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Polish Language - Spelling Rules

You can be forgiven if you find that the Polish spelling looks funny, some would even call it weird. It does certainly look different, even strange with all those funny apostrophes, tails and dots over letters.

It is not as bad as it might seem, although, the Polish spelling is not for the fainthearted, difficult to master not only for a foreigner, but also for a Pole. No wonder many Poles find it difficult to express themselves properly in writing. Mind you, it takes years for a young Pole to master the intricacies of the Polish written language.

Most will never become fully learned, continuing, also as adults, to make painful, often awkward mistakes in their writing. On the bright side, since so many of the youngsters (and not only) do not know how to spell, there is not much likelihood to be laughed at.

To put it simply: the Latin alphabet sucks. (That is in part the reason why the Cyryllic alphabet was invented.) It was never intended for use with strange Slavonic languages like Polish. A straightforward language like Latin is easy to spell; on the other hand Polish, featuring a large number of sounds befitting the insect kingdom, is a trap.

Having been given 24 letters only and having at their hands a large numbers of butterfly, dragonfly and bumblebee sounds, the Poles had to be inventive. No wonder they had to add dots, stings, tails, and wings - whatever needed - to express the strange sounds the Poles can produce while in the talkative mood.

In order to write down the two nasal sounds in Polish, somewhat similar to the ones occurring in French, the Poles added a tail to the "a" and "e," creating "ą" and "ę."

For the soft sounds they added an apostrophe above the "c", "s", "z", "n" thus, receiving "ć", "ś", "ź", "ń". (If you wish to check how these sound, just add an "i" to the corresponding Latin letter and pronounce "si" for "ś" while lifting your tongue as high as it goes. The sound reminds a little of the sound some snakes make when they are ready to attack - if you know what I mean.

The problem is that two letter combinations, like "si", etc can be used instead of the single "ś". For an example of the confusion just check the slang word "cieć" (caretaker), where in a single word both types of spelling are present.

For the bumble-bee effect the Poles took a "z" and added a dot on top for the vibration, thus, creating a "ż", a sound somewhat similar to the second sound (right after d) in the English name "John."

The "l" with a dash "ł" was used for a sound similar to the English "w", since the Polish "w" was already reserved for the sound that in English is written as "v", which can be a bit confusing.

But there is more. As I already mentioned, the same sounds can be spelled in two different ways. Thus, the same sound can be spelled both "u" and "ó", depending on the word. Also, the sound "h", can be spelled both as "h" and "ch" in different words, like "chata" (hut) and "huta"(steelworks).

The same applies to the bumble-bee sound. The same sound in different words can be spelled as "ż", but also as a two letter combination with "rz".

Some sounds use exclusively a two letter combination like "sz" pronounced not unlike "sh" I shame, "cz" pronounced somewhat similar to "ch" I chain.

Actually, not all of the letters of the Latin alphabet were used. The letter "x" for some reason was never used. Explain that if you can.

Why Polish is so complicated to write, it is because it in not consequently phonetic. The Poles simply do not write the way they talk, although most of them, due to the long exposure to the written language do not even realize that anymore. There are a lot of things going on in the speech that is not shown in the writing.

So for example the tonal consonants become toneless in the end of the word. It might sound complicated but it's not. "Sad" (an orchard) is being pronounced as "sat", but if a vowel like "y" follows, then it is spelled as "sady", and only then pronounced with a "d".

I am sure you will notice that obvious tendency if you listen to the way the Poles pronounce the English words. (After all it is a part of the Polish accent, making it quite easy to recognize.) "Good" will become "goot", "food" will become "foot". Thus a Polish speaker will happily assure you that he is not "met" (mad) at you, possibly a little "set" (sad).

There is a reason for the use of two letter combinations like "rz" instead of a single letter "ż" since the spelling depends (among others) on the root of the original verb. If it has an "r" in it, it spells as "rz", thus retaining the original "r". "Kura" (a hen) contains an "r", thus a derived form like "kurzy" (hen's) will have to be written with a two-letter combination.

On the other hand, "Żaba", (a frog) will keep its original "ż" in all its forms, since there is no "r" in sight in any of the frog words.

Although nowadays there is no difference whatsoever in the pronunciation of both "rz" and "ż", that was not always the case. It is more than probable that "rz" was indeed long ago pronounced as two separate sounds.

There is similar logic to the use of "ó"and "u", both pronounced as kind of "u". The former is used if the different forms of the word switch between "o" and "ó", for example please compare "sól" (salt) and "solny" (of salt),

If on the other hand the word, in all its forms, keeps the letter "u", like "drut" (wire) and "druciany" (of wire) then we write it always a "u".

To make things easier, the kids in school learn that "uje siê nie kreskuje" (no apostrophe if the word ends on "uje"), thus learning a general rule that words like "pracuje" (he works) are always to be spelled with "u".

Although there are some general principles you can follow when spelling, unfortunately, there is a number of exceptions that you only must learn by heart.

A collection of a few sounding funny words and expressions, that I like the way they are pronounced to round the whole thing off (let a Pole pronounce them for you for some fun):

"Dżdż" - for a real bumbe-bee sound

"W Szczebrzeszynie chrząszcz brzmi w trzcinie"

"Krzesło z powyłamywanymi nogami"

"Nie pieprz wieprza pieprzem Pietrze, bo przepieprzysz wieprza Pietrze."