Envisage a panic-stricken teacher, dishevelled and unkempt hastily writing a report for one of his more tiresome students. However, this is no ordinary report and this is no ordinary pupil. The pupil is the Republic of Poland and the report is the image that the local (Polish) and international press have created.
The usual clichéd formulas come to the teacher’s mind: must do better, talks too much, never does his homework, bullies other students. These can be roughly understood as Poland’s incapability and unwillingness to reform its economic policy and make life easier for business people; its predilection for bickering, in-fighting and divided politics; its lack of preparation and common sense on the international stage; and finally, its penchant for bigoted and intolerant views.
These are not my opinions but the opinions of the majority of the world’s press. As part of my love of corpus linguistics, I decided to collect text examples of articles that use the word Poland or Polish. I’m not even near completing this gargantuan project but I have already noted a marked difference in the content of articles written up to the year 1989, those written after the fall of the Berlin Wall and prior to EU enlargement and those written after the borders opened to Poland’s eager workers coinciding nicely with the ascension to power of the Holy Trinity Coalition of Law and Justice (PiS), Self-Defence (Samoobrona) and the League of Polish Families (LPR).
Generally speaking, Poland’s reputation has plummeted like a stone. Up to 1989, attitudes oscillated between pity and ignorance; after 1989 these feelings were more akin to hope and fascination; now these attitudes are of astonishment, disgust and desolation. To many, Poland seems to be undoing what it so valiantly managed to achieve after one hundred and twenty-three years of alien occupation, two devastating world wars and fifty years of communism. The freedom that was won through blood, sweat and tears is being seriously challenged not by an alien power but by internal forces focused on nationalism, bigotry, pseudo-Catholicism and a thirst for blood.
The words that seem to most frequently correlate with the words Poland and Polish are quite often neutral but there is a dangerously high number of negative words which also cluster around Poland and Polish. Such words are witch-hunt, inspecting, vetting, scandal, European Commision (nearly always used negatively), immigrants, secret to name just a few. This gives us a linguistic (or more precisely, a semantic) map of the views of the world press, a mind map of sorts.
Below are some examples of the texts that I’ve found:
The Financial Times tells us: “A law that comes into force today will compel board members and managers of listed companies to confess if they had been informants for communist-era secret police. Executives who refuse to co-operate … or who are caught lying about their past would be banned from working for public companies for 10 years.”
The Economist: “The Polish government realises it needs a foreign policy, but doesn’t yet have one.”
The Sun: “A LOOPHOLE means East European migrants living in Britain can claim child benefit – even if their kids don’t live here. Polish migrants alone have made 50,000 claims and thousands from other new EU countries are cashing in. Readers are furious this is being allowed.”
The European Voice: “The Polish have a ghastly history as Europe’s battlefield. Over the centuries the population has had a choice of viewing: oppression and exploitation from the east or the west. When the Germans and Russians can agree, it is from both east and west. Have the Poles learned anything from all this?”
An apt question for Poland’s ruling coalition might be the title of Henryk Sienkiewicz’s masterpiece Qvo Vadis, Latin for ‘where are you going?’