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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 – dź
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 “dż”. Mercifully, the last two don’t happen very often, but when they do, they’re real tongue twisters. Take a look:
dżdżownica – earth-worm
czczenie – worshiping
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!