The commatoform disorder

Punctuation, the comma, the dash, and other such characters, are to make the written matter clear. There is some logic to it, yet language is not a system, and there are no rules that would universally, objectively, and always apply. We need own common sense, or our body of text may become to exhibit a “commatoform” ailment, where “somatoform” is a regular word of everyday language to mean something of a bodily character, ■soma and ■form together.

Common sense usually works fine, yet Polish language has been granted a canon for punctuation by a state regulator, the ■Polish Language Council. Therefore, decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that a translator of Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography declares the causes, and lets facts be submitted to a candid world, on her Polish orthography.

In styles less elevated than that of the Declaration of Independence, where stating the causes deserves every bit of punctuation, the Polish comma in everyday language becomes to exhibit a distortion that specialist and general public alike name and tag „przecinkoza”, a would-be “commatosis” in English. The matter is not the translator’s whim.

■This text is also available in Polish.

In other words, the new Polish canon does, more or less, work with US civics, or texts as Thomas Paine’s Common Sense. The two types of written matter have this thing of style in common: they drive a point. One is legislation, the other is a political pamphlet.

However, “one does not dress for private company as for a publick ball”; Benjamin Franklin begins his memoir with an address to his son, and translation cannot style the language as for a constitutional article, or a treatise for political rationale.

The new Polish canon imposes a list of words generally to use with the comma. The line is as with the Polish “government over souls”: you do not need to attach sense to the regulation, you memorize the words to put the comma before them. In practice, discernment between defining and non-defining clauses is lost, and the Polish comma becomes lexemic, that is, dependent on word shape, which I show below.

I say the comma becomes lexemic, as things were not always such with the Polish language, and it can be doubted if things are to remain so: there are no natural languages with lexemic punctuation; Polish would be the only such in the world, but then, how natural?

■PWN, Words to have the comma before them

Between “such matter” and “this matter” — all languages do tell. Let us compare the new Polish canon for the US Constitution:
Sporządzą oni listę wszystkich osób, na które głosowano
To translate back,
They shall make a list of all the persons, who were voted for

The original yet is,
They shall make a list of all the persons voted for
Sporządzą oni listę wszystkich osób na które głosowano
However, all Polish spellcheckers are going to mark the word który (która, które) without the comma as a punctuation error.

According to the new canon,
all the persons voted for
as well as
all the persons, who were voted for
would translate the same, into
wszystkie osoby, na które głosowano, with the comma.
The defining and non-defining logical capacity in the language is lost.

The Polish would look deficient right at the beginning of Benjamin Franklin’s memoir:
“That felicity, when I reflected on it, has induced me sometimes to say, that were it offered to my choice, I should have no objection to a repetition of the same life from its beginning, only asking the advantages authors have in a second edition to correct some faults of the first.”

To translate, jak przy drugiej edycji książki, która daje poprawić, the backtranslation would render as the second edition; hence,
“Poczucie osobistego szczęścia, jak je brałem na rozum, sprawiło czasem że powiedziałem, jak by mi dano wybór, nie wahałbym się i miał takiego samego życia powtórkę, od początku, prosząc jedynie o tą autorską korzyść jak przy drugiej edycji książki co daje poprawić pewne wady pierwszej.

The items “który” and “co” are semantically and syntactically equivalent in contexts as here. The new canon for Polish yet would always require the comma before the word shape “który”, plain lexemic.

It would not be improvement, always to require punctuation before the item “co”. Let us compare English. Items “that” and “which” belong with words to mark semantic scopes. Here, the item “which” refers to the entire clause before the comma.
“My belief of this induces me to hope, though I must not presume, that the same goodness will still be exercised toward me, in continuing that happiness, or enabling me to bear a fatal reverse, which I may experience as others have done…”

Let us now look at Polish. With a comma (inflected into “czego”, without change in word sense), the Polish item “co” embraces the entire preceding clause, the same as the item “który” allows:
“Wiara ta skłania mnie do nadziei, choć mi z góry zakładać nie wolno, iż to samo dobro dalej będzie moim udziałem, bądź szczęście nadal przynosząc, bądź dając siłę przy jakiejś fatalnej zmianie, czego może przyjść mi zaznawać, jak już innym ludziom bywało…”

In both languages, it is important to view the reference semantically, and not only as some “syntactic surface”. We may compare questions as, Do you mind if I come in? The person answers, Sure, and the meaning is not to hold the guest at the door; he or she sure may enter.

Considering how close the sense for the word experience is to that for the word to suffer, in the passage from Benjamin Franklin’s memoir above, the semantic scope is sure worth marking.

Semantic scopes occur in any natural language. Within a semantic scope, the comma can be for highlight or emphasis, as in the letter from Abel James:
MY DEAR AND HONORED FRIEND: I have often been desirous of writing to thee, but could not be reconciled to the thought, that

The new Polish cannon forces lexemic compensation. For emphasis as above, we need to add a word:
“MÓJ DROGI I SZANOWNY PRZYJACIELU, często przychodziła mi przemożna chęć do Ciebie napisać, ale nie potrafiłem się pogodzić nawet z myślą, iż

Polish items “że” or “żeby” are in the PWN list too. In English, the corresponding structure often would have the item that or to, rendering as,
That felicity, when I reflected on it, has induced me sometimes, to say, that

That felicity, when I reflected on it, has induced me sometimes to say, that were it offered to my choice, I should have no objection to a repetition of the same life from its beginning…

Poczucie osobistego szczęścia, jak je brałem na rozum, sprawiło czasem że powiedziałem, jak by mi dano wybór, nie wahałbym się i miał takiego samego życia powtórkę, od początku…

Spellcheckers will show the translation as missing a comma. They will want, Poczucie osobistego szczęścia, jak je brałem na rozum, sprawiło czasem, że powiedziałem, — the named and tagged “commatosis”, that is.

Benjamin Franklin’s comma after the verb phrase to say continues to emphasize that the thing is in just saying so, because nobody gets to live twice. With a canon like the one for Polish, all phrases as to say that would require a comma, to say, that. All we say would be just saying so, or all would be some kind of an oath: the highlight role of the comma within a semantic scope is lost, because there is always to be a comma.

Well, natural languages are also spoken, and neither fable nor legal stenotype could do for all the style. Commas obviously are not to regulate the breath, and their sounding is mostly in sentence stress and intonation. Spoken Polish has markers clear enough, for words as “że” or “żeby”, and sentence structure. Phrases as powiedziałem (powiedziałam) że | I said that — are just the same as in English; they do not have the spoken mark for the comma, unless we want to emphasize or highlight speaking itself. The matter is the same with words for thought and feeling.

Both English and Polish will be “more of a verb in nature” when spoken, and both may prefer noun phrases for formal written styles. A person might write,
Establishment of corporate supervisory capability has been proposed
The same person might say,
They propose to establish a corporate supervisor
The new Polish written canon would have commas to separate all verbs. To take the words to note, we would be to write:
They propose, to establish a corporate supervisor

Joke emoticon

Well, language logic will be the same for defining and non-defining abilities of human syntax. With other regards, punctuation may differ. The Spanish have their exclamation mark “upside down”, or it is the rest of the world to have gone “topsy-turvy”? Embedded discourse may vary in notation too, as in my translation below. A few places, the spellchecker would require more commas, but I do not see any reason to insert them.

Thus refreshed, I walked again up the street, which by this time had many clean-dressed people in it, who were all walking the same way. I joined them, and thereby was led into the great meeting house of the Quakers near the market. I sat down among them, and, after looking round awhile and hearing nothing said, being very drowsy thro labor and want of rest the preceding night, I fell fast asleep, and continued so till the meeting broke up, when one was kind enough to rouse me. This was, therefore, the first house I was in, or slept in, in Philadelphia.

Walking down again toward the river, and, looking in the faces of people, I met a young Quaker man, whose countenance I lik’d, and, accosting him, requested he would tell me where a stranger could get lodging. We were then near the sign of the Three Mariners. “Here,” says he, “is one place that entertains strangers, but it is not a reputable house; if thee wilt walk with me, I’ll show thee a better. He brought me to the Crooked Billet in Water-street. Here I got a dinner; and, while I was eating it, several sly questions were asked me, as it seemed to be suspected from my youth and appearance, that I might be some runaway.

Posilony, poszedłem znów w górę ulicy, a na tej zdążyło się pojawić wielu schludnie ubranych ludzi, wszyscy idąc w jedną stronę; dołączyłem do nich i tak oto przywiedziono mnie do wielkiego domu spotkań kwakrów, przy rynku. Usiadłem pomiędzy nimi, porozglądałem się przez chwilę, a że nikt nic nie mówił i byłem bardzo śpiący po wysiłku poprzedniej nocy, mocno zasnąłem i spałem tak aż do końca spotkania, kiedy to ktoś był na tyle uprzejmy, żeby mnie obudzić. Takoż był to pierwszy dom gdzie byłem czy spałem, w Filadelfii.

Idąc znów w stronę rzeki i przyglądając się ludzkim twarzom, napotkałem na młodego kwakra i jego wygląd mi się spodobał, stąd zagadałem do niego i zapytałem, gdzie przyjezdny mógłby znaleźć kwaterę. Byliśmy wtedy blisko szyldu Trzech Marynarzy. „Tutaj”, powiedział, „przyjmują obcych, ale miejsce to nie ma dobrej reputacji; o ile się pan zgodzi ze mną trochę przejść, pokażę panu lepsze”. Zaprowadził mnie do Garbatej Gospody na ulicy Wodnej. Dostałem tam obiad. Kiedy jadłem, zadano mi parę podchwytliwych pytań, podejrzewając najwyraźniej po moim młodym wieku i wyglądzie, że mogłem być zbiegiem.

Keimer made verses too, but very indifferently. He could not be said to write them, for his manner was to compose them in the types directly out of his head; so there being no copy, but one pair of cases, and the Elegy likely to require all the letter, no one could help him.

Keimer też układał wiersze, ale niedbale. Nie dało się powiedzieć że je pisał, bo jego sposobem było układać czcionki od razu, z głowy; ponieważ nie było kopii, a tylko jedna para dużych i małych liter, i dało się spodziewać, że Elegia będzie wymagać ich wszystkich, nie było jak mu pomóc.

Defining and non-defining capacities in language are required at the level of primary schools, to compare Poland and English-speaking countries. The requirement is a good thing. Feel welcome to my translation of Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography, page for page from the original manuscript as available from Huntington in separate sheets, and from ■→my Internet Archive account as a PDF book. I believe clarity and style of Polish as a natural language do not suffer, and there is no need to insert any more commas; see for yourselves, ladies and gentlemen.

PDF sample pages 1-70


I translate the singular gentleman as dżentelman, and gentlemen as dżentelmani, regular Polish plural, though the new canon would have dżentelmen for the singular, and dżentelmeni for the plural. Assimilation into dżentelmen might carry odd impressions of plurality.

The new canon advises the Polish item rather than (feminine for the English item this), which I consider a matter of vogue (linguistically nothing to do much, for things that last). Phonological proximity, a lasting matter, naturally and successfully can resolve as tę rękę, tą książkę, and this is the pattern I follow.

Junto is translated as Ramię w Ramię (shoulder to shoulder), as junto is a word of English, but it is not a word of Polish, where there only are the junta or hunta, words for a military regime.

The translation has one occurrence of the variant form podeszłem: a most frequent “error” in prescriptivist opinion, it shows in language use as for a group, team, or couple (we: podeszliśmy, you, plural: podeszliście; I, feminine: podeszłam; I, masculine: podszedłem, or the convergent podeszłem); Polish also allows the verb podejść for progression or approach in contexts psychological or generally open, new.

The masculine variant esz has been rejected as deriving from historically a feminine stem. The Polish masculine plural (podeszli) yet has the stem, as there are no “feminine verbs” in Polish; there happens gender-marked flexion.

It is actually only the masculine third-person singular, podszedł or poszedł, always to have sze in the stem; to explain the PWN attempted rule, there is always the ■→theory of the third man, as there is no natural language principle for the grammatical third person to govern the first.

Joke emoticon

Modern Polish has variants, as for the ability to see, patrzeć or patrzyć, where both shapes are considered correct, regardless of grammatical gender.