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Polish Language Police Watch Those Commercials

June 21, 1993

WARSAW, Poland (AP) _ Now that Polish television carries commercials, it also has language police to make sure advertisers follow the rules of grammar and syntax.

No ″killing insects dead″ or improper jumbles of capital and lower-case letters, for example, to mention only two ads that were killed dead.

One of Warsaw’s new ad men argues, as would many of his foreign colleagues, that intentional errors are the magic ingredient in many commercials.

Anna Strzakowska and Maria Dolacka are the arbiters of television usage. If they think a commercial assaults the dignity of the Polish language, they reject it.

Four years ago, Communist Poland had no ads or advertisers. Now, the airwaves of free-market Poland ring with jingles. Advertising agencies stick posters on every lamp post and bus stop.

In the West, there usually is a decent interval between the arrival of a new fiddler with the national consciousness, such as television advertising, and the societal hand-wringing it creates. Here, after four decades under the Communist lid, change comes at full tilt.

Polish, a language of complexity and nuance, has been nurtured as a symbol of national identity through the centuries, at times spoken only clandestinely. Russian and German replaced it as the legal languages when Poland was partitioned off the map from 1795 to 1918, and German returned during the World War II occupation.

It is not altogether surprising, then, that Walery Pisarek, chairman of the Linguistic Culture Commission of the Polish Academy of Science, protested to the television authorities in April 1992 that poor grammar in ads violated the press law on communicating in proper Polish.

″Even if we ignore the embarrassing awkwardness of literal translations of foreign advertisements, it is difficult not to resent Polish TV for promoting serious grammatical mistakes in the collective consciousness,″ he wrote.

Ms. Strzakowska and Ms. Dolacka, who had been linguistic advisers to television journalists, were given the task of verifying the correctness of commercials.

″One must not allow linguistic mistakes in advertisements because they are aired so often, they are so appealing and so pervasive,″ said Ms. Strzakowska, a graduate of Warsaw University’s Polish language department who views her work as ″a moral obligation.″

She took issue with an auto maker’s description of its car as intelligent, with a strong personality. That, she said, amounts to ″endowing an inanimate object with human qualities.″

Ms. Strzakowska waged ″a whole battle″ over whether an ice cream treat offered ″refreshment″ or, as she preferred, was ″refreshing.″

She challenges Western agencies that ″think they do it the best″ and transfer ads directly from one language to another, fracturing idioms in the process.

Jarek Andruszkiewicz, who works for one of Warsaw’s new agencies, feels the linguistic caretakers do not understand the ad business.

″Advertising is not in the sphere of activity where linquistic purity must be preserved,″ he said. ″Very often, it is the grammatical error that serves as the main trick in an advertisement.″

And besides, he added, ″No one expects the poet to follow rules of grammatical correctness.″

Andruszkiewicz recalls numerous ″difficult encounters″ with Strzakowska- Dolacka, including one over a company’s claim that it ″makes good fish.″

″The ladies refused to accept this because fish are already there, they are not made,″ he said. ″Now that is an exaggeration.″

Not to Ms. Strzakowska.

″They always are saying people on the street talk differently from the dictionaries,″ she said. ″But this is public television and it should provide the best lessons, show the correct route.″

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