Spelling of names and surnames in Polish is one of the most challenging problems in our language. This is the reason I decided to make a little overview illustrating this problematic issue. My students are always surprised and shocked when they realize that sometimes their name has five forms. For example:
Nominative – To jest John. (This is John.)
Genitive – Nie ma Johna. (John is not here.)
Dative – Dziękuję Johnowi za pomoc. (I thank you John for help.)
Accusative – Lubię Johna. (I like John.)
Instrumental – Idę z Johnem do pubu. (I go with John to the pub.)
Locative – Mówię o Johnie. (I talk about John.)
Vocative – O! John! (O! John! – being positively surprised when we see John on the street).
For some of the students it is hard to accept so many forms of their names because they do not recognize themselves when somebody is saying: “ Szukam Victora”. (I am looking for Victor) or “ Idę z Jasonem do kina” (I go with Jason to the cinema). They may feel as though somebody is attacking their personality or editing their name to something more intimate. Some of my students also ask me for support in the idea of not declining their names but unfortunately I cannot say “yes”, because we have to follow the grammar rules. Some foreigners feel happy because five forms of their name is like five different points of view for themselves, for the intricate human nature. I do not know another grammar problem which causes so many philosophic, deep and smart discussions after the part of lesson informing how to inflect names and surnames in Polish!
The grammar rules are strict. Feminine names that ends in ‘ a’ are declined like nouns, for example names Amelia, Herta, Olga, Victoria.
Nominative – To jest Amelia. (This is Amelia.)
Genitive – Nie ma Amelii. (Amelia is not here.)
Dative – Dziękuję Amelii za pomoc. (I thank you Amelia for help.)
Accusative – Lubię Amelię. (I like Amelia.)
Instrumental – Idę z Amelią do pubu. (I go with Amelia to the pub.)
Locative – Mówię o Amelii. (I talk about Amelia.)
Vocative – O! Amelia! (O! Amelia!)
We do not inflect those feminine names without ending –a, like Mariko, Marie, Judith, Lourdes, Yolande.
Masculine names with endings –i, -y, like Luigi, Harry are declined like adjectives, which makes very surprising sound for students who listen to it for the first time. For example:
Nominative – To jest Luigi. (This is Luigi.)
Genitive – Nie ma Luigiego. (Luigi is not here.)
Dative – Dziękuję Luigiemu za pomoc. (I thank you Luigi for help.)
Accusative – Lubię Luigiego. (I like Luigi.)
Instrumental – Idę z Luigim do pubu. (I go with Luigi to the pub.)
Locative – Mówię o Luigim. (I talk about Luigi.)
Vocative – O! Luigi!
Masculine names that ends with –a (Barnaba, Jarema), with –o (Guillermo, Geronimo, Valerio), with a consonant at the end (Michał, John, Jacques, Francis) are inflected like nouns. And the good news for those who would prefer not to have their names declined is that names with ending –u, -e in their spelling (Matthew, Andrew, Manuele) are not declined at all! We only decline masculine names with an accent on the last syllable, like André, René, Louis. But we do not inflect name “François”.
There is a similar situation is with surnames. We generally decline them whenever it is possible to find the grammar pattern. We definitely do not inflect the surnames with a different accent or form whien it is not possible to assign them to the Polish declination pattern like “Dubois”, “ Pompidou”, “Delacroix”.
Feminine surnames with endings –ska, cka (Malinowska, Mecnarowska), -owa, -ova, -ewa (wifes names – Walczakowa, Vyrková, Jakowlewa) are declined like adjectives. Feminine surnames with ending with –a (Duda, Falenda), with endings –ówna, -anka (Walczakówna, Jagodzianka - like daughters surnames long time ago), with endings –ina, -yna (Zarębina, Żabczyna - like wifes surnames some time ago) are declined like nouns. We do not transform feminine surnames with consonants at the end or different vocals than “a” (Amado, Jakowlenko, Kampe, Voyznuk).
Masculine surnames with endings -ski, -cki, -dzki (Polański, Rudzki, Bałucki), surnames which look like common adjectives ( Biały, Czarny, Łaskawy), the surnames with endings –i, -y (Paolini, Rakoczy), with endings –e (D’Agnese, Lange), spelled with –e, but written with – é, -ée, -ai, ais (Rabelais, Merimée) are declined in the same manner as adjectives.
Masculine surnames with consonants at the end ( Hampton, Steel, Walczak, Lis), are declined in the same way as masculine nouns, those with –a at the end (those follow the feminine pattern – Wajda, Kališta, Mata), with endings –o (Matejko, Komarenko - slavonic surnames follow feminine pattern, not slavonic, like “Picasso” follow masculine pattern).
This is merely an overview illustrating this panoramic grammar problem. Declination of foreign surnames give us more doubts and even Poles are never sure how to inflect it. People have always had the same dilemma about whether to decline the surname with an apostrophe or without (z Joyce’em, o Joysie). Further dilemmas include when we should take the original version of a surname like Shakespeare, Washington, Rousseau, Chopin and when the Polish version is also correct (Szekspir, Waszyngton, Russo, Szopen). The most shocking case for my students is always the fact that members of the British Royal Family in the Polish language is “Królowa Elżbieta” (Queen Elizabeth) and “Książę Karol” (Prince Charles)! We have the tendency to make the Polish version of names and surnames.
My Dear Students! Do not despair! Maybe dividing your names in four, five versions will be the fantastic opportunity to discover another hidden aspects of your personality!
This article was published in The Wrocław International - Wrocław’s first English-language newspaper, October 2011, Issue 13, ISSN 2082-730X.