REVIEW: Quarks, Elephants & Pierogi is a Delicious Exploration of the Polish Language

Left: the page introducing the Polish Alfabet. Right: part of the foldout depicting a twisting tongue dotted with letters of the Polish alfabet.

I love the sound of Polish. I have one Polish parent, which means I grew up listening to it, and can hear sounds that others struggle to distinguish. However, that’s the limit of my understanding – I know a few basic phrases, but have no understanding of its complex grammar. I live in a city full of Polish speakers, but most are from a different region of Poland than my father, and use a different dialect, which has led to some shame and confusion when I’ve tried to connect with them. All of these experiences have left me in a position where, despite wanting to learn Polish, I’ve not always felt welcome to it.

These mixed feelings about the language are part of why I felt so drawn to Quarks, Elephants and Pierogi: Poland in 100 Words. A coffee table book that began as an online project spearheaded by members of the Adam Mickiewicz Institute, this collection of 100 Polish words and beautiful illustrations is a gateway to the Polish language, culture and history.

Quarks, Elephants & Pierogi: Poland in 100 Words

Mikołaj Gliński (Writer), Matthew Davies (Writer), Adam Żuławski (Writer), Magdalena Burdzyńska (Illustrator), Sylwia Jabłońska (Concept & Production)
Adam Mickiewicz Institute
December 2018

This book is beautifully designed. The cover is a soft pink, and the end papers and interior illustrations all use a palette made mostly of pink, red, and a very soft, light blue. Magdalena Burdzyńska also uses a repeating motif of tongues to emphasize the taste or sensory experience of words. A two-page spread covered in pink open mouths with long, stuck-out tongues bookends the introduction. That spread is followed by a three-page fold-out on which a long, twisting, knotted tongue is dotted with Polish letters, including the fricatives that give the language its unique sound. As a whole, this book is reminiscent of both something delicious – like soft sherbet or sweet pierogi – and the soft inside of a mouth. This distinct look makes it quite successful as a coffee table book. If I saw this book out in the wild, at a friend’s house or in a coffee shop, I would definitely want to pick it up!

The soft pink cover of Quarks, Elephants and Pierogi, which has the title in gold text and a pink pierogi surrounded by a green and red pattern.

Like many coffee table books, it doesn’t need to be read in a specific order, cover to cover. In the introduction Adam Żuławski, one of the books three authors, explains that the goal of Quarks, Elephants & Pierogi is “to explore Poland through Polish.” He suggests that readers “jump from entry to entry,” but also points out the small notations on the bottom right hand corner of each page. These “see also”s suggest other words that are connected to a particular entry, allowing a reader to jump around and draw connections between words. And, of course, you can always flip through and land on illustrations that catch your eye.

Burdzyńska’s interior illustrations are quite eclectic – her line work is very smooth and she doesn’t use black outlines, which give the drawings a sharp, modern feel. Her images are sometimes simple and clean, and sometimes layered or geometrically complex, depending on the nature of the word they describe. “Matka,” for example, is accompanied by a sparely designed illustration that uses only blue, pink, and black, depicting a young girl hiding behind her mother’s skirt. The way the girl’s hands clutch at the skirt immediately evokes the feeling of being a child in the larger-than-life presence of a protective mother, or matka. In contrast, “Las,” or forest, uses that same soft pink but also a deep, vibrant red, a slightly darker blue, and white to make a tree with many branches, vines and lush fruit feel kinetic and alive.

The foldout illustration by Burdzyńska - a red, twisting tongue dotted with letters from the Polish alfabet, surrounded by teal clouds.

The entries themselves are never more than a page, and some are just a few paragraphs. They include bolded words, suffixes and prefixes, like a vocabulary textbook. Each entry is a surprise. They might focus on pronunciation and linguistics, as the entry for “chrząszcz” does (“chrząszcz” means “beetle” and is part of a tongue twister I learned in my youth – W Szczebrzeszynie chrząszcz brzmi w trzcinie) or might include a fairly detailed history lesson, like the entry for “król,” or “king.”

If you follow the book in linear order, the 100 words progress along the Polish alfabet, starting with “apsik” and ending with “żubr.” However, if you do wander and check out some of the “see also”s you could travel from a history lesson about kings to the founding of republics (rzeczpospolita) to independence (niepodległość) to honorifics (pan). It’s a dizzying linguistic meander – language is culture and history and adoptions from other languages, with variations for dialects and regional differences, and more and more and more. Language has vibrance and life, and the vivacity of the Polish language shines through in this book.

If you want to take a casual but dizzying dive into Polish language, history and culture, this is a perfect book for you. If you like beautiful artifacts to put on your coffee table, this is also a solid choice – and you can have fun sounding out the pronunciation of words like chrząszcz. If, like me, you have complicated feelings about a complex language that sometimes feel out of reach, this book will make you feel welcome.

Alenka Figa

Alenka Figa

Alenka is a queer librarian and intense cat parent. They spends their days reading zines and indie comics, and twittering about D&D podcasts @alenkafiga.

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