Ever felt disoriented by the strange names on the map of Poland, the seemingly unpronounceable names of Polish artists and politicians, or maybe the protagonists you come across in books? Names like Szczebrzeszyn or Dróżdż...
Polish orthography seems like one of the most difficult European writing systems, making some words appear just next to unpronounceable. But don’t worry, we will take you through the quirks of the Polish writing system in three easy steps while at the same time bringing you some of the highlights of Polish culture. Here’s how Wajda, Gombrowicz, and Maria Skłodowska-Curie can actually help you to learn the basics of Polish orthography so that you can pronounce even the hardest Polish words.
Before we start, remember that stress in Polish almost always falls on the penultimate syllable, meaning that the syllable before last should be emphasised, no matter how long the Polish word or name. Like PowoDZEnia (good luck)!
1. Andrzej Wajda, or False Friends
Let us first have a look at the name of Oscar-winning film director Andrzej Wajda. The thing to do here is to pronounce the ‘W’ as, well… a Polish W. In Polish the letter W is always pronounced like the English V, and the letter J is pronounced like an English Y. This means that Wajda should be pronounced as ‘Vayda’.
The fact that Polish is spelled with the Latin alphabet may seem reassuring to English speakers at first, but beware, some of these letters can be misleading. Another such false friend is the letter C; in Polish it is always pronounced as a TS, like in Penderecki.
2. Skłodowska, Polański, and Pągowski, or Polish diacritics
One of the most obvious problems with Polish orthography are the diacritic signs – the little dashes, tails or dots hanging above, below, or sticking across regular Latin letters. They are responsible for changing the sound and look more or less like so: ż, ó, ł, ć, ń, ś, ą. And yes, they can be extremely off-putting.
The good thing is that most Polish names (or words) which start circulating the globe tend to lose the diacritics. Still, if you want to pronounce Polish correctly you have to know them, which means that you have to know that they're there.
Diacritics hide in the names of famous Polish film directors Roman Polański and Krzysztof Kieślowski. An acute accent over the N in Polański means that it should sound much like the Spanish ñ, while the accented s in Kieślowski is a sign that it should be pronounced softly, landing somewhere between the English s and sh.
And sometimes an entire name gets lost along with a difficult diacritic. This is the case with the pioneering Polish scientist Maria Skłodowska-Curie, whose name in the English-speaking world is often reduced to Marie Curie.
But rest assured that the L in her name has a slash across it, which means that you should pronounce it like an English W. Keep that in mind, and remember that the Polish W is a false friend, and you should have no difficulties pronuncing Skłodowska.
Some diacritics can be more problematic than others. This goes especially for ę and ą, which stand for nasal e and o sounds, sounds which today are absent from other Slavic languages, but can be found in French, for example.
Knowing what you've learned already you can now correctly pronounce one of the most notoriously mispronounced Polish names – Wałęsa, the name of the Polish Solidarity leader and first president after 1989. It's Wałęsa.
But watch out! While the Ę represents the nasal E, the Ą stands for the nasal O, for instance in the name of Polish graphic designer Filip Pągowski.
For more on Polish diacritics check out our interactive Foreigner's Guide to the Polish Alphabet
3. Miłosz, Gombrowicz, Żmichowska, or those terrible Polish digraphs
So far, so good. Yet the Polish alphabet and orthography wouldn't be so famously difficult if not for the letter combinations known as digraphs. While these pairs of characters (sz, cz, rz, ch) traditionally represent one sound, they can also form clusters which to the unsuspecting eye can seem like nothing that could ever be uttered by a human being, like the word Szczebrzeszyn. But don't think Poles have some articulatory superpowers, they just know the rules.
The name of Witold Gombrowicz, the author of Ferdydurke and Kosmos, may be the most obvious example of a digraph – and one which you may know how to pronounce already. Polish Romantic bard Adam Mickiewicz is another (again, remember the first C is a false friend).
Wisława Szymborska and Czesław Miłosz, the names of two Polish Nobel prize winners in literature, can be instructive in bringing you the correct pronunciation of another digraph, SZ, which in Polish sounds just like the English SH.
Rehearsing the name of another Polish Nobel Prize winner in literature, Henryk Sienkiewicz, will help you to pick up the correct pronunciation of another digraph. SI is close to SH, but softer, and it’s equivalent to ś, as in Sienkiewicz.
The digraph CI is a similar case, as in the name of the Polish non-fiction classic Ryszard Kapuściński, whose name includes two diacritics and one digraph.
Like with letters, some digraphs can be quite confusing as they may appear to be familiar to English speakers. This is the case with CH, which in Polish is another variant of the H sound. Keep that in mind when you try pronouncing the name of the pioneering Polish feminist writer Narcyza Żmichowska (the letter Ż is pronounced as ZH) – you may not know her, but we strongly recommend her works.
Another digraph can be found hidden in the real name of Joseph Conrad. Before his emigration to Great Britain and his successful career there, he was known as Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski. As you can see, it was the surname that might have presented difficulties (RZ sounds like ZH).
Something similar happened to the Polish actress Helena Modjeska. Pursuing an acting career in America in the late 19th century, Modrzejewska (as this was her original name) decided to get rid of the RZ altogether, and thus became Modjeska. We're sure you can pronounce her name correctly.
Pronouce your Polish hero [QUIZ]
As you can see, Polish names can be quite testing. But if you like challenges, try correctly pronouncing some of these names – especially as they go along with our cultural recommendations:
Tadeusz Kościuszko – a hero in at least three nations, and a fighter for freedom in America and Poland, Kościuszko was born in Mereczowszczyzna, present-day Belarus - the name which may seem as hard to pronounce as that of the man himself. And as to Kościuszko, actually we're not even sure what the correct pronunciation of his name is.
Stanisław Dróżdż – a graphic artist with a devilishly difficult name. Is this the reason why he made letters and typography his main medium? Find out more.
Roman Cieślewicz – Cieślewicz's difficult name wasn't an obstacle in making an international career as a photographer and graphic designer, working in the 60s as art director of Vogue and Elle (imagine the French saying his name!).
Izabela Łęcka – arguably the most famous female character in Polish literature, the shamelessly vain protagonist of Bolesław (mind the Ł) Prus’ realist novel The Doll.
Józio – the protagonist of Witold Gombrowicz's early masterpiece Ferdydurke. Every highschooler in Poland knows him, you should too.
Tadzio - probably the most famous Polish figure in world literature; the haunting erotic presence of the Polish teenage boy is the leitmotif of Thomas Mann's Death in Venice (and Luchino Visconti film of the same title). Find out about other Polish heroes in world literature
Zenon Ziembiewicz – the hero of Zofia Nałkowska's novel from the 1930s, now translated into English. Can a difficult name be an obstacle to reading Polish novel in translation? Find out more in an interview with Ursula Phillips.
Teodor Szacki – His name is Szacki, Teodor Szacki. A fictional prosecutor, the main hero of Zygmunt Miłoszewski’s best-selling crime fiction trilogy. Find out if Polish crime is the next hot thing (that is, in the publishing business!)
Mariusz Szczygieł – if you like Polish non-fiction at its best and Polish letter clusters, you should check out Mariusz Szczygieł, the author of Gottland.
Wiedźmin – the Polish title of the video game known worldwide as The Witcher (also the title of a popular fantasy series by Polish writer Andrzej Sapkowski, on which the game was based).
Człowiek z żelaza – the original title of Andrzej Wajda's 1981 movie Man of Iron. Jarringly critical of the Communist regime, it depicted the early success of the Solidarity movement, just before it was suppressed by the government in 1981.
Feel like taking on a bigger challenge? Check out The 9 Most Unpronouncable Polish Words