more complicated than it looks, we’ll leave it alone for now.
Ok, back to our nouns…

Then we have neuter nouns, again – plural only, that are perfectly countable such as:

usta = lips
wrota = gates
drzwi – doors
skrzypce = violin

Again, remember that these guys don’t have singular forms.

And finally, we have a couple of nouns that are not really countable and not really uncountable, but again, they’re more or less genderless:

nożyczki = scissors
spodnie = trousers

I’m sure there’s more but let’s stick to these for the time being.

All of this made me realize just how difficult and complicated determining plural grammatical gender in Polish can be. And why is that? The history of the language is partly to blame. If you can imagine, once upon a time, Polish was even more complex. What we have now is a language that has been simplifying itself for quite some time. But unfortunately, some vestiges of those ancient long-defunct forms are still sticking around. And because they just won’t die fast enough, we’re stuck with those (totally unfun, if I may add) complications for a little while longer.

Now of course, you may ask if there are nouns that exist only as singular. You betcha!
Check these guys out:

zło (neuter, singular only) = evil (as a noun)
powietrze (neuter, singular only) = air
bydło (neuter, singular only) = cattle

The last one is funny, because grammatically, it’s singular, but of course it describes not one, but a bunch of cows, just like in English.

See? We finally found something in Polish that is just like in English! Not bad, wouldn’t you say?

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  1. Grazyna:

    To respond to your last question, Anna – nah, not bad at all! That only proves that both Polish and English indeed originated from one language, namely Indo-European, and so still are distant cousins:) Fortunately for the users of English, this language seems to be more transformation absorbent, so to say! Oh well, Poles have a rigid language system, but at least we can’t be blamed for possessing stiff upper lip like one English speaking nation!;)

  2. thomas westcott:

    how about “parking”? In my sl/ownik obrazkowy angielsko-polski book car park is translated as parking. But car park is the way the brits would say it. Americans would say parking lot usually. One might say “the parking is over there.” However, in English one could also use that word as a verb, “He is parking the car.”

  3. Anna:

    Hi Thomas!

    “Parking” in Polish is a normal, countable noun, just like this:
    parking (singular, masculine) = car park, parking lot
    parkingi (plural) = car parks, parking lots.

    Now let’s try to use it in genitive:
    Ten sklep nie ma parkingu. = This shop does not have a parking lot.

    I am guessing that the authors of your dictionary are Poles, and I also suspect it was printed in Poland. There are plenty of “polonisms” like that in my dictionary, too!

    you are of course right. The unfortunate part, when it comes to Polish, is that you absolutely, positively HAVE TO learn grammar along with everything else, while English can be mastered by osmosis, more or less.

  4. thomas westcott:

    So for one violin would you say ” jeden skrzypce ” ?

    In English we can use an article to indicate singular. If we use a then we are saying give me or hand me one of a group. Whereas if we use the then we are says there is only one there and I want that one. But of course Polish does not have articles.

  5. Anna:

    Hi Thomas!

    Because “skrzypce” is NOT masculine, we can’t use the word “jeden”- that’s a counter for masculine nouns. We would use a counter for neuter nouns, which is “jedne”. So now you will have one violin as “jedne skrzypce”. Polish is a bit weird in that you can have a counter for “one” and also use it to denote a plural quantity, rather strange, I know. It’s the same word “jedne”, so you can say say “jedne dziewczyny” (some girls) or “jedni faceci” (some guys).