Shreyan Mitra '23
Some of you may have had the fortune of listening to the following exchange (German lines translated to English):
“First and last name?”
[Continued attempts at spelling]
This conversation originates from a Polish-made comedy set in World War II and is probably one of my favorite conversations to introduce the Polish alphabet. No matter which Slavic language I look at, Polish seems to have the greatest bamboozling ability of the lot. The reason is simple: Polish has perhaps the widest variety of letter combinations in its language family. Poland, like other West Slav and South Slav states, has considerably greater experience with Catholicism than do East Slav countries such as Russia or Ukraine (who are predominantly Eastern Orthodox). So while Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus use the Cyrillic alphabet, languages like Serbo-Croatian or Czech use versions of the Latin alphabet, even though the sounds both groups use are similar.
Combine that observation with letters found nowhere else in eastern Europe and you have a language that makes Gestapo officers tear out their hair.
But if you have about fifteen minutes and some kompot, you will not have to suffer the same fate. Here comes your Polish crash course, featuring the one and only Grzegorz Brzęczyszczykiewicz:
B (Cyrillic Б) sounds exactly the same as it does in English. Nothing to worry about.
Rz (Closest Cyrillic Ж, Czech/Sorbian Ř as in Dvořák) is like the French “j” or the English “s” in “treasure” but with a slight presence of the English “r” at the beginning.
Ę (Closest Cyrillic Эн) is a nasal version of “eh.” If you’re feeling lazy you can get away with just saying “en.”
Cz (Cyrillic Ч, Serbo-Croat/Polish ć) is the English “ch” as in “change.” Little side note here—the Polish “ci” is pronounced as if I wrote “czi.”
Y (Cyrillic Ы) is close to the short i but comes from deeper within the throat. Given the fast pace of spoken Polish, however, you may be able to treat it as short i without losing meaning.
Sz (Cyrillic Ш, Serbo-Croat/Polish ś) is pronounced “sh” as if you’re shushing someone.
Szcz (Cyrillic Щ) is usually pronounced as a stressed “sh,” but in Grzegorz’s case, you’ll have to separate the sz and cz.
K (Cyrillic К) sounds like the English k.
Ie (Cyrillic E) is pronounced “yeh.”
W (Cyrillic B) is pronounced like the English “v.” It tends to catch a lot of beginners off guard.
I (Cyrillic И) is pronounced like the long e.
And there you have it. Here’s the summary of what you should have learned:
The idea of taking a stab at Polish may seem strange at first, almost as random as any other hot take. But if you do set aside some time each day to read about the language, from where it came, and its relationship with its sister languages, you may just open up a whole other sealed bag of cultures.
Why not learn something new?