Why are 2-4 and negative things special?

The Polish language is delightful although at times I do wonder which particular hallucinogenic root was being chewed on when certain ‘rules’ were decided.

I’m recently intrigued by two matters;

  1. Why are there different endings for one, two/three or four and then five or more? I can relate to their being something different for singular versus plural, but what’s so special about two/three and four that they require an ending all of their own?
  2. Why is there, in some cases, a different ending when you don’t have something versus when you do have something? Why does the negativity have to be emphasized in these cases? Of course, we all know the Poles love being negative, phrases like “nic nie mam” (nothing, I don’t have) are common and I’ve got used to them by now but when it comes to the difference between I have a car or I don’t have a car, why have a different ending.

I should add that after the amount of time I’ve been here some of the strange things, like some of the double negatives, do not ‘jar’ with me any more. I’m just accepting that that’s the way it is. The examples above though, do still bug me. I wonder what it is that makes my brain dislike some rules but accept others, even when they are equally strange?

I should also add that most of my interest, certainly in the case of 2-4, is in the matter of what was it about 2-4 that made someone think they needed to be treated differently from 5 or more? Was there some historical reason like, I don’t know, if you killed between 2-4 people in battle you got more land from the King than if you killed one but less than if you killed five or more? What other possible reason could there be for it, aside from mind altering drugs?


One beer
Three beers
Five beers
One hundred beers

One car
Three cars
Five cars
One hundred cars


Jedno piwo
Trzy piwa
Pięć piw
Sto piw

Jeden samochód
Trzy samochody
Pięć samochodów
Sto samochodów

You’ll notice that for good measure they also change the word for “one”!!!


I have a car
I don’t have a car


Mam samochód
Nie mam samochodu

One last linguistic issue that is driving me nuts is the difference between “ciapka” (spot / dot) and “czapka” (cap / hat).This is all about the difference between pronunciation of “ci” and “cz”. Of course, I didn’t know I had a problem for a very long time, until my family decided to let me in on the secret that for years now I’ve been telling my daughter to “put on your spot/dot”, or ask her “where is your spot/dot”. Must have been very amusing – HA bloody HA. I genuinely cannot hear any difference between the two AT ALL unless the speaker emphasises the difference to a stupid extent. I am also completely unable to pronounce the two words any differently. Yet. Give me another 10 years and I’ll have it down!

I had similar trouble for a very long time, and still do if I’m not concentrating, with “miś” and “mysz”. They at least look very different but I can assure all you non-Poles that you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between them if you heard them. They both closely resemble “meesh” but the first one really is close to “meesh” while the second is more of a “mysh”. Impossible to explain because of the funky way they say the “y”.

11 thoughts on “Why are 2-4 and negative things special?

  1. Poland is not the only country with double negatives. In the german Bavarian dialect there is also a double negative and in french they say “…ne….pas” .

    BTW ,if you have problems with some Polish words you can use other synonymes. For example punkt or kropka and not ciapka.

    And “czapka” sounds like check .

    Just try to say che…pka, che..pka, che..pka, and then cha…pka, chapka.

    …maybe it works for you.

    ps: “mysz” should be easy, if you use the word sh** ;) Just say mysh** and then just mysh without ** ;)

  2. A book on history of numbers will tell you why some numbers are more ‘favoured’ than others. There were calculating systems going 1, 2, 3….and after a point the numbers we know today as ’19’ or ‘123’ or ‘12341969’ would all bear the same name — “many” or “a lot”. The fact that you have 10 toes and 10 fingers, not 18 and 26 (I guess), would imply we’d all go decimal. Well, it didn’t stop the Isles from inventing those wretched dozens, scores, fortnights, pints, lbs, halfcrowns and all that nonsense.)

    NEGATION is single in English and double in Polish. Period. (Still, if you want to negate Polish style, listen to Dylan’s “ain’t no use to sit and wonder why babe”. Dylan ain’t no Pole, mind.)

    There are various inflectional endings in Polish, period. Recall your command of German. (Ich sitze beim? bei der? die? das? dem? den? der? Tisch — verdammt man, what a Sprache!)

    PS Your specification is misleading:
    One beer
    Three beers
    Five beers
    One hundred beers

    Poles have beers. Brits have beers, ales, lagers, stouts, porters, mulls, shandies, codswallops, lambics, bocks, and even that most horrible stuff called cider.

    I have a car
    I don’t have a car

    is true.

    But what about:

    I do have a car.
    I have got a car.
    I’ve gotten a car.
    I don’t have any car.
    I have no car.

    And what’s with this damned “a” (sometimes “an”, or sometimes “the” or sometimes nothing)?

    Summed up:
    Polish tries to be nice to you. It even uses the brand of a British car as a generic name for bicycles. You ungrateful boy you! :D

  3. yohoho – my wife who’s polish born makes a similar mistake not pronouncing the letter a properly e.g. saying butter instead of batter. The polish ‘a’ is a lot flatter.
    so you need to say ‘chupka’ for ciapka (never heard of the word before – sounds like a ‘zdrobnienie’ of the word ciapa meaning clot, fool, etc) and then use the ‘t’ from the word tree and say ‘t’upka i.e czapka.
    As for polish double negation – there isn’t double negation – there is logical word sense but illogical meaning i.e. I don’t see nothing says I don’t see nothing but then claims to mean I don’t see anything. That’s fine by me but I have grilled every blood pole I i know and the conversatuion usually goes like this:

    -close your eyes and tell me ‘co widzisz?

    > nic.

    – are you sure?

    > yes, nic nie widzę.

    – sorry, i didn’t ask you to tell me what you can’t see, please tell me what you do see.

    > haha – ok, widzę ciemność.

    – Nic doesn’t mean nothing in the first answer it means ‘anything’ which Poles don’t seem to admit (it happens a lot in English where a word can have more than one meaning ). Either that or you should say ‘widzę nic’.

    > Po polsku nie możesz widzieć nic.

    – well since everybody knows you can’t see nothing why go round telling everyone so? I didn’t see nothing, I didn’t see noone. Great, as far as I can tell from the polish language logic everybody in Poland goes around not seeing nobody. So what? Oh look, there’s nothing over there. Sorry, I can’t see there is nothing there I can only not see that there is nothing there.

    > But I’m not saying I didn’t see nothing I’m saying I saw nothing but my language uses a double negative.

    – So ‘nie widziałem’ stops meaning ‘nie widziałem’?? What about when you say ‘nie widziałem jakiejkolwiek rzeczy’ or ‘żadnej osoby ‘ you are saying you did not see any thing or any one so explain?


    Sound familiar to any Poloangols out there??:)

  4. In the very distant past there was the so called double number. That’s why things inflect differently when there are two or a couple of them than when there are 5 or more. Things existing in pairs were proper nouns in their own right, and not just a plural form of the singular nouns i.e. państwo – state, and Państwo – a group of people inflect differently. There is a slightly similar confusion between the UK and US English. If I remember well Brits will say the team are and Americans the team is. We’ve been nice to you, and mostly dropped the double number by now, but you can still observe some remnants of it where things tend to exist in pairs.

    Jedno ciemne oko
    Jedne ciemne oczy
    Dwoje ciemnych oczu
    Pięcioro ciemnych oczu
    Ciemne oczy

    Jedno ciemne oko
    Jedne ciemne oka
    Dwa ciemne oka
    Pięć ciemnych ok
    Ciemne oka

    In both cases you’d say:

    One dark eye
    Some dark eyes
    Two dark eyes
    Five dark eyes
    Dark eyes

    but the former refer to the pair of eyes of a human or animal, while the latter to the eyes in a net or stocking.

    The word ‘door’ in Polish exists only in the double number. Whether you say drzwi, jedne drzwi, dwoje drzwi, para drzwi, or pięcioro drzwi you refer to them as being double.

    One more example, largely confusing to Poles themselves, refers to hands (somehow we left legs alone):

    Jedna ręka
    Jedne ręce
    Dwoje rąk
    Pięcioro rąk

    Jedna ręka
    Jedne ręce
    Dwie ręce
    Pięć rąk

    The former refer to hands existing in pairs, the latter to single hands of various humans. I.e. dwoje rąk belong to one human using their both hands, while dwie ręce to two humans using one hand each.

    Podajcie sobie ręce.
    Mam dwoje rąk.
    Mam dwie ręce.

    Shake your hands.
    I have two hands. – Both Polish forms are proper now. However, when you say I have only two hands. meaning you cannot do things as fast as if you had three of them, most likely you’ll say Mam tylko dwie ręce. The plural form here, instead of the double one, assumes the abstractive possibility of having more than two hands.

    Mamy dwoje rąk.
    Mamy cztery ręce.
    Mamy dwie ręce.
    Mamy po dwie ręce.

    Each of us has two hands.
    Together we have four hands.
    Together we have two hands. (Either they have only one hand each, or one person has two and the other none.)
    Each of us has two hands.

    The confusion mostly occurs when you do something with either your or other people’s hands.

    Dwoma rękoma.
    Dwiema rękami.
    Parą rąk.

    With a pair of hands.
    With two hands.
    With a pair of hands. (literally)

    However, it’s only theory by now. In practice you can say both oboma rękoma and obiema rękami meaning with your both hands literally. A lowly educated person is likely to say ręcami.

    The additional problem with hands comes from their being feminine and not neutral like eyes are. With time we began to use both the masculine and feminine forms of two for them. One can say z dwiema kobietami or z dwoma kobietami, and both are proper, but only z dwoma mężczyznami.There also used to be plural ręki, obsolete by now.

    The ś, sz and ć, cz problem comes from completely different sounds existing in English and Polish. It’s like we can’t pronounce English words well, simply because we can’t hear the difference you do. Learning French or Spanish pronunciation is so much easier to us! A friend of mine told me a story about a Polish mother living in the US who took her daughter to a specialist because the daughter couldn’t pronounce Polish sounds well. The doctor couldn’t hear the difference either. ;-) Your sh and ch are in the middle, while we use the extremes. I’m very clever while I’m writing it, but I can’t speak English at all.

    P.S. Poles have piwo, but also browar, jasne, ciemne, mocne, grzane etc. We just don’t need nouns for everything. :-D

  5. Help me, Obi Scatts Kenobi:

    is there a difference (other than graphic) that the native speaker feels between:
    – I SEE NO ONE
    Do these mean the same?

    [Not to mention secret differences between “no one vs nobody”, “anyone vs anybody”.]

  6. Darth,

    They mean the same thing but I would use them slightly differently. For example;

    “I see no one has taken up your offer of free Polish lessons!”, works, whereas “I don’t see anyone has taken up your offer…..”, doesn’t. “I would have to rephrase it for it to sound acceptable, something like “I don’t see that anyone was tempted by your offer…..”

    On the other hand, “I don’t see anyone!”, works much better as a stand-alone statement that you can’t see anyone, particularly in response to a question like “Have people started arriving yet?”. You would not respond with “I see no one.”. Well, I wouldn’t.

    So, my rough-guide would be that “I see no one….” is best as the beginning of longer sentence and “I don’t see anyone” is best as a stand-alone statement.

    Then again! If you imagine a dirty rotten commie spy looking at a ship through binoculars in a Bond movie, as one does, he could say “I see no one on the bridge, but I can see three soldiers below decks” (emphasis on the ‘can’ )

    Does it help to imagine that “no one” is short for “not one person”? I’m not sure.

    As for no one versus nobody and anyone versus anybody, I can’t see any secret differences. I think they are simply a matter of personal preference and how they fit the rhythm of the sentence.

    Perhaps there is a slight tendency for the “body” versions to be used when you’re talking about a discreet, specific and known group of people and the “one” versions to refer to a more general, unknown group? In a way, the “one” versions are slightly more formal.

    But it is a very close call and I’m sure if I thought long enough I’d find plenty of contradictory uses!

  7. Scatts, thanks!
    And you complain about Polish? Geegad, at least it has some sets of rules — not just contradictions and guesswork :)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s