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The Polish language contains both affricates like “dz” and combinations of sounds which we may interpret as two separate phonemes, for instance “d+z”. The IPA standard, usually used for phonetic transcription (but not by Slavists), does not provide any separate single symbols for the affricates, treating them like combinations of two sounds. Moreover the same symbol is in use for the Polish “sz” as for the English “sh” in spite of their evidently different pronunciation. Therefore, I have used another transcriptional system here to avoid mistakes. Some fonts installed on your system may be needed.
Even if Polish spelling does not always give sure instructions for pronunciation, the rule “read like it is written” can be observed to a much greater extent than in English. The observance of the other rule “write like you speak” does not work so well. Polish spelling ignores numerous assimilations that occur in inflection and word-formation, (inconsistently) using the morphological principle. However, a true nightmare for those who are learning Polish (for young Poles too) is the historical principle employed in Polish orthography which differentiates the spelling of three sounds according to their origin: u/ó, rz/ż, ch/h. The difference between spellings here is, on the one hand, a historical throw back, and on the other allows differences between homophones (words with identical pronunciation) to be marked: Bug (the name of a river) – buk ‘beech-tree’ – Bóg ‘God’, morze ‘sea’ – może ‘maybe; he/she/it may; he/she/it can’, hełm ‘helmet’ – Chełm (the name of a town; in Old Polish also chełm ‘hill’). You can find more on this subject on the page dedicated to the curiosities of Polish spelling.
However, it is comforting for Poles when you compare all that with the English language, where it can seem that no rules of pronunciation and spelling are obeyed. So, in the words even – meet – speak – key – ceiling – people – machine – piece – quay – Caius – Caesar – Phoenix, the bold-marked characters or sequences of characters have the same pronunciation (all the examples here and below are British). And the other way round, a given grapheme (character) can be read in different ways: the o in each of the words polish, Polish, move (oo), Home (yoo, a surname), love, one, woman, women (i), store, word, correct, reason (-) is pronounced differently.
But let’s go back to the Polish pronunciation. You can see tables of Polish phonetics and spelling, using phonetic symbols. Alternatively, I offer an abbreviated analysis below, that does not use these symbols.
First of all I must state, that sounds in Polish influence each other strongly, thus there is more than one view on the number of the Polish phonemes (speech sounds,). Certain phonemes occur in some contexts only, certain segments of the language can be treated commutably, either as one phoneme with non-uniform articulation (different at the beginning from at the end) or as two merged phonemes. That is why other studies on Polish phonetics may differ from the one presented here by me.
The Polish alphabet consists of 32 letters: a, ą, b, c, ć, d, e, ę, f, g, h, i, j, k, l, ł, m, n, ń, o, ó, p, (q), r, s, ś, t, u, (v), w, (x), y, z, ź, ż. The three additional letters q, v and x occur only in those non-assimilated foreign words which have preserved their original spelling. The order of these 35 letters is essential when you look up words in dictionaries: góra will follow gotyk, because ó is a separate letter, not a variety of the letter o. Traditionally we also mention 7 digraphs corresponding to single sounds: ch, cz, dz, dź, dż, rz, sz. However the combinations ci, dzi, gi, ki, ni, si, zi (and with some reservation also bi, fi, mi, pi, wi) have a similar function in some contexts (before a vowel). In dictionaries all these di- and trigraphs are treated as ordinary sequences of letters. You should note that some words can include the letter combinations dz, dż, rz not as digraphs, but as two separate sounds – examples below.
One of the essential rules of Polish spelling is that to write palatalized sounds:
All other palatalized consonants may occur only before a vowel. So we simply write b, f, m, g, k, p, w to mark palatalized sounds before i, because their non-palatalized counterparts may not occur here, e.g. robi, trafisz, miły, nagi, taki, piszę, mówi. Before other vowels we use the digraphs bi, fi, mi, gi, ki, pi, wi, e.g. robię, trafię, miały, nagie, takie, piasek, mówię.
In some cases in loanwords the ci, si, zi (never ni) denote a normal c, s, z (not ć, ś, ź) plus i, e.g. cito, sinus, zin. Moreover before a vowel the i may denote the consonant j, not just the palatalization of the preceding b, ch, cz, d, dż, f, g, h, k, l, m, n, p, r, sz, t, w, ż, e.g. Arabia, marchia, glediczia, diabeł, lodżia, mafia, magia, hiena, makia, dalia, mumia, unia, rupia, Maria, dżanaszia, tiara, rewia, ażio. The letter j is not used after these consonants.
These seven letters indicate vowels: a, e, i, o, ó, u, y (the y is never a consonant like in English), however:
furthermore the spelling indicates the pronunciation of the 6 Polish vowels exactly. Unlike many European languages (English, German, French or even Russian) there is no vowel reduction in an unstressed syllable. That is why in Polish there is no sound resembling the English a in about.
Equivalents of the vowels a, e, i, o, u/ó are present in other known languages (German, French, Italian, Spanish), however we must be aware of differences in spelling (e.g. the Polish u/ó corresponds to the French ou), and of a lack in Polish of closed varieties of e and o, which are met in these languages (e.g. the German e is not always pronounced like the Polish one). Comparison with English vowels can be found on this page and in this Excel file, available as a WWW Page). The utmost curiosity of the Polish vocalism is the high, central, unrounded vowel y. A similar but not identical sound is present in the East Slavic languages, the most of the other Slavic languages have made the former y identical to the i. The back y can be found in Turkish (spelt there as i without the dot). Also Japanese (unrounded) u has similar pronunciation. However the Polish y is central, not back, and therefore it sounds different. Of the central vowels the Polish a is low (the English a in father is back, not central), the English (British, not American) u in under or the o in other is higher, the British ir in girl or or in work is much higher. The Polish y is the next rung of that ladder of central vowels – it is nearly as high as the i and u/ó. The use of i and y is subject to a number of rules in Polish – in most contexts only one of them may be present. There are no words beginning with the y (if we omit a few loanwords taken with their original spelling, in which however the y does not denote a vowel; the exception may be the chemical term ylen as well as the name of Greek letter ypsilon which is however recommended by orthoepic dictionaries to be pronounced ipsylon), and nor can it occur after palatal and palatalized consonants. It only occurs after k, g in a few borrowings and sound imitating words: kynologia, kysz, gyros, androgynia, lystrozaur, glyptodon.
The two next letters of the Polish alphabet are the ą and ę. In a misconception learnt at school by the majority of Poles, they denote the imaginary “nasal vowels”, whereas in fact no nasal vowels are present in Polish. Both letters with a tail denote two succeeding sounds in the run of speech. The first element of the ę is obviously the e, it is however curious that the ą contains the o, not the a as the first element. It could be explained by the history of the Polish language. The second element is a nasal consonant, which assimilates to the sound which follows it. In accordance with the principle of sound influence, the vowel gains a little nasal tone, especially in the latter part of the articulation, which is however insignificant. If, for instance, we read the word trąba as [tromba] with the purely oral o, we will not be making a mistake (of course, omission of the m here is absolutely inadmissible). The same principle demands the assimilation of the second element:
In some people’s pronunciation ą, ę are realized as diphthongs in all positions, but with m, n, ń, ng inserted between the diphthong and the following consonant depending on the consonant’s row. Such pronunciation is considered to be dialectal or hyper-correct (excessive following of the spelling), so incorrect. Moreover there are no words beginning with ą, ę in Polish. The explanation is in the history of the language.
Nowadays Polish vowels do not differ in length from one another. However in Old Slavic there were differences not only in length, but also in intonation, like in current Serbo-Croatian and Slovene. The trace of that differentiation in Polish is now in the distinct timbre of the vowels o – ó, ę – ą (the o and ę originate from short vowels, the ó and ą from long ones).
Vocalic alternations are very frequent and diverse in Polish morphology. They are based on 7 phenomena deeply seated in the history of the language:
Some of the alternations are only monuments to the tangled history of the language and are important only to those with a specialist interest, others, however, are still very vivid in inflexion and word-formation.
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