Declension, as far as I know, corresponds to the act of creating boxes where you can pile up nouns that follow the same rule when inflected (generally due to cases). Classical Latin is often said to have five declensions; modern Greek and Russian, three; Finnish, possibly none, except for rules regarding harmony. It is quite clear, then, that the number of declensions does not depend on the number of cases.

I have a problem with Polish.

First, Polish has an unusual amount of genders: masculine, feminine, neuter, masculine/personal plural, non-masculine/personal plural. Regarding declensions related to plural formation, Polish is straightforward. With respect to the genitive singular of masculine nouns, not so much: it really depends on whether of not the noun describes something that feels alive, somehow: samochód -> samochodu(dead), widok -> widoku(dead), chleb -> chleba(alive), but komputer -> komputera(alive). In the end, this feels alive rule only refers to a certain (not large) fraction of masculine names, since bread and computer are alive, for Poles. Similar controversy is also present in the dative singular, locative singular and, sometimes, genitive plural of feminine nouns.

Second, Polish has a huge repertoire of morphophonetic variations: widok -> w widoku and chleb -> w chlebie, but samochód -> w samochodzie. This happens more often than not: Praga -> w Pradze, Marzec -> w Marcu, gazeta -> w gazecie. Being able to predict such changes is an integral part of learning Polish.

My question regards the following: most mainstream languages I've stumbled upon had some grammarian that divided nouns according to declension, but I've never seen that done to Polish. I have a friend that is a philologist and he said that possibly it is due to the high degree of irregularity present in the Polish language, and that maybe grouping nouns into declensions might generate so many declensions that the problem of categorisation would only get worse. I think that defining declension apart from morphophonetics is possible and feasible, but might be artificial and incomplete. Does anybody know of any reference that groups Polish nouns into declensions?

  • There are 7 types of declension of feminine nouns, 3 types of declension of masculine nouns, 3 types of declension of masculine-personal nouns, and 5 types of declension of neuter nouns. I can scan the charts and share them here, 2.5 pages. Should I? – Yellow Sky Dec 1 '16 at 20:50
  • Also have a look at this: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polish_morphology#Nouns – Yellow Sky Dec 1 '16 at 21:35
  • Btw Latin has five declensions, not six. – TKR Dec 1 '16 at 22:27

I can recommend this book: Słownik odmiany rzeczowników polskich by Stanisław Mędrak. The good news is that it's exactly what you want: a dictionary that lists all the noun declension paradigms. The bad news is that there are over 500 such paradigms. Crazy, I know. But of course they have a lot in common, and they are grouped into six main classes:

  • class 100: the feminine gender
  • class 200-300: the masculine personal gender
  • class 400: the masculine animate gender
  • class 500-600: the masculine inanimate gender
  • class 700: the neuter gender
  • class 800: pluralia tantum (nouns that do not appear in the singular)

There is also an index of about 20,000 words, with information about the paradigms they belong to. Just for fun, I looked up the specific words you'd mentioned: widok belongs to the paradigm 507, chleb is 518b, samochód is 550a, Praga is 139, marzec is 565a, gazeta is 119. Oh my, only now did I realise how insane my mother tongue is.

By the way, what you write about “feeling dead”/“feeling alive” can be regarded at best as a rule of thumb for foreign language learners. That's probably a useful approximation (perhaps even the best one that's possible to make), but it's really not the case that some objects “feel alive” in Polish. I'm a native speaker of Polish and have never heard of that rule or anything similar. Komputer and chleb don't feel alive to me in any sense, and they surely don't feel any more alive than samochód. I say samochodu, komputera and chleba simply because these are the forms I've learnt, and samochoda, komputeru, chlebu sound incorrect.

In contrast to the above, the masculine/feminine/neuter distinction of the nouns does have some influence on how Polish native speakers perceive things. On the one hand, we know that it's just a formal distinction, so even though kot (‘cat’) is masculine (and needs to be used with the masculine forms of adjectives, etc.), it can refer to cats of either sex. When we want to be specific about the sex, we say either kocur (‘tomcat’) or kotka (‘female cat’). On the other hand, the gender of nouns does create some expectation about which sex is the default for a specific entity. For example, myszka (‘mouse’) can refer either to a male mouse or a female mouse, but since it's a feminine noun, it does feel slightly strange for Polish speakers that Myszka Miki (‘Mickey Mouse’) is a male.

Last piece of advice: if you're interested in speaking Polish, as opposed to having theoretical knowledge about its grammar, forget about all I just said, find some Polish friends and talk a lot. I have a Norwegian friend who knows almost nothing about the Polish grammar, but speaks Polish fluently and gets maybe 80% of everything she says right. Theoretical knowledge about the grammar may perhaps be required to the cover the last 20%, but for the most part, you simply need to get the “feel” of the language and learn by experience.

| improve this answer | |
  • I really like your answer. It helped a lot, and I'll definitely check the book you mentioned. Regarding your advice, the paradigm of grammar versus vocabulary in learning a new language is not new. I already have an intermedate knowledge of Polish, and I must admit that the fact I was addicted to grammar helped me a lot. My mother tongue has no cases, but my general grammar understanding helped me meet Polish with no big surprises besides the highly degree of irregularity. I also believe hearing is fundamental in getting cases right: once you understand the music, you start getting it right. – QuantumBrick Dec 1 '16 at 22:37
  • Upvote for the last paragraph (also Polish native speaker). – Spook Jun 2 at 10:33

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.