Tips To Perfect Your Polish Accent
The sounds of Polish can be quite alien to English-speakers, but it is a very expressive, dramatic language that is fun to speak. The harsh sh, ch and zh sounds, as well as the hard j,are all very distinctive, as are the “hissing” sounds of the language. It can seem daunting at first; however, it just takes a little practice to get used to the more unusual elements of the language’s pronunciation.
The best way to get familiar with the Polish accent is to listen to as much Polish as you can. Just as you train yourself in the written language with books; it is essential to work on the spoken language with multimedia resources. The Internet provides access to a wide range of Polish TV, movies and music, all of which are great tools for tuning your ear (and tongue!) to the way Polish is spoken, and you will also learn about contemporary Polish popular culture. This guide gives an introduction to the basics of Polish pronunciation and provides a good starting point for those new to the language.
Special Characters and their Pronunciation
Diacritics (accents on letters) deeply affect the pronunciation of Polish. You must pay attention to the diacritics because words will sound completely different if you ignore the special letters of the Polish language. To give a well-known example, the leader of the Solidarity Freedom Movement and the later Prime Minister of Poland, Lech Wałęsa, is frequently written in English texts without ł and ę.
These characters are not l and e (Polish has those characters too), but wholly separate letters. ł gives a w sound, while ę gives an en sound, and w is always pronounced as v in Polish. The result is that “Wałęsa” is pronounced “Va-wen-sa,” not “Wa-ley-sa.” From this example, you can see how the correct pronunciation hinges on these characters and how vital they are to being understood!
Here is a list of all the Polish special characters and their pronunciation:
- ą – like the om in “bomb,” but pronounced without completely closing the lips on the m so there is a slight nasal sound, which may sound more like on, depending on where the character appears in the word.
- ć – like ch in “cheek.” ci in Polish is also pronounced the same way.
- ę – like en in “sense.” This is pronounced in a similar way to ą, in that the lips should not close on the n, giving a nasal resonance.
- ł – like w in “wax.”
- ń – like ny in “canyon.” ni is pronounced in the same way. This is a very soft n sound.
- ó – like oo in “toot.” This character has the same sound as u in English.
- ś – like sh in “sheep.” si is pronounced in the same way.
- ź – like z in “zoo.”
- ż – like s in “measure.” zi is pronounced in the same way. This is a soft z sound (zh), which is very common in Polish.
In addition to these special characters, some of the more familiar letters of the alphabet are pronounced a little differently in Polish:
- c – like ts in “kits.”
- i – like ee in “meek.”
- j – like y in “you.”
- r – is always rolled, like the Spanish word “arriba.”
- w – like v in “vet.”
- y – like i in “ink.”
Consonant Pairings, Sibilants and Other Groupings
As well as the above special characters, Polish uses some groupings of letters that have a special pronunciation. These include pairs of consonants, which are completely unknown in English. While ch is familiar to English-speakers (although it is pronounced differently in Polish), the groupings of cz, rz, szand cz look a little more tricky! All these pairs are known as sibilants—speech sounds with a hissing effect. They are not as complicated as they look:
- ch – like h in “horse,” but with a more guttural, throaty pronunciation.
- cz – like ch in “cheek.” This is pronounced in the same way as ć and ci.
- rz – like s in “measure.” This is pronounced in the same way as ż and zi.
- sz – like sh in “sheep.” This is pronounced in the same way as ś and si.
- Often these pairings will then be paired again. A common grouping is a sh sound and a ch sound. For example, barszcz (borscht) would be pronounced “bar-sh-ch.” The pairing of the two special characters ść, like in solidarność (solidarity), would make the exact same sh-ch sound. At first it might look like there are a lot of different special characters and pairings that each need their own special pronunciation, many sounds are in fact simply replicated by different forms. Therefore, only a handful of unusual pronunciations need to be learned. Some other non-sibilant consonant groupings also need to be observed:
- dz – like dds in “odds.”
- dzi – like j in “jeans.” dźand dż are pronounced in the same way.
- Additionally, there are consonant and vowel pairings that have special sounds, including several where i makes a y sound:
- bi – like b in “beg.”
- gi – like g-y in “beg you.”
- ki – like ke-y in “like you.”
- mi – like m-y in “charm you.”
- pi – like p-y in “stop you.”
General Tips and Tongue Twisters
Polish doesn’t differentiate between short and long vowels, which gives the words a more staccato sound than English. Only the nasal vowels of ą and ę are pronounced in a long way, while a, e, i, y, o, u and ó are all pronounced with the same short length. When pronouncing a Polish word, the stress should always fall on the penultimate syllable. For example, “Warszawa” (Warsaw) would be War-SZA-wa (pronounced var-SHA-va). Just to make it little more complex, voiced consonants (those that use the throat) are sounded as unvoiced consonants (those that use just a percussive sound from the lips) when they appear at the end of a word. The voiced consonants below become the corresponding unvoiced consonant at the end of a word:
While Polish pronunciation is very unfamiliar to English speakers, once you know the correct pronunciation of different forms it soon becomes second nature because Polish pronunciation is very regular (unlike French and English).
Finally, to test what you have learned about Polish pronunciation, try this classic Polish tongue twister—the first line of a poem by Warsaw-born modern poet Jan Brzechwa:
W Szczebrzeszynie chrząszcz brzmi w trzcinie. (In Szczebrzeszyn a beetle buzzes in the reeds.)