Polish Language Blog

Round 2: The Polish Alphabet – Digraphs (Dwuznaki) Posted by on May 12, 2010 in Culture, Grammar, Vocabulary

A, B, C. Easy as 1, 2, 3. Simple as do, re, me…

Well, maybe not as simple as do re mi. The Polish language is a beautiful language, but it is a very difficult one to learn and, ultimately, understand. Though I was born of two Polish native-speakers, with Polish as my first language, I can honestly say I have struggled to learn some of the intricacies of the language over the years. But, at the same time, it’s what truly makes the Polish so unique and a real pleasure to know.

So on with it. I covered the letters and their pronunciation last blog. In that post, I also referred to a group of letter combinations that represent a single sound. These are called digraphs, or dwuznaki. The fun part of these dwuznaki is that they usually make a sound that completely differs from the sound of the individual letters that form that digraph.

In Polish, there are seven digraphs. Here they are listed with their pronunciation.

ch sounds like h as in happy
cz sounds like ch as in chat
dz sounds like dz in Dads
sounds like j in jeans
sounds like dzh in adjective
rz sounds like zh in treasure
sz sounds like sh in shape

For the pronunciation, the word adjective is the closest English word I could find that most closely replicated the Polish sound.

So, what is interesting about these digraphs is that there are some exceptions. For example, the rz combo makes the zh sound like in treasure MOST of the time. However, there are some instances where the r and z letters are pronounced individually and not like a digraph. The sound that they make then is like in the word Tarzan.

Some of these digraphs have other digraphs that mimic their sound. For example, the si combination in Polish makes the same sound as a similar sound to the sz digraph, and can be confused with the Polish letter ś. Also, the digraph sound, which sounds like j in jeans, can be copied with the trigraph dzi in Polish; the one that is used all depends on the context of the word. Which begs the question, how do you know which one to use? Like a good episode of LOST, I think I will leave this question hanging for another episode… one that focuses on spelling.

There is one last item I would like to cover. I was sure I would have gotten a question regarding it, but I did not. Maybe readers are not interested. Or maybe you’re afraid to ask. Either way, I am going to put my two cents in on the topic anyway, mostly because I remember asking the question. In the Polish alphabet, there are three letters missing that an English-speaker would easily catch. The letters Q (ku), V (fau) and X (iks) do not exist in the Polish alphabet. However, the Polish language has adopted a lot of marketing words that do contain these letters.  In Polish pronunciation, there really is no need for them. Typically, these marketing words are adopted and given a Polish twist. In Polish, the sound for the letter Q is replaced with K or KW (ex. kwiz), V is replaced with W (ex. wino) and the letter X is replaced with KS (ex. ekstra).

For example, let’s take the word extra. In English, it means additional. In Polish, it’s a slang term that means exceptional. My cousins, if they like one of the photos I post, will comment, “Ekstra“! Essentially, they take the common foreign word and spell it as it would be pronounced in Polish. Very smart – very Polish 🙂

So that’s my spin on digraphs. I hope it has been helpful. And to go back to a comment I made back on one of my earlier posts, I am going to close with some Disco Polo. I like to think of these guys as the Polish equivalent of the Backstreet Boys. They are zespół “Bojs” or “Boys”, and this song is “Ekstra“! Plus, this video is just hilarious. So practice your digraphs, then close the door, pull the curtains shut and dance around the pokój to this song blasted LOUD!

Do następnego czytania…

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  1. Sofia:

    It’s nice to see a new blogger here, keep up the good work, Kasia. 🙂

    But sz and ś (si) are completely different sounds. There is no real equivalent for the latter in English and ś is often difficult for many foreigners. So are ź and dź.

    • Katarzyna:

      @Sofia Dziękuje Sofia!

      I agree, they are different sounds, which I corrected above, however they are also VERY similar to a non-native speaker. And I can honestly say, to provide an English equivalent for each was difficult. And if I rethink on the pronunciation, I think a better distinction would be a soft versus a hard sh sound for to better differentiate the two. That is, the sz and ś (si) make a soft sh sound, like in pieść or in sierpień. The sz makes a hard sh sound, like in przepraszam. To a native speaker, there is a clear distinction, yes. But to someone trying to learn the language, who is trying to grasp pronunciation, it is very difficult to clearly illustrate pronunciation for it in English. And it’s even more difficult to learn to spell, in Polish, words with these sounds.

      When I write for this blog, particularly the grammar and vocabulary lessons, I think of a good friend and how I would go about teaching the language to them. It really is not the easiest feat, and I thank you for comments like this because they force me to be a bit more strict with my clarifications. So please keep reading and please correct me when I have miswritten.

  2. russ:

    English speakers (and many other non-Poles) have great difficulty distinguishing these similar consonant pairs:
    cz vs ć/ci
    sz vs ś/si
    rz/ż vs ź/zi
    dż vs dź/dzi

    because we don’t distinguish them in English. E.g. you suggested “jeans” vs “adjective” but in English those both have the SAME sound (e.g. dictionary.com and m-w.com both represent the sounds in “jeans” and “adjective” phonetically as “j”).

    I have seen Polish for foreigner books actually inconsistent with each (e.g. one proposing “cheap” for cz and another proposing “cheap” for ć/ci, or some such unhelpful inconsistent advice; I forget the specific word used).

    Only after a year of study did I finally find a somewhat understandable explanation of even how to MAKE the 2 different sounds in these pairs (what is actually going on with the mouth and why they sound different), but even then I sadly STILL often can’t HEAR the difference between cz and ć/ci, sz and ś/si, etc… :/

    Poles try to help by saying the sounds in isolation (“Can’t you hear the difference between CZYYY and CIII? They’re so different!”) but then the only obvious difference is in the VOWEL (Y or I) AFTER the consonants, not in the consonants themselves…

  3. Katarzyna:


    That is exactly what I meant. And truthfully, with adjective, I was reaching because I know several Polish words and I repeated them over and over, thinking an English word would come to mind. There are just differences that will not be accounted for in translation and pronunciation and will have to be learned at a more advanced understanding of the Polish language.

    And you are correct with inconsistencies in books of translations. Unfortunately, the translations and pronunciations are only as good as the writer. And I need to reiterate thanks again to all of you who comment and correct me where I have miswritten or have been unclear. Only as good as the translator — and the translator has to be willing to correct it for the benefit of the whole.

    Thanks for reading and for your comment!

  4. Nerijus:

    I learn language with the principle either you feel the difference or not. Written or direct explanations from natives do little to help really. Mind is much more attentive and busy to detect much clearer curiosities that are there for foreigners than these finer things that require certain good feel of the target language. And after a year of me studying Polish I say that my mind is incapable to grasp a difference between sz and ś (si) or even to explain it. It comes with time. I am sure that I pronounce correctly deszcz (in Polish). And at the end of the day this is the only thing that counts; I don’t really care, the difference between sz and cz or tongue positions and movements that require to produce the utterance correctly. Even when you know this, you actually rarely have control over it.

  5. Mika:

    z tymi dwuznakami jest strasznie trudno dla obcokrajowca. Od razu widać, że nietutejszy, bo ś, ć, ż, ź, sz, cz, dź, dż wymawia… Po prostu śmiesznie. Nawet u nas niektórzy się mylą w pisaniu słów typu: “krzaki”(bush). Każdy mały Polak pójdzie za słuchem i napisze “kszaki”. Te słowa brzmią tak samo, ale nie wolno tego inaczej zapisać. Nie można też akcentować na to “rz”! To nie tylko niepoprawnie, ale też nie da się tego zbytnio wymówić. Dlatego w Polsce czasami inaczej się pisze, a inaczej wymawia.
    Dajmy jeszcze na przykład słowo “chleb”(bread). Czy ta się to: “chlep”, ale pisze inaczej. Jak więc sprawdzić czy dobrze napisaliśmy? Czasami wystarczy zamienić na liczbę mnogą.(two breads) in polish “dwa chleBy” od razu rzuca się w oko “B”. Nie powiemy “dwa chlepy”! ;/
    Niestety czasami trzeba po prostu zapamiętać kilka zasad…

  6. Do$a:

    Kasia, this song “Jesteś szalona” is very old… 😉
    Sometimes is aired on weddings, you know? It’s very funny because nobody normal no listening to such songs. 😉
    This type of songs called disco polo.
    I don’t like disco polo. This is old, schoddy, stupid and boooring!
    I cant’c English… Certainly noticed… ;p

    a tak nawiasem mówiąc to naprawdę świetny blog. Gratuluję i życzę dalszej weny. Może coś polskiej gościnności? ;p

    • Katarzyna:

      @Do$a Dziękuje za opinie Dosa. Wielu ludzi kocha disco polo, i masz rację, większość Polaków nie słuchają regularnie. Jednakże, dlatego kocham disco polo. Utwory są proste, mają wspaniały beat i są wspaniałe do uczenia się i nauczania języka polskiego dla tych właśnie przyczyn.

      I między nami, myślę, że piosenka “Jesteś szalona” została napisana o mnie 😉

      Dzięki jeszcze raz!