How to Sound Like a Pole
#language & literature
small, How to Sound Like a Pole, Still from the Polish motion picture 'Bolek i Lolek', directed by Michał Waszyński, 1936. Pictured: Michał Znicz, Adolf Dymsza, and Maria Chmurkows, dymsza_adolf_ej_no.jpg
Not longer than one syllable, these words may look insignificant or even useless – but they are at the very core of everyday Polish usage. These sounds will not only help you understand Poles speaking their language at its most idiomatic, but they can actually make you sound Polish without knowing the language at all.
Even their status in a Polish sentence and daily communication is uncertain, from the phatic to the onomatopoeic or interjectional. Some of them defy translation, and all are deeply rooted in the domain of the idiomatic and conversational. They are words made to be used or performed – as much depends on how you actually say them.
Pstryk! Skrzyp! Zgrzyt! The Bizarre Sounds of Polish Onomatopoeia
There are a few secrets to speaking like a Pole, but it’s actually these little words that may help you survive in Poland and boost your communication skills – without forcing you to actually learn the language the hard way (or worse still, deal with some of those near unpronounceable words). In fact, they may be crucial in transforming you into someone who actually sounds like a Pole.
Sound it out...
Ała! – This yelp is a natural intuitive Polish reaction to a sudden sensation of pain or discomfort, like being pinched by a needle or getting a mild shock... The shortened version ał is also used – but if you want to sound more expressive, make sure you use the longer variant and stress the last syllable emphatically. If executed properly, the utterance can carry a tinge of accusation against the cause or source of pain. (The English equivalent would be 'yeow!' or 'yowl', 'ouch' or 'ow').
Ba! – This little word can serve as a slightly ironic expression of confirmation or utmost agreement with the statement made by your interlocutor. As if what this person were saying were so obvious that it wouldn't be worth anything more than this round syllable... Well, duh!
Brrrrr – This phrase may be familiar if you’re used to the feeling of biting cold you’re surely likely to experience during long Polish winters. Use it when waiting at a bus stop on a cold night, as that’s when a perfect pronunciation of Polish R’s will come out almost automatically.
Ćśś – Much like the English ‘shh!’, use this one to hush someone acting too loudly in a public space – perhaps a fellow cinema-goer talking over the film to their friend. This may be a little difficult at first, as the correct pronunciation involves proficiency in producing the so-called ‘alveolo-palatal’ sounds, which tend to be in a tongue-twisting cluster… But although ćśśśś may look really challenging, just imagine it as a vowel reduction of the Polish word cisza ('silence'). Otherwise, feel free to consult our Foreigner’s Guide to the Polish Alphabet.
The Many Different Names of Poland
Ej! – is quite an unkind way to catch someone’s attention (like when you see someone dropping a wallet and moving away briskly). You can try hej or halo with a similar intention and effect. In most cases, you will be probably better off using the polite and loud: przepraszam - though you might need some pronunciation instructions for this one.
Fu, Fuj, Fe – Polish has its F-words! Fu (or Fuj) is a sign of disgust, resulting from a bad smell or taste, or actually any yucky occurrence that might fill you with disgust. Fe is used in a similar context, but it’s actually something you say to a dog or a baby when you want to make sure they’re not sniffing at something dirty…
Iiiiiii – This high-pitched sound (also eeeee) reflects disregard or slight scorn in regard to someone or something. You can combine it with the word tam for best effect: Iiiiiii tam! This might be one to avoid, unless someone is really making ill-founded comments about you.
No – This is not what it looks like. It’s actually the opposite of how it looks to an English eye. No! is an exclamation you use when you agree with someone – a way of acquiescing with the interlocutor, which, depending on the execution (and the age of the interlocutor) can be considered rude. But no is also a sign of encouragement, if you want someone to continue.
Mhm – Similar to the English equivalent, this is a rather inarticulate nasal sound which Poles produce when they want to signal an affirmative answer to a question, or just imply that they understand what they’re being told and are willing to keep listening. Example: ‘You look tired... wanna take a break?’ ‘Mhm.’
7 Words in English You Didn’t Know Came From Polish
Mmmmm – This may look like the previous one, but its usage, function and sound are quite different. Poles produce this nasal sound when they’re considering what they should say, as if looking for the right word or sense.
Tfu – This is actually the Polish onomatopoetic word for spitting. In daily communication, however, it can signify dissatisfaction, contempt or simply the fact that one has made a slip of the tongue and wants to correct oneself. This usage actually implies that what Poles want to do here is, metaphorically speaking, spit out the wrong word, which would be quite a feat.
Still from the Polish motion picture 'Bolek i Lolek' directed by Michał Waszyński, 1936. Pictured: Michał Znicz, Adolf Dymsza, and Maria Chmurkowska, photo: Polfilm / EN
Yyyyyyyyy – This is how Poles sound when they don’t know what to say. When written in text, this ‘word’ marks a pause in speech (in this respect, it’s similar to mmmmmm - see above). But yyyyyyy is also one of the sounds Polish schools teach you to avoid, as it supposedly makes you sound... well, not very intelligent. And yet, it’s probably the most natural, almost intuitive sound which Poles make when they are at odds as to what they should say or how they should say it. And as we all know, sometimes it’s better to say yyyyyyyyy rather than say something you don’t really mean.
Written by Mikołaj Gliński, 29 Nov 2016