Polish Language Blog

The Mysterious Ways of Polish Surnames Posted by on Sep 9, 2008 in Culture, Grammar

My friend called me today and that should be good news, right? But it wasn’t. The poor woman was very stressed and urgently requested my help. You see, she was applying for a visa to one of those countries that still require a woman to provide information about her male guardian, either a father or a husband. So my friend dutifully filled out the visa application form, included her photos, paid the fees and waited. And then waited some more. Finally today she got a letter stating that her visa application was rejected due to her name (as printed in her passport) not matching with the name of her male guardian (father).

She doesn’t live in Poland, and apparently, the officials at the Embassy of The Very Strange Country over there were not familiar with the peculiarities of Polish surnames. And I don’t blame them. Even in the not so strange countries, it’s sometimes hard for the administrative automatons to comprehend the fact that some Polish last names can have both a feminine and a masculine form and some don’t. And that some last names decline (grammatically speaking, of course) and on certain documents they can be printed in different grammatical cases. And that with some last names it’s only the guys’ forms that decline, but not the girls’. Really.

I suggested her to go to the Polish embassy and get a letter from them explaining the intricacies of Polish surnames and resubmit the visa application. I wonder if this will work.

But in the meantime, I think I should give you some examples. We can do it using famous historical figures, Polish of course.

1. Names ending in –ski, -cki, -zki, -i.

Those are as typically Slavic as one can get.
Let’s take Maria Skłodowska-Curie, one of the most famous scientists the world has ever known. Two Nobel Prizes. Before she became known as Marie Curie, she was simply Maria Skłodowska. Which means that her father’s last name was Skłodowski. Get it?

If such a surname ends with an –i, you can safely assume it’s a masculine form. At least it should be in Poland. Many girls of Polish descent born abroad will carry the traditionally masculine version, too. But back in the old country, their surnames will end in an –a. And that’s why in some countries not very familiar with how this thing works, an overzealous official may scream “names don’t match!”

So the two forms, that’s bad news number one. Bad news number two is that both sets of names decline. Differently. One follows the rule for masculine adjectives, and the other – feminine.

2. Names ending in –icz.

Those are also Slavic and they come in all shapes and flavors – of Russian origin, Ukrainian, Lithuanian, etc. You name it, we have it.
Remember the famous writer Henryk Sienkiewicz? One Nobel Prize. (Ah, this list is turning into a Nobel Prize Winners name club, cool!)

His mother’s name was Stefania Sienkiewicz. See? This surname stays “genderless”. No masculine or feminine form here. Instead, something else happens. When combined with a guy’s first name, the whole package declines, just like all the other nouns in Polish. But when combined with a girl’s first name, only the girl’s first name declines, not the surname.

Let me show you an example. Do you remember when we talked about the genitive case? This is how “Henryk Sienkiewicz” would look in its (his?) genitive form:

Now when you do the same with his mother’s full name, only her first name will decline:

3. Names ending in –a.

I’m sure you’ve heard of this guy – Lech Wałęsa. He also got a Nobel Prize.

These surnames stay the same. So Lech will be Wałęsa. And his wife, Danuta will be Wałęsa, too.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that both sets of names decline. Luckily, they decline in exactly the same manner, just like all the other normal feminine nouns ending in –a.

All other names we shall discuss next time. They can be a bit complicated. Or not, depending on how you look at it.

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  1. David Snopek:

    I think you forgot one group! If a man is named Michał Mikoś, wouldn’t his mother/wife be (if her first name was Anna, for example) Anna Mikosiowa? Or did I get confused?

  2. Anna:

    Hi David!
    As you see, I still have one more group to discuss. Those PITA ones I was going to put in a special category of their own! 😉

  3. Marcin:

    “I think you forgot one group! If a man is named Michał Mikoś, wouldn’t his mother/wife be (if her first name was Anna, for example) Anna Mikosiowa? Or did I get confused?”

    Well, ok. His wife could be Anna Mikosiowa (-owa suffix reveals the fact she took a name after her husband, however if she is his daughter then she could be called Mikosiówna, -ówna suffix is used then). When she is his mother then she is not necessarily Mikosiowa. A father could have a different last name and the son could have his surname after his mother. In any case when you just say Anna Mikoś, you are on the safe side and it is correct. We do not use -owa suffix just as I heard Czechs do for instance saying Whitney Houstonová and we don’t do it with every surname. Here this suffix has a very specific meaning which in my opinion is just what I described above. Of course u might come across someone saying Mikosiowa not caring at all about her real status, but I do not think this is correct. This is one thing. The second is that we tend to give up the possesivity suffix in surnames and it is becoming to be considered dated.

  4. Anna:

    Hi Marcin!
    I explained it in the very next post! You no lookie dar, huh? 😉