Last summer my American friend visited me in Poland. Eight months later I learnt that there occurred a misunderstanding between us that quite spoilt both her fun and her trust in me.

We sat in a small restaurant in Białowieża when I translated from Polish my short conversation with a waitress:

– What will you have?

– Pancakes for me and a salad for my colleague.

ingres_d_henrietteharveyandelizabetMy friend asked why I didn’t call her “my friend”, to which I began explaining the difference between przyjaciółka and koleżanka in the Polish language, and as it appeared just now I quite failed in it.

Thankfully I found this post at Polish Blog that quite proved my innocence, but I could lose a friend over a language incompatibility.

Poles almost never use the words przyjaciel or przyjaciółka, but all dictionaries translate them as friend – a word used in English so liberally it almost means nothing.

There are only three people I’d call my przyjaciele in an intuitive way: a girl whom I’ve known from sandbox (longer than my conscious memory ranges in fact), a classmate from my primary school and a girl who’s a year older but also from my primary school. All three are closer to me than 99% of the people I’m related to.

There was one more person but he got scratched from the list some ten years ago.

Then there are the people I met in lyceum out of whom two might be called my przyjaciele at one point, but one got scratched from the list some ten years ago as well. So the overall list consists in 4 names.

When in my 20s I met another boy who might be called my friend, but since I’ll never have an opportunity to go with him through so much as with the others I apply the word much more carefully.

And then there is my American friend with whom I’m very close, and we’ve been talking on IM daily for several years now, and yet I called her koleżanka.

In truth, due to our frequent communication, for several years I’ve been closer with my American friend than the remaining five Poles, but a Pole needs several years to even apply the word przyjaciel. When I go to cinema with my przyjaciółka and her boyfriend, I’ll say that I went there with znajomi (acquaintances) even though I’ve known her boyfriend for years and I like him a lot. We just don’t use the word so easily.

Moreover, people don’t usually say that someone is their przyjaciel while talking to strangers, so even if I sat in the Białowieża restaurant with my childhood przyjaciele I’d still use the word koledzy. Przyjaźń is an intimate relationship, even though platonic, so boasting of it to strangers is like boasting of sex.

There are also other aspects. For a man to call a girl his przyjaciółka implies that there’s more than just friendship between them, and although he can do that to emphasise the existance of a deep friendship, most likely he’d have to add tylko przyjaciólka – nothing more than a friend, or people would assume there’s a sexual relationship as well. Some men call their female friends by the masculine przyjaciel in order to avoid the confusion.

My American friend took it to heart, as apparently it’s offensive not to be called a friend by someone who’s close to you. I made an impression of a person who wants to keep her at a distance. At the same time, the majority of Poles will thank you for not calling them your przyjaciele. It just comes with such a huge responsibility people don’t want the burden apart from very few exceptions. It’s more than a loan, it’s like usury. You get a lot of dough, but you may be sure you’ll never be able to pay back.

Why then dictionaries translate such a loaded word into English as something used so commonly as “friend”? If I didn’t learn the word as such back in my teen years I’d never make the blunder. It should be said that the word doesn’t have an English equivalent, while friend should be translated as kolega/koleżanka which it really is. In English one can’t call too many people one’s friends, in Polish one can’t call przyjaciel too few of them.

And don’t even get Poles started on the word ‘love’!

Advertisements
%d bloggers like this: