The Polish alphabet has 32 letters, nine of which are unique. Considering that some of the letters form digraphs and even one trigraph, this adds up to a total of 17 signs, which you‘ll unfortunately have to learn by heart. On the other hand, once you know them all, you’ll be able to pronounce any Polish word.
2016 update: You can read the fancy new multimedia version of our guide to the Polish alphabet by clicking on the image below. It includes listen-along examples!
The Polish language has always had issues with the Latin alphabet. Ever since the 12th century, when the language first started to be written down in the Latin script, scribes were struggling to fit the mind-boggling abundance of Slavic phonology (estimated at that time to comprise 12 vowels and 33 consonants) into the 23 letters of the Latin alphabet.
It got easier over time. Over the years and with the help of a few diacritic signs (like the ogonek , the kropka , and the kreska) Polish has developed all the necessary letters for its specific needs: Ą, Ć, Ę, Ł, Ń, Ó, Ś, Ź, Ż. (Also, it dropped ‘useless’ Latin letters such as Q, V, X, preserved in the English alphabet.)
To complicate things further, there’s more to the terrible Polish orthography. Polish also features a few curiosities, like its digraphs CH, CZ, DZ, DŹ, DŻ, RZ, SZ, and even one trigraph: DZI.
This adds up to a total of 17 letters and letter combinations unknown to English speakers. But, no worries - we will take you through those strange letters step by step. So read up, and soon you’ll be able to master such monstrous monstrsities, as our most famous tongue-twister: W Szczebrzeszynie chrząszcz brzmi w trzcinie [fʂt͡ʂɛbʐɛʂɨɲɛ xʂɔɰ̃ʂt͡ʂ bʐmi ftʂt͡ɕiɲɛ].
Choose your difficulty level:
Step 1. False Friends
Before we go into details and start explaining the letters unique to the Polish alphabet, we must make one thing clear. Some Polish letters are impostors. For example:
- C - unless followed by the letter ‘i’, is pronounced ‘ts’ (as in ’tsunami’) - never ‘k’ like in the word ‘cat’.
EXAMPLE: the word co, pronounced ’tso’ meaning ‘what’.
- W - is always pronounced ’v’ like van, so forget the weird way English-speakers pronounce their ‘w’.
EXAMPLE: Wietnam (pronounced like in English)
Another false friend - J in Polish is pronounced‘y’, like the ‘y’ sound in ‘yeti’.
EXAMPLE: lojalny, pronounced ‘lo-yal-neh’, meaning ‘loyal’.
TRIVIA: Though J might seem like an honest character among our complicated letters, since it used to be written as ‘i’, or sometimes 'y' or 'g.' It has caused significant controversy among Polish scholars and linguists. Despite having been introduced in Polish as early as the 16th century, by a man fittingly called Jan Januszowski, it remained the most contested letter in Polish orthography up until the 19th century when it was finally accepted for good. One of the greatest J-adversaries, Jan Śniadecki, called it the “bad grammatical spirit”, ‘an intruder’, or even the “Gdańsk bastard’. [The letter J was used in the 1632 protestant edition of the Bible published in Gdańsk]
N.B. The Polish ‘r’ is rolled like in Spanish or Russian. If you have trouble making the sound, start out by saying a double ‘d’ sound like in ‘Eddy.’
Step 2. Ogonki, kreski, kropki… - Polish Diacritics
OK, now we’re ready to take a look at the diverse world of Polish diacritics. Here’s a little hint:
- ogonek means little tail and is responsible for nasalizing vowel sounds - ą, ę;
- kreska (acute accent) means either palatalization as in ś, ć, ) or turns o into u;
- kropka (overdot) is only used with ż;
- the slash across letters is used only with ł
Here are the 9 Polish letters formed with diacritics:
- Ć - like ‘ch’ in China, except softer
EXAMPLE: This letter is most often found in infinitive verbs like pić (to drink), spać (to sleep), wstać (to get up).
- Ś - Again, this is like ’sh’ in ‘shore’ only much softer.
EXAMPLE: ślub, śpiew meaning respectively wedding, singing
- Ń - this is a palatalized n, a sound close to the Spanish ñ, but you’ll find it also in ‘onion’.
EXAMPLE: Famous director Roman Polański, even though English media often drop the ń
- Ź – has no English equivalent. It is very similar to Ż, except softer. The differentiation between soft and hard consonants is one of the hardest features to conquer, but fortunately people will understand you even if you can’t quite pull them off.
EXAMPLE: The surname Woźniak
- CI, SI, ZI, NI - Please note that the four abovementioned phonemes (ć,ś, ź and ń) have an alternative notation. When standing before a vowel they are written as ci, si, zi, ni, but they sound the same.
EXAMPLE: The common Polish surname Zieliński is pronounced ‘zhel-een’skee, with the ź sound at the beginning
- Ó - looks like ‘o’ but you pronounce it as English /oo/, as in moon. This means it is pronounced just the same as Polish u.
TRIVIA: Ó is the bane of Polish schoolchildren, who never know if a word is written with ó or u, but etymologically speaking, it is very useful. Basically ó is a sign that centuries earlier, this was still a regular o sound. One of such examles is król (king). Knowing this, one can correctly deduce that it comes from the name Karol (Carolus, or Karl) - the emperor of Franks and the one time Europe's most powerful ruler went on to become the generic name for king in many languages in eastern and Central Europe (Compare: Czech král, Croatian Kralj, Russian король, Lithuanian karalius and Hungarian Király).
- Ż - [ʒ] /zh/, like "s" in the English word "measure", pronounced exactly like ‘rz’ (see below).
EXAMPLE: żyrafa a giraffe.
- Ą - one of the two nasal sounds preserved in Polish. Interestingly, the sound represented by Ą is not a nasal A, but rather nasal O (which would make a different notation (ǫ) more sensible). It sounds more or less like ‘on’ in ‘wrong.’
EXAMPLES: Polish doughnuts are called pączki and have recently become trendy in the Western world, where they are sometimes anglicised as ‘ponchki’
- Ę - a nasal E, most often encountered as the ending of first person singular conjugation, but when it is at the end of a word, it is almost inaudible. In the middle of a word, it sounds like ‘in’ in ‘bin.’
EXAMPLE: Dziękuję, the Polish word for ‘thank you’
TRIVIA: Polish and Kashubian are the only two Slavic languages to have preserved the historic nasal vowels, which were once typical for all Slavic languages. In laguages like Compare Pol. dąb (oak) and Russian Дуб (dub), Polish ręka (hand) and Rus. рука (ruka).
- Ł - The mysterious ł with a slash is pronounced like an English ’w’ like in the word ‘wool.’
EXAMPLE: Forget the English pronunciation of Wałęsa, and try to say it the Polish way!
TRIVIA: Until very recently, ł was pronounced more or less like an English l – the so-called dark l.You can still find older people in Poland who say it like that, but if anyone below 80 pronounces ł in prewar fashion, it, sounds cheesy..
Now, you know all the letters using diacritic signs, which means you are ready to pronounce a test sentence containing all the Polish diacritic letters:
Zażółć gęślą jaźń
(Don’t worry about the meaning, it’s nonsense)
Step 3. Digraphs and Trigraph
Even though these agglomerations of consonants may look frightening, they all represent a single sound, many of which exist in English.
- CZ - like ‘ch’ like in ‘change’.
EXAMPLE: ponczo, the polonized spelling of the Spanish word ‘poncho’ is pronounced like its English counterpart. You can also use it to greet Polish acquaintances: Cześć means ‘hello’!
- SZ - approximates the English ‘sh’ in ‘shape’.
EXAMPLE: szal, a scarf or a shawl, or proszę, meaning Please - but to be also used on other occasions, like when saying Pardon!, Go ahead!, Here you are!, Not at all!, Well, Well!, and Come in! - Proszę covers them all.
You can also try saying Tadeusz Kościuszko now or check out his amazing life here
- RZ - exactly like ż: /zh/
EXAMPLE: rzecz (thing), Rzeczpospolita (republic) - used as another word for Poland.
TRIVIA: Another etymological hint. It indicates a former ‘r’ sound. For example, the word rzeka (river) in Polish will be reka in Russian, rijeka in Croatian, etc.
N.B.: There are a couple of exceptions, Tarzan, mierzić, marznąć - in those cases you would pronounce rz as r and z separately.
- DZ - it is close to ’ts’, but voiced like in ‘podzol’
EXAMPLE: dzban, a pitcher
- DŻ - is pronounced as g in gel or J in Jennifer
EXAMPLE: dżem, jam – like the sweet fruit paste, not like traffic on the road. You can now pronounce the name Stanisław Dróżdż - find out more about this pioneering artist of Concrete poetry.
- DŹ - Trying to say d+ź should do the trick here.
EXAMPLE: dźwig (lift), dźwięk (sound)
- CH - pronounced just like H.
EXAMPLE: cholera - both a disease and a popular curse word.
TRIVIA: The alternative ch spelling again indicates that the two sounds differed at a one point in history. H alone represented a voiced glottal fricative /ɦ/ , ch - a voiceless velar fricative /x/. The Czech language still maintains this distinction. Also, you can still find people - born in the Eastern lands formerly belonging to Poland - that pronounce h the old way (which makes herbata [tea] sound really crude).
- DZI - Polish has also one trigraph DZI, pronounced like dź.
EXAMPLE: dziewczyna, a girl, or dziękuję (see above)
And that’s it! Now you can pronounce sentences like:
Pójdźże, kiń tę chmurność w głąb flaszy,
It uses pretty much everything you’ve just learned.
Step 4. How to Misspell Polish...
Now that you know all the intricacies of Polish alphabet, it might have crossed your mind that things could be much simpler. In fact, over the years the complexity of the Polish alphabet gave rise to several attempts at reforming Polish orthography. The most famous, as well as the most radical of them, came in 1921 with the publishing of the ephemeral Futurist newspaper called "Nuż w bżuhu", edited by poets Bruno Jasieński and Anatol Stern.
The paper was printed on November 13, 1921 in poster format and written in a simplified version of Polish alphabet, with all words being written phonetically. The Futurists discarded of all alternative notation, ridding Polish of all ni, si, zi, as well as rz, ó, ch - which as you know can also be written as ń, ś, ź and ż, u, h. That's how Nóż w brzuchu (meaning: Knife in the belly) became Nuż w bżuhu.
However, Jasieński's reformative effort was met with dismay and even outrage. Critics saw it as an assault on Polish language and tradition, and linked it with its authors' Communist sympathies. As a result, all the copies of the paper were confiscated by censorship. Writing Polish could have been so much easier...
Author: Mikołaj Gliński, 7 July 2015