Polish names' pronunciation guide for English speakers

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Originally published on GitHub as a part of a guide of pronouncing names in various languages. It was published there on July 27th, 2021.

Polish looks to an English speaker like a complicated mess of consonants. The consonants are a powerful weapon of special grade.

But even in the exaggerated example from the film (Grzegorz Brzęczyszczykiewicz), once we learn that Z modifies sounds in Polish just like H in English sh, ch, zh, it gets much easier. So:

Polish English approximate Example first name
cz ch as in cheese Czesław
sz sh as in fresh Bartosz
rz z as in azure Marzena
szcz sh ch as in fresh cheese Mszczuj (relax, it’s very uncommon!)

Now you’re ready to pronounce Grzegorz Brzęczyszczykiewicz correctly enough to earn beers from your Polish friends down at the pub. You may as well stop here but the further you go the better you will pronounce!

The natural next step are some Polish-only letters and letters pronounced differently than in English:

Polish English approximate Example name
ą Nasal o, as in French sont surname Bąk
ć, ci As cz, but softer surname Cichy
ę Nasal e, as in French vin surname Sęk
j y as in yes Jan
ł w as in window Sławomira
ń, ni ny in canyon Stanisław
ś, si As sz, but softer Jaś (nickname of Jan)
w v as in very Władysław
y approx. i as in bin Tytus
ź, zi As rz, but softer surname Ziarno
ż Same as rz Błażej

The ones with surnames as exmaple are very uncommon in first names - the reason is that while surnames are usually Slavic in origin, first names usually have Latin, Greek, Hebrew and otherwise Biblical roots, with a few common Slavic first names - so they do not have typical Polish/Slavic sounds. ś, ć, ń, being soft, unvoiced and therefore cute usually occur in nicknames (Sławomir -> Sławuś, Przemysław -> Przemuś, etc.) but rarely in full names. This function is nearly identical to Japanese -chan.

Now, the two final rules which will make you sound as a native. The second-last syllable is accented (pronounced louder). Examples: barBAra, Ada, maRZEna, jan.

In clusters of unvoiced (p, k, t, s, w, sz) + voiced (b, g, d, z, f, rz/ż) consonants, and when the voiced phoneme is at the end of the word, the voiced consonant becomes unvoiced. Examples: Krzysztof -> Kszysztof, Przemysław -> Pszemysłaf.

This concludes all but the most rare rules of Polish pronunciation. Now go and train on your colleagues names, and earn their neverending respect.

Contributed by: Przemysław Buczkowski (prem@prem.moe) (Use my name to train, I don’t mind!)