Quirks of Polish names

Having lived in three different countries and interacted with people from all around the world made me realise that Polish names have some pretty unique quirks – to which, as a native speaker, I didn't give too much thought, while foreigners find them quite strange.

The most obviously tricky part is the pronunciation. My name, “Andrzej”, is pronunced like this, with the “rz” as /ʐ/. But hardly anyone outside of Poland knows that and has no problems pronouncing it and writing it down. That's why I usually go by “Andre”, as a simplification. And recently also as “Andrea”, to make it gender-neutral.

But dificult pronunciation is almost a given when talking about other languages. What's quite specific to Polish then?

(Doubly) diminutive-able first names

Many languages have diminutives. Many use them also for names (eg. English: Tim → Timmy, Richard → Dick, ...). Some languages even have a concept of double diminutive (Italian: casa → casetta → casettina). But Polish just loooves its diminutives!

According to ksiega-imion.pl, my first name, Andrzej, can be tuned into: Andruszko, Andrzejek, Jędrek, Jędruś, Jędrzejek, Ondrzejek, Ondraszek, or Ondrysz. Diminutives of Katarzyna are: Kacha, Kachna, Kasia, Kasieńka, Kasiunia, Kaśka, Katarzynka, Katka. Of Jan: Janek, Janosik, Jasiek, Jasio, Jaś, Jaśko. And so on, and so forth...

And the thing is: which one to use can depend on so many things... Most are regional forms. Some you can use more like a joke or a nickname rather than a diminutive of a name.

I've noticed that many follow a three-level pattern. For instance:

  • Piotr → Piotrek → Piotruś
  • Grzegorz → Grzesiek → Grzesiu
  • Małgorzata → Gośka → Gosia
  • Wojciech → Wojtek → Wojtuś
  • Jan → Janek → Jaś
  • ...

The first one is very formal. That's what's in your documents. That's what you probably hardly ever use outside of formal situations – at least I wouldn't, if I had one of those names. I've had friends and family members who would always go by “Wojtek” and never “Wojciech”, always “Gosia” and never “Małgorzata”, etc.

It sounds so formal that my sister Małogrzata, upon moving to the UK, wouldn't go by the English version of her name – Margaret - but by an artificial anglicisation of the Polish diminutive “Gosia”: so she's now known as “Gosha”.

The second one is usually what you use informally, what friends call you, what the extended family calls you. The third one is pretty intimate and quite infantile. You might call your romantic partners that, you might call children that.

Usually. It all differs from name to name, it differs from person to person. Sometimes it can get quite tricky to decide which form of one's name to use, in order not to sound too formal, or too familiar, or too childish...

That's why I'm very glad that my name is not one of those “three-level” names. “Andrzej” just doesn't sound so formal that it would be weird to call your friend that. One can form a diminutive of it, if one wants, but “Andrzej” itself is pretty neutral.

And they did, btw. My parish priest, for example, jokingly called be “Jędrek”, because he's from the mountains where this form is popular. And my mother called me “Aduś”, completely ignoring the fact that it's not in the slightest a diminutive of “Andrzej”. It is a male-ified version of a diminutive of a female name “Ada”. But she also called my brother “Maciuś”, even though it's a diminutive of “Maciej”, not “Marcin”, and she called his daughter “Magda” even though her name is “Wiktoria”, so what does she know 🤷

Summing up: the Poles can get pretty inventive with their names, and chosing a proper form can get tricky sometimes.

Declinable surnames

And then there's surnames. Most are quite straight-forward, but there's one category that behaves a bit unexpectedly. Those surnames, ending in -ski and -cki, are basically adjectives, which means they get declined.

Polish, as a stronly genderised language, distinguishes between male and female way more often than necessary. So for example, my surname is Prusinowski, but my sister's is Prusinowska. The family name is Prusinowscy, but a subset of two or more women would be called Prusinowskie.

Let's look at Lana & Lilly Wachowski, collectively known as “The Wachowskis” or “The Wachowski sisters”.

If they lived and transitioned in Poland (or treated their Polish heritage more to the letter), they would probably change not only their first names, but also surnames. It would be “Lana Wachowska” and “Lilly Wachowska”, and collectively “siostry Wachowskie”. Also, the pronunciation would be vastly different from the anglicised version, just saying...

Name day

And finally, something more loosely related to names: people in Poland celebrate name days. It's also popular in some other Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox countries, but not as universal as birthdays, so worth mentioning, I guess...

Basically, if a person died and became a saint, there would be a “memory” day put in the liturgical calendar, usually on the day of their death. That way the priest will know to read a short note about their life before the mass. Eventually, those names ended up in regular calendars, and people bearing those names started celebrating the feast day of their patron saint.

So in Poland you usually have two celebrations of your person every year – a birthday, usually celebrated with family, and a name day, usually celebrated by getting super drunk with your friends. Unless you're a child, then you only get a birthday, sorry.