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The Polish Alphabet and Its Sounds

I remember my shock when I first asked someone how the city of Łódź (which also, I later learned, incidentally and entirely unrelatedly means 'boat') was pronounced, and indeed my awe when people could produce those sibilant-ridden, tongue-twister sounds like Szczecin (another fantastically named Polish town), or the seemingly formidable książka (book), so naturally. But my shock, awe and indeed, subsequent fear to attempt pronunciation at all for many Polish words, really all came from a reputation fuelled by the daunting appearance of a select few Polish letters. But it’s really not that bad!

Polish Alphabet

Once you've got the hang of pronouncing the Polish letters that often cause this confusion you'll see why the Polish alphabet is arguably more approachable for the language learner than English: A lot of linguists cite the overwhelmingly phonetic nature of the Polish alphabet as one of the easiest aspects of learning; you rarely have to deal with the confusing phonetics of English homophones ('see', 'sea' and 'seize'), and pronunciation variations for example.

In total the Polish alphabet has 32 letters. 'Q', 'v' and 'x' are the only English letters not to appear in Polish, but there are seven additional 'double letters' which are sounds written using two letters together. These are ch, cz, dz, , , rz, and sz. Nasal vowels are another common source of confusion for non-native speakers, but these are actually really easy, and there are only two of them: Ą and ę.

Consonant Sounds

Thankfully most consonants in Polish are pronounced exactly the same as in English, and with complete consistency. There are, however, a few isolated examples of consonants that adopt different sounds. Every 'r' in Polish is rolled, 'c' is pronounced like a 'ts' (cuts), 'w' is like an English 'v' sound (wodka is the ‘v’ from 'vodka'), and 'j' is pronounced like an English 'y' (jeden).

When it comes to double letter consonants, the only real difficulty arises with 'ch', which is pronounced like an English 'h' with a slight, almost Scottish, throaty effect. While the other double consonants are largely soft, along with some other accented letters. ' Ć' gives a sound like the 'ce' in 'cello', 'ń' sounds like 'ni', 'ś' like 'sh', and '' sounds like 'dzi'. Hard consonant sounds include 'cz', the equivalent of the English 'ch' from ‘chowder’, 'sz', 'rz', and 'dz', which has a 'ds' cadence sound.

The soft, single consonant letter 'ł', is probably by far the most successful cause of phonetic confusion in Polish for English learners; probably because it looks so much like the English 'l'. However it's actually totally different, more like a softened 'w' sound, like that found in 'walked', or 'wet'.

Vowel Sounds

Vowel sounds in Polish are all consistently phonetic, which makes them quite nice and easy to put into use once you’ve learned how to pronounce them correctly. 'A' in Polish makes the English 'a' sound from 'bat', 'e' makes the English 'e' sound from 'text', a higher pitched 'e' sound, like that in the English 'week' is produced by using 'i' in Polish, 'o' makes the English 'o' sound from 'hot', 'u' and ó both make the similar deep drawn out 'oo' sound like in 'moo', while 'y' is like the English 'i' sound found in 'twin'.

Nasal vowels, though formidable in appearance, are actually really easy once you get the hang of them. What's different here is they can change in sound depending on the preceding consonant. Generally speaking, when preceded by either 'p' or 'b', 'ę' sounds like 'em', and 'ą sounds like 'om', while in all other cases they are 'en' and 'on' sounds respectively.