It’s no secret that Polish spelling and pronunciation are a mystery to the rest of the world. If you look up a video on Polish pronunciation you’re bound to see comments like “Polish looks like someone mashed their hands on a keyboard” and “Why are there so many consonants??,” but be rest assured that pronouncing Polish correctly is actually quite easy once you get the hang of it. In order to make the process a little easier for you, here are some of our Polish experts’ top tips:
Polish Is Pronounced As It’s Written!
At first glance, this sentence might be a bit frightening (how do you even begin to pronounce the word “zmartwychwstanie,” anyway?) because Polish, like other Slavic languages, is notorious for its consonant clusters. Must we really pronounce all of these letters? Oh yes, we must: [sma-rtvih-vsta-nie]. Easy!
Unlike English (which is not phonetic and difficult to pronounce for learners), Polish letters are always pronounced the same way. Even better, there aren’t any silent letters in Polish, as there are in other popular languages like French. Once you learn which letters stand for which sounds, you will basically always know how to pronounce a new word when you see it.
Also, the name “Anna” is pronounced [An-na], not [An-a]. When you see a double consonant in Polish, you always say the consonant twice.
Sometimes 2 Consonants = 1 Sound
Polish pronunciation gets even easier once you realize that quite a few single sounds are spelled with two letters — much like the [sh] sound in English. The most common combinations, CZ, SZ, RZ, DŻ and CH are pronounced simply as [ch], [sh], [like the S in “pleasure”], [j] and [h], respectively. For example, chrząszcz has only four consonants (not eight) and one vowel (ą): ch-rz-ą-sz-cz. The full list is:
As soon as you know this, “Chrząszcz brzmi w trzcinie w Szczebrzeszynie” doesn’t seem as scary anymore, does it?
On the other hand, some sounds in Polish have two alternate spellings but are pronounced identically. These pairings include Ó and U, RZ and Ż, and CH and H. These are primarily still in use to cause headaches for Polish school children and Polish learners 🙂
Work On Your DŹ, Ć, Ś And Ź
When practicing your Polish pronunciation, you should pay special attention to the letters with an additional accent on top, as those are among the most difficult ones for English native speakers to learn and pronounce. Cześć. Jeść. Źródło. Dźwięk.
Each of these sounds actually has two alternate spellings: either with the small line on top, or with an additional I:
The spelling with “I” usually appears in front of vowels and it marks a slightly softer pronunciation. The difference is small, so you don’t have to worry about it too much at the beginning. If you’re interested in this topic (or want to hear these sounds in detail), you can find a good explanation of it here.
Master The Cutest Vowels
How can a vowel be cute, you ask? That’s simple: give it an adorable name. In Polish, there are two such vowels, Ę and Ą. They’re called the “A with a little tail” (a z ogonkiem) and the “E with a little tail” (e z ogonkiem), respectively. Besides being adorable, these little tails under the vowels signal that they’re meant to be pronounced more nasal.
In fact, they sound most similar to the French [en] and [on] sounds. In this case, Ą is actually a nasalized O and not a nasalized A — therefore, it sounds kind of like the [an] sound in “fiancé.” You can listen to an example here with the word brązowy (brown).
Meanwhile, Ę at the end of a word often becomes a simple Polish E and loses its nasalization. This is the case in examples like “piję wódkę” (I’m drinking vodka), which sounds more like “pije wódke.”
Practice Polish Anywhere
Lucky for you, there aren’t any major differences in pronunciation across different regions of Poland, which is in stark contrast to other major languages like German and Spanish. Polish is surprisingly uniform throughout almost all of the country and it doesn’t have any major dialects. This is likely because there were large population movements both during and following the Second World War, when the borders of Poland were shifted westwards and the population from what used to be eastern Poland moved to what is now western Poland.
This means that you can strike up a conversation in Polish anywhere across Poland (or with any Polish expats you may know) and you can be pretty confident that you’ll hear what you’ve been learning. This also means that watching Polish TV or looking up Polish YouTubers is a great way to reinforce your vocabulary and pronunciation!