Morfologic interpretation of the Polish phonetics

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First of all let’s recall what phonemes occure in the Polish language and how they are spelt in Polish. A slightly different interpretation is presented on this page than in the part on phonetics and in the tables of pronunciation because previously I tried to interpret the real pronunciation while here the question is rather facilitating of understanding of morphological processes.

First of all we have assumed this time that there does not exist a certain special “palatalizing phoneme” in the Polish language, in spite of the obviously asynchronic pronunciation what gives us the right to separate the phoneme in certain positions. Similarly I have assumed here that there exist two nasal vowels (although they are pronounced in fact like diphthongs). I do not use here any special phonetic symbols either, excluding the apostrophe denoting palatalness of a preceding consonant.

So, we can find 8, but in point of fact only 7 vowels in the Polish language: a, e, ę, i/y, o, ą, u/ó. Let’s call in mind here that:

Even if it has no importance for phonetics, it is important for morphology to distinguish the palatalizing vowels (′a, ′e, ′ę, ′i, ′o, ′ą, ′u, ′ó) from the non-palatalizing ones (a, e, ę, y, o, ą, u, ó); as a matter of fact they are pronounced identically (leaving the i/y out of account) but they cause completely different changes on morpheme borders. Moreover let’s state here (what has also no importance for phonetics) that vowels can submit to certain changes in various forms. The most frequent alternations of this type are:

The Polish consonants can be devided into several groups:

  1. labial hard p, b, f, w, m (5);
  2. labial soft p′, b′, f′, w′, m′ (5), spelt before the i like ordinary p, b, f, w, m (there is no danger of a mistake because their hard counterparts cannot occure before the i), before other vowels with the diphthongs pi, bi, fi, wi, mi, not occurring before consonants or word-finally;
  3. dental hard t, d, s, z, n (5);
  4. the dental hard sonorant r (1);
  5. postdental soft ć, dź, ś, ź, ń (5), spelt this way before a consonant and word-finally, before the i spelt with c, dz, s, z, n, before other vowels with ci, dzi, si, zi, ni; in native and assimilated words such a spelling does not cause equivocation;
  6. dental and alveolar hardened c, dz, cz, dż, sz, ż/rz (6), today hard but soft in the past; the pronunciation of the ż and the rz is the same, they differ in their origin instead, what has consequences in morphology;
  7. dental and alveolar soft t′, d′, c′, dz′, s′, z′, r′, cz′, dż′, sz′, ż′ (11), spelt like t, d, c, dz, s, z, r, cz, dż, sz, ż, occurring only in foreign words before i, and also before the j spelt like i; they have no importance for morphology, because they do not occur on ends of morphemes and they do not submit to changes;
  8. the hard sonorant ł (1), in the past with dental pronunciation, today labial;
  9. the dental hardened l (1), not occurring either before the y (anywhere but in some foreign words) or before the i;
  10. the dental soft l′ (1), occurring before the i (in foreign words this i can denote the j in fact);
  11. the soft (palatal) sonorant j (1);
  12. hard velar k, g (2); in native and assimilated words they do not let occur either the y or the non-palatalizing e after them;
  13. hard velar ch/h (1) with the same pronunciation;
  14. soft velar k′, g′, ch′/h′ (3) being the result of secondary palatalizings before originally non-palatalizing vowels, and also present in foreign words.

In the interpretation presented here, 7 vowels and 48 consonants exist in the Polish language. So rich and diverse system (even if we can simplify it for the aims of phonetics) motivates qualifying the Polish language as the most difficult language of the world excellently. For “didactic” reasons, to comprehend the essence of consonant alternations more easily, now we will attempt to reconstruct proto-forms for Polish sounds existing today. It should simplify the system. So:

Look onto this page (Unicode) if you are interested in the Development of the Polish vocalic system.

Now let’s gather the Polish consonant in the table (the pronunciation in square brackets):

Protoform Alternations Position
+0 +Y +E +′ +I +′E +J +JI/JY
P p : p′ p py pe p pi [p′i] pie [p′e] p pi [p′i]
B b : b′ b by be b bi [b′i] bie [b′e] b bi [b′i]
F f : f′ f fy fe f fi [f′i] fie [f′e] f fi [f′i]
W w : w′ w wy we w wi [w′i] wie [w′e] w wi [w′i]
M m : m′ m my me m mi [m′i] mie [m′e] m mi [m′i]
T t : ć : c : cz t ty te ć ci [ći] cie [će] c, cz cy
ST st : ść : szcz st sty ste ść ści [śći] ście [śće] szcz szczy
D d : dź : dz d dy de dzi [dźi] dzie [dźe] dz dzy
ZD zd : źdź : żdż zd zdy zde źdź ździ [źdźi] ździe [źdźe] żdż żdży
S s : ś : sz s sy se ś si [śi] sie [śe] sz szy, si [śi]
Z z : ź : ż z zy ze ź zi [źi] zie [źe] ż ży, zi [źi]
N n : ń n ny ne ń ni [ńi] nie [ńe] ń ni [ńi]
R r : rz r ry re rz rzy rze rz rzy
L ł : l ł ły łe l li le l li
SL sł : śl sły słe śl śli śle śl śli
J j : 0 j i je j i je    
K k : k′ : cz : c k ki [k′i] kie [k′e] cz czy, cy cze, ce cz czy
SK sk : sk′ : szcz : sc sk ski [sk′i] skie [sk′e] szcz szczy, scy szcze, sce szcz szczy
G g : g′ : ż : dz g gi [g′i] gie [g′e] ż ży, dzy że, dze ż ży
ZG zg : zg′ : żdż : zdz zg zgi [zg′i] zgie [zg′e] żdż żdży, zdzy żdże, zdze żdż żdży
X ch : ch′ : sz : ś ch chy, chi [ch′i] che sz szy, si [śi] sze sz szy, si [śi]


  1. the sign X denotes the velar voiceless spirant, equal to the Polish ch; it was introduced to avoid using diphthongs in the spelling of the protoforms;
  2. the sound h (originally the laryngeal voiced spirant, today identified with the velar voiceless spirant) is of the foreign origin and sometimes it corresponds with the g; words with the h have rare alternations, in the word-formation we can observe the alternation h : ż only;
  3. also f is of the foreign origin, however it was fully included into the Polish sound system; the extremely rare native f comes from consonant groups (ufać from *upwać);
  4. the sound developed only in the group żdż, other examples of occurring of the are simplifications of consonant groups (e.g. dżdż in dżdżysty from DZDj-) as well as borrowings from various foreign languages;
  5. the forms si, zi instead of szy, ży (for XI, XJI, SJI, ZJI) originated in some cases because of morphological equalizations;
  6. the development of the cz in the place of the old c for the TJ concerns only some verbal forms;
  7. the separateness of cz, ż and c, dz for K′, G′ is set deep in the history of the language; the choice depends on the linking morpheme; if we observe the change of k, g into cz, ż, we have to do with the first palatalization and the sounds cousing it can be marked as ′E1, I1; such a palatalization can be also caused by the ′Ę as well as by the soft yer; the ′E2, I2 cause the second palatalization respectively;
  8. the normal development of the XY gave chy, but chi only in some cases;
  9. the neighbourhood of the J influenced P, B, F, W, M, N, R, L, K, G, X in the same way as simple palatalization (; regarding K, G as the palatalization of the “first type”); the groups TJ, DJ, SJ, ZJ have separate development however;
  10. the old soft p′, b′, f′, w′, m′ hardened before a consonant and word-finally;
  11. the old Y submitted to a change into i after original J, K, G, sometimes X;
  12. the old I submitted to a change into y after cz, dż, c, dz, sz, ż, rz of various origin;
  13. when a palatalized consonant followed the S, Z, they also submitted to palatalization, most frequently into ś, ź (the separate development of ST, ZD, SK, ZG is shown in the table), e.g. SPJĘ gave śpię.

The interpretation presented here let us understand why the Polish morphology is so complicated. It should be emphasized however that in the language reality all rules have relative and tentative significance. They make a certain model which not always can be applied. That is why e.g. on the place of the old TJ we can find the c one time and the cz some other time.


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