Wednesday 7 July 2010

hej, sokoły!

The choir I sing in makes an annual trip abroad. This year we are going to Warsaw (though on this occasion without me). Accordingly, we are learning a song in Polish to supplement our repertoire.
Żal, żal za dziewczyną,
Za zieloną Ukrainą,
Żal, żal serce płacze,
Już jej więcej nie zobaczę.

Hej, hej, hej sokoły
Omijajcie góry, lasy, doły.
Dzwoń, dzwoń, dzwoń dzwoneczku,
Mój stepowy skowroneczku.

There are two slight problems.
First, the music score we have been given omits all the diacritics in the Polish text. I don’t know if this is because the Sibelius software we use is not Unicode-compliant, or (more likely) because the person preparing the score didn’t know how to input Polish characters.

The reading rules for Polish, though unfamiliar to English eyes, are straightforward. Given the spelling, you can predict the pronunciation with some confidence — provided the diacritics are there. If they’re not there, you can’t.

The other problem is that the chorus member teaching us the Polish pronunciation, although he’s doing his best, is not a native speaker and not a phonetician.

He’s given us a Pronunciation Guide, consisting of the words of the song (with diacritics) supplemented by a respelling using English spelling conventions. It looks like this:
Żal, żal, za dziewczyną, za zieloną Ukrainą, żal, żal serce płacze,
Zhal Zhal zah jehv-che-nahw, zah jeh-lo-nahw Oo-crah-e-nahw, zhal zhal sertseh pwacheh

Not a disaster — but if I had been consulted about the respelling, that’s not exactly what I would have come up with. For example, the word dziewczyną is pronounced authentically, to the best of my knowledge, as dʑɛfˈtʃɨnɔɯ̃ (or you could write the second affricate as ʈʂ). The nearest I would be able to get with English spelling would be ‘jeff-chin-ong’. I think that would be closer than 'jehv-che-nahw'.

I know that Polish has obligatory obstruent voicing assimilation, which is why I respell the first syllable of dziewczyną as ‘jeff’. However our teacher is convinced that the fricative should be voiced (‘jehv’), which shows that he is dazzled by the Polish spelling (w) rather than listening to how Poles really say the word. It’s the same with ą: the respelling with ‘ah’ reflects the Polish letter but not the Polish sound.

Then in the next line there’s the word już ‘already’. It’s been respelled for us as you-zh. But I know that Polish has obligatory final obstruent devoicing. I would have written yoosh.

These details clearly don’t matter in the great scheme of things. Please don’t take this as a disparagement of the valiant efforts of our teacher. I’m sure that the Polish audience will be delighted that we are attempting a Polish song they will know, and they’ll probably all join in and drown us out anyway.


  1. The nasality of the ą has survived more than with ę, but it would probably still be better to ignore it than to add [ŋ] here, so a written o or oh might be more practical.

    The y is much more open than in other Slavic languages, so the written e is at least a valid alternative, I think, even as -che- with the open syllable prompting length, though there'd be the usual danger of English [iː].

    Of course, you're absolutely right about the devoicing - not that it would have helped to ask a NS layman.

    The z of zieloną isn't an affricate ("j"), and transcribing the second vowel as o rather than aw might suggest a diphthong.

  2. Frank Sinatra once recorded his version of an old Polish song. He sang half of the lyrics in English and the other half in Polish: - the Polish part starts around 2:00
    Actually, he's doing pretty well here (I'm a Pole so I can tell) although sometimes he sounds more Ukrainian than Polish ;-)

  3. I can see I've been called to the blackboard ;)

    (1) Your IPA rendition of dziewczyną is spot on for those people who preserve the nasality. However, quite a few don't -- just that it's usually considered a non-standard regionalism. For those, the last syllable is /nɔw/. The same goes for zieloną and Ukrainą, of course.

    (2) The "-ong" respelling is definitely the best solution. That's what you'd do for e.g. French "on", right? Same for zieloną and Ukrainą.

    (3) (Also @Lipman) Well, the /ɨ/ surely is more open and central than English KIT but I think rendering it as DRESS is taking it too far, even in a London setting where most of the singers will have a closish KIT. And, as Lipman said, there's the danger of it being read as /i:/. So "chin" is preferable.

    (4) "You-zh" is OK in this context, as the "ż" is followed by "j", which of course stands for /j/, a voiced sound. So you'll get the voicing assimilation -- at least in Poznań and Cracow. I have to admit I actually don't know if /j/ triggers this in Warsaw -- the exact environments for voicing assimilation are one of the main differences between the two dialect groups.

  4. Three more things:

    (1) Here's a small Polish vowel chart from an experiment I'm running. A woman in her twenties speaking standard Poznań Polish. The grey dots are /i/, the blue ones -- /ɛ/, the red ones -- /ɨ/. So you can see how /ɨ/ is quite central, but not necessarily very low. The two raised and fronted instances of /ɛ/ come from palatal contexts.

    (2) Of course Lipman is totally correct about the "zi" in zieloną. It's a palato-alveolar fricative. Thus, no good way to distinguish it from "ż" in English respelling.

    (3) Polish is in fact quite readily readable (excuse the alliteration) without diacritics. Many people will write email, text messages etc. without diacritics, and there isn't too much ambiguity. I even wrote a comment on this on Language Log some time ago (excuse the shameless self-promotion) here.

  5. Grrr. Of course I meant alveolo-palatal in (2) above -- /ʑ/. It seems I can't re-read what I write in the preview box.

  6. This is more or less how I would sing it...

    (note that majority of the nasal vowels that occur word-finally are more prominent due to the prosodic features of the song, therefore I would not devoid them of the nasal resonance)...

    ʐal ʐal za dʑ͡ɛfˈtʂ͡ɨnɔ̃
    za ʑɛˈlɔnɔ̃ ˈuːkraiː̃ˈnɔ̃
    ʐal ʐal ˈsɛrcɛ ˈpwatʂ͡ɛ
    juːʂʲ jɛj ˈnɨːɡdɨ ɲɛ zɔˈbatʂ͡ɛ̃
    xɛj xɛj xɛj sɔˈkɔwɨ
    ɔmiːˈjajtɕ͡ɛ ˈɡurɨ lasɨ ˈdɔwɨ
    dz͡vɔɲ dz͡vɔɲ dz͡vɔɲ dz͡vɔˈnɛtʂ͡ku
    muːj stɛˈpɔvɨ skɔvrɔˈnɛtʂ͡ku

  7. Is the director of your choir aware of your professional expertise? I ask because you often seem to post about situations that come up on your choral singing where it would have proved useful.

    I am just very impressed by your restraint in refraining from asserting your authority!

  8. @Anonymous: Is the director of your choir aware of your professional expertise? My question exactly.

    @j.ziobronowicz: I mostly agree. But:

    (1) Am I correct in thinking that marking vowel length is supposed to reflect the "prosody" of the song? Some instances are a bit arguable, e.g. the first "o" in omijajcie could also be marked as long. It depends on the exact musical interpretation. So I wouldn't mark that...

    (2) Some of the things depend on whether the transcription is allophonic or phonemic (oops, opening a can of worms here). E.g. the nasality of the /i/ in Ukrainą is evidently allophonic, and so is the surface palatalisation of the /ʂ/ in już. If you want to mark that, there are other things at a similar level of detail, notably the closer quality of /ɛ/ in jej, zieloną, etc.

    (In fact, in this particular context I don't think there will be too much nasality in the /i/ in Ukrainą. It's a separate syllable. Making it overly nasal will impart a strong impression of a Russian accent.)

    (3) /nɨːɡdɨ/ should be /ɲiɡdɨ/.

    (4) Using /ɔ̃/ for "ą" is of course another can of worms...

    (5) And a friend who knows quite a bit more about voicing assimilation in Polish tells me that indeed the /ʂ/ in już will not assimilate in Warsaw Polish.

  9. j.ziobronowicz: surely /ˈsɛrtsɛ/ and /ˈɲɨːɡdɨ/ ?

  10. Hi,
    Of course, /ˈsɛrtsɛ/ and /ˈɲɨːɡdɨ/. Apologies for my inconsistency.
    I agree with the exaggerated palatalization, however:
    - the reason why I nasalized some of the final vowels is a matter of my personal interpretation- I believe that the intensity of the change in tone would induce nasality- also in the word 'Ukrainą'- the pitch and tone alter sufficiently to add nasal resonance ( a way of underlying the syllable). That is what to my mind our choir did when we perfomed this very song. And the Russian implication would not be in fact so unsuitable bearing in mind that the song was actually sang during the Polish-Soviet war and was written by an Polish Ukrainian.
    Again, all matter of interpretation...

  11. Anon and wjarek: Is the director of your choir aware of your professional expertise?. Last summer the choir visited Helsinki and prepared a song in Finnish. I intervened with explanations about the pronunciation of Finnish. In our Christmas show we had a song partly in Zulu. I intervened about that and demonstrated the relevant click to everyone. A lot of the choir members know that I am a retired professor of phonetics, and so does our deputy music director (though he has just resigned). Perhaps the music director himself doesn’t, though I intervened directly with him when the question arose about the pronunciation of “calliope” in one of the songs in this year’s summer show. But it didn’t occur to anyone that I might know something about the pronunciation of Polish, and I’m not going to intervene at this late stage. Anyhow, as you all know I am very modest and retiring.

  12. Don't you find it difficult to be both retiring and fully retired at the same time?


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