Tadeusz Kościuszko is arguably the most famous Polish figure in world history, and a variety of places around the world were named after him, from the Americas to Australia. But can you pronounce his name correctly? Does anyone pronounce it correctly?
For now, don't worry if you can't. The pronunciation and spelling of Kościuszko's name has posed problems since the very start, that is, since the late 18th century. President Washington reportedly wrote the name of the Polish hero of the American Revolution in eleven different ways. Unfortunately, we don't know how he pronounced it.
The chief of a local Miami tribe, who visited Kościuszko in Philadelphia, would also find it confusing. As he later told his tribe, he had made friends with a righteous white man by the name of... Kotcho.
In the US, Kościuszko's name, in a markedly simplified spelling, became the name of several geographic locations, among them Kosciusko Bridge in New York, Kosciusko Island in Alaska, and several towns and villages scattered across the country. As a result, the traditional English pronunciation approximates anything from Kos-ee-oss-ko to Ko-shoo-sko.
But if you saw the 2006 film Borat and remember the scene where the protagonist visits a local television station, interrupting the weather forecast and wreaking havoc along the way, you might also know that the US pronunciation can approximate anything close to ‘Cause-cow-sko’.
In Australia, where Kościuszko is the name of the country's highest mountain (along with a whole array of other geographical venues), it is written closer to its original Polish spelling, and is pronounced Kaw-zee-osko.
And if you think Kosciuszko's name is a mouthful, imagine singing it! Yet it’s been done: give a listen to this pop song by Australian band Midnight Oil .
By now you're probably ready to learn the Polish pronunciation of Kościuszko, which is Kosh-chush-ko - a rather far echo of the contemporary American and Australian variants, right? See the video below to learn the Polish pronunciation.
The Kościuszko conundrum
So now you've learned the correct pronunciation of Kościuszko... Or maybe not. Because, in a way, why should the Polish pronunciation be ultimately authoritative? The problem with pronouncing Kościuszko's name correctly goes beyond the admittedly difficult aspects of Polish alphabet and pronunciation, and touches on delicate cultural, social and ethnic issues specific to the region where Kościuszko was born. So what does Kościuszko's name actually tell us about these historical realities of Eastern Europe?
Kościuszko was born and grew up in what is today western Belarus, an area which at the time of his birth in the mid-18th century was part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, but which earlier comprised the core of another powerful polity known as the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Referred to traditionally as Litwa (Lithuania) in Polish, this multi-cultural region was inhabited by several ethnicities, among them Belarusians, Jews, Poles, Tatars, and Lithuanians.
The Kościuszkos were one of the many local Belarusian (or Ruthenian, to use a more historically accurate term) families which earned merit holding office in the administration of the Grand Duchy. The family name itself goes back to a 15th-century ancestor by the name of Konstanty, nicknamed Kostiuszka or Kastsiushka (Касьцю́шка). This nickname would later become a family name in its own right.
Like many local families the Kościuszkos were Orthodox Christians, which may be another indication of a Belarusian, rather than Polish, background. It was only in a later process of Polonisation that the family converted to Catholicism (which happened only in the second half of the 17th century) and started speaking Polish, which by then was the lingua franca of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.
With all this in mind, the Belarusian pronunciation of Kościuszko certainly appears legitimate, and even historically accurate.
While we obviously don't know how Kościuszko pronounced his own name, one could infer he would have enjoyed the 'provincial', 'rustic' pronunciation of his name in the tongue of the local community, which was the language of his ancestors and which he had likely heard growing up along with peasant kids in the Belarusian countryside.
This would also be in keeping with the egalitarian and democratic ideals which became the driving force behind his impeccable character and the constant struggle for freedom which earned him a place in history books. Accordingly, many Belarusians consider Kościuszko a national hero and a key figure of their own national history.
And how do speakers of Belarusian actually pronounce his name? Well, quite differently: It’s Kas-tsyush-ka. And they have songs about him too, like the one by the Belarusian punk band Dzietsiuki.
Hence, the complicated cultural background of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth makes the task of pronouncing Kościuszko's name correctly quite aporetic if not altogether impossible. On the other hand, Kościuszko's role in world history and his subsequent ascension to fame legitimises the many pronunciations appearing around the world. So from Kotcscho and Kosciusko to Kastcyushka and Kościuszko, there are plenty of pretty legitimate options – just pick your favourite.
Read how Kościuszko's given name, Tadeusz, made an international career here.