Monday, 21 March 2011

Language and Nationalism

Learn Polish? I'm still trying to understand English.

I was asked yesterday what were the wider connotations (emotional content, as I call it) of the English verbs 'jew', as in 'to jew somebody', and 'welch' as in 'to welch on a deal'. Did 'welch' come from Wales and the Welsh?

To me, 'welch' is negative, but not highly emotive, being little more than ' purposely failed to live up to an agreement', with emotion indicated by tone of voice. It bore no relationship to the Welsh. Indeed, the only historical event I could think of that might link the two was an Anglo-Saxon Chronicle report related to Augustine, founder and first archbishop of the Church of the English. Looking it up now, it says for year 607, And Ethelfrith led his army to Chester , where he slew an innumerable host of the Welsh; and so was fulfilled the prophecy of Augustine, wherein he saith - "If the Welsh will not have peace with us, they shall perish at the hands of the Saxons". Those with a better knowledge of British history may be able to suggest better occasions when the Welsh may have welched, but I think my dissociation of the two is clear. My guess was therefore that, like many similar sounding English words, they were derived from different sources.

I looked it up and found that 'welch' is not only 'probably' derived from the Welsh, but its primary spelling is also 'welsh'. The latter surprised me, although my Firefox spelling checker now tells me that 'welch' is unknown. However, I am sure I have heard of a person described as a 'welcher', pronounced with the normal 'ch', not 'sh' as in 'welsh' - strong negative connotations with this word - although it's not in the dictionary. My ignorance of the origin of an English word isn't surprising, but in this case I suspect 'probably' reflects lack of alternatives.

I learnt 'to jew' in Poland and had had to look it up in the dictionary to see if it really existed in English. It does, but I only found it in the International Dictionary so I don't know whether it was used in England. I therefore have no experience on which to base its emotional content.

There was some discussion of why English utilised nation-based words of this nature less than Polish (is that true?), for which it was suggested that immigrant peoples tend to be integrated more into England (which sounded sensible to me), whilst pointing out current opposition to immigrants such as Arabs (to which I suggested that integration takes a long time).

It finally turned out that Katherine, our friends' daughter in England, had asked why her school doesn't teach these things. Born and raised in England, Kasia's mum, Iwona, is Polish and Kasia has adopted her Mum's point of view: a Polish and not English perspective. As Iwona is very aware of such things, Kasia probably picked up 'to jew' from Polish - she is bilingual. Indeed, when they were over here, I found it fascinating that how, when we asked Kasia what she thought of school in England, her Mum explained how bad they were compared to Poland, whilst Kasia gave supporting examples. (Not that she knows what school is really like in Poland.) Even if she stays all her life in England, there will always be a part of her that is foreign - though some English people around her may not understand it.

People such as I. I worked with a lovely young 'Pakistani', Muniba Siddiqi, who very patiently explained to me why she was not English. She was so excited when leaving England for the first time to go to Pakistan, partly to meet her chosen husband, that I knew I didn't have the possibility of persuading her that she was English as well. As she put it, she just had a British passport and would only reluctantly accept that she was British. (He came to England and they married.)

I had to learn the day-to-day difference in Poland between two types of nationalism: the nation in terms of a country or state, which I was most familiar with; and the nation in terms of a self-identified group of people separate from their being inhabitants of the country. Muniba gave me an early lesson, but she was in a foreign country, as she viewed it. Identifying oneself by the people in one's own country seemed very different. Maybe London, where I came from, with its wide collection of different peoples, was the wrong place to understand this. Maybe it's just me.

I remember being in a hotel bar in Welsh Wales (where they speak Welsh), talking to an Englishman who had run the local car repair company for 30 years. He proudly explained that he was called Jones the Mechanic, signifying his acceptance within the Welsh community - his name was not Jones. (He thought it was said slightly jokingly, but it was hallowed by common use.) On the other side, however, discussions on the creation of a Parliament for Wales were reported as ultimately failing - an 'Assembly' replacing it - because of mistrust between the Welsh speaking part of Wales; the people of Southern Wales, considered by the former to be English; and the people of the Borders, who were considered by both to be English. In practical terms, there are therefore at least three different groups of Welsh as a people, in addition to the inhabitants of Wales. It's all too complicated for my poor tired brain.

It's all the reverse in Poland. To be Polish is first to be of the peoples that are considered to be Polish from the country that is Poland, whilst last is to have the formal status of citizen of Poland. I thought that the only time Polish people considered Jews from Poland to be unreservedly Polish was when telling me the number of World War Two dead - 5 or 6 million, whatever. I subsequently found that people added the number of Jewish dead to this total because they had not realised that "Polish dead' covered all people with Polish citizenship, though historians say this on TV. Even a Director and part-owner of a Higher School - a university age, post-school educational establishment - did this, but said she would check and tell me. It wouldn't be the first time I'm wrong, but she never mentioned it again. (I did check and I was right.)

Some time ago, I thought it would be nice in an ideal world to become Polish. I now understand that I can't - in any way that people could really accept. I was told a couple of times in the past, jokingly of course, that I was half-Polish. I've therefore already had the greatest compliment I can hope for. Otherwise, I've given up the idea.


Anonymous said...

Why not. I can think of a few people not born in Poland nor to Polish parents, that I think of as a Poles.

For example - Norman Davies, Brian Scott.

In my mind it is enough, if somebody lives here for a few years (more than 10, for example), speaks Polish, and thinks of itself as a Pole.

Silent Crawler said...

It is possible to be considered Polish by the Poles in spite of you not being born in Poland nor being an offspring of any Pole.

Here in Poland you could describe nationality as a state of mind. If you consider yourself an Englishman, a Londoner, a Pole or a Chinese and you really mean it, then you are one, no matter what.

Emmanuel Olisadebe would be an excellent example. He's a Nigerian football player, who immigrated to Poland and played in the national team. After few years he received a Polish passport and nationality from the President himself. If he doesn't feel a Pole, then who else does?

Pan Steeva said...

No one I know well enough to talk about such things would consider Norman Davies or Emmanuel Olisadebe Polish in the 'state of mind' sense that I find the primary meaning in Poland. "Emmanuel Olisadebe ... Nigeryjski napastnik z polskim paszportem" - Nigerian Striker with a Polish passport, said Wirtualna Polska. The feelings of the people themselves aren't important. Norman Davies doesn't even live here (according to Polish Wikipedia) and his being British/English is routinely quoted as a reason why I should accept the Polish view of history he supports. I don't know Brian Scott.

I wish I knew more about the anonymous commenter. I haven't know anyone like him in Poland well enough to hear his perspective before. Maybe more of the younger generations feel as he does.

Anonymous said...

Well, I'm confused over which meaning of being Polish or English we speak.

If Pan Steeva wanted to be Polish, I've assumed he still wanted to be British also, so we are speaking about being accepted as Pole - one of "ours", instead of being an alien.

Still, when one speak of place of birth, you are British, but why should it matter?

Similiar - Olisadebe have been accepted by Polish supporters eventually, and when he was sent of the pitch in the last match in Euro in Japan and Korea, he tried to earn some time (we were winning) and made fun of the referee like "Polish cfaniak" would - only to be given yellow card - and my friends cheered him as a "real Pole".

Brian Scott was/is rmf fm presenter, was very popular in early '90 he lives in Poland to this day, but his fame mostly faded.

Pan Steeva said...

I never thought my Polish or my absorption of Polish culture would be good enough, but your "one of ours" sums it up completely, although probably better described as "me being one of them". I prefer Poland and Polish people to England and the English.

I don't "want to be British", it's just where I came from. That's just a fact of history. It's a defining feature to people around me, however. That's the difference in our views of 'nationality', which from my perspective is best translated as 'obywatelstwo' rather than 'narodowość'. I was quite confused when first filling out Polish forms, which always seemed to ask for both of these. I was told it was only for Polish people and I just had to put English in both. I put British in instead, having British nationality, although I now wonder whether I should have put English for the other nationality (narodowość)- South Londoner might be objectively better, but too extreme a thought for official forms and incomprehensible to Polish people who don't know England well.

It doesn't matter. It was just something for me to learn. I quite liked the idea of being an odd person around Warsaw's Jelonki (previously) and now like being the same in Młochów, Nadarzyn, etc. I can't imagine anyone being any nicer to me than they are now.

Sylwia said...

There are two contradictory definitions of being a Pole. One is the Piast one from the late 19th century (propagated by Dmowski) according to which one must be born Polish, and the other Jagiellonian or Sarmatian (propagated by the nobles and later by Piłsudski), according to which one must want to be Polish (Piłsudski was Lithuanian, no?).

The latter is the more popular, while the former is considered fascist. According to the early modern idea, coming from the 16th century, being Polish is a choice. Think of all the great Polish magnate families like Czartoryski, Radziwiłł, Wiśniowiecki etc. None of them was Polish. Kościuszko, Mickiewicz, Słowacki weren't Polish born either. They were Polish because they wanted to, but they were aware of their double nationality ("O Lithuania, my country," wrote Mickiewicz, thinking of Belarus).

Think of the Silesians nowadays, who consider themselves both Silesian and Polish. Polish is more like British than English.

Sylwia said...

The thing with Jews isn't so simple. Some Jews considered themselves Polish while others did not. Some wanted to be both, and some neither. One wouldn't say that the Israelis are Poles, even though many were born in Poland. But Jews living in Poland today are Poles and not Israelis. Marek Edelman was both a Pole and a Jew, Tuwim was a Pole of Jewish origin. The number "6 million" of Poles (rather than half of them Jews), came from Berman, another Jew, who didn't want to be Jewish at all, and who was hated by Poles, so no one sees him as Polish. He might be best described as a communist, but his brother was a Zionist. Two very different worldviews in one family.

There's also a complex situation with Germans, many of whom Polonized. Lelewel, Traugutt? Quite many ethnic Germans, born either in Austria or Germany during the partitions, were commanders in the Polish Army at the beginning of WWII.

Sylwia said...

There were also Polish or partly Polish people who didn't want to be Polish, i.e. Dostoyevsky. It's a matter of self-determination rather than birth or citizenship.

I wouldn't call Norman Davies a Pole though. I never heard him say that he considers himself Polish. I think he's Welsh.

Pan Steeva said...

Thanks so much for your comments. Sylwia. You pick up on many themes that have crossed my mind, although I must point out that how you see yourself can be very different from how others see you.

My hypothesis (for which I can give some support, but not test) is that prior to the 20th Century, the szlachteri considered themselves to be nobles first, Poles as people second and resident of a country third. (I go back here to the splitting of Poland into seperate Duchies, although my starting point for this concept was Pan Tadeusz, which I (uniquly, I think) interpreted as a very bitter satire on the lack of nationalism of it's characters - more on this some other time.)

Piłsudski is the most pubic face of the new view of Poland as a national entity, although his confederalist (or empire building, if you dislike it) ideas still show signs of a much broader concept. However, I would balance him against an obscure personage from here in Młochów near Warsaw: Duchess Magdalena Radziwiłł - the surname of her second husband. She was an anti-Polish supporter of Lithuanian and Belarusian nationalism who fled to Switzerland because of her opposition to Piłsudski. Interesting that your description of being 'Polish' does not relate to 'Poland'.

Whatever the analysis of the basis of the way people feel, their day-to-day reactions are a jumble of a wide range of influences. It is notable that you announce a contradiction of terms in one comment and perfectly naturally encompass both when wrting about Dostoyevsky.

I wonder what you would think of my speculative claim that Tchaikovsky was Polish? He was from a Ukrainian family of Polish origin, although my one previous attempt at suggesting this was immediately refuted. Whilst, if I ever read War and Peace again, I'll definitely be focusing on the character of Bołkoński - I know that Tolstoy's mother's family name was Wołkoński.

Interesting that so many normal Polish people and Polish historians have completely accepted a view proposed by someone "who was hated by Poles, so no one sees him as Polish". There is more to it than that; , .