The notoriously difficult phonology of the Polish language has always caused much trouble and confusion for neighbouring nations. But what are the absolute hardest words?
Germans look at Polish and see incomprehensible series of consonants. While to the east, Polish sounds so strange to Russians that they even have a verb for Poles speaking their language: pshekat. To top it off, Czechs think Poles sound like Czech children with a speech defect.
What makes Polish sound so uniquely challenging? While most individual sounds are known to English-speakers ‒ read our listen-along Foreigner’s Guide to the Polish Alphabet if you don’t believe us ‒ things go downhill once they’re lumped together into actual words.
The most troublesome feature of Polish orthography is what linguists call complex consonant clusters ‒ series of consonants without any vowels. They occur in many languages, including English; for example, in the word ‘shrug’ the letters shr form a consonant cluster. But while English usually draws the line at three consonants, Polish sometimes joins as many as five consonants, a phenomenon called the Polish syllable structure, which is allegedly surpassed only by Georgian in terms of complexity.
Naturally, we've picked some outstandingly difficult examples of this damning syllable structure for you to have a crack at. Good luck!
This word is comprised purely of Polish letters ‒ Latin letters that were modified with Polish diacritic signs. In terms of pronunciation, English-speakers still stand a chance, but they would need to know the sound every letter stands for... (Incidentally, this all-Polish word means ‘bile’. Could the choleric Polish temperament result from their impossible language?)
If you think happiness is hard to find, try pronouncing it in Polish! The Polish word for ‘happiness’ consists of a sequence of two Polish digraphs (sz, cz), a nasal e sound, the Polish diacritic ś, another digraph (ci), and a final e (which is probably the only sound you’ll be able to pronounce on your first go).
With a name like this, this town in Southern Poland certainly stands out on the map. But despite looking rather daunting, Pszczyna features only three consonants one after the other (the digraphs sz and cz stand for one sound each). But we’re just getting started in terms of difficulty...
The final letter sequence in the Polish word for ‘consequence’ features a headache-inducing cluster of four consonants, but don’t worry. You’re not likely to encounter ‘następstw’ too often since it is the genitive plural (and thus not frequently used) form of the word ‘następstwo’. What’s genitive plural, you ask? In Polish, words like adjectives and nouns have six or seven versions depending on their grammatical function in a sentence. But never mind that now.
We’re sorry. We know ‘źdźbło’ looks really awful. But no worries, it’s actually only four sounds, not five: Ź, DŹ, B, Ł. Surely, that's slightly helpful news? Either way, this terribly difficult word means ‘a grass-stalk’.
Here we have five consonants AND five sounds to be pronounced. Fittingly, it means ‘ruthless’.
Now that you’re an expert, the name of this small village shouldn’t pose too much difficulty (the longest consonant cluster is a mere three consonants long). You will be reassured to learn that it is one the longest place names in Poland and most places you'll visit are actually easier to pronounce.
Another town, Szczebrzeszyn is famous for being the beginning of the most famous Polish tongue-twister. Ready?
W Szczebrzeszynie chrząszcz brzmi w trzcinie
It means ‘In Szczebrzeszyn, a beetle buzzes in the reed’. No? Try again! Here’s a little hint (if you're down with the phonetic alphabet):
fʂt͡ʂɛbʐɛˈʂɨɲɛ ˈxʂɔ̃ʂt͡ʂ ˈbʐmi fˈtʂt͡ɕiɲɛ
This fiendish line was concocted by Polish poet Jan Brzechwa (whose name is fittingly also quite challenging). Because of this verse, Szczebrzeszyn is sometimes considered the spelling capital of Poland, and it hosts an annual festival of literature.
9. Grzegorz Brzęczyszczykiewicz
This name appears in the cult Polish movie How I Unleashed World War II when a Polish prisoner pretends to be thus named in order to thwart the Nazi officer who has to keep track of prisoners’ identities. His reaction is probably illustrative of most foreigners’ frustration with our devilish Polish phonology.
Bonus: try putting them all together!
Apologies in advance...
The ruthless Grzegorz Brzęczyszczykiewicz went from Szczebrzeszyn to Szymankowszczyzna and then Pszczyna. And though he was sometimes overwhelmed with bile, oblivious of the consequences, he eventually found happiness in a tiny leaf of grass.
Bezwzględny Grzegorz Brzęczyszczykiewicz wyruszył ze Szczebrzeszyna przez Szymankowszczyznę do Pszczyny. I choć nieraz zalewała go żółć, niepomny następstw znalazł ostatecznie szczęście w źdźble trawy.
How did that go? Well? Not so well? Let us know in the comments, and feel free to leave us a question! Or just go to our guide to Polish pronunciation where film director Andrzej Wajda can teach you how to do it properly.
Author: Mikołaj Gliński, 28 July 2016