How Wajda, Skłodowska and Gombrowicz Can Teach You Proper Polish Pronunciation
#language & literature
small, How Wajda, Skłodowska and Gombrowicz Can Teach You Proper Polish Pronunciation, Andrzej Wajda, 2007, photo: INTERFOTO / Forum, wajda andrzej portrety 15_6906907.jpg
Ever felt disoriented by the strange names on the map of Poland, the seemingly unpronounceable names of Polish artists and politicians, or even of protagonists you come across in books? Names like Szczebrzeszyn or Dróżdż... Never fear: Culture.pl is here to help!
Polish orthography can seem like one of the most difficult European writing systems, with some words appearing next to unpronounceable. Here, we'll take you through the quirks of the Polish writing system in three easy steps and, at the same time, bring you some of the highlights of Polish culture. Here’s how Andrzej Wajda, Witold Gombrowicz and Maria Skłodowska-Curie can help you learn the basics of Polish orthography.
A Foreigner’s Guide to the Polish Alphabet
Before we start, remember that the stress in Polish almost always falls on the penultimate syllable – the syllable before last. That's the syllable that should be emphasised, no matter the length of the Polish word or name in question. Like powodzenia ('Po-wod-ZEN-ya') ... which means 'good luck'!
Andrzej Wajda, or false friends
Let's first have a look at the name of the 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: ‘VIE-da’.
If you can master that, you're (almost) ready to pronounce the last name of the Polish pope John Paul II, Karol Wojtyła. Or at least refrain from pronouncing his name as 'Whattiler' – which, according to Norman Davies, was one of the early British attempts at pronouncing the name once the news of the pope's election broke in October 1978.
Autobiography - John Paul II
The fact that Polish is spelled with the Latin alphabet may seem reassuring to English speakers at first – but beware. Apart from W and J, there's one other letter that can prove misleading. Another such false friend is the letter C. In Polish, C is always pronounced as a 'ts' sound, as in the name Penderecki ('Pen-der-ETS-key').
Skłodowska, Polański & Pągowski, or Polish diacritics
One of the most obvious problems with Polish orthography lies in its unique diacritical marks – the little dashes, tails or dots hanging above, below or crossing through the oridinary Latin letters. These actually make for six additional letters, each with its own sound, in the Polish alphabet. They look more or less like so: ż, ó, ł, ć, ń, ś, ą. And yes, they can be extremely off-putting!
The good news is that most Polish names (or words) which start circulating the globe tend to lose their diacritics. Still, if you want to pronounce Polish correctly, you'll have to get familiar with them, which means you have to know where they should be.
Etymological Dictionary of the Polish Language – Wiesław Boryś
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. The accented Ś in Kieślowski, meanwhile, is a sign that it should be pronounced softly, landing somewhere between the sound of the English letter S and the 'sh' sound.
Sometimes an entire name gets lost along with a difficult diacritic. This is the case with the pioneering Polish scientist Maria Skłodowska-Curie. In the English-speaking world, her name is often shortened to simply 'Marie Curie'. But don't forget that what may look like an L in her name actually has a slash across it – Ł – which means that you should pronounce it like an English W. Remember that the Polish W is a false friend, and you should have no difficulties pronuncing Skłodowska: 'Skwo-DOVE-ska'). (Which, by the way, also solves the case of Wojtyła.)
Some Polish letters donning diacritics can be more problematic than others. This goes especially for Ę and Ą, which stand for nasal E and O sounds. Today, these sounds are absent from other Slavic languages, although they can be found in French, for example.
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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. But watch out! While the Ę represents the nasal E, the Ą stands for the nasal O – found, for instance, in the name of Polish graphic designer Filip Pągowski.
Miłosz, Gombrowicz & Żmichowska, or those terrible Polish digraphs
Witold Gombrowicz in Vence, France; photo: Bohdan Paczowski
So far, so good. And 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. Take the word Szczebrzeszyn. But don't think that Poles possess some kind of articulatory superpowers ... they just know the rules.
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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 already know how to pronounce by now. The Polish Romantic bard Adam Mickiewicz is another (again, remember that 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 learning 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. The sound of si in Polish is close to the English 'sh' – but softer, and it’s equivalent to the Polish letter Ś.
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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.
As 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 is another variant of the H sound in Polish. 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').
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 (her original name) decided to get rid of the rz altogether. Thus, she became Modjeska. We're sure you can pronounce her name correctly.
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Pronouce your Polish hero
As you can see, Polish names can be quite confusing and require some practice. When you're ready for a challenge, try correctly pronouncing some of these names (which, of course, go along with our cultural recommendations!):
Tadeusz Kościuszko – Bringing Freedom to Both Sides of the Atlantic
- 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 (a name which may seem as hard to pronounce as that of the man himself!).
- 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 (his name undoubtedly posing a challenge for his French colleagues as well!).
- Izabela Łęcka – arguably the most famous female character in Polish literature, the shamelessly vain protagonist of Bolesław (mind the Ł) Prus’s realist novel The Doll (originally: Lalka).
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- Józio – the protagonist of Witold Gombrowicz's early masterpiece Ferdydurke. Every highschooler in Poland knows him, and you should too!
- Tadzio – possibly 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 the Luchino Visconti film of the same title).
- Zenon Ziembiewicz – the hero of Zofia Nałkowska's 1930s novel The Frontier (originally: Granice), now translated into English by Ursula Phillips. Can a difficult name be an obstacle to reading Polish novel in translation?
- Teodor Szacki – A fictional prosecutor, Szacki is 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!).
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- 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, is 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 – before it was suppressed by the government in 1981.
Written by Mikołaj Gliński, 29 Jul 2016