10 Craziest Polish Tongue Twisters
From tongue-twisters that could save your life to ones that could twist your eye. Here’s the top ten Polish tongue twisters, thoroughly explained and annotated – not that it makes them any easier to pronounce!
Polish has a reputation for being particularly difficult to pronounce for foreigners. Here are some of the most famous Polish tongue twisters that give even Poles a headache and prove that this tongue can be a dangerous tool in your mouth. And remember, you’re doing it at your own risk!
1. Soczewica, koło, miele młyn
Meaning: ‘Lentil, wheel, mill grinds’
The earliest recorded Polish tongue twister appeared in the early 14th century – and it’s one which could actually save your life. The word sequence was reportedly used by the soldiers of Polish king Władysław Łokietek to tell loyal citizens of Kraków from the revolted townspeople many of whom were of German descent. As the story goes, those who couldn’t pronounce the words correctly had their heads cut off.
Compared with the other tongue twisters, soczewica koło miele młyn isn’t particularly demanding – but for a Mediaeval shibboleth which could cost you your life, it will do.
2. Pójdźże, kiń tę chmurność w głąb flaszy
Google Translate: ‘Come on, stick this cloud into the bottom of the flask’
Not a real tongue twister, but rather a warm up. This prevalently meaningless sentence contains all 32 characters of the Polish alphabet – which means it’s a pangram! You’re going to need many of these characters (and a couple more digrams) to read this phrase (if you don’t know what digrams might be, check our interactive guide to the Polish alphabet).
For now, you can further practice with these pangrams by poet Julian Tuwim:
Leż, dość późnych kłamstw, rąb fuzję, giń!
Pchnąć w tę łódź jeża lub ośm skrzyń fig.
3. Stół z powyłamywanymi nogami
Meaning: ‘A table with broken legs’
This is a favourite with many Polish children (or probably it’s a favourite with adults who use it to torture children). As you can see, the difficulty here lies not in the sequence of specific difficult Polish sounds, but rather in the middle part of the ‘powyłamywanymi’ word – a source of eternal fun. Once you’re through with this one, try upgrading to ‘a ladder with broken rungs’:
Drabina z powyłamywanymi szczeblami.
But we’re still only warming up!
(With older children you can try: Ząb zupa zębowa, dąb zupa dębowa. Although it ostensibly means ‘Tooth, tooth soup, oak, oak soup’, failed attempts usually result in people uttering a certain low and cheeky Polish word…)
4. Król Karol kupił królowej Karolinie korale koloru koralowego
Meaning: ‘King Carol bought coral-coloured beads for Queen Caroline’
The troubling alternation between the trill R and approximant L is a classic humour inducer among many languages. (At least those that have a distinction between R and L – sorry, Japanese!) Also, note that the sentence is an example of a tautogram: all the words start with the same letter.
5. Lojalna Jola i nielojalna Jola
Meaning: ‘Loyal Jola and disloyal Jola’
This one works in a similar way by contrasting the Polish J and L. Don’t mind the slightly sexist connotations, just keep calm and try saying it!
6. W czasie suszy szosa sucha
Meaning: ‘In dry weather, the street is dry’
Alternating between the fricatives s and sz within a short fragment of text gives even Poles a headache. And the ż sound (which could also be represented as rz) is also awfully close – just try saying:
I cóż że ze Szwecji? (‘So what that it’s from Sweden?’)
Or just say ślusarz (‘locksmith’) – if you can!
7. Czy rak trzyma w szczypcach strzęp szczawiu czy trzy części trzciny
Meaning: ‘Does a crab hold in its claws a piece of dock [the plant] or three pieces of reed?’
Combine fricatives with affricates (c, ć, cz / dz, dź, dż) and we have a problem. But keep trying:
Czy trzy cytrzystki grają na cytrze,
czy druga gwiżdże, a trzecia łzy trze?
The above examples show the Polish tongue as a truly dangerous and potentially (self-) destructive weapon. One can almost understand now a certain apocryphal Sara Bernhardt quote. Asked about how she liked the Polish language, the famous actress reportedly replied:
A lot, it's as if someone was chewing glass.
You can probably see now, as in the self-referential line from Jacek Kaczmarski’s song Elekcja, that this sabre-like Polish language really ‘cuts, whizzes and crunches’. But the original line in Polish is obviously so much better:
Szablistą polszczyzną tnie, świszcze i chrzęści
8. W Szczebrzeszynie chrząszcz brzmi w trzcinie
Meaning: ‘In Szczebrzeszyn, a beetle buzzes in the reed’
This classic line from a children’s poem by Jan Brzechwa has all the best (and the worst) out there in stock for anyone who wants to speak (or utter) Polish. The combinations of digraph sounds (sz, cz, and rz) clustered with consonants (b, ch, t) make it not only a particularly challenging tongue twister, but also (for those unaccustomed to the peculiar Polish orthography) a bit of an eye-twister. And yes, Szczebrzeszyn is a real town – today it’s famous not only for its beetle but also an annual festival of Polish language, as it has become its unofficial capital.
In case your eyes and tongue still feel up to the task, try this:
Przeleciały trzy pstre przepiórzyce przez trzy pstre kamienice (‘’)
9. I wespół w zespół by żądz moc móc zmóc
Meaning: We're not even going to try translate this one!
But don’t be misled into thinking that Polish is only a source of torment for its users. Under the pen of the grand masters of Polish language, like Jeremi Przybora from the legendary TV show Kabaret Starszych Panów, these potentially lethal qualities were turned into instruments of pure intellectual (and sensual) pleasure. But don’t try it alone at home lest you irreparably sprain your mouth! Here it is interpreted by the great Wiesław Michnikowski.
And here’s proof that Polish, despite all its terrible tongue-twisting qualities, is often very beautiful and melodic. For the second stanza of Julian Tuwim’s poem Słowisień, you won’t be getting a translation, as the poem was written using an invented variety of Polish. So, just let it flow...
A gdy sierpiec na niebłoczu łyście,
W cieniem ciemnie jeno niedośpiewy
W białodrzewiu ćwirnie i srebliście
Słowik słowi słowisieńskie ciewy.
A gdy sierpiec na niebłoczu łyście...
Author: Mikołaj Gliński, 4 Sept 2017