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Is Polish a Phonetic Language Posted by on Jun 23, 2008 in Grammar

Many Poles will tell you that Polish is a phonetic language. In other words, you read it as you write it. Cool! Sounds easy enough, right? But hold on a sec. That’s not entirely true. While written Polish might indeed be easier to decipher than for example English (just think about the many different ways you can read the letter “a” in English), it has its own set of funky spelling problems. As any child in Poland can tell you, there is nothing more hideous in this world than Polish orthography. And unfortunately that orthography is directly tied into how we pronounce Polish words.

Take these two vowels, for example:
u and ó
They both sound exactly the same, like “oo” in English.

Or this pair:
ż and rz
Again, exactly the same sound in both cases, similar to the French “j” in “Je” (as in “Je t’aime”). Except, when the “rz” combination is pronounced separately as “r”+”z”. Not very often, but it does happen.

Or this pair:
h and ch
They both sound like “h”.

Then why do we need two of each? When I was younger (and sometimes even now) I was sure it was purely to make life difficult for unfortunate elementary school students. And I guess you feel pretty much the same way now, too.

But that’s not the end. There’s more to add to the confusion.

These letters with a “kreska” over them, which looks like an acute accent mark:
ś, ź, ń, ć and this one –
sound almost exactly like these combinations:
si, zi, ni, ci and dzi

In this post I won’t even begin to attempt explaining the rules and exceptions that govern the usage of these letters. Today, we are talking strictly about pronunciation.

So why do Poles claim that Polish is pronounced exactly as it is written? Because, for the most part, it really is. Take double consonants (geminates), for example. In English, my name “Anna” sounds something like “Ana”. In Polish, both “n” are pronounced separately, so the proper way to say my name is “An-na”. If you don’t have the time to speak slowly, then at least you should try to prolong the sound. The same rule applies to all double consonant sounds, whether they are “n” or “d” or “z” or combinations like “cz” or “”. Mercifully, the last two don’t happen very often, but when they do, they’re real tongue twisters. Take a look:
dżdżownica – earth-worm
or
czczenie – worshiping

See? Polish might not be easy to learn, but at least it’s funny sounding. And imagine the satisfaction you get when you master the proper pronunciation of “wwóz” (importation) or “oddech” (breath).

Personally, I am not a fan of phonetic symbols, you know, the goofy signs in square brackets you see in dictionaries, so if you prefer, I will do my best to approximate Polish pronunciation using equivalent English sounds. Please leave a comment and let me know which way you’d rather have me do it!

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Comments:

  1. Tom Wysocki:

    Thank you, Anna. The close English equivalent is very helpful.
    Dzien dobry!

  2. Anna:

    Hi Tom!
    I’ll try my best, but if all else fails, we’ll do a podcast. 🙂

  3. thomas westcott:

    An-na, Thank you for explaining why many people consider Polish to be phonetic. Since I learned English “by sight”, I am forced by old learning habits to learn Polish the same way – one word at a time.

    I wish I could read Polish phonetically. So far, I have been unable to place a sound with each symbol I see on the page or the screen.
    Also, with listening to Polish I have a similar problem that is the bones of my inner ear are vibrating ok but my mind does not hear those vibrations.

    Some sounds such as z. as in z.aba (frog) I have acquired ok and can read and pronounce z. correctly but rz still eludes me.

    I have had Polish compared to Spanish in that it is pronounced the way it is read.

    Your examples and explanations make sense.

    I will have to put this blog on my favorites list.

    Again, thanks, Thomas Westcott.

  4. Anna:

    Hi Thomas!
    Thank you for your comment! I will do my best to make your attempts to read Polish as painless as possible! Actually, I am thinking of another post explaining the phonetic bits and pieces. I hope that will be helpful for you as well.
    🙂

  5. Branko:

    Hi, how is “Pączki” pronounced? Online, I see it has an ‘n’ sound after the first vowel. Where does that come from? How is that phonetic? Thanks!