Monday, 4 February 2013

Polish spoken here

I returned from the Caribbean to find the newspapers excited about newly released data from the 2011 census showing that Polish is spoken by over half a million people in the UK, making it now our third most widely spoken language after English and Welsh. The Guardian launched into an editorial that started off full of phonetic technical terms …

With its mind-bending plosives, tongue-twisting fricatives and terrifying affricates, Polish is not the easiest of languages to master. Try saying Szczebrzeszyn (sounds a bit like shtebdeshin) for the merest hint of the challenges involved.
…before degenerating into ignorant silliness.
To non-Polish speakers, just saying hello sounds more like a polite sneeze than a greeting, while the combination of z with almost every other consonant creates a palette of snuffles that can be distinguished only with the most diligent study.

Why Polish plosives should be ‘mind-bending’ when English ones are presumably not is far from clear. For many NNSs I suspect that the English fricative system, with its unfamiliar θ and ð, is at least as ‘tongue-twisting’ as the Polish system with its unfamiliar x, ɕ and ʑ.

But I cannot help suspecting that is not the sounds of Polish that seem full of ‘terrifying’ ‘challenges’ so much as the unfamiliar orthographic conventions. The spellings cz, rz, sz, far from ‘creating’ a palette of snuffles, are merely unfamiliar ways of spelling sounds very similar to those we spell in English inconsistently with ch or tch (as in chop and catch) for the first, with s, z or g (as in vision, seizure and beige) for the second, and with sh, ti, ssi or various other possibilities (as in shop, position, passion, ocean, sugar etc.) for the third. OK, the Polish ʈʂ, ʐ, ʂ sound a bit ‘darker’ than English tʃ, ʒ, ʃ, being somewhat more retroflex and less palatal; but that needn’t worry us.

The town of Szczebrzeszyn ʂʈʂɛˈbʐɛʂɨn features in the longer version of a famous tongue-twister that Poles always try to get foreigners to perform: chrząszcz brzmi w trzcinie ‘a beetle is buzzing in the reed(s)’, xʂɔ̃wʂʈʂ bʐmi ft-ʂtɕiɲɛ, sometimes extended with w Szczebrzeszynie ‘in Szczebrzeszyn’ fʂʈʂɛbʐɛˈʂɨɲɛ. (Hope I’ve got all that right.)

I leave it to you to decide whether or not the Polish for ‘hello’, cześć ʈʂɛɕtɕ, ‘sounds like a polite sneeze’.


  1. Only a few days ago I saw off to the airport a young Italian doctoral candidate who had come to here (Gdańsk) to do some work with me and give a departmental talk. He, being linguistically gifted (but not a linguist), had no trouble with ʂ, ʈʂ, ɕ, or tɕ taken singly, nor did the (unusual, but consistent) spelling, sz, cz, ś, ć, put him much off, but he was hard-put to pronounce the frequent sequences of them, such as in (ʈʂɛ)ɕtɕ (cześć, hullo, bye) or (dɛ)ʂʈʂ (deszcz, rain).

    btw, I am one of those old-fashioned polonophones who haven't yet adopted the pronunciation (xʂ)ɔ̃w(ʂʈʂ) for (chrz)ą(szcz), with me it's still rather something like ɔ̃ɔ (nasal plus homorganic non-nasal), or perhaps ɔ̃o, but not yet a full-fledged ɔ̃w. I know this pronunciation but I can't help hearing it as affectation.

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    p.s do you chaps too feel that those 'captchas' are sometimes absurdly difficult and some other times equally absurdly easy?

    1. Hello, Wojciech

      Some of the Poles that I've met in Britain have told me that the Polish language does not vary much across the country. They've said that Polish doesn't have the same range of accents that English does. Is that true? It seems surprising when Poland is such a large country.

      Ed Aveyard

    2. Cześć Ed,

      educated Polish is much less diverse from region to region than is the English of England, let alone of the entire Anglophone world. Differences are subtle and go unnoticed most of the time. Perhaps the most noticeable differences are in sentence intonation, the more eastern the more 'singing'. But there are still popular accents, both rural and urban, quite distinct, I'd say... But Poles are not educated to have much interest for such things, hence the things that 'your' Poles have told you.

      E.g. the most salient trait of many traditional dialects (now disappearing, sadly), was the substitution of s, z, ts, dz for the here 'incriminated' phonemes ʂ, ʐ (when spelled 'ż', not when 'rz'), ʈʂ, respectively. Cassubian dialects (west of Gdańsk) substitute them for ɕ, ʑ, tɕ, by contrast. The first substitution is still somehow preserved in the common linguistic awares of the Poles due to literary or semi-literary (humoristic, folklorist) uses of the Tatra dialect (góralszczyzna).

      If that dialectal trait (called 'mazurzenie' or 'talking the Mazovian way') had prevailed in literary Polish, the Guardian would have had much less reasons to complain. But it hasn't.

      Cześć! (Literally: honour!)

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    3. Thank you for that information, Wojciech. It's interesting that you identify variation in consonants rather than vowels. English people tend to differentiate accents primarily on vowels.

      Ed Aveyard

    4. Polish is a rather consonantal language, has few vowels and they are not as salient in the overall system, if I may say so betraying my 'silly ignorance' as John would say. Yet, yes, there is a 'folksy' tendency to raise vowels, especially the back(ish) ones, so o for a, u for o, or diphthongisation of e and y (middle-high, backer than 'i' in win), this in Major Poland, Poznań and env., or various funny things happen to nasal vowels, like the one I mentioned in my reply to your previous 'un. But consonants are 'shibbolethal', if I may coin word.

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    5. Ed: Some of the Poles that I've met in Britain have told me that the Polish language does not vary much across the country. They've said that Polish doesn't have the same range of accents that English does. Is that true? It seems surprising when Poland is such a large country.

      Traditional rural dialects vary quite a lot across the country, some of the extreme varieties being hardly intelligible to a speaker of "mainstream" Polish. However, the impact of near-standard accents is overwhelmng in most places. Differences between urban accents are pretty subtle, and even native speakers may have trouble telling apart educated speakers from, say, Warsaw and Poznań. The pronunciation of trz and drz is one well-known shibboleth, people from Warsaw always using stop + fricative clusters (/t-ʂ/, /d-ʐ/, contrasting with word-initial affricates!), and many (possibly most) people from Poznań and Cracow using an affricate, just as if the spellig were cz, .

      Local intonation systems vary too. In Warsaw, a polite question like Która godzina? 'What time is it?' will have a high, stepping-down introductory part plus a rising terminal. In Poznań, it will have a falling contour like in most varieties of English. I think most native speakers with no linguistic training are more sensitive to such prosodic differences than to anything segmental.

    6. Thank you to Wojciech and Piotr for the information. That is very interesting, and I can mention this next time that it comes up in conversation.

      I wonder what made the urban accents so homogeneous.

    7. I wonder what made the urban accents so homogeneous.

      They are of course sociolinguistically stratified, with more traditional working-class accents still lingering on. It's the accents of the middle class that are more or less homogenous. I suppose it is the combined effect of social changes (a larger proportion of the population identifting themselves as "middle class"), the dissemination of a normative accent via the school system, the pretty strong stigmatisation of working-class accent features, the increased mobility of educated young people, and (last but not least) the territorial shift of post-war Poland. We acquired a number of ex-German cities like Breslau/Wrocław, repopulated with Poles speaking a random mixture of accents, and at the same time lost Lwów/Lviv and Wilno/Vilnius, with their highly distinctive accents (used also by well-educated speakers). As in the American West, new local accents will probably emerge in due time.

      Despite all that homogeneity, if I hear someone pronounce words like defensywny 'defensive' with /z/, merge czysta 'clean (f.)' with trzysta '300', rhyme panienka 'miss' with ręka 'hand', lengthen all phrase-final syllables and voice word-final obstruents if the next word begins with a vowel or sonorant, I know I'm dealing with a Cracovian before he uses some regional words or idioms (and there are plenty of those too). Mainstream Polish is relatively uniform (as compared to English, French or German), but far from monolithic.

    8. 'I wonder what made the urban accents so homogeneous.'

      Well, I know Polish linguistic history not so well, sadly. Maybe Piotr. I'd think, however, that:

      1. Polish local accents never in the past were very different;

      2. Poland has always been a unitary country (not federalist or such)

      3. There were relatively few cultural centres with 'radiating and imitation-enticing power', put this way: Cracow, Warsaw, ... neither Vilna nor Lemberg had so much of that power as to seriously compete.

      4. Whatever little variation there might have been (and still is) has always been levelled-out by diverse 'Ausgleichsprozesse' in which the then literary Czech (different from present-day's) was the arbitrator.

      5. The ante-(1939-1945)-bellum Poland, though large, was to no small part inhabited by non-Polish-speaking population.

      6. The post-bellum Poland was to like 1/3 moved to the West, with enormous internal migrations and population exchange, with large levelling-out processes in language and elsewhere. My native Gdańsk has little truly native (since generations) population, it's mostly people from various parts of ante- and post-bellum Poland.

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    9. Ad Piotr

      'Mainstream Polish is relatively uniform (as compared to English, French or German), but far from monolithic.'

      yes, this is true, but for the linguistically ingenuous (99 p.c. of Poles) it's very close to monolithic, as they simply pay no attention to whether someone says 'panien-ka' or 'panieng-ka' or 'chleb i mleko' or 'chlep i mleko' (bread and milk), and then they say things like the ones they told Ed: in Polish there are no accents: not true but no wonder such false opinions arise.

      One Varsavian peculiarity: substituting ɕ (ś or si) for ʂ (sz), so they say: 'Warsiawa' rather than 'Warszawa' (Warsaw). This is still recognised as characteristically (working class) Varsavian, roit? The Danes, who in their tongue have only ɕ but no ʂ or ʃ, say 'va:'ɕɛvɛ' (Varsjava, I believe, in their spelling) which makes them sound truly Varsavian (warsiasko).

      Now that I have come to think of it I seem to remember having heard, several times in my life, a local accent which simplified the difficult consonant clusters -szcz and -ść, leaving the first component, so 'deszcz' (rain) was 'desz', 'miłość' (love) was 'miloś' but I can't remember where it was from.

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  2. On holiday in Beijing a few years ago, I told my Chinese guide, whose English was superb, that I was learning Chinese. He said, and these were his exact words: "When I was learning English at college, it took me three months to learn how to position the mouth to pronounce the TH sound."

    1. He did very well. There are millions of young people in England who can't pronounce these sounds.

      Ed Aveyard

    2. Are they really not able to pronounce those sounds or do they just variably pronounce them as labiodental fricatives?

    3. There are plenty of under-30s I know who don't even understand what the two TH sounds are. I usually give up trying to explain them. Of course, some people are only variable TH-fronters (like me), but there are many who don't seem to have /θ/ or /ð/ anywhere in their everyday speech.

      I shouldn't really have said "millions" when I have no data, I admit.

      Ed Aveyard

    4. Hi Ed: are you referring to 've fings ain't wot you'd fink vey should be'?

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    5. Most Germanic languages lost them ages ago. English is just slow to catch up ;)

    6. Yes, I am. Professor Wells's page on Estuary English contains several references to this, including reports of its spread to Glasgow and Liverpool.

      Does anyone know when TH-fronting was first reported in English? I have had a look at Joseph Wright's dialect dictionary and an old dictionary of Essex dialect, and it was not mentioned in either. However, it was found quite widely in the Survey of English Dialects (1950-61). It seems to have been especially common in the area around London, but it was also found in 16 of the 33 Yorkshire sites.

    7. But it's funny that the only two Germanic tongues to have preserved both TH sounds are:

      1. the most evolutionarily advanced Germ. lang.: English (give or take Afrikaans);

      2. the most conservative Germ. lang.: Icelandic.

      Besides, the evolution of TH in English English (v, f) is untypical. Most other Germ. lang. have made them d, t, like (variants of) American Engl.

      Also: sixth, fifth, twelveth or noughtth (does this exist at all?) are difficult too, as is 'thou biddest', still more 'thou graftest', not to speak of 'thou castest'. Those living in glass houses...

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    8. Why do you consider English "evolutionarily advanced"? In what sense? I'd say that it's pretty conservative, at least in phonological terms, thanks to its insular location. For example, it's one of the precious few Indo-European languages to have preserved the Proto-IE pronunciation of w. OK, it's more "derived" as regards its lexicon and morphology, but we are talking about phonology.

      TH-fronting is hardly a rare process. Juliette Blevins discusses its mechanism in Evolutionary Phnology (though as far as I recall she isn't concerned with its early attestation. Something very similar happened in the prehistory of Latin, when *f, *θ, and *xʷ (from PIE *bʱ, *dʱ and *gʷʱ) fell together as Latin /f/. Also *sr- became Lat. /fr-/ (presumably via *θr-).

      There's at least one example of TH-fronting from the prehistory of German: Proto-Germanic *þemstra- 'dark' became finster (OHG finstar ~ dinstar).

    9. 'Why do you consider English "evolutionarily advanced"?'

      Well, English has changed a lot since Hengist and Horsa's times, on all levels, phonetically too, just think of 'church', 'five', 'great', U-umlaut and Breaking, not to speak of the famous Great Vowel Shift... Yet it has preserved the old 'w' or 'th', this is true.

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    10. Scripsit Wojciech: Also: sixth, fifth [...], are difficult too, as is 'thou biddest', still more 'thou graftest', not to speak of 'thou castest'.

      Didst thou perchance mean "bidst", W.? "Biddest" is surely no harder to pronounce than "Buddhist" :-)

      "Graftst" does exist in Shakespeare -- Pray God the plants thou graftst may never grow -- and "graftest" (seen in some texts) seems to break the rhythm of the line. But I can find only one, very obscure, instance of "castst": otherwise it's always "castest", as in Job 15:4 -- Thou castest off fear -- and that's surely pronounced in two syllables.

      Kevin Flynn

      PS The hardest thing, in my experience, that you can ask a native Spanish speaker to pronounce in English is Smith's Crisps.

    11. I remember having discussed, ages ago in my high school, the question how to say 'thou wiltedst' with my English teacher. 2 syllables all right but still difficult for me, too, because: -d(voiced)+st(voiceless), add to the difficulty does the preceding -t. All in all, 'wiltedst' smacks of Georgian somehow, if you know what I mean (a wonderful language full of 7-(in part ejective)-consonant words with no vowels in-between ... but I won't be 'ignorantly silly', as John would probably put it).

      Are you sure 'castest' is 2 syllables, thus 'e' is not mute therein? Unlike in 'Hobbes' or 'Pepes'? Is there a rule for that?

    12. I'm unaware of the word "wiltedst". Was this used in English in the past?

      There are, in some parts of England, elderly people who still use "thou" in everyday speech. I fear that this will be gone forever within two decades.

      Ed Aveyard.

    13. It't simple past, 2nd person sing. form of the verb 'to wilt', which is claimed, by some, to exist:

      clearly, the frequency of this form, 'wiltedst' in even poetic and archaic speech, or dialect, is very low.

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    14. The OED's quotations cite no example of wiltedst, but there are examples of similar forms, such as wantedst, foughtedst, restedst.

    15. Wojciech

      I't simple past, 2nd person sing. form of the verb 'to wilt', which is claimed, by some, to exist:

      Well, we don't know whether it it existed much before 1691, when it was explained as another way of saying 'wither'. And we don't know whether its use was extended from what plants do to what humans do before the much later date of 1787.

      Ed's discoveries are much much earlier — or elusive to the point vanishing.
      By my search, there's foughtedst in 1582. But wantedst and restedst elude me.

      I can't see any way that wiltdst has ever been a genuine form of will. Well, perhaps in a very very obscure and weird dialect. Wilt was extremely common as a second person singular of the PRESENT. The normal PAST was wolt. The two forms were surely too familiar and too well entrenched to allow for variants from obscure rural oddities.

      Wiltesdst instead of wouldst is the sort of joke form that people who don't understand Shakespeare's language produce as an impression or a parody. I suspect that you and your high school peers heard some English speaker doing this (or read the result) and didn't know that it wasn't to be taken seriously.

      All that said, it's true that the leters -ldtst- in wouldst for English speakers constitute a cluster that is unpronounceable, and therefore unpronounced despite the spelling.


      Ed's discoveries

      Sorry. Steve's discoveries in response to Ed's question.

    17. And I've just realized that foughtedst doesn't even make sense: fought is already past tense, so what's that -ed- doing there?

      OED search.


    18. Ad David

      we found the verb 'to wilt' in writing in the meaning referring to plants, 'to wither' or some such.

      That the Germanic praeterito-presentia verbs take -t in the second person sing. present tense was and is common knowledge, (thou) art, shalt, wilt, in Icelandic thu kannt kannt(English -st in canst) is secondary, known to everybody interested in such topics. I knew that at 16. 'Wolt' by contrast i do not know. Where did you find it?

    19. Wojciech

      I don't think the category praeterito-presentio corresponds to anything in English grammar.The OED entry for wolt within will reads:

      γ. ME, 16 wolt, ME–15 -e.

      c1275 (1200) Laȝamon Brut (Calig.) (1963) l. 790 Goffar mid þire ferde wi wolt þu fleam makian.
      1390 J. Gower Confessio Amantis I. 118 If thou wolt live In vertu, thou most vice eschuie.
      c1400 N. Love tr. Bonaventura Mirror Life Christ (Gibbs MS.) x, Ȝyfe þow wolte seen ensaumple hier of Jhū.
      c1430 Hymns Virgin (1867) 17 Bringe, if þou wolt, þo soulis to blis.
      1540 J. Palsgrave tr. G. Gnapheus Comedye of Acolastus ii. iii. sig. Mij, Wolte thou not take vs in to the nomber of thy clientes?
      1602 J. Marston Hist. Antonio & Mellida i. sig. C2, Wolt doe me a fauour?

      The point is that weak verbal past formed such as wilted can't take strong inflexions such as -(e)st.

      Wilt meaning 'wither' is, as I tried to say, much too recent a verb to have even dialectal forms with obscure and atypical origins in Proto-Germanic.

    20. Ad David,

      sorry I must have expressed myself with less than due precision.

      'praeterito-praesentia' verbs is a concept from comparative Germanic grammar and means verbs that form their 'praesens' forms from the older (strong) 'praeteritum' forms, at least in singular. The vowel-alternations like Icelandic: 'kunna' (infinitive, to be able to), but 'kann', 'kannt' (praesens), or 'skula' - 'skal(t)' is a---nay, the---criterium of belonging to this class of verbs. In Old English they constituted an equally well-delineated class of verbs (I can't remember the exact forms now, but it was like 'cunnan'-'can', 'sculan-sceal' or some such), now in contemp'rary English since there are no number differences and no infinitives for such verbs (called 'defective verbs' sometimes) there is no synchronic criterium either (unless being a defective verb itself be one...).

      A subsidiary criterium is of course the personal endings, and here the p.-p. verbs take again past-tense endings (those of Proto-Germanic, which may or may not continue secondary endings of Proto-I.E.), hence even in English it's 'can', 'may', 'shall', 'will' in the 3rd p. sing., not '*cans', '*mays' etc. Now in the 2nd person sing. there were invasions of present-tense endings, and hence we have E. 'canst', G. 'kannst', Faroese 'kannst' (but Icelandic still 'kannt'). In German you even have 'willst' and 'sollst', whereas in English you have (if 'have' for 'thou' be the right tense-form...) 'wilt' and 'shalt', not '*willst', '*shallst', so in this respect English is more conservative than German or even Faroese. On th'other hand, we say (ahem) 'thou may'st', do we not?... (German 'magst', but Icelandic 'mátt').

      Yet another p.p. is 'to wit': I (he) wot not where to Fynde//terms to serve my (his) Mynde. Not 'he *wots'

      Most of the 'wolts' you quote look like present tense, thus a variant of 'wilt', don't they? (An expected alteration after a 'w'.)

      'The point is that weak verbal past formed such as wilted can't take strong inflexions such as -(e)st.'

      this rule (if such it be) truly amazeth me, _inter alia_ because it does not correspond to anything known to me from any other Germanic language. At the very least, in Old English it was e.g. 'hǣldest', thou healed'st. Middle English no longer? 'Wiltedst' or 'wilted'st', by analogy.

    21. Yes, the wilt OED entry quoted by David Crosbie is listed there as a variant of the present tense. The past tense forms listed are:

      9. 2nd pers. sing.
      α. OE–ME woldest, (OE waldes, OE, ME ualdes, ME wældest, waldest, wuldes), ME wost, ME wldest, ME woldist (ME -ez, ME -es, -ust, -yst, 15 -ys), 15– wouldest, wouldst (15 woldst, 16 wudst, 18 would'st).

      β. (orig. subj.). OE, ME walde, ME wld, ME wild, ME–15 wald, ME wold, 16 vold, would.

    22. Doh, I meant the wolt OED entry...

    23. yeah, i think 'wolt' was present tense, most of the time ... unless it be, perhaps, a strong past tense of 'to wilt', instead of the xpected 'walt'. This rose wolt yesterday, that one is about to wilt to-morrow...

      I think David got me wrong (due to my sloppy expression) on this, that I had thought (it seemed to David) that 'wilted'st' had ever anything to do with 'will', 'would'. I never did, though the thought is of course conceivable.

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  4. Concerning the Polish tongue-twister 'W Szczebrzeszynie chrząszcz brzmi w trzcinie, a Szczebrzeszyn z tego słynie" (and the rest of Brzechwa's --- bʐɛxfas --- poem): it's a tongue twister _for Poles_ first of all, being even for them very difficult to pronounce smoothly.

    Concerning the Polish of the recent Polish immigrants to the UK: given the social background of many (most?) of them, a rather wide range of various local and _volkstuemlich_ language phenomena is to be expected, not terrifically much Polish U-language, methinketh... and not much linguistic expertise in the sense of being able to meaningfully answer sophisticated questions about 'fricatives, affricates and plosives' I fear.

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  5. Wojciech, would you agree that university-educated Poles tend to shed their regional accents much more promptly than Brits? They may choose to revert to them on occasions (when joking or talking with their folks at home - I'm thinking about the late Fr. Tischner) but they don't use them in their professional life, and that's what might give one the impression that Polish "doesn't have accents". Also you don't hear regional accents in the media. I don't follow Polish soap operas much but my impression is that all the characters in them, working-class or not, speak the same way - unless their regional identity (Góral, Silesian, eastern Poland...) plays an important part in the story, and then the accent is really broad and used mostly for humorous purposes. I'm not a linguist, so these are just amateurish observations.

    1. Tatiana, your observations are roughly correct, for all their amateurishness. Sadly. Worse still, people are sometimes held up for ridicule because of their local idiosyncrasis of pronunciation, _teste_ Lech Wałęsa with his nasal vowels split into a non-nasal vwl and a consonant 'bendem prezydentem, nie chcem ale muszem' etc.

      There once was a Warsaw writer, Stefan Wiechecki, aka Wiech, who affected the Warsaw city dialect on all levels (grammmar, vocabulary, phonetics) in a very charming way, I personally adored him, yet he was hated by soome purists. (

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  6. For a couple of years I was quite fluent in a very limited subset of Polish. I always got what I asked for in the way of food drink and railway tickets, so my pronunciation couldn't have been all that bad. I must say that I find the Guardian editorial really rather pertinent.

    In plosives I experienced similar difficulty to Russian. Worse, in a way, because I understand where the problems are with Russian hard and soft consonants. I never found the right guidance to allow me to see the similarities and differences between Russian and Polish.

    One problem with fricatives is that there are so many of them — more even than Russian. But the biggest problem is combining fricatives with affricates. (My Russian is no help as in Leningrad/St Petersburg where my wife comes from the sound represented by letter щ is an extended fricative with no affrication.)

    English θ and ð are indeed difficult for foreign speakers, but at least there are only two of them. And most speakers can get by if they substitute s and z, whereas English speakers have great difficulty substituting the sounds of fresh‿cheese at the end of cześć.

    So, yes, I do recognise the similarity of cześć to a polite sneeze. It's a difficult word anyway. The fact that it's used as a complete utterance makes it doubly difficult, I find. It can be an extremely uncomfortable way to begin a casual social encounter. Personally, I survived by never using the word. It may be diffult to pronounce dzień dobry ('Good morning/afternoon!') and dobry wieczór ('Good evening!') fautlessly, but a acceptable pronunciation can be acieved without the paralysing anxiety that bedevils cześć.

    1. My experience with foreigners in Poland (of whom I have experienced many) is that you can get by (and away with it) by saying just 'chesh'.

      Tho' this sound weird, for consonants Russian is not as close to Polish phonetically as is Portuguese (tho' yet again, Ru and Port are vowel-wise as close to one another as either is to Po). Portuguese accent in Polish (the former director of the Gdansk Opera was a Brazilian, we have Brazilian students here in Gd.) is next to none. Russian -- by contrast -- is very audible and characteristic.

      The overall accustic impression that Polish gives to an allophone is that of an extremely ugly language, I fear, full of sniffles, sneezes inarticulate noises and whatnot. Monotonous, as well, in contrast to Russian, which has mobile word-stress, whereas in Polish it's mostly the penultimate. As distinct from Czech or Serbo-Croatian, it cannot boast Sanskrt-style syllable-forming liquids either (where they have 'krk' or 'smrt' we have 'kark' and 'śmierć', neck, death).

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    2. Henry Miller, who at some point fell among Polish emigres in America (one of his numerous wives was Polish, I think) wrote somewhere that when he was among Poles speaking Polish he felt as if in vipers' nest and he constantly feared these elegant ladies and gentlemen were going to be in a moment at one another's throats. I can't find the quote now but here's another one on Miller's view of Polish language:

    3. hi, entertaining, but in one respect inaccurate: Polish is not a very singing language, unlike Russian or Italian or Swedish.

      I think the basic difficulty are CLUSTERS of by themselves not so exotic consonants: s, ts, sh, ch, j, deshch (rain) plus the very difference between ś and sz (sh), the former being palatal (more so than sh in Engl.), ć and cz, and so on, plus the 'unusual' spelling --- as our host here has correctly observed --- thus 'sz' rather than 'sh', 'cz', rather than 'ch', 'rz' for 's' like in 'treasure' and so on. Plus 'ch', our version of [x], less guttural --- or 'gutteral' as one is obliged to spell these days --- than the German or Dutch sound, but still harsher than the English [h].

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    4. Personally, being of Czech heritage (partly), I don't find cz for ch at all odd, and sz for sh seems a simple parallel. Though one does wonder why the word "Czech" is spelled like it's Polish.

    5. Wojciech wrote: guttural --- or 'gutteral' as one is obliged to spell [it] these days
      I take it you are joking, W! (I.e. "gutteral" as a fanciful, pseudo-scientific way of saying "from the gutter".) "Guttural" bleibt "guttural": we will not be moved!

      Kevin Flynn

    6. Ad Elen

      why 'Czech' the Polish way. Used to perplex me too.

      Well, one Englishman (Dr. Phil. Oxon.) whom I once asked why they spell 'Czech' the Polish way said 'perhaps because we cannot tell the countries (Poland and the Kingdom of Bohemia and the subsequent states) from one another'. Was he pulling my leg? He was generally of the opinion that in order to sound truly English you have to mispronounce various foreign words in a definite way, e.g. say 'ettt' for the French 'et' (and).

      Ad Kevin

      of course that was a joke, about 66 p.c. of my contributions are a joke.

      To speak with Lord Byron:

      But the fact is that I have nothing plann'd,
      Unless it were to be a moment merry

      (Don Juan, Canto IV)

      'nothing plann'd' is perhaps not quite accurate either.

      But the fact is that a growing number of semiliterate writers --- something like semideaf music interpreters, semibliind painters --- write 'gutteral'. And then, there is 'die normative Kraft des Faktischen' --- hence 'obliged' do spell the word that way.

      True full name --- see Profile

    7. There's a chapter by Paul Cubberly on Alphabets and Transcription in The Slavonic Languages.

      His analysis is that old digraphs like cz were superseded by the Jan Hus system in many Slavic languages. Poland kept the old spellings, partly because Hus was a theologically distasteful figure, partly because of the need to represent the 'soft' fricatives and affricates as well as the old 'hard' sounds.

    8. ... and partly because the Polish system was at that time far too well-entrenched to leave much room for a sweeping reform. In the first half of the XV c. there was a Polish (spelling) reformer, Jakub Parkoszowic who proposed more sweeping reforms that Hus', based on a meticuluous examination of the then Polish phonology, but his proposals were never accepted, and so we have remained stuck with our 'sz', 'cz', 'rz' and stuff... Husian 'hacheks', by contrast, were adopted by not just many Slavs but by Lithuanians and other peoples and people, eg by semitologists (semitists?) in their transcriptions of semitic alphabets.

      true full name ---- see Profile

  7. I've never really understood the problems with pronouncing "cześć" or "szczęśliwej podróży", but then again, I might be pronouncing them completely wrong, as I haven't had much practice with natives. Nowadays, with my hearing threshold below 2000Hz, it's impossible to mimick a native speaker anyway...

    1. In my observation, foreigners have often problems with -szcz or -ść, for instance my native quarter Wrzeszcz (vʐɛʂʈʂ) seems to be unpronounceable to most everybody. Try German 'Langfuhr' for same! David Crosbie is probably right saying that before a vowel 'szcz' is easier.

      On th'other hand, the Dutch are generally very gifted and versatile linguistically, more so than most other European nations.

      Full name ---> Profile

    2. I think I can pronounce "wrzeszcz" without a problem, and I'm not sure why it's all that difficult. -st is a common ending in Germanic languages, so palatizing them a bit doesn't seem to require too much tongue gymnastics... (or is it ść that's primarily palatized, I forgot)

    3. yes, it's -ść.

      I think it's the combination of -sh and -ch, plus the pause (Auslaut). Italians know both (fascismo, ciao) yet fail to say 'wrzeszcz' and so do Germans. (The latter say "Langfuhr" or 'das Viertel von Guenther Grass' or 'fschesch' at best).

      Your not having difficulties I'd put down to your Dutchness. The Dutch pronounce most everything correctly, whereas the French pronounce nothing, I suppose it's the native phonetics (of Dutch resp. French) that 'hard-wires' the brain in early childhood so as to open resp. close the way to every other phonetics.

  8. Killian

    I've never really understood the problems with pronouncing "cześć" or "szczęśliwej podróży",

    I find the latter much easier to struggle with than the former. Not because they're different sounds — although they are — but because it's psychologically easier, if not physically easier, when the sound is followed by a vowel.

    1. I think it must be the love for final consonantal clusters of Dutch that makes it easier on the Dutch tongue ("herfst" anyone?)

    2. But is it not 'her-schwa-fst'? Desgelijks: fil-schwa-mp, filemp. Heard such-lijk so many times. Worse still: Herftsttij der Middeleeuwen. Is -tij short of 'tijd' or time, 'tide'? And do you chaps actually articulate double 't' in that word 'herfsttij'?

      Germans say 'Herbstzeit' (r)bstts without any schwa, only 'r' is sometimes vocalised. Smacks of Georgian, mildly.

      Full name ----> see my Google Profile

    3. "her-schwa-fst" is an option, but certainly not the default. "filmp" is not a Dutch word ("film" is, and here also the schwa is an option), and neither is "suchlijk". Double t in "herfsttij" might be pronounced as a true geminate in careful pronunciation, I don't have any reference data for length of the holding phase in such cases for less formal speech. "tij" here seems indeed to mean "tijd".

    4. sorry, I must have thought of 'filmpje', little film. So you guys pronounce it without a schwa most of the time? 'suchlijk' was a slip, i must have been very impressed by dutch spelling, such-like of course.

      I again from my small exposure to spoken Dutch sort of believed the schwa's were indeed a _de facto_ norm, but you're saying that's wrong?

      Full true name ---- Profile

    5. Some observations about this epenthetic schwa can be read here:

    6. Dank U, meneer! I admire the interestedness in their own language of the Dutch and envy them of it. Tot naaste keer!

      True name ---: Profile

    7. That would be "Tot de volgende keer". It seems you comitted the crime of using a horrible Germanism (or rather two, given the absence of a definite article)! :)

    8. pardon, or rather sorry meneer, funnily you don't seem to have a real Dutch word for apology, you don't say anything like 'ontschuldiging' do you? Perhaps: Het spijt me erg?

      In German there is a definite article, but 'swallowed': bis zum (zu dem) naechsten Mal.

      full true name --- see Profile

    9. With regards to apologizing, one can use words of originally foreign origin, like "pardon" (although this is more often used questioningly, e.g. if someone is in your way) or "sorry", otherwise one can say "excuus" or "excuses" or "mijn excuses" but that's less common, as well as "mijn verontschuldigingen" (note the "ver" prefix, not good without it), but that's perhaps only used in writing ("I want to offer my apology" -> "Ik wil mijn verontschuldigingen aanbieden"). "Het spijt me" is used to offer formal apologies after wrong doing, and often used by politicians and the like for notpologies ("het spijt me dat het zoveel ophef heeft veroorzaakt").

      As for the German, is it also possible without the "zum"? My German is rusty, but I'd swear "bis nächsten Mal" is possible.

    10. Don’t you swear Kilian; “bis nächsten Mal” is not possible. If you wish to drop the word “zum” you have to say “bis nächstes Mal” though “bis zum nächsten Mal” is way more frequent.

      À la prochaine,

      Charlie Ruland

    11. Ok, thanks for setting me straight. Like I said, my German is rusty, and those pesky declensions never really stuck. That said, Googling for the variant with "zum" yields 33M hits, without it and "-s" yields 3.84M hits (indeed significantly less), but without "zum" and "-n" still gets 2.51M hits, so I'm not the only one mistaken :). (Note: I googled the expression between double quotes, and with "-dictionary -translation" to avoid some contamination.)

    12. If you have a closer look at those millions of results, you'll see that they're really about 200, some from texts that are otherwise, er, non-standard, too ("danke für Ihre Einkauf").

    13. Yeah, I should've investigated further, but was too lazy. Nevertheless, I'm not the only bad German speaker that makes that mistake :)

    14. Ad Kilian H.

      so the standard way of saying 'sorry' (a true apology) in Dutch is just 'sorry', right? I mean real apologies, not notpologies.

      As for articles, my native language (so rusty/So cankered, and so full/Of frowards, and so dull, as Skelton would've said) has no definite article (though it has a kind of 'inofficial' indefinite article), so I tend to leave it (def. art.) in other languages too.

    15. Yeah, "sorry" would be ok in most non-formal situations. In more formal settings you'd use something like "Ik bied mijn excuses aan" or the like (in public "Ik wil hierbij mijn excuses aanbieden").

      As for Polish, I have studied it a bit in the past, so I'm aware of its lack of articles. I've never noticed you omitting them in English, though.

    16. thank you, that is very useful, 'ik bied mijn excuses aan...'. Aan de Amsterdamse grachten, perhaps, coz I haven't seen for so long yet...

      In English ---- no (English uses articles more sparingly than most Continental languages); but it was in Dutch that I wrote 'tot volgende keer'.

      In German, e.g., they often say 'die Griechen', in the sense of 'all Greeeks', I think in most English contexts 'the Greeks' would provoke the question 'which Greeks?' or presuppose it answered, this generalising use of the defn. art., though to some extent exists in English too, is not so common, methinks.

      In Polish, there is an informal colloquial indefinite article, which infuriates purists, 'taki' (such a), used (apart from its proper use) in a way similar to an indefinite article: nagle widzę taki dom, all of a sudden I can see a house (in front of me) or some such...

  9. Although I disagree with most exaggerations in the article, I must admit there is something in z+consonant clusters that makes the Brits avoid them. This is why for the 4 years we spent in the UK my husband Zbyszek became a ... bishop!;)

    1. this is how difficult sounds in one's first name get one forr'arder in one's ecclesiastic career!

      Not in Switzerland, though, where Zb- (pronounced tsb-) is quite common in names, Zbinden, Zberg, etc.

      Full true name ---> Profile

    2. 'widget', you MUST use your real name to comment here. (See the top of the page.) Otherwise your comment may be deleted.

    3. Hello, of course, I do not mind! It's Anna Ugorek. But I was not sure where to insert it, so I chose the familiar identification option of signing in through my google account. Not sure how else to sign so it gives my name...

  10. This comment has been removed by the author.

  11. Widget, I think the idea (if other options aren't available) are to just provide your name in the comment itself, as I'm doing here.

    Gareth Roberts

    1. An alternative is to either mention or describe (as I did) one's true name at one's Google profile and to refer to that mention or description here, as I am doing here:

      True full name ---> see Google Profile, i. e.:

      A question to you as a Welsh-speaker: what does 'blogol y cwm' mean? Title of a blog that I follow but it'd please me to know what that means: blogol y cwm.

    2. Annwyl Wojciech, to save bothering garicymro - and boring others by going too far off-topic here - I'll email you privately about the facetiously named and still 99% contentless "Blogol y Cwm", of which I am the author and you are AFAIK the only follower! :-)

      Kevin Flynn

  12. "Why Polish plosives should be ‘mind-bending’ when English ones are presumably not is far from clear."

    John, it may be that what the author of this article had in mind was the distribution of plosives in Polish. Polish allows clusters such as /kt/ /pt/ both in the onset and in the coda as opposed to English which allows such cluster only in the coda. English is far more restrictive in that respect. Many a time have I heard brits whining about how it is completely impossible to say words such as 'ptak' for bird, 'kto' for who, 'kpina' for jibe.

    (P) ptak --> (E) /'tak/ or /pə'tak/
    (P) kto --> (E) /'to/ or /kə'to/
    (P) kpina --> (E) /'pina/ or /kə'pina/

    It would be indeed a great simplification, but then again, what can you expect from an average journo :)

    1. Well, several years ago we had a discussion here concerning my native city's Polish name, 'Gdańsk' and the 'Anglos' worked hard to persuade us 'Polos' that we couldn't really say 'gda-', only 'g-schwa-da' because the former was not possible... . This bears amply your point out, Marek....

      Full name --- see Google Profile

  13. aɪv hɝd ðət ˈaɪɚlənd naʊ hæz mɔr ˌneɪɾɪv ˈspikɚz əv ˈpoʊlɪʃ ðən əv ˈaɪrɪʃ, soʊ ɪts ˈɪntrəstɪŋ tə hɪr ðət ˈbrɪtn̩ stɪl hæz mɔr ˈspikɚz əv ˈwɛlʃ ðən ˈpoʊlɪʃ.

    aɪ ˈwʌndɚ ˈhwɛðɚ ðə ˈpoʊlz hu θɪŋk ˈpoʊlɪʃ hæz ˈlɪɾl̩ ˌdaɪlɛkt vɛriˈeɪʃən kənˈsɪdɚ kəˈʃubiən ən saɪˈliʒən ˌsɛprɪt ˈlæŋɡwɪdʒɪz, ɔr ɪf ðeɪ dʒəst doʊnt kənˈsɪdɚ ðəm əɾ ˈɔl.

    1. Sorry but I can't help considering them dialects of Polish, both Cassubian and Silesian. There have recently been attempts by activists of the Cassubian/Silesian movement to style these dialects as separate languages, inventing vocabulary and idiomatics that set them sharply apart from Polish, but that is just artificial inventions (with all due respect), no real Cassubian or Silesian speaks as these activists prescribe.

      Both of them, and especially Cassubian, are very different from other Polish dialects (tho' in both cases there be transition dialects from them to 'core Polish', in the case of Cassubian it's the dialects of the region called Kociewie, south of Cassubia), yet still, they are far less different from other Polish dialects and standard Polish than most German or Italian dialects (which I have had ample exposure to) from both one another and standard German and Italian, resp.

      Re Cassubian I tend to find a Polish linguist (Witold Mańczak) plausible who claims that Cassubian once (like XIII cent. or earlier) was a separate language but has got polonised over centuries.

      There is political aspect to't: before WW1 and during WW2 Cassubian and (Upper) Silesian territories were under German rule, and Germans took pains to erect various sub-groups of their Polish minority into separate little nations (divide et impera), using among other things this means: you chaps don't speak exactly like Varsavians, thus you speak a separate language, thus you are no Poles. This stuck and has stuck to this very day in German scholarship, and since it's more influential than Polish scholarship, the separate languagehood of Cassubian and/or Silesian has been gaining ground (as a view) ever since. I personally have no problem with Cass. and Sil. being recognised as sep. lang.s, if they only be _plausibly_ so recognised. It suffices, though, to hear or read Lower Sorbian, the closest to Polish separate language, and the Cassubian or Silesian, to lose all faith in the latter two's separate languagehood.

      This said, once again, Cass. and Sil. are very distinct from 'core Polish', and so are their respective accents in standard Polish.

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    2. correction:

      ... and THEN (i.e. directly after that) Cassubian or Silesian...

      The starting point of this whole discussion was a question by Ed if there be little ACCENT (rather than dialect) variation in Poland. But it's true, aside from Cass. and Sil., Polish dialects are not so widely different from one another, and even the latter two are rather like standard Polish compared with how German or Italian dialects differ from their respective standard languages.

      True full name --- see Profile (Google)

  14. @Tonio: It depends on who counts as a bona fide native speaker of Welsh. In the 2011 census the "full proficiency" option ("Can speak, read and write Welsh") was selected by 431 thousand respondents. Given the wide margin of uncertainty, Polish may in fact have overtaken Welsh. I find it a bit disturbing, since I'd like Welsh to thrive and gain new native speakers.

    1. PS If you want my personal opinion on Kashubian and Silesian, I would say that Kashubian is definitely a separate language, and Silesian is a kind of borderline case. As I'm sure everybody here realises, linguistic criteria (such as mutual intelligibility) may be overriden by political choices when it comes to defining one's group identity.

    2. The more careful press reports stated that Polish was the second language in England and the third language in Wales.

      There have been reports that suggest otherwise, which really puzzled me. How could the papers be so careless with the facts?

      But now I discover it's down to a bizarre decision by the Office of National Statistics to make Welsh count as English for statistical purposes.

    3. This comment has been removed by the author.

    4. Yes, I too have been annoyed by much of the usual media sloppiness in coverage of this item (including, most disappointingly, that on the BBC World Service, although The Guardian did get the facts perfectly right: Welsh is second not just in Wales but in England-and-Wales too).

      To be fair to the Office of National Statistics, though, I think that "making Welsh count as English for statistical purposes" amounts to saying that the original ONS "headline" was that Polish was now the second most widely spoken foreign language in E&W.

      Kevin Flynn

      P.S. I removed my last comment only because it contained typos which, as always, are never visible until AFTER posting.(Grrr.) I presume there's no other way of editing a comment once submitted?

    5. Kevin

      To be fair to the Office of National Statistics, though, I think that "making Welsh count as English for statistical purposes" amounts to saying that the original ONS "headline" was that Polish was now the second most widely spoken foreign language in E&W.

      I think you're being a wee bit too generous, Kevin.

      Sure, the ONS chose to highlight the prevalence of Polish as a language foreign to the UK, but they expressed the fact in such a way as to obscure the comparison with Welsh.

      This deprives us of information which some of us would find very interesting. And it's by no means easy to tease it out from the published statistics since the comparison between English speakers and Welsh speakers in Wales was published in an entirely separate report.

      Worse, they didn't really make it clear that they were conflating English and Welsh for the purpose of this particular comparison. Not clear enough, that is. It's all very well to criticise journalists who misunderstood the report, but the ONS must have realised that the information would reach the public mostly through interpretive pieces in the media. They really should have made it easier for journalists to understand and interpret.

      There's no way of editing published posts — unless you're the actual blogger, i.e. John. I shouldn't let it worry you. With luck, John will delete entirely what's left of the old version.

    6. I have no idea why the ONS chose to define "English" as either English or Welsh being spoken in Wales. It's beyond my imagination why they chose this definition. They were obviously worried that people would get confused, as their the statistical bulletin repeats the definition constantly.

      From inspecting the tables, the areas of England have separate figures for English and Welsh speakers, but the areas of Wales only have combined figures for the two languages.

      This is even more bizarre when you think that the ONS has its headquarters in Newport.

      Ed Aveyard

    7. 'Ninety two per cent (49.8 million) of usual residents aged three years and over spoke English (English or Welsh in Wales) as their main language.' That's not the same as defining 'English' as 'English or Welsh in Wales'. It's defining an unnamed category as comprising:

      - English, wherever spoken; and
      - Welsh spoken in Wales.

  15. I find the ongoing idea that all of those "other" languages are so hard to speak and/or understand. How can Polish even exist with those crazy Z's?! The amazing thing is that somehow small children can even speak and understand it... Your mention of the TH challenge for non-english speakers is right on the mark. I'm working with a gentleman from Bangladesh right now who is absolutely stumped as to why we would use such a silly sound in English.

    1. Well, if his mother tongue is Bengali, it's also one of "those other" languages with funny sounds: retroflex stops, four contrastive types of phonation... It's the pot calling the kettle black ;)

    2. AccentJim

      Few if any sounds made with the speech apparatus are intrinsically difficult. However,

      • Some sounds call more muscular activity than other when they combine with others, which is a problem when you attempt to speak in a foreign language. Most English speakers can produce click sounds — to express disapproval or to encourage a horse. But they become enormously difficult when you add a vowel sound. That's the problem with θ and your Bengali speaker. I know I could teach him in no time to produce the sound in isolation. It's integrating it into syllables with other speech sounds that's so difficult.

      • Some sounds are difficult even for native speakers when they're in the 'wrong' position. We have no difficulty with z or b or zb in asbo, but Zbigniev freaks us out. Many speakers have no problem with fɪfθ but can't (or choose not to) say sɪksθs or even sɪkθ.

      • Some sounds are difficult to produce as distinct sounds contrasting with others sounds in a way that they do not in the native language. In Polish there are four sounds corresponding to the spellings sz, ś, cz, ć. Most English speakers can't even hear four distinct sounds. I can hear them, but only if I listen carefully. I can even make a stab at reproducing the distinctions, but I know I'm not at all good at it. There's a similarity with θ for some English speakers, who hear it as a variant of f — distinct in the speech of posh people , and other unfamiliar accents. (I believe the evidence is that most f- sayers hear the difference but don't reproduce it.)

      The sounds at the end of cześć combine almost all of all these difficulties.

      -- ʃ and are easy to produce as speech sounds in English
      -- either sound is easy to produce after a vowel, as in bash and batch
      -- the sounds can exist in sequences across syllables, as in fresh cheese
      It's extremely difficult to combine these English sounds within a syllable. If it was easy, we'd be able to pronounce the Russian soups based on beetroot and cabbage as the more-or-less authentic bɔ:(r)ʃtʃ and ʃtʃi:.

      • Even producing English ʃtʃ at the end of cześć doesn't solve the other problem. We also have to master the different sound at the start of Szczecin, and make sure that at least one — and preferably both — sounds different from English.

      Compared with all this, getting a Bengali to say θɪk is a doddle.

    3. but Zbigniev freaks us out

      Sorry! Zbigniew freaks us out.

    4. @ David Crosbie:

      We also have no trouble with [sp] as in speak. [zb] is of course just a voiced version of this.

    5. Jason

      [zb] is of course just a voiced version of this

      Yes, but if you're an English speaker and haven't learnt otherwise, that's no different from the voiceless version. If somebody says zbi:k, you hear speak and copy it as spi:k.

    6. In fact, [zb-] and [z-] many other consonants (... che la diritta via era smarrita, zmah-) is very common in Italian: sbagliare, to err, to be mistaken, zbah-, sbalordire, stupefy, sbarbare, shave, all zbah-. Do you chaps have insuperable difficulties with these too?

      full true name --- see Google Profile

  16. a'pɕu - This is how an average Polish sneese sounds. At least in theory. Anyways, I found the quip about 'cześć' rather amusing :P

    PS we seem to have a number of Polish speakers here... I wonder why.

  17. Something to keep in mind regarding "cześć" is that you don't have to use it if you have trouble pronouncing it: like English, Polish has a few informal greetings, not just one. Common ones include hej! and siema! Since "cześć" is also used as 'bye', you can replace it with "na razie" which is even more common nowadays, I believe.

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