It was announced last month that Polish is now the second most common language in England. In response to this, British food critic and writer Giles Coren wrote a bizarre column in The Times entitled “Today I am make first column in Polski” (February 2, 2013). He was also angry about some distasteful remarks British MP David Ward made plus some acts of antisemitism in Britain.
It’s ruffled a lot of feathers. Unlike most people, I don’t follow British census figures. This only came to my attention because the article has generated a bit of a kerfuffle. I disagree with just about everything he says but I objectively hate this essay because of the language he has chosen.
There is a great line by Margaret Cho about prejudice which was inspired by her tour in the Southern US. [“You know how with weather it’s not the heat, it’s the humidity? Well with racism, it’s not the hate, it’s the stupidity.”] Coren is intentionally offensive but what I really can’t stand is that his impression of a Pole speaking English is so inaccurate it’s not even funny.
Disclosure: I’ve been living in Poland for the past sixteen months because I’m trying to learn Polish. My mother was born here, emigrated to the US as a child and didn’t teach any of her children Polish. One day it suddenly bothered me that I couldn’t speak her native tongue or tell you much about Polish history or culture. So I decided to move here.
I started “studying” Polish in September 2007. I haven’t been very studious. It’s not help that Polish is so hard I used to find it offensive. I thought I’d get better once I got to Poland but that hasn’t been the case because I chose to move to Krakow, a place where everyone speaks goddamn English!
OK – not everyone, I’m a writer who pays the bills by teaching English as a foreign language. I wouldn’t have a job if everyone spoke English but an outrageous number of Krakowians speak English and are keen on practicing. Or they have things to do and can’t wait for me to spit out a sentence which doesn’t usually make sense anyway. After a little while they gently say, “It’s OK – you can speak English.” It’s never in frustration despite the fact that I have been wasting their time AND butchering their language.
I admit that I’m in a unique position but it doesn’t matter - if you’re going to be an ignorant bastard, do it right!
There are certain aspects of English which are particularly difficult for Polish speakers. My colleagues and I see the same mistakes over and over. Coren should have consulted someone.
Just take the title: “I am make first column in Polski”.
Polish doesn’t having the continuous. The rules of when/how to using the continuous are actually somewhat difficult to grasping. Many students tend to be overusing it after learning it. I am frequently hearing things like “I am working in a bank” when they should be saying, “I work in a bank”. So “I am making…” would having been better/worse.
Meanwhile, the verb “to write” works the same in Polish and English. But there is only one verb for “to do/make” and even advanced students have trouble deciphering when to use which. So while I would argue that anyone with basic English would have correctly chosen to use “write” here, he could have gone with “doing” to do it more ridiculously.
Then there are the articles! The Polish doesn’t have the articles. When a people who speak the languages without an articles learn the English they have no instinct for them. It’s difficult for some students to wrap their heads around an importance of such tiny words like the “a/an” and the “the” so they carelessly omit them or throw them around the everywhere. Weak students use a/an with the plurals too.
I just spent the past year using ordinal numbers for 11-19 instead of cardinal numbers without even realizing it. (“When is tram fourteenth to be right here?”) That’s another common mistake which I hear a lot.
Better title: “I am doing a one column in the Polski.”
I’m not just being nit-picky. Read it for yourself. Even without a background in Polish or Ponglish, you can see - the dude seriously bombed it. The article has a feel of a really bad Borat impression. And it just distracts from the points he is trying to make – which I believe are:
1. All Poles hate Jews.
2. David Ward is a dick.
3. Brits also hate Jews.
4. Something or another about Palestine.
It’s quite scattered because as a “Polish speaker” he is incapable of providing a thesis or making a cohesive argument.
This isn’t about political correctness, it’s about doing things correctly. There are two parts of making art. Concept and execution. In a perfect world, the execution will present a brilliant concept powerfully and evocatively but a good concept can still shine through its poor delivery. Or a crappy idea will be done in an interesting way – like early motion capture technology. Coren’s ideas are so illogical and unsound that no amount of eloquence could have saved the column from making him sound like a fool but his execution is so off that it’s actually embarrassing to read.
I’ve been spending a lot of time with a few freakishly brilliant polyglots lately. Despite my own failed forays into foreign languages, they were able to dumb things down enough for a group of us to enjoy a full twenty minutes of Denglish (German and English) this past Sunday. “I geleftet mein Handy in das other Room.” LMFAO!!! [OK - so maybe you had to be there.] But it can be done well like Alex in Everything is Illuminated. Coren just sounds like he has brain damage - which may be the most accurate aspect of the piece.
I may be going out on a limb here but I suspect that Coren doesn’t speak any languages other than English. But the dude went to Oxford, he should have been able to employ this style more effectively. No one has any business trying to use this narrative device without some serious work or help because it ends up being a distraction instead of delicious. At the very least he could have used Google translate and found some cognates to throw in.
And what about the editors at The Times? Doesn’t anyone on the staff know someone who could have helped? What were they thinking by printing it in the first place? I am absolutely aghast that a centuries old institution such as The Times would publish such superficial, silly snark as though it were satire worthy of… Oh wait, Rupert Murdoch owns The Times. Forget my indignation.
Humor is an art that needs to be taken seriously. If he or his editor had taken more care, I’d be here applauding his execution while tearing down his concepts. Oh well. So much to criticize, so little time. C’est la życie.
I will admit that without this trash I may have never heard about the popularity of Polish in Englad. Since Krakow hasn’t provided me the immersion I had hoped for, I now have London on my radar as a possible residence for the future. Maybe I’ll buy him a piwo when I get there. Cheers mate!
Read it for yourself by clicking the link at the top of this post or by going to:
Holler if you hear me!