Being in-between

Over the summer, I spent 6 weeks in my native Poland, mostly writing a new book. It was the longest opportunity to speak only Polish I have had for a long time. As I welcomed the opportunity, it also became a source of frustration, and a little identity crisis. I actually started asking myself the question of who I was. And it was all about how we address each other.

Before I tell you the story of my soul-searching, I need to say (again) a few words about forms of address. Brown and Gilman (you will find reference in one of my previous posts on forms of address) were the first to show that forms of address are very sensitive to the social context of communication and can be thought of in terms of the power and solidarity. Terms of address construct the relative positions of interactants vis-à-vis one another and the speaker’s choice of a particular form of address locates them and the addressee in social space and defines, or constructs, the social actors’ mutual relationship. And so, the more ‘professorially’ I am addressed (or want to be addressed), the more the relationship between the speaker and myself is constructed in terms of power (whether the relationship is symmetric or not, is a different issue). On the other hand, the more ‘Darekness’ is emphasised, the more solidarity is claimed for the relationship.

Now, Polish is very good for nuancing of the power and solidarity axis. I can be addressed in at least the following ways, starting from the most formal/powerful all the way to the most informal/solidary. I can be

  1. pan profesor (roughly, Mr professor)
  2. profesor (‘professor’)
  3. pan (vocative: ‘proszę pana’, it would probably be translated as “Mr Galasinski”; this is the default polite form in Polish)
  4. pan Dariusz (roughly, Mr Dariusz)
  5. pan Darek (as above but with my first name diminutivised)
  6. Dariusz
  7. Darek (first-order diminutive)
  8. Dareczek (second-order diminutive reserved for good friends)

And so, you have at least 8 levels on which the relationship can be negotiated and they are those offered by the linguistic system. You could easily create a yet lower lever with ‘Darunia’ which would be a third-order diminutive reserved for children or people who are intimate. And those 8 (or 9) levels can be nuanced further with the use of the vocative case and the use of the polite form in dependent grammatical cases when referring to the person. All those nuances nudge us up or down the vertical scale. For those interested, I’d add that there is no equivalent on English ‘Mr Galasinski’. The use of ‘pan’ (Mr) with the surname is considered impolite (and there is a very interesting story about the use of the form in Polish politics).

Now, when I was leaving Poland all those 30 years ago, the default way two adults would address each other would have been with the use of level 3 polite form, that is to say, without the academic acrobatics and without the first name. In academia on the other hand, although it’s a bit more complicated, we would all use the first level honorifics.

Moreover, the change from the polite form to the first-name basis would have been (and to a limited extent continues to be) marked with the so-called bruderschaft (German for brotherhood). This would be a moment when one person (there are plenty of social rules who can do it) would suggest going to the ‘tu’ relationship, giving both parties the opportunity to call each other with the use of their forenames. If such an event happened during a party, the bruderschaft could be drunk with both persons’ arms interlocked and a kiss on the cheek.

All this made coming to the UK quite difficult for me (it’s a different post). Everybody started calling me by my first name, and I was fairly confused. Anyway, this post is about the fact that over the last years, and particularly over the summer, I was finding out that this all has changed.

The first time I observed it, when a colleague, probably about 15 years my junior simply called me by my first name (using the form ‘Darku’, which in the vocative case, making it politer than in the nominative). I let it pass, but when it happened the second time, I did react, saying that we were not on first name basis. I tried to do it as politely as I could, suggesting that I liked to mark the occasion, but the damage was done. The person was quite offended. No, I don’t regret it (in case you wonder), the first-name basis was so out of place that I just could not stand it.

And so, I started observing the practice and, indeed, I noticed that things had changed. Particularly amongst young adults the first-name basis almost became the default, with barely anyone using the polite form. As a linguist, I only observed until the moment, perhaps 2-3 years ago when I noticed that at parties, people started introducing themselves with their first names only, clearly inviting me to reciprocate. And I could not stomach it. I really hated (and continue to hate) it.

Because, you see, the British first name basis is different from the Polish one. I have been on first name basis with, say, all my deans and, believe me, we were no friends. Yet, at least for me, first names in Polish carry much more friendship and intimacy. I suspect that over the years, the Polish first name address has also changed, but I have not been part of it. I’ve lived in the UK!

And here came the soul searching. I am absolutely fluent in Polish, and yet, I am not. I am missing the social dimension of how we (or is it they?) speak in a particular context. The use of first names is just inappropriate for me in contexts where many of fellow Poles now consider it OK (or pretend to, as one of my friends told me). And while I accept it (not very grudgingly) with people I will be meeting or knowing, I find it very hard to do it with people I meet in passing.

Things are even worse. I notice that sometimes I am the only person who addresses others with the polite form. I also know (sometimes I am told) that it is commented upon, and quite negatively. I cannot say that I completely don’t care (sometimes I do a little), but I just feel like an idiot when I start being ‘Darek’ to everybody. I am bloody not. For me ‘Darek’ in Polish is reserved to my friends (in English it’s completely different).

Here we come to the summer. Bloody hell, it was difficult. Things went well beyond the forms of address. I am so accustomed to all the ‘thank yous’ and ‘pleases’ in shops, offices, buses and wherever else that shopping in Poland started being a journey through impoliteness. Are those people impolite? No, not really, not all of them at least, they just have a different way of speaking.

And so, as I was reflecting on all this, I was reminded of Julia Kristeva’s book ‘Strangers to Ourselves’. She offers a lovely account of being a foreigner. According to her, I have already stopped being Polish, and I shall never be English/British. As I started wondering who I was, I also started wondering whether the process was reversible. Will I become ‘linguistically impolite’ if I spend more time in Poland? But more importantly of all: who am I? Alas, I haven’t found an answer.

Is there a conclusion? Not really, I just wanted to record the experience of being linguistically obsolete and its consequences. The consequences are that when I say I am Polish (and I continue to say that), it means something very different from when I said it 30 years ago. I also appreciate much more what once Gunther Kress told me when I asked him if he was German. ‘I used to be’, he said.

There is of course one more thing. As the Brexit row rages, spare a thought for all of us, who are considered to be foreigners. Yes, we are. But it’s much more complex than it appears. Being a foreigner might mean that you are not British, but also might not mean that you are something else. You’re just an immigrant. Well, the European identity suddenly becomes much more attractive!



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