June 18, 2011 | Polish

When Consonants Attack!

Polish sometimes looks to me as though it is suffering a vowel shortage.

When I start a new language, I typically “like” a bunch of pages on Facebook relevant to it. Today on my Facebook news feed, I came across this news-story excerpt entitled “W sondażu Gallupa Obama przegrywa z kandydatem Republikanów,” from one of my likes, Nowy Dziennik, or the Polish Daily News.

It read, “Gdyby wybory prezydenckie w USA odbyły się teraz, to hipotetyczny kandydat Partii Republikańskiej (GOP) pokonałby Baracka Obamę—wynika z ogłoszonego w piątek sondażu Instytutu Gallupa. Za czołowego kandydata GOP uchodzi na razie Mitt Romney.”

(Readers, if you have trouble seeing the Polish characters in your browsers, I would be very grateful if you let me know!)

I include this quotation here not for the content (which I am not equipped to translate anyway), but rather because I have an aesthetic comment: don’t there seem to be an awful lot of consonants?!

Everything, in Polish

Everything, in Polish

To my eye, Polish words often look like consonant traffic jams. And a number of characters are pronounced differently from their English counterparts, so you have to proceed with caution.

At left is a word I find visually stunning. It means “everything.”

Although y is (as far as I know) exclusively a vowel in Polish, in English it flips back and forth between vowel (as in “syntax”) and consonant (“days of yore”). But when I see a y in an unfamiliar foreign word, I tend to instinctively read (often misread) it as a consonant. When I first saw wszystko, it looked as though there was no vowel until the o, by which point I would have already choked on consonants.

But it’s really not that bad. In Polish, the w is pronounced v, and the sz combination is pronounced sh. So this word is pronounced VSHIST-ko. There are two vowels, which is totally reasonable.

Not that bad at all!

Hi in Polish

Hi in Polish

Now here’s the word for “hi.” Cz is pronounced as a ch sound, as is the c with the accent over it. The s with the accent over it is pronounced sh. So “hi” is pronounced cheshch.

It is a little tongue-twisting at first, and maybe the kind of word it is good to practice alone at home first so you don’t spit on people when you greet them.

Fortunately, there are easy words in Polish, too. Rosetta Stone recently taught me that “laptop” in Polish is: laptop!

I forgot to mention that last week I got back my French writing test results from ALTA Language Services, the testing company I have used for some of the languages. I got a 10 this time (out of a possible 12), which is defined as “advanced.”

As a reminder, this is a language I studied in college in the 1980s, but then pretty much stopped using. So in the end, after three months of study and review, I raised my oral score two points, to 9, and my written score three points. I was hoping for two 11’s, but I am moderately happy with that.

Comments (9)

Julie • Posted on Mon, June 20, 2011 - 8:21 pm EST

I read that all the Polish vowels moved to Wales because the weather there is so much nicer.

The funky characters even came through in my iPhone’s newsreader app. Well done!

Polish military • Posted on Sun, September 15, 2013 - 12:47 am EST

I was laughing like hell when I read your post on problems with Polish. I’m Polish and I’m aware of my language oddities and this general notion that this is an impossible language for the foreigners. As regards too many consonants - try Croatian! Just to give the most famous example: what kind of name KRK can be?

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Tue, September 17, 2013 - 4:37 pm EST

I burst out laughing when I read your comment, Polish military! Thank you for the sympathy. Okay, I will try Croatian one day—but then I expect Polish to seem like a breeze in comparison!

Adrianna • Posted on Fri, September 20, 2013 - 3:50 pm EST

I love this post, it made me laugh! Polish consonants seem scary, but as was mentioned - try Czech or Serbian with “trh”, “vlk”, “krk” :-)

Just a small hint for your future Polish studies: Try not cross out your z’s. In handwriting crossed “z” is read as “ż”, so instead of “cześć” you have written “cżeść”, instead of “wszystko” we have “wsżystko” and it makes a huge difference! I hope it helps!


Ellen Jovin • Posted on Fri, September 20, 2013 - 4:01 pm EST

Oops! Thank you, Adrianna! I cross my 7’s as well. I think that’s from spending time in Germany. I had no idea that it could change the way my “z” was read in Polish. I hope I didn’t inadvertently make any bad words. :)

Zuzana Halsey • Posted on Thu, June 12, 2014 - 3:17 pm EST

Dobry den Ellen,

I wonder if while learning various languages you have also observed different body language. Some people claim they behave differently depending on the language they speak.
I teach Czech and am looking if someone can pinpoint Czech body language.  Good luck with the declensions. It presents the same headache for students of Czech. Wait for the aspect in verbs?!


Ellen Jovin • Posted on Thu, June 12, 2014 - 3:44 pm EST

Hi, Zuzana! I am oblivious to body language, at least on a conscious level. If something doesn’t involve words or a human face, I tend not to notice at all. I am going to ask a friend (who I think is more observant than I am) whether he has noticed anything about Czech. :) If I learn anything, I will report back. :)

P.S. You can’t scare me with talk of declensions and aspect! I have been numbed by previous experiences he he.

Jakub • Posted on Wed, April 15, 2015 - 5:56 am EST

I got here, because I found your comments in a polyglots group on facebook under the discussion on Arabic. Great website, cool to see that someone with motivation can really get deep into learning a foreign language (actually many) on his/her own. I also had great fun reading about your learning experience with Polish! I laughed! Fingers crossed for your further learning! ;) Coming to Poland to use it in practice one day?

Jonothan • Posted on Mon, August 03, 2015 - 1:30 am EST

Hey, just a little heads up. The Polish language has a rule where a voiced consonant becomes voiceless whenever it is at the end of a word or directly in front of another voiceless consonant. “sz” and even just “s” by itself are voiceless. Therefore, in the word “wszystko”, the “w” is sitting directly before a voiceless consonant, so it must become devoiced. Instead of pronoincing it as a “v” (its voiced pronounciation), it now gets pronounced as an “f” (its devoiced pronounciation). Therefore, you get the pronounciation “fshistko”. I hope this was understandable. Good luck with your studies.

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