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 shch 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:

In addition to these special characters, some of the more familiar letters of the alphabet are pronounced a little differently in Polish:

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 czrzszand 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:

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 aeiyou 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:

Voiced Unvoiced
b p
d t
dz c
g k
rz sz
w f
z s
ź ś
ż sz

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.)