1. Syllables. Polish like other languages is spoken in syllables. A common syllable type is a consonant followed by a vowel: ma-ma (mom), ta-ta (dad). The accent in a word regularly falls on the next-to-last syllable. Thus a two-syllable word is accented on the first syllable, and a three-syllable word is accented on the second syllable. Word accent is fairly weak; it does not obscure the unaccented vowels as it does in English. In Polish the unaccented syllables in a word are pronounced as clearly as the accented one.

  • Say: ta-ka (such), ta-ba-ka (snuff), pa-na (your), Pa-na-ma (Panama), ba-ba (old woman), ba-na-na (banana), da-ne (data), da-ne-go (given).
  • 2. Oral vowels. Vowels are formed with the vocal apparatus unobstructed. How the vocal apparatus is shaped by the opening of the mouth and the placement of tongue and lips determines the identity of the vowel.

    a (as in father) is pronounced with open mouth and low tongue position;
    o (as in or) is pronounced with the mouth less open than for a, the tongue at medium height and retracted, and the lips slightly rounded;
    e (as is bed) is pronounced with the mouth less open than for a, the tongue at medium height and advanced, and the lips relaxed;
    u (as in Ruth) is pronounced with the tongue raised and retracted and the lips rounded; the same sound is also spelled ó;
    i (as in machine) is pronounced with the tongue raised and advanced and lips relaxed;
    y (as in hymn) is pronounced with tongue higher than for e but lower than for i.

  • Say the following, accenting the next-to-last syllable and pronouncing all vowels with equal clarity: po-e-ta (poet), ba-da-no (studied), do-ty-ka (touches), bu-ta (shoe), mi-mo (past), ku-pi-my (we'll buy), bo-na-mi (bonds).
  • 3. Stop consonants. Some consonants are formed with a complete closure of the vocal apparatus.

    p, b, and m are formed with closure at the lips;
    t, d, and n are formed with a closure made with the tongue against the back of the teeth;
    k and g are formed with a closure made with the back of the tongue against the soft
    Consonants in Polish are unaspirated, said without the puff of air that follows the release of a stop consonant in English. This means tu (here) sounds quite different from two. For tu the lingual closure is formed flush against the back of the teeth and the release is abrupt and clean. The t of two is formed farther back in the mouth and has a breathy release. The first syllable of pa-na (gentleman) is like the unaspirated -po- of sponsor rather than like the aspirated po- of ponder.

  • Say: ma-pa (map), ba-ba (old woman), po-ga-dan-ka (chat), na-pi-sa-ny-mi (written).
  • 4. Continuant consonants. Corresponding to the three classes of stop consonants just listed are these continuant consonants:
    f and w are formed with a partial closure formed with the lower lip and upper teeth (w is how Polish spells the v-sound);
    s, and z are formed with a partial closure made with the tongue behind the teeth;
    ch is formed with a partial closure made with the back of the tongue against the soft palate. This sound does not occur in English, but it occurs in German, e.g., in Bach. In words borrowed into Polish this sound is spelled h.

  • Say: fo-kus (focus), wo-da (water), sa-ma (alone), zu-cho-wy (scout), chu-da-we (skinny), ha-mak (hammock), Ha-wa-na (Havana)
  • 5. Sonorant consonants. The sound y as in yes is spelled in Polish j. The r is trilled with the tip of the tongue behind the upper teeth. Polish has two l's. The barred or hard l, ł, is phonetically not an l at all, but is like the w in wick and cow (these two words in Polish could be spelled łyk and kał). The other l is l as in million. It is pronounced soft as in French, German, and Czech, but not as soft as the soft l in Russian.

  • Say: jest (is), jacht (yacht), Je-zus (Jesus), Ju-rek (George), ru-ra (pipe), re-wers (receipt), łaj-da-ka (scoundrel), lam-pa (lamp), ła-ma-ła (broke), lal-ka (doll), lu-la (lulls), łu-na (glow)
  • 6. Sibilants. In addition to s, Polish has two sh-sounds, which are quite distinct one from the other. The ś is formed with the blade and body of the tongue arched high and forward in the mouth forming a constriction that extends from the dental region backwards to the hard palate. The sz is formed with the blade of the tongue forming a constriction in the alveolar region and with the body of the tongue low in the mouth. The low tongue position creates a larger resonator behind the point of constriction and gives the sound a deep hushing sound, contrasting with the high shishing sound of ś. Before a vowel, ś is spelled si. The voiced counterpart of ś (si) is ź, which is spelled zi before a vowel. The voiced counterpart of sz is ż. The ż sound is also spelled rz.

  • Say: śle (sends), źle (bad), żle-by (gullies), sie-dem (seven), sze-fem (manager), zie-lo-ne (green), że-la-zo (iron), rze-ko-my (alleged), sia-no (hay), sza-nuj (respect), ziar-no (seed), ża-ba (frog), pi-sa-rza-mi (writers)
  • 7. Affricates. The voiceless affricate c, as in prince, has a t-like closure and an s-like release. Its voiced counterpart, dz, has a d-like closure and a z-like release. These are unitary sounds that are syllabified differently from the sequences t + s and d + z. In addition to c, which is formed with the blade of the tongue against the back of the upper teeth, Polish has two ch-sounds which must be distinguished: ć is formed like ś with the blade and body of the tongue arched high and forward, while cz like sz is formed with the body of the tongue held low in the mouth. The voiced counterparts of these two sounds are and . When followed by a vowel, ć and are spelled ci and dzi.

  • Say: no-ce (nights), no-dze (leg), ciem-no (dark), ćma (moth), dzie-ło (work), dźwi-ga (lifts), cze-mu (why), dże-mu (jam), jesz-cze (still), jeż-dżo-no (rode)
  • 8. Silent i. Following a consonant and before a vowel, the letter i in native Polish words is not separately pronounced but merely indicates the quality of the consonant. Thus nie-sie (carries) with its six letters represents just four sounds, "ńe-śe", and in dzie-cia-ka (child), pronounced "dźe- ća-ka, the first two syllables likewise comprise just four sounds. The velar consonants k and g when followed by i are pronounced with a closure shifted slightly forward toward the hard palate, like the k in keep compared to the c in coop and the g in get compared to the g in got. For example: ta-kie-go (such), dro-gie-go (expensive).

    Silent i does not occur before i: a single i represents both the quality of the preceding consonant and the vowel itself. Thus ci-si (quiet) is pronounced "ći-śi" and ta-ni (cheap) is "ta-ńi". In ki-no (movie theater) and dłu-gi (long) the k and g are pronounced more forward in the mouth than in ko-cha (loves) and je-go (him).
    Following a labial consonant and before a vowel, i in native Polish words likewise indicates the quality of the consonant, but here it is pronounced as a short y-sound. Thus pia-na (foam) is pronounced "p ya-na", bie-ga (runs) is pronounced "b ye-ga", and mio-du (honey) is pronounced "m yo-du".

    9. Nasal Vowels. Polish has two nasal vowels, ą, which is o (as in or) accompanied by a nasal element, and ę, which is e (as in bed) accompanied by a nasal element. The nasal element varies according to what follows:

    WHEN ł or l follows, the nasal element is zero, so that wziąłem (I took) is pronounced "wźo-łem" and wzięli (they took) is pronounced "wźe-li";
    WHEN p or b follows, the nasal element is "m", so that trąba (trumpet) is pronounced "trom-ba" and zęby (teeth) is pronounced "zem-by";
    WHEN t, d, c, dz, cz, or follows, the nasal element is "n", so that dęte (inflated) is pronounced "den-te", sądu (judgment) is pronounced "son-du", and pączek (bud) is pronounced "pon-czek".
    WHEN ć/ci or /dzi follows, the nasal element is "ń", so that sązdzi (judges) is pronounced "soń-dźi" and pojęcie (concept) is pronounced "po-jeń-će";
    WHEN k or g follows, the nasal element is that heard in song and bang, so that the middle syllable of u-rą-ga (abuses) sounds like wrong and the first syllable of mę-ka (torment) sounds like that of Mencken.
    WHEN a continuant consonant follows, the nasal element is a glide. A nasal glide is a nonsyllabic nasal sound pronounced without the oral closure that is used for m and n. Say own ski. The o being long is followed, as are all long o's in English, with a [w] glide. The nasal resonance of the n normally commences before the tongue makes the required alveolar closure, and this nasalizes the [w] and to some extent the o as well. For this reason own ski comes close to rhyming with wąski (narrow). The difference is that with wąski the tongue doesn't make a closure before the s, as it does for the n in own ski, only nasality. Likewise the pronunciation of męski (masculine) can be approximated by saying men ski, nasalizing the e, and omitting the lingual closure for the n.
    WHEN the continuant consonant that follows is phonetically soft, i.e., ś or ź, the nasal glide assimilates to it, shifting to the front of the mouth as a nasal y, similar to the sound heard in chainsaw without making a closure before the s. This fronted glide occurs in szczęście (happiness). It is optionally heard also in a phrase like w tym sensie (in this sense).
    Nasal y is the pronunciation of ń in adjectives ending in -ski, e.g., pański (your), żeński (feminine), koński (equine), chiński (Chinese).
    WHEN ą and ę occur at the end of a word, ą; is pronounced as described in the preceding paragraph but ę is normally pronounced as a clear e.
  • Show how these words are pronounced using the phonetic respellings illustrated above: gęba (mouth), rządy (governments), prędzej (faster), węże (snakes), wszędzie (everywhere), męczą (they torture), będę (I will), ciąłem (I cut)
  • 10. Voicing. Some Polish consonants (the obstruents) come in pairs, one voiced (accompanied by vibrations in the larynx), the other voiceless (not accompanied). The voiceless/voiced pairs are these: p/b, f/w, t/d, s/z, c/dz, ć/, cz/, sz/ ż (rz), k / g. When a voiced consonant occurs at the end of a word before a pause, it becomes voiceless, Thus ząb (tooth) is pronounced "zomp", rząd (row) is pronounced "żont", and nóg is pronounced "nuk".
  • Say: nóż (knife), żółw (turtle), próg (threshold), weź (take), wódz (leader), gwiżdż (whistle), wóz (car), kurz (dust)
  • 11. Voice assimilation. When two or more of the above consonants occur in a cluster, they assimilate to the voicedness or voicelessness of the rightmost consonant. Thus in książka (book) the ż is pronounced voiceless the same as the k ("kśą-szka"), while in prośba (request) the ś is pronounced voiced the same as the b ("pro-źba"). In fluent speech voice assimilation takes place also between words, so that noc była (night was) is pronounced "no-dzby-ła".

    The consonants w and rz behave somewhat differently. At the end of a word they devoice normally, as lew (lion) is pronounced "lef" and talerz (plate) is pronounced "ta-lesz". But when they follow a voiceless consonant in a word, instead of causing it to be voiced they become voiceless themselves. Thus twoja (your) is pronounced "tfo-ja" and przykro (sorry) is pronounced "pszy-kro".

    12. The Polish alphabet. Words in Polish are alphebetized according to the following sequence of letters.

    a ą b c ć d e
    ę f g h i j k
    l ł m n ń o ó
    p (q) r s ś t u
    (v) w (x) y z ź ż

    13. Names of letters. The vowel letters a, <ą, e, <ę, i, o, u, and y are referred to by the sounds they represent (<ą and <ę by their pronunciation before continuants). Sometimes descriptive phrases are used: z ogonkiem (with a tail) for the nasal hook; o kreskowane (accented o) for ó, to distinguish it from u, which is also called u zwykłe (ordinary u) or u otwarte (open u); igrek or ipsylon for y. Some consonant letters have names ending in e: be, ce, cie, de, ge, and pe. Others have names beginning with e: ef, el, , em, en, , er, es, and . Two have names ending in a: ha and ka. Two have names ending in u: ku (q) and wu. The last three letters of the alphabet have names ending in et: zet, ziet, and żet. The last two are also sometimes referred to as zet z kreską (z with an accent) and zet z kropką (z with a dot--to distinguish it from er zet). The letter j is called jot; v is called fał; x is iks.