Tuesday, 27 September 2016

A guide to naming streets - in Poland and the UK

Street names in Poland appear exotic to Brits, who are used to a rather dull conventions, such as naming streets after towns. I have lived on Cleveland Road and Ribchester Avenue. For 16 years I worked on New Oxford Street. All these streets named after towns. But note - one's a Road, one's an Avenue and one's a Street. But in the UK you can also live on a Gardens, a Fields, a Meadows, a Common, a Grove, a Square, a Place, a Crescent, a Drive, a Way, a Vale, a Terrace, a Close, a Mews, a Lane, a Court, a Row, a Gate, a Rise, a Hill, a Walk, a Park, a Circus, a Boulevard and a Chase (thanks Denzil) and a Croft. [Indeed, I spent my childhood on Croft Gardens.] Or no suffix at all - prefixed with 'The' followed by a plural noun - The Ridings, The Little Boltons. Or 'The' plus any one of the above-mentioned toponyms - The Avenue, The Mews, The Grove etc. I doubt if this list is exhaustive; no doubt there'll be some Scottish ones too.

In Poland, there's an ulica, an aleja (Aleje - plural) - an aleja has to be broad, straight, multi-laned and reprezentacyjna, a plac- which is a Square or a Place - and that's pretty much your lot. The latter two are relatively rare; 95% of  streets in Poland are ulice and that's that.

But then in Poland you get naming conventions that are alien to Britain. Alien, for instance, is the practice of naming streets after dates of historical significance. To a Brit, this smacks of banana republics where streets are named after the date of The Revolution. Poland has fewer of these than it used to in communist days (gone are all the Aleje 22 lipca), but there's still many Ulice 3 maja - 1 maja even. As well as oddball ones - ul. 29 listopada (29th of November Street). And Warsaw still has an ul. 17 stycznia ( 17 January Street - the date the city was 'liberated' by the Red Army).

Far more Polish streets are named after famous people than in Britain. It tends to grate on the British sensibility to come across a 'Councillor Reg Sprott Avenue' (it smacks of lefty-ism rather than a commemoration of a life of service). Poles are happier to accept streets named after people, including - I would argue - far more foreigners than the insular British would deign to name their streets after. Warsaw has four streets named after Indians, for example - two Gandhis, Nehru and Tagore.  Categories of people that British streets are named after tend to be great poets, writers, artists, long-dead generals and admirals, generic royalty (King Street, Queen Street, Princes Street).

Genitives and Adjectival forms

Another thing about Polish street names is that they take the genitive (possessive) form of the noun, or they are in the form of an adjective. So it's ul. Dembińskiego (literally, Dembinski's Street, or the street of Dembinski), not ul. Dembiński. Adjectival forms - ul. Słoneczna, sunny street, are the other form. As a result (genitive noun or adjective), very nearly all Polish street names end in the letters a, i, o, y. Rarer plural forms will end in -ych or -ów. Exceptions prove the rule - ul. Wylot, ul. Przeskok, ul. Widok, ul. Giewont, ul. Solec, ul. Foksal - these are older names, in their non-genitive, non-adjectival form, they are rare.

A Street Name From Old Desire
This makes Polish street names sound less distinguishable from one another than the foreign visitor would like. Once I turned up for a meeting on ul. Prosta when in fact it was on ul. Pańska; another time I went to ul. Chłodna instead of ul. Chmielna. Warsaw is home to ul. Dolna, ul. Polna, ul. Rolna and ul. Wolna, as well as ul. Smolna. [See this post] And, as in the photo above, Warsaw has too many streets named after Russian generals, including of course Targov, Dvortsov, and Tovarov.

Victorian Britain, when most of the nation's urbanisation occurred, liked to name its streets after Victoria and Albert, but also after 19th Century battles. So Waterloo, Trafalgar, Balaclava and Sevastopol. The Empire provided names for many British streets - Adelaide, Melbourne, Bloemfontein, Jamaica, Singapore.

There is a new practice in Poland of going full-on Polnische Romantizmus - ul. Spełnionych Marzeń (yes! - literally a 'Dreams Come True Street'); ul. Malinowy Gaj (Raspberry Grove), Pachnącej Wiśni (Smelling Cherry), Kwitnących Kwiatów (Flowering Flowers) etc etc. Check out Baszkówka, an exurb south of Warsaw. Another one of my favourites is ul. Posag 7 Pań ('Dowry of Seven Maidens Street'). At last, the developers and estate agents have got their hands on the instruments of street-naming. Gone are those streets whose names put off prospective buyers; ul. Bagno (lit. Bog Street), ul. Asfaltowa - the newer the street, the more poetic and less prosaic the name.

Common in both countries are streets named after trees - Dębowa, Bukowa, Topolowa (pronounced 'Topple Over'); Yew Tree Lane, Old Oak Common, Elm Street, The Firs. And just like Acacia Avenue is the stereotypical English suburban street name, so are Akacjowa, Bukszpanowa, or Polnych Kwiatów.

Roads that point to somewhere - or not

Here's a subtle one; the use of the definite article 'the' in front of the road name, as in 'the Uxbridge Road'. No Londoner would say "My office is on Uxbridge Road." They'd say "My office is on the Uxbridge Road". But then writing the address on an envelope, you'd write, for example, 255 Uxbridge Road, Hanwell, not 255 The Uxbridge Road, Hanwell. If a 'Road' is prefixed by a definite article, something only locals would know, it suggests that the road goes there. The Great West Road, the Old Kent Road, for example, go west and to Kent respectively.

We have this in Poland too; ul. Puławska heads south out of Warsaw, and go far enough in its general direction and you'll get to Puławy. Likewise ul. Raszyńska heads out towards Raszyn, and ul. Radzymińska towards Radzymin. But you need some local knowledge to know which streets behave this way - ul. Rzymska does not lead (or even point) towards Rome, nor Brzeska towards Brześć nad Bugiem.

Out Jeziorki way we have Musical Names given to streets that were developed after the war, named after dances, songs or instrument(alist)s (Puzonistów, Drumli, Baletowa); on the other side of ul. Puławska are Bird Names (Pelikanów, Tukanów, Kuropatwy).

My final note is about translating the word 'ulica' into English when used in an address. DON'T. Leave the address in Polish as it is. To translate ul. Chopina 39 as 39 Chopina Street is just WRONG. I know lots of people do it; they are all WRONG. You don't translate Rue St Michel as St Michel Road, nor do you translate Bahnhofstrasse as Bahnhof Street. So leave ul. Chopina just like that - or (and this is probably the cause of this mistake) - because ulica is always abbreviated in Polish to 'ul.', it can seem a little unfamiliar in English, so my advice if you're doing literary translation is to spell it out in full - ulica Chopina.

This time five years ago:
A glorious month

This time six years ago:
My grandfather

This time seven years ago:
My home-made fixie bike

This time eight years ago:
Well-shot pheasants


dr Marcin said...

Very useful, Mike. very useful. So, what about numbers of the King's Streets at almost every borough in an entire city? King's Street here, King's Street there... and all of that in just one city. So this is like if it were ul. (pardon, ulica) Królewska on Ursynów, on Bielany, on Wola, on Ochota and also on Wilanów.

Marcin said...

Interesting, indeed - but did you know what a fascinating story lies behind "Posag 7 Panien"?
Check that:

Anyway - it goes more complicated with "aleja". It does not have to be capitalised - we have al. Jerzego Waszyngtona (Washington Ave.), al. Krakowska (Cracow Ave.), but also Aleje Jerozolimskie - where Aleje is a part of the name (Jerusalem Avenue). Same with squares.

Can you live on anything else then ul. or al. or (rarely) pl.? Probably "rynek" and "Krakowskie Przedmieście" are such examples. Rarely you can find a "trakt" or "szosa". Sometimes there is "droga" in the street name. In Włochy one finds "Łuczek". But there is also a mysterious street called "Znicz" - although in Grochów you have another one named "Znicza".

Tomasz Andraszek said...

Posąg is statue. Posag is dowry.

Darren Clarke said...

So what about The King's Road or The Falls Road? Do they lead to kings and falls? I've often wondered why we put 'The' in front of some road names and your idea is a good one. A very interesting, fun post!

Michael Dembinski said...

@ Tomasz Andraszak

Many thanks - duly noted and corrected

@ Dr Marcin

Warsaw quite rationally has a one street name policy for the entire city - in London it's one per postal district. Kings Avenue W5, or Kings Avenue W3? And note difference between King's, Kings' and Kings :-)

@ Marcin

Many thanks for the link to the story of ul. Posag Siedem Panien. (Have I got that right? Is it Posag Siedmiu Panien? Posag Siedmiorgo Panien) Fascinating bit of Warsaw industrial history!

Indeed, Trakt, Trasa, Gościniec, Droga exist, though preceded (usually) with ul. - as in ul. Droga Hrabska in Falenty. Szosa as part of an urban town street name I've not come across...

@ Darren Clarke

Absolutely spot-on with the King's Road. "The Chelsea Cruise takes place on the King's Road" - right, "The Chelsea Cruise takes place on King's Road" - get outta town! A tougher one would be the Balls Pond Road or just Balls Pond Road?

Alexander said...

Very, very interesting !
Both, about the UK, and Poland.

I will read this article a couple of times more during the weekend.
Thank you !

Best regards,

Anonymous said...

Next question.

Is your house or office "in" a street/road or "on" a street/road?

Michael Dembinski said...

@ Anonymous:

"My house is in Ealing, on Cleveland Road."

Or "... it's on Pitshanger Lane," "it's on The Ridings", "it's on the Uxbridge Road", "it's on North Avenue", "it's on King Street"

"On" - every time.

Anonymous said...


It's Posag Siedmiu Panien.

masculine NOM siedmiu panów GEN siedmiu panów
feminine NOM siedem panien GEN siedmiu panien
neuter NOM siedmioro dzieci GEN siedmiorga dzieci; this form also covers mixed gender groups (czworo studentów is a gathering of four with at least one individual of an opposite sex than the rest)

Anyway, my Warsaw's favourite is ul. Na Bateryjce. Charmingly absurd. :)

Michael Dembinski said...

@ Anonymous

Many thanks for the explanation - Posag (not Posąg) siedmiu (not siedem) panien it is.

ul. Na Bateryce - interesting, because not genitive, but locative! Very rare street name type - I can think of ul. Na Skraju in this category.


Anonymous said...

In Kabaty we have Na Przyzbie and Przy Bażantarni, as well as Pod Lipą, Pod Strzechą, Za Łąkami (instrumental).

Anonymous said...

Szosa or Trasa is not that common in the city proper, but it happens. Białystok has both ul. Warszawska and Szosa Warszawska - and the latter might be within the city limits, but it will be renamed sooner or later.

Michael Dembinski said...

@ Anonymous #1

Excellent! Yes - these are great examples of non-genitive case Polish street names. Indeed, Kabaty seems to be full of them on purpose - my point about developers influencing the naming of streets to sell houses better. These names are more poetic than a name ending in '-owa' or '-ów'.

@ Anonymous #2

'Szosa' (from the French chaussee) is indeed out of town - can you have a house address on a szosa? Village house numeration is usually 'Mała Wieś 77', where the number refers to the number of houses in the entire village, rather than on a particular street within that village. So, let's say the Szosa Radomska passes through Mała Wieś, and your house is on the Szosa Radomska - it will still be Mała Wieś 44, rather than ul. Szosa Radomska 689, Mała Wieś.

KrakowJosh said...

Close to where I live is skwer Imienia Bartolomeo Berrecciego, which amuses me somewhat as it's actually triangular...

Michael Dembinski said...

@ KrakowJosh:

Trajengl Im. Bartolomeo Berrecciego would be more appropriate then :-)