The nice thing about Polish is that, like many other East European languages, its spelling is completely phonetic -- you should never be left in doubt as to what the right way to pronounce a Polish word is. Unfortunately, that doesn't mean you can always physically say it. Polish is renowned for its forbidding consonant clusters, though once you've learned which combinations of consonants are meant to represent a single sound, you find that the situation is only half as grim as it looks.
Uwaga! (That's Polish for "Achtung!") Polish uses some symbols that aren't always available in the standard fonts on most computers, which means you may or may not be seeing this page displayed correctly. The following table should determine whether or not you have the necessary fonts:
|ą||should look like|
|ę||should look like|
|ć||should look like|
|ł||should look like|
|ń||should look like|
|ś||should look like|
|ż||should look like|
|ź||should look like|
If the first group of symbols doesn't at least approximately match the second, then much of what's displayed below will not look right either. You may be able to remedy this by installing the necessary Central European fonts.
The special diacritics on these letters are vital clues to proper Polish pronunciation. Unfortunately, since they are nonstandard in America and Western Europe, people (and record labels) in these countries often print Polish without the diacritics; thus one often sees, e.g. Lutoslawski instead of Lutosławski, which would not seem to imply the same pronunciation. One solution to this dilema is to spend a lot of time looking at liner notes from Polish record labels (e.g. Polski Nagrania, Muza). Once you've seen enough Polish names, you start to develop instincts as to what diacritics should be but aren't always printed. In the end, though, it comes down to educated guesswork.
The only other diacritic used in Polish is ó, which turns o into something more or less equivalent to u.
Polish has two nasalized vowels, ą and ę, which are similar to French an and in (the n is actually pronounced more audibly in Polish, even though it is not written explicitly). Otherwise the vowel system is fairly typical of European languages.
|ą||awn or on, nasalized, similar to French an; e.g. wesołych swiąt = veh-soh-wikh shvyont|
|ę||en, e.g. Lech Wałęsa = lekh vah-wen-sah|
|y||ih, like the y in "rhythm"|
In general each vowel is pronounced separately, though i is normally shortened to a y sound when it comes before another vowel. Also j is used as a vowel (in the usualy role of i or y) to create diphthongs:
|aj||iy, as in the word "eye"|
Polish has a lot of these. Pay attention to the diacritics, as well as the use of the letter i after certain letters: these can often make a big difference to the sound that results. As in German, Polish voiced consonants become devoiced at ends of syllables, though for announcing purposes you needn't worry about it.
|c [+anything but i]||ts, e.g. Górecki = goo-rets-kee, Katowice = kah-toh-vee-tseh|
|ć, cz||ch, as in "church". (Technically ć and cz are not the same sound, nor are ś and sz or ź and ż. But I defy anyone who wasn't born in Poland to tell the difference.)|
|ci||chee, like Italian, e.g. Oświęcim = ohsh-vyehn-cheem|
|ci [+vowel]||ch, also like Italian, e.g. ojciec = oy-chets|
|ch||kh, lightly gutteral, as in German "Bach"|
|dź, dż, dzi||j, e.g. Rodzinski = roh-jeen-skee, Włodzimierz = vwoh-jee-myehsh|
|g||g, always hard, as in "get"|
|j||y, as in German "Johann"|
|l||l, perfectly normal (though see the note above about diacritics)|
|ł||w (sounds like "chiwd tawk") e.g. Lutosławski = loo-to-swahf-skee , Wrocław = vrohts-wahf|
|ń||ny, a palatalized n, like French/Italian gn|
|r||r: rolled as in Italian or Spanish|
|rz||zh, like the s in "measure", e.g. Krzysztof Penderecki = kzhihsht-off pen-deh-rets-kee , Jacek Kasprzyk = yah-tsek kahsp-zhik|
|s [+anything but i]||s|
|ść, szcz||sh-ch, an odd sound found also in Russian: say the words "fresh cheese", then remove the "fre" and the "eese". Or you can approximate it as an elongated sh sound.|
|si||shee, e.g. Zanussi = zah-noo-shee|
|si [+vowel]||sh, e.g. Harnasie = har-nah-sheh|
|w||v, or also f at the end of a syllable, e.g. Lutosławski = loo-to-swahf-skee|
|z [+anything but i]||z|
|ź, ż||zh, like the s in "measure"|
|zi||zhee, e.g. Kazimierz = kah-zhee-myehsh|
|zi [+vowel]||zh, e.g. Ziemia Obiecana = zhehm-yah oh-byeh-tsah-nah|
Stress falls almost invariably on the second to last syllable.
See also the note about Slavic prepositions in the Czech and Slovak section.