Say What? How to Pronounce those Polish Letters

The Polish Alphabet
The Polish alphabet, with some extra crazy letters.

If you have no knowledge of the Polish language and want to learn it, no one will blame you for wanting to give up approximately 10 minutes after checking out the grammar and pronunciation.

Polish is tough. Many learners agree that it’s one of the harder languages to learn if your native tongue is English. The good news is that the alphabet is the same…sort of. There’s a few extra letters in the Polish alphabet that are not in English. You might come across these from time to time in a Polish last name, recipe or city.

Although I’m not qualified to teach you the entire Polish language, I can help you understand how to pronounce these letters so you’re more familiar when you encounter words that contain them. Below are explanations of the sounds, followed by an audio file. I do my best—I’m still an American.

Ą (ą)

First up, the “A” with the little tail thing (I’m sure there’s a fancy name for it). When you see this in a word, DO NOT pronounce it like the letter “a.” Rather, it has a nasally “own” sound. Sounds kind of French.


Ć (ć)

Cha, cha cha. The letter “Ć” has a “ch” sound, as in “church” or “choo choo.” There’s a little more to it, though. Check out the audio.


Ę (ę)

Here’s the “E” with the little tail thing. It has an “en” sound, like in “ten” or “hen,” but there’s a nasal accent. Listen to the recording to hear it for yourself.


Ł (ł)

Get ready for this. No, the letter “Ł” does not sound ANYTHING like the letter “L.” Instead, it has a “W” sound. Polish logic, right? So basically pronounce it like you would the English “W,” such as in “whale” or “win.”


Ń (ń)

The nearest English equivalent to the Polish letter “Ń” is the “ny” sound in the word “canyon.”


Ó (ó)

This one is easy. Pronounce “Ó” like “oo,” such as in “cool” or “tool.”


Ś (ś)

The Polish letter “Ś” generally sounds like “shh.” Again, this is one you will want to hear because there’s a little twist.


Ź (ź)

For me, the variations of the Polish letter “Z’s” are the hardest to pronounce because it’s hard to find an English equivalent. For the letter “Ź,” the nearest equivalent I found was the “si” sound in “Hoosier.”


Ż (ż)

Again, it’s hard to find an English equivalent to teach the sound of the letter “Ż.” It sounds close to the “si” sound in the word “allusion.” You might be struggling to notice the difference between this and the last one. Check out the recording.

 

I hope that helped you, even a little bit. I think even knowing that “Ł” sounds like “W” is important. Imagine the difference that can make in a word.

 

The Best Things About Poland: Episode II

It’s time to conclude my two-part series on the best things about Poland (Check out episode one here). Like I said two weeks ago, this could be a 10-part series, but there’s so many other wonderful topics to write about. If enough of you comment on this one, though, I won’t be able to help myself. Here it goes…

The Language

The Polish Alphabet
The Polish alphabet, with some extra crazy letters. Notice the 3 types of “z.”

Polish is not a language for the faint of heart. If your native tongue is English, it’s guaranteed to be one of the most difficult languages you can possibly learn. With seven grammatical cases, a boatload of various word-endings and three versions of the letter “z,” it will unleash hell on your brain.

So why is it so great? I can’t say I’m fluent, but I’m good enough to begin realizing its beauty. Unlike German, which sounds like yelling, or French, which sounds very nasally, Polish sounds soft, fluid and innocent. I especially become entranced whenever I hear Polish women speak it on TV, the radio or in person—it’s such a delicate and soothing collection of syllables.

If you ever read the Polish literary masters—Mickiewicz, Sienkiewicz, Kochanowski—even if you don’t understand everything, you’ll definitely see how beautifully the language flows from the page. It makes learning it, even a little bit, worth it.

The Music

When it comes to music, Poland has so much to offer. For traditionalists, there are plenty of folk songs that will whisk you away to old Poland with their violin and accordion sounds. Folk fans should check out Rokiczanka and Brathanki. There is also, of course, Polka music and the Polish-favorite “Disco Polo.”

In the early twentieth century, tango was big in Poland. When you listen to these old songs, you can’t help but feel like you’re in an old café or saloon in pre-war Warsaw or Kraków. Check out Sława Przybylska for an example.

For rock and pop fans, Poland has a ton of music from the 1960s through today. Lady Pank, Wilki, Elektryczne Gitary, Perfect, Marek Grechuta, Gosia Andrzejewicz, Ewa Farna, and Urszula are just some examples. I purposely didn’t add hyper links to all those names—stay tuned to my blog for much more on Polish music in the near future.

Oh, just don’t listen to Polish rap. It sucks.

 

Soup

Żur
Polish Żur soup.

Ok, soup isn’t just Polish, but it definitely plays a big part in Polish life. I remember visiting my grandmother in Poland during my childhood. After the long, tiring, transatlantic voyage from the U.S. to Poland, and the additional journey from the airport to my grandma’s house, the first thing she greeted us with was a hug and kiss. The second, a bowl of hot soup. So soup plays a pivotal role in my conception of Poland.

Traditionally, soup is the first course in a Polish meal. From rosół, to tomato soup, to żur, Poland has no shortage of belly-filling, heart-warming soups. Polish soups are especially delicious and gratifying when you’re sick—a spoonful of warm vegetable, chicken and broth can often provide relief from the worst colds or flu.

Customs

Slavic beliefs
An imaginary painting of Poland’s Slavic origins.

I’ve written a lot on this blog about Polish traditions and customs—from Wigilia to Zaduszki—and there is much more to come on that front. The reason I can write so much is that Poland offers a seemingly infinite supply of intriguing cultural and religious practices.

Remember, before Poland became Catholic in 966 AD, it adhered to the ancient Slavic beliefs. Like many pagan peoples, the ancient Poles worshiped nature and believed in numerous supernatural entities. With the arrival of Catholicism, many of these beliefs were eliminated, but many were absorbed. This is why, even today, many Polish traditions are loaded with superstitions.

Aside from that, each region in Poland has its own customs—from the Górale in the southern mountains, to the Kashuby of the northern shores—you will find a rainbow of local costumes, dances and dialects across Poland. It’s a “melting pot” in its own right.

The Polish National Anthem (Mazurek Dąbrowskiego)

Poland has not yet perished. Those lines begin the Polish national anthem. They symbolize the Polish people’s undying hope and strong desire to preserve their identity. Written in 1797, just two years after Poland had been partitioned and erased from the map of Europe, this anthem was, from its inception, a statement that the Poles weren’t just going to lie down and die. As we have seen, there are just too many great things about the Polish nation for that to happen. Generations of Poles have fought and died to protect the idea of Poland, of its customs, food, music, language and people—it’s this Polish spirit that is embodied in the national anthem, making it perhaps the greatest thing about Poland.