Although, as I mentioned in the introduction, this series is not meant to be a course in Polish as such, some discussion of the alphabet is certainly necessary and this will be a topic we will need to come back to on numerous occasions, as the orthography of Polish, when properly understood, not only enables you to pronounce what you read probably but also understand the reason why things are spelled as they are, avoid errors and also spot the history and origins of words.
Polish is written obviously with a version of the Latin alphabet but there are various adaptions for the particular needs of Polish, which includes hard and soft consonant versions for sibilants, fricatives and liquids, as well as nasal vowels.
We’ll hold back the whole sibilants and fricatives discussion for another time, and for today we’ll just address the issue of the nasal vowels.
In Polish there are two nasal vowels, arguably three but only two are shown, perhaps because o with a line under would resemble Q, but more probably because Old Slavic already had the nasals described in terms of just two, Ѫ known as big yus and Ѧ, known as little yus which in time became У and Я in Russian, as it had abandoned nasal vowels and so had little use for little yus and no major use for big yus either, but most probably there were really three in Old Slavic also. In French people talk about three, but not to be outdone, there are those who say French has four. I always managed OK with three in French and two in Polish, I have to say. And the two you find in the Polish alphabet are namely Ąą and Ęę.
Nasality basically means there is a reduced ‘n’ after them, n being one of the letters that comes out of your nose. You can think of the little tail on these letters as a reduced n on its side and joined to the letter, and in a sense that’s a very good way of showing in an image what is going on with ą and ę.
The ę in isolation sounds a little like the sound in the French word for ‘wine’, ie. “vin” and the ą like the sound in the French word for ‘they go’ “vont” and sometimes like “vent” or somewhere in between those two, also being mindful that the pronunciation of these sounds within the population of French speakers varies even more than it does within Polish speakers.
That’s not the whole story though, as in French the nasal vowels are pure vowels while in isolation both of these, when emphasised, tend to undergo rounding at the end by native speakers so you can get a diphthong with a “u” sound at the end. Sometimes at the end of words they even sound as if followed by -m but this is considered an incorrect, low-class form of speech. Many people mocked Wałęsa for his famous “nie chcem, ale muszem”.
This inserted “m”, however, is absolutely correct when the following letter within a word is a “b” or “p”. “Dąb” (an oaktree) sounds like “domb” and the plural “dęby” sounds like “demby”. You may have noticed a mutation between ą and ę in that example, and this is a pattern that comes up a lot in Polish: ą was the long nasal vowel in Old Slavic while ę was the short one. Polish is the only Slavic language to retain nasal vowels and Czech is the only Slavic language to retain varying vowel length, and so where we see “ę” in Polish we often see a short “u” (never the long ú or ů) in the cognate Czech word and where we see “ą” in Polish we often see the long í of Czech.
When an actual m follows the ę or ą then you just get an “em” or an “om”.
The change of n followed by b, p and m is known in English and many Romance languages such as French or Italian (not Spanish) as the automatic change of the prefix “in-” to “im-” in words like “impossible”, “imbibe” or “immerse”. We say “confer” or “converse” but “compete” or “combat”. We see the same thing in Japanese where we read “konban wa” (こんばんは) but say “komban wa”. We also see exactly the same thing with the pe- and me- prefixes in Malay or Indonesian. Anyone who has got their heads around what happens with these prefixes in those languages is already home and dry as far as ę and ą change depending on what follows in Polish.
If a d, t or n follows you get a full “en” or “on” sound. The nasality is pulled into a full “n” rather than just the hint of it. “sąd” (court) sounds like “sond” and “chętnie” (willingly, gladly) sounds like “hent-nye”. As -c is really like a “ts” sound the same thing applies here.
In other cases, especially with the soft fricatives where the most “Polish” of the letters tend to be, you have the nasal version similar to how they sound in isolation. Where an ł follows, which has the sound value of an English “w” in modern Polish, you lost the nasality when speaking normally. “On wziął” (he took) or “ona wzięła” (she took) – note the interplay between ę and ą again in these different forms of the same word which results from length with was variable in Old Slavonic as mentioned and also in Polish up to the Middle Ages, and resulted in the same nasal vowel being treated as little yus and ę when short or big yus and ą when a bit longer. From this we know that the vowel in medieval Polish feminine past tense forms of some verbs had a tendency to be shorter than the masculine forms – these words are pronounced with no nasality as -ewa and -o(u) unless someone is really overdoing it.
It is at that point worth mentioning that considered to be “hiperpoprawność” or “overcorrection” to be too clear in the pronunciation of nasal vowels in unemphasised words, especially in cases such as where they are followed by ł. One of the ways Poles will show emphasis on words is to pronounce them more carefully, maybe even slowing down their usual machine-gun pace of speaking over them. However, while learning it is better to overdo it. The tongue will naturally relax into a more natural, lazier pronunciation of these in due course.
This is quite a large historical overview of just two letters in the Polish alphabet, but they are by no means uncommon letters, having a role not just in the vocabulary but in grammatical endings also, as you will see. So it is not a bad idea to focus on them at an early stage and to enjoy these typically and now (as far as Slavic or East European languages are concerned) uniquely Polish sounds, shared to an extent with French. En avance!