The Mysterious Pronouns *swój, swoja, swoje*
In Polish there are a variety of pronouns that behave more or less like their English equivalents (except that Polish has more pronouns than English). But not all of the Polish pronouns are so predictable and dull as "he" or "his". There are also so called impersonal pronouns, that are deceptive and surprising.
What are the Impersonal Pronouns (or possessive reflexive pronouns)
There are some cases, when regular pronouns ought to be replaced by impersonal pronouns: swój/swoja/swoje (singular forms) /swoi/swoje (plural forms).
The pronoun "swój" and its forms replace the following pronouns:
- mój/moja/moje (sg.)/moi/moje (pl.) - my
- twój/twoja/twoje (sg.)/twoi/twoje (pl.) - your (sg.)
- nasz/nasza/nasze (sg.)/nasi/nasze (pl.) - our
- wasz/wasza/wasze (sg.)/wasi/wasze (pl.) - your (pl.)
- jego/jej/-- (sg.)/ich/ich (pl.) - his, her, [see note 1 below], their.
The process takes place when the object in a phrase is composed of a possessive pronoun and a noun together [see note 2 below]. It may be either a direct or an indirect object. It happens in contexts where what the noun accompanied by the pronoun expresses belongs or relates to the subject of the clause, and the subject may be:
1. The person speaking:
- Spakowałam wszystkie swoje rzeczy - I packed all my things
- Żegnam swoich przyjaciół - I bid my friends farewell
- Dam Ci swój adres - I will let you know my address
- Umówiłem się ze swoją dziewczyną - I made a date with my girlfriend
2. The group of people that the speaker is a member of:
- Wyjaśniliśmy im swoje racje. - We explained our arguments to them
- Bierzemy swoje książki - We take our books
- Myślimy o swoich dzieciach - We are thinking of our children
3. The person that the speaker is addressing:
- Zabierz swoje rzeczy! - Take away your stuff!
- Wracaj do swojej mamy! - Go back to your mom!
- Tak, przyniosłeś swoje książki. - Yes, you have brought your books
- Pożyczasz im swoje pieniądze - You lend them your own money
4. The groups of people that the speaker is addressing:
- Dlaczego nie mówiliście o swoich problemach? - Why did you not tell about your problems?
- Porozmawiajcie ze swoją córką - Talk to your daughter.
5. Third persons:
- Oni rozmawiają ze swoimi dziećmi - They talk to their chidren
- Pies je swój obiad - The dog is eating its dinner
- On umawia się ze swoją dziewczyną - He is setting a date with his girlfriend
- Ona chodzi tylko do swojego fryzjera - She only goes to her hairdresser
- Szkocja słynie swoimi zamkami - Scotland is famous for its castles
- On czyta swoją książkę dzieciom - He reads his book to the children - Attention: this book (direct object) is his property (or is written by him), and the children are just any children - hence "swoją" matches "książkę" by gender, case and singular number.
- On czyta książkę swoim dzieciom - He reads a book to his children - Attention: these children are his children (indirect object), and the book is just any book - hence "swoim" matches "dzieciom" by gender, case and plural number.
When the Impersonal Pronouns must be used
The impersonal pronoun always relates to the person or object, to which the noun is most closely related. It is especially important in 3-person phrases, where using the wrong pronoun creates ambiguity:
- Pies je swój obiad - The dog is eating its dinner
- Pies je jego obiad - Wait, what? So in a previous phrase there was a boy or a man mentioned, whose dinner the dog is eating now, or what?
- Nauczyciele prosili rodziców, by porozmawiali ze swoimi dziećmi - The teachers asked the parents to talk to their children - Attention! In Polish, unlike English, there are 2 clauses here, divided by comma. The subject of the 1-st clause is teachers, but the subject of second clause is parents - and the pronoun swoimi links the subject within the clause, so it shows a relation between the parents and their children. If a regular pronoun is used, then it denies that link, thus linking the children to the subject of the first clause:
- Nauczyciele prosili rodziców, by porozmawiali z ich dziećmi - Wait, what? Why should the parents of the pupils talk to the children of the teachers?
When the Impersonal Pronouns should be used
In 2-nd person phrases it is just more natural to use the impersonal pronoun. If you use the 2-nd person pronoun, in many cases it is not wrong, but it sounds unnatural, or adds extra stress:
- Zabierz swoje rzeczy! - Take away your stuff!
- Zabierz twoje rzeczy! - Take away your own stuff!
In 1-st person phrases (singular and plural) it is just more natural to use the impersonal pronoun. Using the 1-st person pronoun may add extra stress, which may also be intentional:
- Odwiedzam swoich rodziców - I visit my parents
- Odwiedzam moich rodziców - I visit just my parents
A note based on "A Concise Polish Grammar" by Ron F. Feldstein:
Notice that the English sentence "John lost his book" is ambiguous, and can mean either that John lost his own book or somebody else's. In Polish, third person possessive pronouns must make this distinction. If the possessive agrees with the subject of the clause, then the appropriate form of swój must be used. However, if they do not agree, then the non-reflexive jego/jej/ich are selected. Therefore, the ambiguous English sentence has two unambiguous Polish equivalents.
- Jan zgubił swoją książkę - John lost his own book
- Jan zgubił jego książkę - John lost his (someone else's) book
In the first and second persons, the choice is more of a stylistic one, since ambiguity cannot occur as it can in the third person (e.g. Mam moją/swoją książkę - I have my book, Masz twoją/swoją książkę - You have your book.
- PWN Dictionary: swój
- Dictionary by prof. Doroszewski: swój
- Declension of swój/swoja/swoje in Grammatical Dictionary of Polish
 In Contemporary Polish presently there is not any pronoun for the English pronoun its. Instead, the forms jego and jej are used for male and female nouns, and for neuter nouns - either jego is used (as with male nouns) or tego + noun (eg. tego dziecka), although tego is actually another pronoun: ten/tej/tego (sg.) tych/tych (pl.). The Middle-Polish equivalents of its: onego/onej/onego (sg.)/onych/onych (pl.) are almost forgotten, they are used only in quite old books.
 The pronoun has to directly precede the noun that it describes (in rare cases - like poetry - it may go right after the noun, but it is quite unnatural). Also, the possessive and possessive reflexive pronoun must agree in gender, number and grammatical case with the noun that it describes.
I am not a linguist, but an engineer who loves his mother tongue. If there is something missing above, something is wrong or unclear, please do not hesitate to suggest corrections.
You may also want to check:
- Conjugation of Verbs in Polish
- Aspect of Verbs in Polish, Verbs of Singular, Multiple and Completed actions
- What is Genitive Case Useful For
- The Meaningful Position of Adjective
- Translating "and" into Polish explained
- The verbs znać, wiedzieć and umieć
- English "that" is sometimes Polish ten, sometimes tamten
- The versatile word to
Actually I do not have the time to read and understand all, but I also discussed this question recently with a polish friend, but I didn't understand the use of these special pronouns: as they do not exist in the German language, I found this concept hard to understand. I hope your post will help me, thank you very much! :-)
"Szkocja słynie swoimi zamkami" -> shouldn't it be "Szkocja słynie ze swoich zamków"? (at least that's what I'd say as a Pole ;) )
As a Pole, too - both forms are correct:
- słynąć z + noun in Genitive
- słynąć + noun in Instrumental
I have chosen the 2-nd option to make it easier for Anglophones, as the English phrasal verb "to be famous for" is the exact translation of "słynąć", while the Polish preposition "z" does not usually translate to English "for".
Hm... yeah, after giving it a second thought... it feels like a much rarer option to me though. Wonder if it's regional or perhaps slowly getting outdated.
The old "its" forms - onego/onej/onego (sg.)/onych/onych (pl.) - must have just become irrelevant and died out amongst all the other options, then?
They seemed quite simple and logical.
Yeah, I guess a looong time ago, because it took me a moment to even recognize them. Actually, I'm not completely sure, but I think that those used to mean "this", not "its".
I think you can find it in literature as a stylistic device, either archaisation (obviously) or to make something sound very elevated, serious, emphatic, perhaps ironically so. I think it's most commonly associated with expressions about time, like "onego dnia", which means "that day". So yes, it means "that" and not "its" (unless there's some even more archaic usage of the word of which I have no idea but that would be centuries). A less archaic but still quite archaic word is "owy" ("owego dnia" = "onego dnia" = "(tam)tego dnia").
BTW...it's weird cause it seems English grammarians would call it a demonstrative adjective (requires a noun) but Polish grammar calls it a pronoun? At least that's what I'm getting from google?
Is there any correct use of the word 'swoja'? The '-a' suffix is only used with feminine nouns in the nominative and vocative cases, and I don't believe they could ever be the referent of the reflexive pronoun 'swój'. However 'swoja' is listed as a correct conjugation of 'swój' on both wiktionary and sjp.pl
It’s not a reflexive personal pronoun; it’s a possessive determiner. And so I can imagine that it could stand before a noun in the nominative that “belongs” to the subject, as in Jestem tak wysoki jak swoja siostra. “I am as tall as my sister.”
Dziękuję za wyjaśnienie. Yes, I meant reflexive possessive, as it refers to something owned by the subject of the sentence, just as się/siebie/sobie/sobą refer to the subject itself.
Personally I have doubts if "Jestem tak wysoki jak swoja siostra" is correct. I don't know if "swoja" can be said to refer to the subject (I) here or if it's a part of a separate noun phrase which potentially could be a subject of another clause so it can't use "swoja". I tried asking in the Facebook group "Poprawna polszczyzna", but I didn't really get an answer, which seems to prove that the matter is complicated.
Ergo, while I can't guarantee that it's wrong, I'd say that it's a lot safer to use "moja" in that sentence and to assume that there isn't really any usage of "swoja" and other Nominative forms.
Isnt "odwiedzam swoich rodziców" and "odwiedzam moich rodziców" the same thing? Im Polish and I do not see the difference to be honest.
They are. In 1st person, both sound perfectly natural to me.
However, I'd consider "Odwiedzasz twoich rodziców" clumsy in comparison to "Odwiedzasz swoich rodziców", although of course it's not incorrect.
I would say, that "moich" puts more emphasis (my parents, not my wife's or somebody's else), but this might be a result of speaking habits in my region or in my family, and I agree that in 1-st person phrases the difference is be very subtle. Perhaps that it is better visible with objects than with people, eg. "jężdzę moim samochodem" vs. "jeżdzę swoim samochodem" - when speaking loudly the first phrase I instinctively put the phrasal accent to "moim", while the second phrase seems neutral to me.