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Poles Try to Protect Their Native Tongue

Under new law, foreign words used in public business dealings must be translated into Polish.


WARSAW — During the drafting stages of a law requiring the use of Polish in business activities in Poland, debate sometimes hit the level of low comedy.

Polish lovers of whiskey, for example, have long had an affectionate nickname for Johnnie Walker: Jasio Wedrowniczek, or "Wandering Johnnie." Critics of an early version of the law, which would have required translation even of proper names, questioned whether Poland really wanted to force liquor sellers to market the popular whiskey under the humorously translated name.

"Will the after-shave Old Spice now be translated into Stara Przyprawa [Old Spice] or Stary Smrod [Old Smell]?" Jerzy Osiatynski, a member of parliament's lower house, asked during debate.

Sometimes the arguments "really were cabaret-like," said Jadwiga Puzynina, a Warsaw University professor who sits on the Polish Language Council, the country's supreme body for deciding just what is or is not a Polish word.

The final version of the law, which took effect this month, has widespread support in Poland but worries some foreign businesspeople. Although it leaves proper names alone and doesn't ban the use of English or other foreign languages, it requires that whenever foreign words are used in public business activities or legal documents, translation into Polish must be provided.

Fines for violations range from $4.50 to $1,100. In severe cases of refusal to comply with the law, or distribution of dangerous products without Polish instructions, a court can impose penalties of more than $20,000.

"This is really protecting people who don't know the foreign language," Puzynina said.

The obligation to use Polish covers the names of products and services, advertising, contracts, commercial offers, instructions on how to use products, information about goods and services, warranty conditions, invoices and receipts.

A survey by the polling organization Pentor, conducted before approval of the final version of the law, showed 83% support for the concept of protecting the Polish language through special legislation.

But older respondents took a much harder line than younger ones. Among respondents more than 50 years old, 53% supported banning and fining the public use of foreign words, while 37% opposed the idea. Among those younger than 30, 26% said public use of foreign words should be legally banned and usage fined, while 71% opposed the idea. Support for penalties also declined with educational level.

"There's a certain snobbery in Poland, and it's fashionable to use English," Puzynina said. "In a published advertisement you'll see [in English] 'Music and Film Festival.' Why isn't it in Polish? Many Poles simply don't understand. Many people rebel against this invasion of English. They protest. They say in a way it's demeaning for the Polish nation."

"I think Poles are quite patriotic, and in some sense this law strengthens in them the feeling of the importance of their language," said Iwona Zaczek, spokeswoman at the Consumer and Competition Protection Office, one of the agencies that will enforce the new law.

Many words of foreign origin have already been adopted into Polish, and that process continues, with the Polish Language Council issuing regular communiques on newly accepted words and their correct Polish spelling.

For example, dyskdzokej (disc jockey), fanklub (fan club), dzojstik (joystick), lancz (lunch), pank (punk) and diler (dealer, as in auto dealer) are all words that the council has recently welcomed into the family.

The most serious controversy raised by the new law concerns its impact on foreign firms' Polish subsidiaries. Contracts for goods imported to Poland must have Polish versions, even if, for example, the shipment is from a French food firm to a French supermarket chain operating here.

European diplomats have complained that on some of these issues, the law appears to violate rules of the European Union, which Poland hopes to join in a few years.

Zaczek said that if in practice the law is found to conflict with European Union rules, it might be revised. "This law was not created to multiply costs or hurt competition," she said. "I think that with time, things will be clarified."

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