Tag Archives: Polish language

The Polish language: Twisting tongues since 1152

Ok, ok settle down. No talking in the back! Welcome back to Polish 101. If you remember that last time out, we covered some vocabulary. This time around, we’ll try some pronounciation.

So John, how do we say ‘Hello’ in an informal way in Polish? Czesc? Yes, very good… And now, how about the Polish for the number six…? Szesc! Yes! Can you hear the difference?

Ok, next up we’ll practice the z’s. I want to hear everyone… cz, ć, ci, and then sz, ś, si… next rz, zi, ż, ź. Good, that’s the warm-up sorted out. Now we’ll move on to the main exercise today. Please pronounce the following. Please bear in mind that they are not exaclty tongue twisters but I think they’ll twist your brain at very least.

  • W Szczebrzeszynie chrząszcz brzmi w trzcinie i Szczebrzeszyn z tego słynie, że chrząszcz brzmi w trzcinie.
  • Czarna krowa w kropki bordo gryzła trawę kręcąc mordą
  • Leży Jerzy koło wieży, i nie wierzy, że na wieży leży gniazdo nietoperzy
  • Mama ma Mamałygę
  • Szedł Sasza suchą szosą, suszył sobie spodnie.
  • Pocztmistrz z Tczewa.
  • Wyrewolwerowany rewolwerowiec wyrewolwerował się
  • Gdy Pomorze nie pomoże, to pomoże może morze, a gdy morze nie pomoże to pomoże może Gdańsk
  • Żółte żaby żałośliwie żalą się żółwiowi, że żółtodzioby żuraw z Żywca zamiast żyta żaby żre.
  • Stół z powyłamywanymi nogami.
  • Wyindywidualizowałem się z rozentuzjazmowanego tłumu.
  • Król Karol kupił Królowej Karolinie korale koloru koralowego
  • Wydrze wydrzę wydrze wydrze wydrze wydrzę


In the next class, we’ll translate these – but please be warned they are not as interesting as the Polish version!

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From Awinion to Zurych: Polish Exonyms

Part of the process of learning Polish is picking up vocabulary. One of the more interesting areas within vocabulary is the topic of exonyms. The term exonym is defined as “a name used by foreigners for a place, such as Florence  for Firenze.” While most languages have their own versions of how places are named, Polish has more than most it seems, partly due to its central location in Europe and thus due to changes during history.

Most exonyms in Polish are fairly understandable, especially those in Balto-Slavic countries, as those languages share common bases. Thus names like Wilno (Vilnius), Praga (Prague), Bratysława (Bratislava) and Kijów (Kiev) are easy to follow, even with a limited level of Polish vocabulary.

Where things get a bit trickier can be when names which are not Slavic in origin are then adapted to become Polish exonyms. There can be a variety of reasons why such names have come about. For example Mediolan (Milan) is the direct Latin version of the current Italian name, and that has been taken directly into Polish. Kolonia (Cologne/Köln), Monachium (Munich) and Gandawa (Ghent) are of the same Latin origin. Of course, for the majority of names with Polish exonyms applied, it just means a small change of spelling to be ‘translated’. Simple examples include Londyn (London), Ostrawa (Ostrava), Budapeszt (Budapest) and Kopenhaga (Copenhagen), meaning they should be understood even by those not learning any Polish.

Finally, there are others which seem to bear little relation to the English (or ‘home’ language) version of the name. Cities such as Koływań (Tallinn), Pięciokościoły (Pécs), Windawa (Ventspils), Kadyks (Cádiz) and Akwizgran (Aachen) would just have to be learnt in order to be understood and remembered.

Exonym or Not

Some confusion can arise around when and how to apply the exonyms into Polish though. For example:

New York becomes Nowy Jork -> However, Chicago does not become Szikago

Washington becomes Waszyngton -> However, Los Angeles does not become Los Andżeles

London becomes Londyn -> However, Manchester does not become Manczester

Edinburgh becomes Edynburg -> However, Cardiff does not become Kardif

Are there any rules around which names should be ‘translated’ or not? Chicago is one prime example where confusion can happen, especially as it would seem like a strong candidate to have a Polish exonym with a strong Polish diaspora. In it’s current spelling, surely it should be pronounced Khitsago when spoken in Polish conversation…

Quiz time!

For those of you that would like to test your knowledge of exonyms used in the Polish language, feel free to check out this quiz on Sporcle. Please note, I did not create this quiz, so credit here goes to the Sporcle user Langbartelski. I scored 58 out of 70 earlier, just missing some of the tougher Russian and Belarussian cities. Can you score better than that?

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Myth #14: Polish is hard


Utter nonsense.

There are two reasons why this myth is so prevalent; number one because Polish looks hard to an English speaker and, number two, because Polish people are endlessly telling foreigners that it is hard. Let’s examine these two heinous misrepresentations more closely.

It looks hard

To a native speaker of English a word such as:


looks completely absurd. We have absolutely no idea how to pronounce it. The letters just don’t work together, we can’t even guess. Polish uses the Latin alphabet, which we’re familiar with, but in a completely different way. Letters, and especially combinations of letters, stand for different sounds than they do in English. The same word (which means ‘thank you’ in case you didn’t know) spelled as if it were an English language phrase would look something like:

Jin kwee eh


When I was a kid there was a standard joke that cropped up all the time on TV shows. Here’s an example from the classic British sitcom of the 1970s Steptoe and Son:

Harold and his elderly father are playing Scrabble:

Father: It’s your turn, what have you got.

Harold: z, v, x, w, r, and c

Father: You’d be alright if you were Polish!

Bear in mind this was the early 1970s. Nobody in the UK knew where Poland was and certainly hadn’t been there or met any Polish people. But still we had this image of the Polish language as an impossibly complicated thing with bizarre spelling. This was the only thing we knew about Poland, this and some vague connection to Hitler and the war.

The Polish method of spelling is far superior to the English method. In fact English doesn’t actually have a method, it’s more or less random. Once you learn the Polish method you can pronounce any word you come across. In English you’ve got no chance; in the phrase above I could have used ‘Gin’ instead of ‘Jin’ for example, how much sense does that make?

They tell us it’s hard

Poles are incredibly precious about their language. They’re convinced that it’s god’s gift to creation, despite the fact that 99 percent of the world’s population don’t speak it. Here are two telling facts about the Polish language. Number one; there are popular television programs that feature professors who rule on correct Polish pronunciation and grammar. Number two; one of the most prestigious degrees one can obtain at university is Polish philology. Both of these things are inconceivable in the English-speaking world. A show featuring the ‘correct pronunciation of English’ would be laughed off the air in five minutes and there is no such degree as ‘English philology’ nor any hint of what it could possibly mean.

Polish people generally look upon those trying to learn Polish with pity and mutter about the extreme difficulty of pronunciation and grammar for foreigners. Complete nonsense. There aren’t any sounds in the Polish language that are alien to the English native speaker. When a foreigner does speak Polish he or she is generally looked upon as a freak of nature. In reality I could teach some basic Polish phrases to my grandmother without any difficulty. I know a Japanese guy who learned passable Polish in a few months, and he’s the subject of awe from Polish people for absolutely no good reason. Of course a lot of this is down to the sheer novelty of hearing foreigners speaking Polish, a novelty that wore off about 50 years ago for speakers of English. Yes Polish grammar is complex, but it’s nowhere near as complex and random as English grammar, and when it really comes down to it, perfect grammar is the last thing to worry about when learning a foreign language.

More myths about Poland

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The problem a with the English

Said it so many times, but never here – compared to Polish, English is an extremely easy language to get to the stage of good conversation, advanced or even very advanced level. However, to take that next step and to get your English (British English) to the stage where you can be considered truly fluent (with a fair degree of intelligence and artistry) is, I would say very much harder than with Polish and is verging on, if not actually impossible. Not only for foreigners, many Brits can’t get there either! Once you get beyond a certain stage with the English language there are just so many different ways to play with the thing and so many very subtle nuances between the different options that it must seem like knitting fog. It becomes more of an art than a science whereas, I think, the Polish language, although equally beautiful, is more constrained, more concise and therefore easier to stop it getting away from you. I have not looked up the number of words in the English language versus Polish but I expect there’s a big difference and that’s before you start trying to put the combinations together! My deepest sympathies go out to any foreigner who’s ambition in life is to be truly fluent in English. Also to anyone who’s job is to translate novels or verse (I would have to add the word ‘quality’ in there) between one language and the other. I expect someone like Dan brown is pretty easily translated, others definitely not so.

Still, have no fear because even with English at basic up to advanced level we can all have a lot of fun! Here are a few of the main culprits that appear to have even the best English speaking Poles tripping over their tongues / typewriters:

The (with a side helping of ‘a/an’) – This one I understand. There is no such word in Polish and certainly nothing that is used in anything like the irregular ways that the word “the” (or “a/an”) is used in English. It is therefore understandable that most Poles struggle with this. Many are so confused by it that they either use it far too much or far too little. Those who get the quantity about right usually insert them in the wrong places. ;)

Numbers – This one is strange because there seems to be no excuse at all. I’ve met Poles with quite excellent English who still say 2,200 as “two hundred thousand hundred……ooo errr”. My experience is that this is an entirely one-way thing. Most foreigners grasp Polish numbers very quickly and make few mistakes. Most Poles struggle with English numbers. The words zielonego pojęcia spring to mind.

Borrow / Lend – This I understand. In Polish there is only one word for both of these – pożyczyć, so it makes sense that this might be a tricky one to grasp.

He / She – Still baffled by this one. Why he/she should be any more complicated than on/ona, I have no idea. And yet, it is one of the most common errors.

Recognising a question – I sort of understand this one because in Polish you have to send out a signal that there is a question about to follow before you embark on the question. Just slip the word “czy” up front and bingo, you have a Polish question, without “czy” you have nuffink! In English, questions are more subtle and normally you don’t find out (unless you’re advanced enough on tones of voice, sentence structure, body language and stuff) until later in the sentence, or even after it seems to have finished. This is a particularly annoying one because it leads to a serious outbreak of premature ejaculation on the Pole’s part and lot of repeating of “Let me finish, this is a question, not a statement” on the Brit’s part.

Homework – please translate back and forth the following sentence, He asked her “Do you think it would be okay for you to lend me the 2,250 zloty you got from a bank on that street behind the library?”. She told him, for what seemed like the 115th time, that he should only borrow 740 zloty. Unless he really liked hospital food?

Let’s not leave thinking that the Polish language is straightforward though. Borrowed from Wiki (to save typing time):

  • Ala ma kota – Alice has a cat (when spoken with a different sentence tempo and accentation, this sentence can be understood as mildly offensive idiom “Alice is crazy” or “Alice is a loony”)
  • Ala kota ma – Alice does have (own) a cat (and has not borrowed it)
  • Kota ma Ala – The/a cat is owned by Alice
  • Ma Ala kota – Alice really does have a cat
  • Kota Ala ma – It is just the cat that Alice really has
  • Ma kota Ala – The relationship of Alice to the cat is one of ownership (and not temporary possession)

From my own experience, I can say that tone of voice is pretty important when distinguishing between the above, especially as there are probably no more than three versions that anyone would be expecting to hear.

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