These are the 32 letters of the Polish alphabet:
a ą b c ć d e ę f g h i j k l ł m n ń o ó p r s ś t u w y z ź ż
And here’s what they sound like:
Most of these letters and their pronunciation is not too different to the English, so to minimise confusion, here are the notable exceptions only:
c – perhaps the easiest for the beginner to mispronounce. Replace it with the English ts as in fits.
ć – ch, like in cheap
i – never pronounced like pit, but always like tweet
j – like the English y in yes, never like jam
ł – like the English w in wax
ń – an n with a slight twang, like canyon
ó – like the double o in loot
r – trilled or rolled (not easy for everyone – more on this later!)
ś – sh, like in ship
u – the same pronunciation as ó (can make spelling difficult!)
w – like the English v in vowel
y – only used as a vowel (and note there are almost no words starting with y in Polish) – the pronunciation is between fit and foot
ż – like in vision
ź – much less frequently encountered than the above, but very similar in pronunciation.
Lastly, these two vowels have no close English equivalent. Listen to the sound and an example:
ą – a nasal o noise
ę – a nasal e noise
There are also a few two-letter combinations that warrant a description
ch ci cz dz dź dż rz si sz
ch – like the English h in ham, but much noisier
ci – the same as ć
cz – ch as in chap
dz – as in odds
dź – as in Jeep
dż – very similar to the above
rz – the same as ż
si – the same as ś
sz – very similar to the above
If you’re being observant, you’ll notice that some of these are very similar, e.g. si, sz and ś
For the very beginner, it’s probably best not to get caught up in the subtle difference – but here’s the best description I’ve come across if you’re curious:
si is the same as ś, but the difference with sz is that sz is pronounced with the mouth in a position as if you were saying the English ‘r’, whereas si/ś is pronounced with the mouth in the position of the English ‘y’. The same goes for these other subtle differences:
Said in the ‘r’ position: sz, cz, ż
Said in the ‘y’ position: ś/si, ć/ci, ź
You can hear the difference this makes in the alphabet audio above, with ż and ź.
And if you need to know how to type these letters on your English keyboard – check out our guide.
I’ll leave you with a video about a campaign to save the “special” Polish letters, featuring some good illustrations of their importance!