Polish Language Blog

The Mysterious Ways of Polish Surnames, part 2 Posted by on Sep 12, 2008 in Culture, Grammar

As David pointed out in the comment section to the previous post, we still have one more group of Polish last names to discuss. Actually, come to think of it, TWO more.
But let’s start with the easier one of the two:

4. Surnames ending in vowels OTHER than “a”, “i” and “y”. And yes, “y” is considered a vowel in Polish. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any Polish Nobel Prize Winners in this category.

But there is a guy that no doubt will be familiar to my Polish readers, and whose name makes a fine example here: Aleksander Fredro.
He was a playwright, poet and author who lived a while back (19th century). One of his famous comedies “The Revenge” (Zemsta in Polish) was made into a film by Andrzej Wajda in 2002, and as I remember it, it was quite decent.

But anyway, back to our topic. The problem with those names that end in a vowel other than “a”, “i” or “y” is that sometimes they decline and sometimes they don’t. And how can you tell them apart? You can’t really.
Those that end in “o” are the worst. Fredro declines when combined with a guy’s name:

  • Szukam Aleksandra Fredry = I’m looking for Aleksander Fredro. (“Aleksandra” here is not a girl’s name but means “Aleksander” in genitive.)

Last names that end in “e” or “u” are less common and the good news here is that they don’t change their forms, no matter the case. Such last names are normally of non-Polish origin, sometimes German, Yiddish, Hungarian, Czech or what not.

And all those last names in the nominative case, they stay the same for both males and females.

5. And finally, let’s take a look at surnames ending with a consonant. And yes, I have a Nobel Winner for you: Władysław Reymont. He wrote thick, mind-numbingly boring books, as was the style in his day. I remember being chained to my desk while in high school and forced to read one of his works. And trust me, poking my eyes with a pencil seemed like a very inviting alternative. But let’s get back to the guy’s name, shall we?
Reymont. Ends with a consonant. A lady with the same last name would also be “Reymont”. But because nothing is ever easy in Polish, things get a bit complicated here.
When combined with a girl’s name, they don’t decline (only the first name does), but when combined with a boy’s name, the whole enchilada changes according to cases. So, let’s look for this guy now:

and a female example using Hanna Krall:

  • Szukam Hanny Krall – I’m looking for Hanna Krall (also a Polish author, still very much alive, though.)

These names can be of Polish or origin, it doesn’t really matter, they all behave in the same manner.

Now one more thing. David pointed out that in some instances, a woman’s last name can be derived from her husband’s (or father’s) last name in a slightly different way – by adding either –owa or -ówna endings to the guy’s name. It’s kind of true. Why only kind of? Because this style of forming surnames is rather archaic. It was considered old-fashioned even when I was a child. I’m reasonably certain that the only place in Poland where you will see it now is in history books.

PS. Merrilee wanted to know how this Polish last name would be pronounced – Mozdrzew. Here it is – audio.

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  1. Marge:

    Regarding the female endings of -owa and -ówna…the LDS microfilmed church records for my ancestors’ often included these endings. For the most part I was able to convert the names to the masculine equivalent — TWORKóWNA became TWOREK, for example. What would the masculine form of LADóWNA be?

  2. Anna:

    Hi Marge!
    Ladówna is a hard one. I’d say that the masculine form would be something like “Lada” or “Lado”, or possibly it could have mutated from “Ladek”, and someone wrote “Ladówna” instead of “Ladkówna”. Such mistakes were quite common back in the olden days.

  3. Sue Wilson:

    Hi, I found your blogs about surnames really helpful & I am wondering if you can help me.
    Is it common practice for a married woman whose husband’s surname is Kaliszewski to be Kaliszewska? My mother in law stuck with -ski yet addresses cards to her grand-daughters as -ska. Is the -ska only for single women or can married women use that form too?
    I’m recently married to a Kaliszewski & as I am wife number 2 I’d quite like to use -ska to differentiate myself from wife number 1 who is Mrs K-ski. But obviously would not want to use -ska if that is associated with single women! I do appreciate the chaos that i will have by having a surname different to my wedding certificate but I’d quite like to follow Polish tradition with the feminisation of my surname if that is ok for married women to use!!
    Many thanks!

  4. Sue Wilson:

    Hello Anna! It’s me again! Please could you fill me in on the ending for married women’s surnames if husband is -ski? Quite keen to be Kaliszewska – though only if -ska is used by both single & married women. Thank you! 🙂

  5. Iota:

    I’m not Ana, but…

    1) You may refer to: https://blogs.transparent.com/polish/the-mysterious-ways-of-polish-surnames/

    2) In nominative (the only way you’d use your potential Polish surname in English), the feminine ending is -ska. So:

    Mr. Jan Kaliszewski
    Ms. Anna Kaliszewska

    Differentiation between women who are single and married no longer functions popularly in Polish. If necessary, a “maiden name, unmarried” version of a surname could be created by the ending -anka or -ówna (depending on the root surname).

    The fact your mother-in-law uses “Kaliszewski” has probably lots to do with not wanting to explain Polish grammar to people. She just decided to ignore feminisation.

    In short, by contemporary Polish standards married women should use the -ska form if their husband’s name ends with -ski.

  6. Jero:

    I had a couple of polish friends that were getting married, they needed to write the invitations for the wedding and it was a big problem to find out how to decline the surnames, it seems that the surnames have an other form when you use it to refer to a married couple. Of course they wanted to write them correctly as otherwise it could be considered disrespectful, so they had to spend weeks looking in internet and asking people if they know how to decline them!