The only reason we don’t have a major problem with Polish pronunciation is that it’s limited to Poland. The country was never a colonial power, nor was it in the seafaring trade. And while during the time of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Polish was kind of a lingua franca in Central Europe, those times are long gone.
And foreign speakers are not at all ready to try Polish pronunciation, which was made clear recently when Polish tennis wunderkind Iga Świątek – a tough competitor with an equally tough-to-pronounce last name – won the US Open, reaffirming her status as the world’s best tennis player. This hilarious (at least to Polish ears) master cut shows the perfect example – sports commentators from all around the world butchering a Polish name:
The funny thing is, Polish is such a flexible language, sound-wise, some of these mispronounced versions aren’t entirely off base – even for Poles. So, to pronounce it right, let’s take a short tour around the Polish language.
Know your ABCs
Foreigners frequently observe that Polish has a lot of “shushing” sounds. What they hear the most are these equivalents to English ‘sh’, ‘ch’, ‘zh’ (think Zha Zha Gabor) and their whistling counterparts such as ‘ś’ (think “The Wire’s” Clay Davis (played by Isiah Whitlock Jr) pronouncing “shit”).
Some of them are written with two letters, some again with diacritic letters (of which there are 9: Ą, Ę, Ć, Ł, Ń, Ó, Ś, Ż, and Ź), and sometimes both – leading to grammatical confusion. In fact, in Polish schools, dictation quizzes are so tough that they can be compared to spelling bees. And yes, we have a “National Dictation” adult contest, which is ridiculously full of traps. Winning it gives the champion a kind of claim to (language) fame.
Świątek – did I get that right?
That said, in the name Świątek you see two diacritic letters: Ś and Ą. Ś is quite easy. As we said above, just think of it as the “s” in “shiieeet”, as made famous by The Wire, you’ll be close enough, as most of us can whistle with our tongue.
The same applies to Ć and Ź – softened versions of “ch” and “zh” – the latter written as “ż”, if without softening. Ł is English “W” as in “Wow!”, and Ń is a familiar Spanish Ñ. But then, there are Ę and Świątek’s Ą.
Here, my dear students, is where it gets difficult. Ą and Ę reflect sounds that are called ‘nasal’ or semi-vowels. In reality, they’re neither. They can be self-standing as vowels (though they never are in practice) but can also form a syllable, and this privilege is reserved in Polish – unlike some southern Slavic languages – for vowels.
We call them ‘nasal’ because you can’t get them right with a stuffy nose or even a runny one. (A fun children’s game in Poland is kids trying to speak Polish with their noses pinched shut.) You hardly can hear “ah” in Ą, and it’s only slightly better with “eh” and Ę. The closest sound may be the duck quacking, as famously compared by Jan Kochanowski, the first poet to write poetry in Polish in the 16th century.
So how do you pronounce Świątek, then?
It seems impossible to answer that in writing. Unless, of course, you can read International Phonetic Alphabet, or IPA, which is here to scribe every human sound imaginable. If you can, we’re all good: it’s [ˈiɡa ˈɕfʲɔntɛk]. Easy, isn’t it?
Well, actually, we’re not home yet, as many languages, including English, don’t prepare you to use your upper respiratory tract as a resonator, at least not in that way. And the best approximation we can get is EE-gah shvee-AWN-teck.
Luckily, Świątek, herself, knows her limits (in name pronunciation, of course, not on the tennis court). The World Tennis Association once recorded her giving a mini-pronunciation lesson to some captivated fans. Now that she’s won US Open, that’s a hell of a lot of people.