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.
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 (firstname.lastname@example.org) (Use my name to train, I don’t mind!)