Polish alphabet and phonetics
The Polish Alphabet
The Polish alphabet is composed of 32 letters:
Unlike the English language, Polish phonetics are constant. When understood and known well, any word in the Polish language is pronouncable by the foreign reader. Take care with this lesson. Picking up bad habits at the beginning can create problems down the line.
NB: all phonetic examples of use in the English language are used in conjunction with "the Queen's English" or "BBC English" (See here)
These are very important. The vowels in the Polish language can sound very similar to the beginner but, with practice, it becomes much easier. The importance lies in the fact that a word may change its meaning when a vowel changes and Polish speakers rely on the correct vowel sound to understand the context in which a word is used. This will become apparent later. For now, here is the full list of vowel sounds in the Polish language and an explanation of phonetics for the English speaker:
All Polish vowels are short. Additionally, there is no vowel reduction in Polish so you should pronounce all vowels as they are written.
Aa - Pronounced the same way as the word "a" in the English language e.g. a in car, a in cut. It is not used to signify the other "a-sound" e.g. cake, acorn.
ą - Basically this is nasal vowel pronounced like French "bon". However, it is pronounced like this only as the final sound of the word (do not confuse final "a" and "ą" because they indicate completely different cases) or before f, w, s, z, sz, ż, ś, ź or ch. When followed by "l" and "ł" it should be pronounced like o (however, people sometimes pronounce it as full nasal which is hypercorrect). Before other consonants "ą" splits into diphthong pronounced like the combination of short o and "m", "n", or sound similar to English "n" in "bang" - depending on the place of articulation of the next consonant (see the exercise). No Polish word begins with ą.
Ee - This represents the English "Ee" in words like "bed", "wet" and "pet".
ę - This is the second nasal vowel pronounced like French "vende". The rules of its pronunciation are almost the same as for ą except the fact, that instead of short o one should use short e whenever it is necessary. At the end of a word, "ę" is pronounced like the Polish "e" described above. No Polish word begins with ę.
Ii - This represents the English "Ee" in words like "week", "need" and "feet", but not as long.
Oo - This represents the English "o" sound in "pot" and "hop".
Uu - This represents the English "oo" in "boot" and "spoon", but it is shorter.
Óó - The same sound as the "oo" sound in "hoop" and the "u" sound in "put". It is important to know whether the word should be written by 'ó' or 'u' because the former is often a marker of morphological change of "ó" into "o" in some inflectional cases.
y - Similar to English "i" in words like "bit", "pit" "riddle"
Polish has more consonants than English and they are quite similar, with few exceptions. However, they are all unaspirated. To pronounce Polish words correctly please note, that unlike English where neighboring consonants have the tendency to assimilate their place of articulation (word 'football' pronounced like 'fupbol') in Polish every voiced consonant (except m, n, r, l, ł)has its unvoiced counterpart and there is a strong tendency only to devoice all constituents of consonant clusters if they comprise unvoiced consonant. It happens both inside words and between two words if the final and initial part of them differ in terms of voicing. For instance word 'kwiat' ('flower') is pronounced 'kfiat'. 'Samochód Kasi'(Kate's car') is pronounced 'samochót Kasi'.Unvoicing of consonants in final position is a dialectal feature (some regions do not devoice them) but the general tendency is to devoice them.
Bb - The same sound as the "Bb" sound in English.
Cc - Very similar to "z" in "zeppelin". Often described as English "ts" in "tsar" or "tzatziki". The closest Germanic equivalent is 'z' in German "Zeit".
Ćć - This sound is similar to the "ch" sound in English words such as "cheers", "cheetah" but is softer. Its articulation is palato-alveolar, not alveolar like English "church" or "chair". Try to move your tongue a little bit backwards pronouncing the word "church".
Dd - It sounds like the "d" sound in English, but Polish "d" is truly dental, not alveolar. Try to pronounce "d" with the tip of your tongue touching the teeth.
Ff - The same sound as the "Ff" sound in English.
Gg - The same "g" sound in "gun" and "Hogwarts".
Hh - The same sound as the "Hh" sound in English "home" or "have".
Jj - This represents the English "Yy" sound in "your" and "yearn".
Kk - The same sound as the "Kk" sound in English, but is never silent. Unvoiced counterpart of "g"
Ll - The same sound as the "Ll" sound in English.
Łł - The same sound as the "Ww" sound in English.
Mm - The same sound as the "Mm" sound in English.
Nn - The same sound as the "Nn" sound in English.
Ńń - This represents the "ñ" sound in "El Niño". The best English example is "n" in the word "near" or "manure".
Pp - The same sound as the "Pp" sound in English. Unvoiced counterpart of "b".
Rr - A rolled Scots-English "Rr".
Ss - The same sound as the "Ss" sound in English.Unvoiced counterpart of "z".
Śś - This sound is represented by "sh" in English word "shit" (forgive me, but it is the best example to show that in Polish there is big, phonemic difference between "ś" and "sz" (digraph "sz" stands for "sh" in English "share" or "shy")
Tt - The same sound as the "Tt" sound in English but dental, not alveolar. Unvoiced counterpart of "d".
Ww - The English "Vv" sound. Voiced counterpart of "f".
Zz - The same sound as the "Zz" sound in English word "zeal". Voiced counterpart of "s".
Źź - Voiced counterpart of "ś".
Żż - The "j" sound in the French name, "Jacques". The tip of the tongue is just shy of making contact with the roof of the mouth a centimetre or so away from the teeth. Voiced counterpart of "sz"
Combinations of letters, just like in English, produce different sounds than one would expect at first glance. All of these combinations are listed below. Please be aware, if you come across letter combinations that do not appear in this list, you must pronounce the letters in order as described above and not the way you are used to in the English language. The list is as follows:
ch - the same sound as "h" (historically it was a voiced counterpart of "h" but it is no longer pronounced like that except eastern dialects of Polish spoken by old people)
ci = ć + i.
cz - the same sound as ch in English "cherry" or Charles".
dz - voiced counterpart of "c" which should be pronounced hard to distinguish from "dzi"
dź - The "Jee" sound in the English word "Jeepers" but pronounced very soft. Voiced counterpart of "ć".
dzi = dź + i
dż - The "Jj" sound in English words like "Jupiter" and "Jar". Voiced counterpart of "cz".
rz = ż (there is only one-word exception: word '(z)marznąć' (to freeze) is pronounced as separate r+z cluster, not like 'mażnąć')
si = ś + i
sz - The same sound as sh in English "shy"
After trawling through that exhaustive list you may feel a little disheartened. Don't be! The Polish language becomes easy to pronounce after understanding these rules. To help you analyse how much you understand already, take a look at this exercise. The list of words below are actually English words, but they have been spelt in Polish phonetics. Work through these words and write down what words they represent. If you are able to do this successfully, you understand Polish phonetics, and the course will become much more enjoyable after.