Hooked on Phonetics: The Differences Between Polish & English
#language & literature
full-width, Hooked on Phonetics:
The Differences Between
Polish & English, 'Czytanie' (Reading) by Jadwiga Eichlerowa, 1952, photo: Krzysztof Wilczyński / National Museum in Warsaw, center, #ffffff, czytanie_mnw.jpg
What sounds do you make when you’re stalled for words? And how well can you roll your ‘R’? The answers to questions like these often have a lot to do with your native tongue. What pronunciation pitfalls and stumbling blocks can you find on the road from English to Polish (and vice versa)?
If you dream of wow-ing your Polish friends with accent-less speech, it’s a good idea to return to the basics. Arm yourself with a smattering of linguistic facts and examples – and don’t be afraid to practice out loud!
Taking a page from the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA, for short), let’s look for a moment at the ‘schwa’, represented as a reversed and upside-down ‘E’. You can find this sound in many English words, such as ‘turn’, ‘about’ and ‘memory’. It’s the most common vowel sound in the English language, so it’s no surprise that an English speaker might resort to the schwa when faced with an unfamiliar Polish word.
The Polish Language: A Cheatsheet for Beginners
Unfortunately, you won’t find it anywhere in the Polish dictionary. (Though you may be interested to know that the Kashubian language, spoken by a minority in the northwestern corner of Poland, does have a schwa sound.) It may be difficult to let go of such a versatile and ever-present sound, but there is a silver lining: Polish has fewer, and more consistent, vowel sounds than English.
Depending on the English dialect in question, the total number of vowel sounds (also known as vowel phonemes) varies from 14 to 25. Polish, on the other hand, has around eight. In English, the letter ‘A’ has seven possible sounds; in Polish, just the one! This tends to affect Polish speakers as well, as they have to move from their dependable ‘A’ sound to a number of different options.
The English schwa and the Polish ‘A’ both come from the middle of the mouth – and with some time, you’ll be able to spot the difference without a problem. When aiming for the Polish sound, imagine your doctor pressing down onto your tongue and asking you to say ‘Ahh’. You can also find a close approximation in words like ‘father’ and ‘alms’.
Thinking out loud
Kaszëbskô Mowa: Freeing the Kashubian Language
standardowy [760 px]
Teacher and students in an elementary school in Dunajec, 1940, photo: www.audiovis.nac.gov.pl (NAC)
What filler sounds do you make when thinking? Americans tend to go for ‘uhh’ (another schwa sound), whilst Brits might make use of ‘er’ or ‘erm’. These filler words are a dead giveaway to your place of origin – it’s these little details that make or break a native speaker. Whilst filler words may be frowned upon as a sign of hesitation, the truth is that we simply can’t do without them, especially when making our way through a second language.
When thinking out loud, Poles can turn to a variety of sounds, but you can’t go wrong with the classic ‘yyy’. It sounds like the ‘i’ in sin – feel free to drop it in whenever you’re at a loss for words. Unlike its Polish counterpart, ‘Y’ in English is a versatile character. From ‘apply’ to ‘youthful’ to ‘fishy’, this chameleon shifts sounds based on the word. In Polish, however – much like the other vowels – it has one sound that never changes.
In Polish, ‘Y’ is known as ‘igrek’, coming from the phrase ‘i Graeca’ (Greek I). Another tidbit: whilst you can use ‘Y’ by itself to denote thinking, you’re not likely to find this letter at the beginning of any native Polish word – though you can find some exceptions in foreign-origin words such as ‘Yeti’ or ‘yuppie’. In other cases, it’s replaced with the letter that makes the appropriate sound; for example, ‘yacht’ becomes ‘jacht’.
How to Sound Like a Pole
standardowy [760 px]
'Czytająca' (Reading Girl) by Lucjan Adwentowicz, 1937, photo: Krzysztof Wilczyński / National Museum in Warsaw
‘Lasso’, ‘motto’, ‘horror’ – what do all these words have in common? These English words, which all appear as loanwords in Polish, have double consonants – which is where we’ll find one more difference in pronunciation. English speakers tend to treat these doubled-up consonants as one, whilst Polish speakers add a pause in the middle: ‘LAS-so’, ‘MOT-to’, ‘HOR-ror’.
This pause is known as gemination, a lengthening of consonants. Whilst it’s not a common phenomenon in English, it’s comparable to the pause in words such as ‘misspell’ or ‘unnamed’. Anecdotally, it seems that English speakers insert pauses when confronted with complex consonant clusters (Jan Brzechwa’s tongue twister ‘W Szczebrzeszynie chrząszcz brzmi w trzcinie’ [‘In (the town of) Szczebrzeszyn, a beetle’s buzzing in the reeds’] is a prime example). Fluidly pronouncing all those ‘sz’, ‘cz’ and ‘rz’ sounds one after the other is rather tricky, which is why you may feel more sure-footed when breezing past simple double consonants.
Unfortunately, it’s worth paying attention to making all the correct sounds, as meanings can change quite a bit from one consonant to two. ‘Leki’ (medicine) and ‘lekki’ (light, masculine) don’t have much in common; neither do ‘pana’ (his, formal) and ‘panna’ (lady).
Roll that ‘R’!
10 Craziest Polish Tongue Twisters
standardowy [760 px]
Irena Santor singing 'Nalej mi Wina' (Pour Me Wine), 7th National Polish Festival of Song in Opole, 1974, photo: www.audiovis.nac.gov.pl
The bane of many eager Polish learners, the dreaded ‘R’ crops up in names (Renata, Maria), nouns (‘rama’, ‘prąd’) and verbs (‘robić’, ‘kierować’) – plus every other part of speech. It may be especially difficult for those coming from Germanic languages. In English, the ‘R’ sound is made with the tongue pulled back, in the middle of the mouth. The rolling ‘R’ is instead made by tapping the roof of your mouth. (We’ve got some advice that may help further, but it’s not the end of the world if you never master the trick. Some Poles struggle with it as well.)
The pesky ‘th’
Time for a sound that you’ll only find in English – try and find the common denominator in ‘this’, ‘that’, ‘those’, ‘fifth’ or ‘anathema’… There’s truly no end to the amount of words containing those two letters, ‘th’, and they can crop up at any point in a word. You might have noticed that it, too, can differ in pronunciation.
In English, the ‘th’ sound (not including examples such as the word ‘Thailand’) can be either voiced or unvoiced, though tongue and jaw placement doesn’t change between words such as ‘think’ or ‘that’ – it’s simply about the amount of air expulsion.
For the purposes of this article, this difference is negligible, as neither sound is readily available in Polish. In fact, these two letters never even make an appearance side by side. The closest you might find is in words such as ‘tchórz’ (coward) – though even then, there’s a pesky ‘C’ separating the two, not to mention a different pronunciation!
When Poles attempt these English words, they tend to fall back to familiar ground, instead utilising a hard ‘D’ or ‘T’ sound (like in do or too). You may also hear the ‘F’ sound, such as in ‘foot’. The correct pronunciation, which involves extending the tip of your tongue between your front teeth, is not a natural position for Polish speakers, requiring practice to master.
Consistency is key
Just in Case! Polish-Language Tips for Intermediate Speakers
To round out our phonetic journey, here are a few consonant sounds you won’t have to second-guess. One sound you can be certain of is ‘Z’ (as long as it isn’t combined into a digraph or trigraph). Though it might not be found too often in English, it’s such a common element of Polish that its Scrabble tile is only worth one point!
The Polish sounds for ‘B’, ‘D’, ‘F’, ‘G’, ‘H’, ‘K’, ‘L’, ‘M’, ‘N’, ‘P’, ‘S’ and ‘T’ are also easily found in the English language – the catch being that in Polish, these letters make only one sound. For ‘G’, the proper sound is found in ‘grape’ or ‘garage’, not ‘giraffe’. The correct and incorrect ‘S’ sound can both be found in ‘scissors’. You can find plenty more information on the Polish alphabet on Culture.pl – and if you’re curious, dive in to Quarks, Elephants & Pierogi, a whole book devoted to some of Poland’s most Polish words.
You might bemoan the tricky multiple consonants and occasional nasal vowels, but practice makes perfect – any day now, you’ll be pronouncing ‘Kościuszko’ like a pro, or even dipping your toes into Poland’s rich literary world.
Written by Alicja Zapalska, Sep 2020
A Foreigner’s Guide to the Polish Alphabet