What Do You Get When Polish and English Mix? Poglish, Like Spanglish on Vodka

Na kornerze w storu kupił gallon milku.” This is a sentence that could bewilder a Pole in Poland. To a Polish-American, however, it is a logical adaptation to English, using Polishized versions of the English words corner (kornerze), store (storu), gallon (galon), and milk (milku). “He bought a gallon of milk at the corner store.” The sentence in Polish would actually be, “Kupił litr mleka w sklepie na rogu.” The transition from the metric system of liters to gallons added to the challenge of first generation Polish American trying to speak unadulterated Polish. Known as Poglish, this Polish-Engish mix is a linguistic phenomenon similar to the Spanish-English mix popularly known as Spanglish.

A Polish-American friend recalled for me expressions from her Michigan past, phrases that would guarantee a chuckle from people who spoke both Polish and English: “Cara stoi na kornerze.” “Napij się drinka.” “Boysy fightowali się na stepsach.” These sentences feature Polishized versions of the English words car, corner, drink, boys, and steps. “The car is standing on the corner.” “Have a drink.” “The boys fought on the steps.” Properly translated, these sentences barely resemble their Poglish counterparts: “Samochód stoi na rogu.” “Chłopcy bili się na schodach.” “Napić się! [no "drinka" required].”

The word “kornerze” (corner) has become so familiar to so many Poles in the USA that it might as well be Polish. It must have been difficult for American Poles to know when they were bastardizing their language, since countless English words have nearly identical counterparts in Polish: komputer, koktajl parking, restauracja, automatyczny, dentysta, telefon, tradycja, and so on, for computer, cocktail, parking, restaurant, automatic, dentist, telephone, and tradition.

In “Poglish in England, the United States, and Poland,” a paper presented in 2015 at the conference “Culture-Tradition-Language,” Frederic W. Widlak, professor in the Department of Organizational and Managerial Psychology at National-Louis University in Nowy Sącz, Poland, noted that some 11 million Polish-Americans now constitute about 3.3% of the population of the United States. The largest concentration of Polish-speaking Americans is in the Chicago area. According to Widlak, the Midwestern form of Poglish is found in other Great Lakes cities such as Milwaukee, Gary, Detroit, Cleveland, and Buffalo. All of these cities share a common way of speaking English called “the Inland Northern American English dialect” or often simply “Chicago Polish.”

The term “Poglish” itself poses the same pronounciation problem that Americans have with many Polish words and surnames, as it would seem to rhyme with Hoglish. How do you make people pronounce it “Poe-glish” instead of “Pog-lish”? Even the word “vodka” (and what could be more Polish?) has to be transliterated from the Polish alphabet, wódka, to get a reasonably close pronounciation (technically it should be “voodka”). Variant names for the Poglish linguistic melange are “Polglish,” “Pinglish,” and “Ponglish.” A term sometimes used by native Polish-speakers to describe the Poglish phonomenon is “half na pół,” which is itself an amusing example of Poglish, meaning half-and-half.

For the first generation of American-born Poles, Chicago Polish solved the problem they had with the digraph “th” by turning the words this, that, these, them, those, and the into “dis, dat, deze, dem, doze, and duh.” This shortcoming also resulted in, as a co-worker once told me, such utterances as “Turdy-Turd and Youkalid” for the intersection of Thirty-Third and Euclid streets in Bay City, Michigan. This accent–including the tendency among Chicago Poles to pronounce the “s” at the end of plural nouns as a prolonged “s” instead of a “z” reached its comic peak on Saturday Night Live with “Bill Swerski’s Super Fans” talking about “da Chicago bullsss” and “da bearsss” while having “a turd heart attack” over plates of kiełbasa. During the skits, comedian Chris Farley pitches a fit and says, “I got a small piece of Polish sausage in da lining o’ my heart.” Chicago Poles are portrayed as smoking, beer drinking, yet good-hearted barflies, pigging out on pork at “Ditka’s restaurant in the heart of Chicago.”

It’s also true that non-Poles in Chicago have turned the word “Polish” into a noun. Kiełbasa in a bun is now known as “a Polish” (not a Polish sausage) at hot dog stands throughout the city, and when the Polish word kiełbasa is used, it is generally called “kabahsa,” which sounds more Middle Eastern than Polish.

Also featured in these SNL skits was the expression “da boat o’ yous,” which was one of my mother’s standard expressions. Having worked most of her life as a single mother in service jobs with low pay and no benefits, she was having some trouble understanding why a college-going son and his wife weren’t earning more money with “duh boat o’ yuz workin’.” She became adept at speaking and understanding Poglish on the job in a bakery in Hamtramck, Michigan, with such classics as “Sprowadzę do domu pewnego dajold chleb i keksy na busem” instead of “Sprowadzę do domu pewnego dnia stary chleb i ciasta na autobusie.” “I’ll bring home some day-old breads and cakes on the bus,” replacing the words day-old, cakes, and bus with the Poglishisms “dajold,” “keksy,” and “busem.”

Karta stoo” instead of “karty na stole for “the card is on the table” was also a familiar phrase when my aunts and uncles played pinochle. When my mother heard someone in the city say “jedrze boat” (there goes a boat, properly called łódź), it became a family classic Poglish joke.

More than the accent, the most common phenomenon in Poglish is the Polonization of English words, says Widlak. Instead of saying (in English) “A cop gave me a ticket on the highway” or (in Polish) “Gliniarz dał mi mandat na autostradzie,” a Polonian might say (in Poglish), “Kap dał mi tiketa na hajłeju,” (with “kap” standing for cop, “tiket“–with Polish declension suffix “a” added–for ticket, and “hajłej” (also with declension) for highway. This sentence is constructed by mixing Polish grammar (verbs, word order, and noun inflection) with English nouns. Polonians attempting to speak this kind of Polish-English mixture in Poland would have difficulty making themselves understood. It’s all exceedingly complicated!

“I grew up in Chicago listening to Poglish,” says Widlak, “as my grandparents and other immigrants from Poland tried to incorporate English words into their speech, but this was a slow and imperfect process, since it was, and still is, possible to survive in many areas of Chicago by speaking only Polish.” One of his favorite Poglish words is “podsajdwałkiem”, which literally means “under the sidewalk.” It describes someone who is really in a bad way, for example so drunk that he is “podsajdwałkiem.” It was so popular that Polish people in Chicago referred to the mythical character, Joe Podsajdwałkiem, in friendly insults. But the real word for sidewalk in Polish is chodnik, “pod” is under.

My Polish cousin who cleaned houses in Chicago from 2000 to 2012 often had a difficult time with cleaning instructions from her employers. In one instance I tried to describe the baseboards that one client wanted cleaned. I described them in the minimal Polish I knew as “drewno w których podłoga spełnia ścianę,” “the wood where the floor meets the wall.” “Baseboards,” I said, and for her they became forever “bajzeborduf” instead of the accurate Polish word “cokoły.”

The limited Polish I learned as a child, living in a WASP town in Michigan, came from my grandmother, who immigrated to America in 1913. By the time her children had grown, she spoke a form of Poglish that she and I (and few others) understood. I knew that peaches were piczesy, tomatoes were tomadusy, and watermelon was wodamelonka, all Polishized English words that bore little or no resemblence to the real Polish words brzoskwinie, pomidory, and arbuz. She Polishized many English words with the proper Polish declensions and grammatical contexts: “Don’t bother me” became “Nie bodrovach mi” instead of “Nie przeszkadzaj mi.” “Nutink, I dis get out” stood for “Get away from me” instead of the Polish “Odejdź ode mnie.”

In the early 1950s, my grandmother was still learning English, and when newfangled technology reached our farm, she invented a whole new Poglish vocabulary for words like bathroom, telephone, sink, bathtub, and plunger. She could say, “Idź do batruma i nie zapomnij wziąć plundzera. Umyj ręce w sinku. Mam zamiar telefonować auntie Helenę, which translates roughly from Poglish to proper Polish: Idź do łazienki i nie zapomnij wziąć tłok. Umyj ręce w zlewie. Mam zamiar zadzwonić ciocię Helenę na telefon. All of which transmorphs into English as: Go to the bathroom and don’t forget the plunger. Wash your hands in the sink. I’m calling Aunt Helen.
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