Forms of address in the Polish language
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Forms of Address in Polish (Pan/Pani)

Having lived in Poland for roughly six of the last 17 years, I’m well used to forms of address in Polish and the pervasiveness of power distance in the country.

If you’ve immersed yourself in Polish culture to some reasonable degree, you’ll have heard the ubiquitous use of “Pan” (Sir/Mr) and “Pani” (Madam/Mrs).

Hence, this post considers the extreme variety of forms deployed when addressing people in Polish. Moreover, I will assess the set of rules (power distance) which governs the usage of these forms. Finally, I will share some of my own opinions and experience connected with these polite forms of address. 

Before describing these forms of address, however, it seems appropriate to review the historical development of these titles.


The Historical Development of Polite Forms of Address in Polish

To discuss the historical background of polite forms of address in contemporary Polish, I’m aided by an excellent paper (n.d.) prepared by W.E. Tuszynska who had connections with the University of Calgary in Canada.

First of all, we need to respect that, historically, the gentry made up a high percentage of Poland’s population. Therefore, speech patterns belonging to the nobility were considered as language norms. It is conceivable that contemporary forms of address in Polish have their roots in gentry language. In particular, the forms Pan, Pani and Panśtwo (collective form) originally meant ‘landlord’, ‘landlady’ and ‘landowners’, respectively.

It’s worth mentioning that the aforementioned forms of address were often accompanied by titles such as podkomorzy (chamberlain) and hrabia (count).

The Polish Language of the 18th Century

The French language overwhelmingly influenced the Polish language of the 18th century. Hence, the usage of vous became fashionable among the gentry (szlachta). Consequently, the corresponding form wy (second person plural) was introduced into the Polish language. This form was primarily used by peasants. Nevertheless, the older forms (Pan, Pani etc.) swiftly supplanted the form wy

Every so often, both forms (Wy + Pan/Pani etc.) appeared together. However, their use was confined to “inter pares” relations. In other words, people equal in the social hierarchy or spouses used both forms. Therefore, when addressing a person of high status, it was more appropriate to use the title alone.

The form of address Pan

The contemporary form of address Pan dates back to the mid-18th century. It’s an abbreviated form of the Old Polish address: wasza miłość mój miłościwy panie (lit. your love, my gracious lord).

Moving from the 18th to the 19th Century

Other social strata began to use the second person singular pronoun ty among themselves. Ty was also in asymmetrical use by a landlord addressing his serf, parents addressing a child and so on. Towards the end of the 19th century, ty took on the status of a pronoun of familiarity within the upper class.

In a snobbish turn of events, peasants followed their landlords by introducing Pan/Pani to their speech in the 19th century.

Forms of address in the 20th-century and Post-War 

Until the outbreak of World War II, the forms Pan/Pani were officially accepted throughout the entire nation, including within the army and the police force. 

The Polish communist regime tried hard to repress the usage of Pan because it was viewed as a relic of a class society. Communist leaders desired to replace Pan with Wy. Despite the fact that wy had some tradition in rural Poland, it was perceived as a foreign (Communist) import. Therefore, it didn’t catch on. 

Overall, there is little doubt that, in the aftermath of World War II, Pan/Pani/Państwo have retained their popularity in use. Any two adults wishing to show respect or deference to each other use these forms. Moreover, on a number of formal occasions, the forms are mandatory.


A Summary of Polite forms of Address in Polish

Having dealt with the historical development of polite forms of address in Polish, let us now consider the grammatical elements of these forms.

Singular forms of address

The singular forms Pan (to one man) and Pani (to one lady) use the on/ona part of all verbs. In other words, Pan/Pani are used with verbs in the third person singular. This is a peculiar concept to many foreigners because they have to get used to addressing someone in Poland as “he” or “she”, despite the fact that the person is physically present.

Here are some example sentences with Pan and Pani. The third person forms of the verb are marked in bold:

  1. Czy Pani jest chora? – Are you ill? (to a lady)
  2. Czy może mi pan pomóc? – Can you help me? (to a man)
  3. Jak się pani nazywa? – What’s your name? (to a lady)
  4.  Czym się pan zajmuje? – What do you do for a living? (to a man)

Plural forms of address

The plural forms Panowie (to several men), Panie (to several ladies) and Państwo (to mixed gender company) use the oni/one plural pronoun form of all verbs. Both Oni and one literally mean “they” in English. Oni is the masculine version, used if there’s at least one male present. One refers to a group of females only:

  1. Panowie są głodni? – Are you hungry? (to a group of men)
  2. Panie są miłe – You are kind (to several ladies)
  3. Kiedy wrócili państwo do Polski? – When did you return to Poland? (mixed gender)

Overall, all of the above examples show that the English “you” corresponds to all forms of address in Polish, irrespective of whether they’re singular or plural forms.

These days in Poland, you’re more likely to hear the second person plural form jesteście after Panowie/Panie/Państwo instead of the third-person plural pronoun ().


When should you use Polite Forms of Address in Polish?

How you address someone in Poland tends to depend on how well you know someone, age difference and power distance (social status).

Total strangers

In a blog about when to use Pan and Pani, Leah Morawiec, an American living in Poland, made the point that she finds herself “having to say Pani a million times in one sentence”:

Jeżeli chciałaby Pani mieć lekcje z nim, proszę mi (Pani) napisać o której ma Pani czas

(If you would like to have a lesson with him, please write me what time suits you best)

Well, Leah has a point. The repetition of Pani “makes the sentence feel so bulky”. In the English translation of the sentence, it’s enough to use the pronoun you once. However, you have to repeat Pani at least twice in the Polish version.

Yes, life would be easier if you could just cut out all those Pani and Pan forms. However, you simply can’t do that in Poland when talking to clients on the phone or even someone in the street. 

On the topic of meetings in the street, it was interesting to read Kasia Scontsas’s thoughts about Poles arguing in the street in her post about Formal and informal speech in Polish. In a nutshell, people arguing in Polish in the street would still address each other as “Pan” or “Pani”, regardless of the accompanying insults and expletives. 

Imagine the scene: Pan jest idiotą” (“Sir, you are an idiot”). It’s part charming and part absurd. It seems to me that forgetting to address someone as Pan or Pani is more offensive than calling someone a moron. 

Overall, Pan/Pani signals a distance between any two adults. Therefore, it is reciprocated by strangers or people recently introduced to each other.

People who are older than you

Leah Morawiec warns her readers to “always use Pan and Pani with older people”. This includes your partner’s parents and elderly neighbours.

Ah, ignorance is bliss. Back in the old days, when I visited some of my elderly Polish relatives or ran into my friends’ parents in their homes, I jumped straight into using the second person singular form ty. I probably did this on the basis that those people weren’t total strangers. Nobody ever said anything to me about my laid-back approach so I’m not sure if those parents or relatives were offended or not. Obviously, I don’t recommend anyone to do what I did. 

It might occasionally happen that an elderly person asks a younger person to stop addressing them as “Pan” or “Pani”. Only then can the younger person use the ty form. Leah wrote about an elderly neighbour who she gets on very well with. To begin with, Leah addressed her neighbour as “Pani”. After some time, the elderly lady asked Leah to quit the “Pani” business. This was a hard habit for Leah to break. 

Anyway, it really depends on the setting. Leah and her neighbour talk more like friends so the power distance is hardly there. This probably gave the lady cause to tell Leah to stop saying “Pani”. 

Finally, it would be very ill-mannered for a younger person to ask an elderly person if they could stop addressing that elder as “Pan” or “Pani”.

People the same age as you

It’s a tough one when it comes to people who are of the same age as you. Again, I think the setting is key. If you’re at a jovial alcohol-fuelled party with people your age, you’re hardly going to address people as “Pan” or “Pani” are you?

In other less casual settings, such as in a shop or in a restaurant, you might be better off sticking with Pan/Pani, irrespective of whether the person is your age or younger.

Forms of address in Polish when you’re getting to know someone or know someone very well

The more informal second person singular pronoun form ty is generally restricted to addressing people you know or a child/young person (by an older person). 

Compare the following questions, both of which mean Do you have time for a coffee?:

Czy (ty) masz czas na kawę? 

Czy Pan ma czas na kawę?

As you may have noticed, the second person form of the verb mieć (masz), which may succeed ty, replaces the third person form (ma), which accompanies Pan and Pani. Mieć means to have.

Mutual ty among adults implies intimate relations. Hence, spouses, relatives and friends tend to use this form.

Still, there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to the usage of “ty” among adults who’ve known each other for many years. A friend of mine told me that, as the use of Pan and Pani is perceived as an elegant way to communicate with someone. People prefer to stick to these forms of address even with people they’ve known for their whole lives. That person could be a co-worker, neighbour, your spouse’s friend or indeed a good friend. The use of Pan/Pani signals respect.

Addressing a friend or well-known acquaintance as “Pan” or “Pani” is not just about elegance. Pan/Pani also represents a comfort zone. Some people prefer to stay within this comfort zone for their lives as these formal forms of address act as a kind of buffer against very intrusive questions.

Overall, Pan/Pani signals a distance between any two adults. Therefore, strangers or people recently introduced to each other use these polite forms of address.

Power Distance and Social Status 

In Leah’s post which I shared earlier in a link, the author has an issue with power distance “as it feels super weird and artificial for me to call the director of my son’s school Pani – especially considering we’re the same age.”

In this particular case, it’s a two-way street because the director also calls Leah “Pani”. Despite the fact that Leah recognises that she needs to show some respect towards the director, she’s averse to addressing her as “Pani” because they’re the same age. I think this story just goes to show that you have to respect tradition and people in positions of power regardless of their age and any perceived power distance.

So, you should have cottoned on to the fact that you have to address professors, company executives, government office clerks and so on appropriately if you want to get anywhere in life. You need to be respectful of someone’s position.

That’s a point actually about professors. In British universities, lecturers and professors tend to be very easy-going. I used to call my professors by their first names. In Poland, however, you probably won’t get away with addressing your professor as if you’re down the pub:  “Alright Dave – How’s it going?” 

Indeed not. In Poland, a professor is a professor. You should say “Panie Profesorze” to male professors and “Pani Profesor” to female professors. For that matter, a dean is a dean. You have to say “Panie Dziekanie” to a male dean and “Pani Dziekan” to a female dean. In summary, university students should address their instructors with “Pan/Pani” plus the highest academic degree held unless otherwise instructed to drop Pan/Pani. Finally, professors would usually address students as Pan/Pani as well.

Those professions which have acquired special recognition are also distinguishable by the forms of address required. In other words, journalists, architects, lawyers, pharmacists and physicians, to name but a few, may hear “Pan/Pani” followed by the name of their profession. I actually teach English to lawyer. He told me that he prefers not to be addressed as “Panie Mecenasie(a courtesy expression denoting respect to those practising the legal profession). Instead, he rather wishes to be addressed as “Panie” + first name. 


Grey areas, Complications and Linguistic Developments

As I’ve already mentioned, setting and context are key when it comes to using forms of address in Polish.

A friend of mine told me about his relationship with his handyman. They’ve known each other for many years. However, they’ll probably never drop the Pan titles because the handyman is around 15 years older than my friend. Moreover, it’s unlikely that they’ll ever become friends. Isn’t there a case here though that Pan/Pani and all the formality that goes with these titles prevents people from becoming friends? I’m just throwing it out there. 

It’s also possible to presuppose some level of intimacy by combining Pan with one’s first name. For example, Panie Andrzeju or even Panie Andrzejku. My friend uses the politely intimate latter form when he wants to emphasise that he would like the handyman to do some jobs.

Polish Pan/Pani can be used before either one’s first name and surname, first name only or surname only. However, using it with the surname is considered disrespectful and impolite. Still, when the subject is not around, it is fine to say Pan + surname – Pan Twardowski.

Forms of address in casual settings

What about very casual settings like the playground? Well, Leah thinks that you should use Pan/Pani in such a place because you probably wouldn’t make friends with someone there and you’re still strangers. Personally, I cannot imagine that these young twentysomethings who keep an eye on their kids on the playground I can see from my living room address each other as “Pan” or “Pani”. In addition to the age factor, I presume that most of these people are not total strangers to each other as they regularly bump into each other on the playground or around the estate. So I disagree with Leah because I think the laid-back setting trumps the extent to which these people know each other. I might be wrong though.

As for one of my students who owns a dog and is accustomed to conversing with other dog owners on walks, the chosen form is seldom Pan/Pani.


Forms of Address in Great Britain – For Reasons of Comparison

Instead of saying “Sir”, “Madam”, “Mr” and “Mrs”, English people express politeness by asking indirect questions (Would you mind telling me what I did wrong?) or applying a rising intonation (pitch) pattern at the end of yes/no questions. Therefore, this tends to be the way to proceed with bosses, professors and strangers. 

In British schools, it’s common to address teachers as “Sir” and “Miss”. In many UK schools today, teachers are called by their surname, such as Mr Smith or Mrs Smith. There is a different kind of distinction in private schools. Male teachers continued to be known as “Sir”. However, female teachers are called by their name – “Mrs Brown”, for instance.


Final Thoughts 

To some degree, I understand Leah Morawiec in her post which compares power distance in Poland and in the US. Things are very-laid back in America and the UK if you “have to do something unpleasant like get a new driver’s license”. Therefore, foreigners may have a perception that Poles are unfriendly and serious in such situations. Frankly, it’s never been a huge issue for me as I’m quite formal myself. I generally remember my “Pans” and “Panis” when I have had to apply for or collect something at the Office for Foreigners or the City Hall. 

However, I do object to people addressing me as “Pan”. I’ve made a pact with myself that, as soon as people start to “Pan” me, I will tell them not to do it. Unfortunately, I haven’t told the very young estate agent I’ve been dealing with in recent years to quit “panning” me. The situation has dragged on to the point where I’ve had enough. 

In restaurants and cafes in large Polish cities today, you’re more likely than ever before to be addressed as “ty” instead of “Pan” or “Pani”. In all likelihood, the prevalence of “you” in English has influenced this fairly new linguistic development in Poland. Moreover, social media has had its impact because many Poles have got used to dropping Pan/Pani in posts or comments on Facebook, for example.



Tuszynska, W.E. (n.d.). The Forms of Address in Contemporary Polish, University of Calgary


A man should never suggest to a woman that they drop the honorific titles Pan/Pani.

Panna is sometimes used for an unmarried woman, along with using various suffixes for last name. Nevertheless, the form panna is mostly obsolete and can be considered patronising.


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