A Grammar of the Polish Language

Part eight

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Morphology – inflected parts of speech, p. 5

Conjugation, part 3

3 voices of verb: active, reflexive and passive are distinguished most often in the Polish grammar. However in fact few verbs have the full paradigm. Synthetic forms are present only in active voice, among the others only the passive participle is simple.

The active voice is used when the subject is a performer of an act passing on another object (e.g. on wiesza kogoś – he hangs somebody) or of an intransitive act or it is in a certain state (e.g. on wisi – he hangs). The reflexive voice is used when the subject is the object of the act contemporarily (e.g. on wiesza się – he hangs himself). At last the passive voice determinates the subject as the object of the act whose performer need not be known or his identity is less important (e.g. on jest wieszany – he is (being) hanged). The reflexive and the passive voices understood in this way are then possible only for transitive verbs – Polish obeys this rule pretty strictly, see however below.

The reflexive voice is created by adding the inconjugatable element się to forms of the active voice. This się is a reflexive pronoun in accusative by its origin. Today it is a particle rather. It can be put in various places in the sentence, contrary to for example the Russian languages, where it joins the verb as a kind of an ending. The equivalent English forms are conjugatable: myję się – I wash myself, myjesz się – you wash yourself etc. Grammarians rather deny the existence in Polish a separate reflexive voice since the form with się (the reflexive form) has also other, not reflexive meanings. Namely it can indicate an act which is not reflexive but reciprocal (oni myją się can mean not only they wash themselves but also they wash one another).

The reflexive form of 3rd pers.sg. can create impersonal phrases with passive meaning, e.g. buduje się tam szkołę ‘one builds a school there’. This form is also created from intransitive verbs which cannot have (and, beside this form, do not have) the reflexive voice because of their nature. It has impersonal meaning, and a possible subject is expressed with dative, e.g. i jak ci się wisi? ‘and how are you feeling when hanging’, literally: ‘and how one hangs to you’, po drodze jedzie się przez dwa mosty ‘along the way one crosses two bridges’. Sometimes there is the whole paradigm of the reflexive form having passive meaning rather, e.g. rodzić się ‘be born, breed’.

There exist verbs with the reflexive form and active (intransitive) meaning, e.g. boję się, śmieję się, rozglądam się ‘I am afraid, I am laughing, I am looking about sth.’ – in many cases they have not the active forms (without się) at all. They usually denote acts in which the subject engages particularly or does it for itself, in its interest. Sometimes beside a transitive active form (e.g. walić ‘bring down, overthrow’) there exist the intransitive “reflexive” form (walić się ‘crumble, collapse, crash’). Such forms are sometimes named medial. It is the vocabulary what informs about such forms, not the grammar. A certain facultativity in using the reflexive particle is testified by possibility of exceptional omission of one się when two verbs with the reflexive form come together, e.g. boję się zarazić grypą ‘I am afraid of infecting with flu’ (both infecting anybody else – active meaning – and infecting oneself – reflexive meaning).

In the colloquial Polish the się can intensify the active form, e.g. dobre dzieci słuchają się swoich rodziców ‘good children obey their parents (by themselves)’ – in the careful such się should be omitted. Verbs reciprocal from their nature have often the reflexive form only, e.g. kłócić się ‘quarrel, have words (one with another)’.

Used in other cases, phrases with sobie, the form of the reflexive pronoun in dative, created by many verbs and used in colloquial speech rather, have often likely intensive meaning. They can be used for emphasizing the lack of a distinct target or direction, e.g. idę sobie ‘I am walking (who cares where)’, for emphasizing some nonchalance, e.g. piszę sobie zadanie ‘I am just writing my homework’, disrespect, e.g. ona robi sobie żarty ‘she is just kidding’, gadaj sobie ‘talk (if you want – but I won’t hear you at all)’, intensifying of an order, e.g. idź już sobie ‘go away, O.K?’, amusement and satisfying one’s demands, e.g. czytam sobie książkę ‘I am just reading a book’, pobiegałem sobie przed śniadaniem ‘I was just running a little before breakfast’.

Sometimes one cannot omit the reflexive pronoun in dative, as it would change the meaning of the verb. The special, medial meaning of the obligatory sobie occurs in the verbs uzmysłowić sobie ‘realize’, wyobrazić sobie ‘imagine’, życzyć sobie ‘wish’. In the colloquial speech the sobie is reduced to se – this form does not belong to the literary language at all, and even if it can be often heard in the streets, it is not brought by orthoepic dictionaries, even as an error. Some time it could be heard however in a popular song: daj se luz ‘relax, loose yourself’, lit.: ‘give yourself a loose (leeway)’.

Colloquial forms with other pronouns in dative have close meaning too, e.g. the form podejdź mi tu ‘come here’ can express emphasizing of the order or menacing. Such forms are less and less frequent now.

The passive voice is avoided in Polish, it is characteristic for the written language rather. Instead of it one can use impersonal forms or build phrases in the active voice with the inversion of the subject and the object; a natural rendering of English John is beaten by Paul will rather be Jana bije Paweł than Jan jest bity przez Pawła. It is recommended to use the passive voice (even instead of the active voice) only when the subject and the direct object can be mixed up, which happens with neuter, masculine inanimate nouns and non-masculine-personal ones in plural. Since because the sentence hieny zjadają lwy is unclear, one should say hieny są zjadane przez lwy ‘hyenas are eaten by lions’ or lwy są zjadane przez hieny ‘lions are eaten by hyenas’.

The passive voice is created in Polish almost exclusively by transitive verbs (see however below), it means verbs governing the object:

In principle, it is impossible to create the passive voice, including the passive participle, from the intransitive verbs. Such English forms like gone, stood or been are not able to be translated in Polish, and the resultative forms of the type mam przeczytane can be created only from the verbs that have the passive voice.

Also many untypical verbs, which can be acknowledged as transitive considering their meaning, have not the passive voice. Grammarians usually count them among intransitive verbs. This remark especially regards almost all verbs governing dative, e.g. pomagać przyjacielowi ‘help a friend’ (but wspomagam przyjaciela (accusative) – przyjaciel jest wspomagany przeze mnie). An exception here is zagrozić ‘threaten’ with an impersonal subject: zagroziła nam powódź ‘the flood has impended over us’ – jesteśmy zagrożeni powodzią (or: przez powódź), but not with personal: nauczyciel zagroził uczniowi oceną niedostateczną ‘the teacher has threatened the pupil with the bad mark’ – it would be rather incorrect to say uczeń jest zagrożony przez nauczyciela. The transformation into the passive voice can be made here however starting with the sentence with the impersonal subject: uczniowi grozi ocena niedostateczna ‘the bad mark impends over the pupil’ – uczeń jest zagrożony oceną niedostateczną.

Most of the verbs which govern instrumental cannot form the passive voice, e.g. handluję książkami ‘I deal in books’ (but przehandlujesz książki (accusative) ‘you’ll sell books’ – książki zostaną przehandlowane przez ciebie). At last, some other transitive verbs (considering their sense) have not the passive voice – with the particle się, e.g. doczekał się gości ‘he got guests at last’, other governing genitive, e.g. brakuje powietrza ‘the air is lacking’, chcę spokoju ‘I want some peace (rest)’, and even accusative, e.g. mieć ‘have’ (hence the passive participle had is untranslatable into Polish).

When two objects join the verb, the passive transformation may be done by changing the direct object into the subject but not indirect. Let’s compare 3 English sentences with their Polish renderings:

When the verb is imperfective, the passive voice consists of the proper form of the verb być ‘be’, and of the passive participle in nominative of the proper gender, e.g. on jest myty ‘he is being washed’, but ona jest myta ‘she is being washed’, and of the proper number, e.g. on jest myty but oni są myci ‘they are being washed’. It is also possible to create miscellaneous tenses and modes. In impersonal complex forms there occurs the passive participle in instrumental: być mytym, będąc mytą, zostawszy umytym. The conjugation of the perfective verbs is a little more complicated, as apart from ordinary forms of the past and future tenses created with the use of the verb zostać (e.g. zostać umytym ‘be washed’) there exist also resultative forms in the past, present and future tenses created with the use of być ‘be’.

Beside być and zostać the verb stawać się / stać się ‘become’ is sometimes used to creating forms nearing the passive voice. And so, the imperfective verb moknąć ‘get wet’ does not form the passive voice at all because it is intransitive. Yet however perfective and intransitive as well zmoknąć, przemoknąć, zziębnąć have passive participles (in fact with true adjective meaning) zmoknięty, przemoknięty, zziębnięty ‘wet, wet over, frozen’. You can create the resultative forms byłem zmoknięty, jestem przemoknięty, będę zziębnięty. Even if the forms *zostałem zmoknięty, *zostanę zziębnięty are impossible to be created, there exist stawałem się zmoknięty, staję się przemoknięty, stałem się zziębnięty, stanę się zmoknięty.

Similar adjective forms having the shape of passive participles are created by a number of vebs, including intransitive, e.g. wyspany ‘well rested after a good sleep’, znany ‘known’, rozwrzeszczany ‘still and still screaming’. Analogical forms with the use of być, stawać się and stać się are created by verbs having the adjectival past participle. The following fact testifies to their analogy to the passive voice – beside the form zmoknięty there exists the form zmokły, equal in meaning. The participles of this kind can be included in resultative forms of the type jestem zbielały = zbielałem. Analogous constructions (być + the passive participle) can be met in German and French, exceptionally also in English (e.g. she is gone).

The resultative forms are often made by verbs having reflexive form, e.g. jestem zmęczony – zmęczyłem się ‘I am tired’, jestem wystraszony – wystraszyłem się ‘I am frightened’. If a perfective verb creates passive and reflexive forms, then the resultative form has 2 meanings: jestem umyty can mean the same as umyto mnie (the passive form – ‘one has washed me’) and also umyłem się (the reflexive form – ‘I have washed myself’).


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