The phonological system of the Polish language is similar in many ways to those of other Slavic languages, although there are some characteristic features found in only a few other languages of the family, such as contrasting retroflex and palatal fricatives and affricates, and nasal vowels. The vowel system is relatively simple, with just six oral monophthongs and two nasals, while the consonant system is much more complex.
The Polish vowel system consists of six oral monophthongs and two nasal diphthongs. Vowel nasality in Polish is partially preserved from Proto-Slavic, having been lost in most other modern Slavic languages.
|/i/||i||miś ('teddy bear')|
|/ɛ/||e||ten ('this one')|
Nasal vowels do not feature uniform nasality over their duration. Phonetically, they consist of an oral vowel followed by a nasal semivowel (są is pronounced [sɔw̃], which sounds closer to Portuguese são [sɐ̃w̃] than French sont [sɔ̃] – all three words mean "[they] are"). Therefore, they are phonetically diphthongs. (For nasality following other vowel nuclei, see § Allophony below.) /ɛ ɨ ɔ ɛ̃ ɔ̃/ are also less commonly transcribed /e ɪ o ẽ õ/ respectively, such as by the PWN-Oxford Polish-English Dictionary.
The vowels /ɨ/ and /i/ have largely complementary distribution. Either vowel may follow a labial consonant, as in mi ('to me') and my ('we'). Elsewhere, however, /i/ is usually restricted to word-initial position and positions after palatal consonants and the palatalized velars, while /ɨ/ cannot appear in those positions (see § Hard and soft consonants below). In some phonological descriptions of Polish that make a phonemic distinction between palatized and unpalatized labials, [ɨ] and [i] may thus be treated as allophones of a single phoneme. However /i/ appears outside its usual positions in some foreign-derived words, as in czipsy ('potato chips') and tir ('large lorry', see TIR). In the past, /ɨ/ was closer to [ɪ], which is acoustically more similar to [i].
Nasal vowels do not occur except before a fricative and in word-final position. When the letters ą and ę appear before stops and affricates, they indicate an oral /ɔ/ or /ɛ/ followed by a nasal consonant homorganic with the following consonant. For example, kąt is [kɔnt] ('angle'), gęba ('mouth') is [ˈɡɛmba], and pięć ('five') is [pjɛɲt͡ɕ], as if they were spelled *kont, *gemba, and *pieńć. Before /l/ or /w/, nasality is lost altogether and the vowels are pronounced as oral [ɔ] or [ɛ]. It is also very common to denasalize /ɛ̃/ to [ɛ] in word-final position, as in będę /ˈbɛn.dɛ/ "I will be".
An alternative analysis postulates that nasal vowels no longer exist in Standard Polish as independent phonemes because they are realized as actual nasal consonants before stops and affricates, and their nasal-diphthong realization before fricatives can be analyzed as allophonical realization of the sequences /on/, /om/ or /oɲ/ likewise. Moreover, studies indicate that the nasalization of the presumed nasal diphthongs ą [ɔw̃] and ę [ɛw̃] is no longer distinctive to native speakers in word-final position either and is retained only in emphatic, hypercorrect or artificial speech.
Distinctive vowel length was inherited from late Proto-Slavic, with some changes (for example, stressed acute and circumflex vowels, and some long vowels occurring after the stress, were shortened). Additional vowel lengths were introduced in Proto-Polish (as in other West Slavic languages) as a result of compensatory lengthening when a yer in the next syllable disappeared. If a yer (or other vowel) disappeared, the preceding vowel became long (unless it was also a yer, in which case it became a short e).
This system of vowel lengths is well preserved in Czech and to a lesser degree in Slovak. In the emerging modern Polish, however, the long vowels were shortened again but sometimes (depending on dialect) with a change in quality (the vowels tended to become higher). The latter changes came to be incorporated into the standard language only in the case of long o and the long nasal vowel, mostly for vowels located before voiced obstruents. The vowel shift may thus be presented as follows:
Note that the /u/ that was once a long /oː/ is still distinguished in script as ó. Former long /eː/ was written é until the 19th century (á for long /aː/ was already in disuse).
In most circumstances, consonants were palatalized when followed by an original front vowel, including the soft yer (ь) that was often later lost. For example: *dьnь became dzień ('day'), while *dьnьmъ became dniem ('day' instr.).
Nasal vowels *ę and *ǫ of late Proto-Slavic merged (*ę leaving a trace by palatalizing the preceding consonant) to become the medieval Polish vowel /ã/, written ø. Like other Polish vowels, it developed long and short variants. The short variant developed into present-day /ɛ̃/ ę, while the long form became /ɔ̃/, written ą, as described above. Overall:
The historical shifts are the reason for the alternations o:ó and ę:ą commonly encountered in Polish morphology: *rogъ ('horn') became róg due to the loss of the following yer (originally pronounced with a long o, now with /u/), and the instrumental case of the same word went from *rogъmъ to rogiem (with no lengthening of the o). Similarly, *dǫbъ ('oak') became dąb (originally with the long form of the nasal vowel), and in the instrumental case, *dǫbъmъ the vowel remained short, causing the modern dębem.
Polish dialects differ particularly in their realization of nasal vowels, both in terms of whether and when they are decomposed to an oral vowel followed by a nasal consonant and in terms of the quality of the vowels used.
Also, some dialects preserve nonstandard developments of historical long vowels (see previous section); for example, a may be pronounced with [ɔ] in words in which it was historically long.
The Polish consonant system is more complicated; its characteristic features include the series of affricates and palatal consonants that resulted from four Proto-Slavic palatalizations and two further palatalizations that took place in Polish and Belarusian.
The consonant phonemes of Polish are as follows:
Alveolar [n t d] are allophones of /n t d/ before /t͡ʂ d͡ʐ/. Denti-alveolar [l̪] is an allophone of /l/ before dental consonants. /r/ has been traditionally classified as a trill, with a tap [ɾ] supposedly only occurring as an allophone or in fast speech  however, more recent studies show that /r/ is predominantly realized as a tap, sometimes as an approximant or a fricative, but almost never as a trill. One study found that in an intervocalic context a trilled [r] occurs in less than 3% of cases, while a tapped [ɾ] occurred in approximately 95% of cases. Another study by the same researcher showed that in a postconsonantal position, /r/ is realized as a tapped [ɾ] in 80-90% of cases, while trilled [r] occurs in just 1.5% of articulations.
The fricatives and affricates shown as retroflex may instead be transcribed as palato-alveolar consonants with /ʃ/, /ʒ/ etc. However, they are more accurately described as retroflex although they are laminal (like the retroflexes of Standard Chinese). They may therefore also be transcribed phonetically with the symbols ⟨ʐ̠⟩ etc., indicating the laminal feature.[clarification needed]
The phonemes /kʲ/ and /ɡʲ/ are less commonly transcribed as /c/ and /ɟ/ (as if they were palatal stops).
|IPA||Polish script||Example||IPA||Polish script||Example|
|/m/||m||masa ('mass')||/d͡ʑ/||dź/dz(i)||dźwięk ('sound')|
|/b/||b||bas ('bass')||/t͡ɕ/||ć/c(i)||ćma ('moth')|
|/p/||p||pas ('belt')||/ʐ/||ż/rz||żona ('wife')|
|/v/||w||wór ('bag')||/ʂ/||sz||szum ('rustle')|
|/f/||f||futro ('fur')||/d͡ʐ/||dż||dżem ('jam')|
|/n/||n||noga ('leg')||/t͡ʂ/||cz||czas ('time')|
|/d/||d||dom ('home')||/ɲ/||ń/n(i)||koń ('horse')|
|/t/||t||tom ('volume')||/ɡʲ/||g(i)||gips ('plaster cast')|
|/z/||z||zero ('zero')||/kʲ/||k(i)||kiedy ('when')|
|/s/||s||sum ('catfish')||/ɡ/||g||gmin ('populace')|
|/d͡z/||dz||dzwon ('bell')||/k/||k||kmin ('cumin'), buk ('beech tree')|
|/t͡s/||c||co ('what')||/x/||h/ch||hak ('hook'), chór ('choir')|
|/r/||r||krok ('step')||/j/||j||jutro ('tomorrow')|
|/l/||l||pole ('field'), liść ('leaf')||/w/||ł||mały ('small'), łaska ('grace')|
|/ʑ/||ź/z(i)||źrebię ('foal')||/xʲ/||h(i)/ch(i)||historia ('history'), chichot ('giggle')|
The laminal retroflex sounds (sz, ż, cz, dż) and the corresponding alveolo-palatals (ś, ź, ć, dź) both sound similar to the English palato-alveolar consonants (the sh and ch sounds and their voiced equivalents). The alveolo-palatals are pronounced with the body of the tongue raised to the palate. The series are known as "rustling" (szeleszczące) and "humming" (szumiące) respectively; the equivalent alveolar series (s, z, c, dz) is called "hissing" (syczące).
The distinction is lost in some Lesser Polish dialects.
For the possibility of an additional glottal fricative phoneme /ɦ/ for h, see § Dialectal variation below.
/x/ has a voiced allophone [ɣ], which occurs whenever /x/ is followed by a voiced obstruent (even across a word boundary), in accordance with the rules given under § Voicing and devoicing below. For example, dach ('roof') is [ˈdax], but dach domu ('roof of the house') is [daɣ ˈdɔmu].
/x/ has the strongest friction before consonants [x̝], weaker friction before vowels and weakest friction intervocalically, where it may be realized as glottal [h] (this variant "may appear to be voiced").
Non-palatal consonants are weakly palatalized when they precede /i/, but it is far less audible than it is in Russian.
Before fricatives, nasal consonants may be realized as nasalized semivowels, analogous to /ɔ̃/ and /ɛ̃/ (see § Vowels above). This occurs in loanwords, and in free variation with the typical consonantal pronunciation (e.g. instynkt [ˈiw̃stɨŋkt⁓ˈinstɨŋkt] 'instinct'). Similarly, the palatal nasal [ɲ] in coda position is in free variation with a nasalized palatal approximant [ȷ̃]. For example, koń [koɲ⁓kɔj̃], Gdańsk [ɡdaɲsk⁓ɡdaj̃sk]
Polish, like other Slavic languages, permits complex consonant clusters, which often arose from the disappearance of yers (see § Historical development above). Polish can have word-initial and word-medial clusters of up to four consonants, whereas word-final clusters can have up to five consonants. Examples of such clusters can be found in words such as bezwzględny [bɛzˈvzɡlɛndnɨ] ('absolute' or 'heartless', 'ruthless'), źdźbło [ˈʑd͡ʑbwɔ] ('blade of grass'), wstrząs [ˈfstʂɔw̃s] ('shock'), and krnąbrność [ˈkrnɔmbrnɔɕt͡ɕ] ('disobedience'). A popular Polish tongue-twister (from a verse by Jan Brzechwa) is W Szczebrzeszynie chrząszcz brzmi w trzcinie [fʂt͡ʂɛbʐɛˈʂɨɲɛ ˈxʂɔw̃ʐd͡ʐ ˈbʐmi fˈtʂt͡ɕiɲɛ] ('In Szczebrzeszyn a beetle buzzes in the reed').
For the restrictions on combinations of voiced and voiceless consonants in clusters, see § Voicing and devoicing below. Unlike languages such as Czech, Polish does not have syllabic consonants: the nucleus of a syllable is always a vowel.
The consonant /j/ is restricted to positions adjacent to a vowel. It also cannot precede i or y. (For other restrictions on consonants appearing before i or y, see § Distribution above.)
Polish obstruents (stops, affricates and fricatives) are subject to voicing and devoicing in certain positions. This leads to neutralization of voiced/voiceless pairs in those positions (or equivalently, restrictions on the distribution of voiced and voiceless consonants). The phenomenon applies in word-final position and in consonant clusters.
In Polish consonant clusters, including across a word boundary, the obstruents are all voiced or all voiceless. To determine (based on the spelling of the words) whether a given cluster has voiced or voiceless obstruents, the last obstruent in the cluster, excluding w or rz (but including ż), should be examined to see if appears to be voiced or voiceless. The consonants n, m, ń, r, j, l, ł do not represent obstruents and so do not affect the voicing of other consonants; they are also usually not subject to devoicing except when surrounded by unvoiced consonants. Some examples follow (click the words to hear them spoken):
At the end of a word, obstruents are pronounced voiceless (unless followed by a word beginning with a voiced obstruent, when the above cluster rules apply). For example, the /ɡ/ in bóg ('god') is pronounced [k], and the /zd/ in zajazd ('inn') represents a pronunciation like [st]. However, in some regional dialects, especially in western and southern Poland, final obstruents are voiced if the following word starts with a sonorant (here, for example, the /t/ in brat ojca 'father's brother' would be pronounced as [d]).
Multiple palatalizations and some depalatalizations that took place in the history of Proto-Slavic and Polish have created quite a complex system of what are often called 'soft' and 'hard' consonants. These terms are useful in describing some inflection patterns and other morphological processes, but exact definitions of 'soft' and 'hard' may differ somewhat.
'Soft' generally refers to the palatal nature of a consonant. The alveolo-palatal sounds ń, ś, ź, ć, dź are considered soft, as normally is the palatal j. The l sound is also normally classed as a soft consonant: like the preceding sounds, it cannot be followed by y but takes i instead. The palatalized velars /kʲ/, /ɡʲ/ and /xʲ/ might also be regarded as soft on this basis.
Consonants not classified as soft are dubbed 'hard'. However, a subset of hard consonants, c, dz, sz, ż/rz, cz, dż, often derive from historical palatalizations (for example, rz usually represents a historical palatalized r) and behaves like the soft consonants in some respects (for example, they normally take e in the nominative plural). These sounds may be called 'hardened' or 'historically soft' consonants.
In some phonological descriptions of Polish, however, a greater number of consonants, including especially the labials m, p, b, f, w, are regarded as occurring in 'hard' and 'soft' pairs. In this approach, for example, the word pies ('dog') is analysed not as /pjɛs/ but as /pʲɛs/, with a soft /pʲ/. These consonants are then also analysed as soft when they precede the vowel /i/ (as in pić /pʲit͡ɕ/ 'to drink'), although here the palatalization is hardly audible. Unlike their equivalents in Russian, these consonants cannot retain their softness in the syllable coda (when not followed by a vowel). For example, the word for 'carp' has the inflected forms karpia, karpie etc., with soft /pʲ/ (or /pj/, depending on the analysis), but the nominative singular is karp, with a hard /p/.
The consonants t, d, r (and some others) can also be regarded as having hard and soft forms according to the above approach, although the soft forms occur only in loanwords such as tir /tʲir/ ('large lorry'; see TIR). If the distinction is made for all relevant consonants, then y and i can be regarded as allophones of a single phoneme, with y following hard consonants and i following soft ones (and in initial position).
The historical palatalized forms of some consonants have developed in Polish into noticeably different sounds: historical palatalized t, d, r have become the sounds now represented by ć, dź, rz respectively. Similarly palatalized s, z, n became the sounds ś, ź, ń. The palatalization of labials has resulted (according to the main phonological analysis given in the sections above) in the addition of /j/, as in the example pies just given. These developments are reflected in some regular morphological changes in Polish grammar, such as in noun declension.
In more contemporary Polish, a phonetic glottal stop may appear as the onset of a vowel-initial word (e.g. Ala [ʔala]), though this can be hard to detect. It may also appear following word-final vowels to connotate particular affects; for example, nie ('no') is normally pronounced [ɲɛ], but may instead be pronounced [ɲɛʔ] or in a prolonged interrupted [ɲɛʔɛ]. This intervocalic glottal stop may also break up a vowel hiatus, even when one appears morpheme-internally, as in poeta ('poet') [pɔʔɛta] or Ukraina ('Ukraine') [ʔukraʔina]. A relatively new phenomenon in Polish is the expansion of the usage of glottal stops. In the past, initial vowels were pronounced with an initial voiceless glottal fricative (so that Ala was pronounced [hala]), pre-iotation (so that igła 'needle' was pronounced [jiɡu̯a]), or pre-labialization (so that oko 'eye' was pronounced [u̯ɔkɔ]).
In some Polish dialects (found in the eastern borderlands and in Upper Silesia) there is an additional voiced glottal fricative /ɦ/, represented by the letter ⟨h⟩. In standard Polish, both ⟨h⟩ and ⟨ch⟩ represent /x/.
Some eastern dialects also preserve the velarized dental lateral approximant, [ɫ̪], which corresponds with [w] in standard Polish. Those dialects also can palatalize /l/ ([lʲ]) in every position, but standard Polish does so only allophonically before /i/ and /j/. [ɫ̪] and [lʲ] are also common realizations in native speakers of Polish from Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine.
Rocławski (1976) notes that students of Polish philology were hostile towards the lateral variant of ⟨ł⟩, saying that it sounded "unnatural" and "awful". Some of the students also said that they perceived the lateral ⟨ł⟩ as a variant of ⟨l⟩, which, he further notes, along with the necessity of deciding from context whether the sound meant was /w/ or /l/, made people hostile towards the sound. On the other hand, some Poles view the lateral variant with nostalgia, associating it with the elegant culture of interwar Poland.
In the Masurian dialect and some neighbouring dialects, mazurzenie occurs: retroflex /ʂ, ʐ, t͡ʂ, d͡ʐ/ merge with the corresponding dentals /s, z, t͡s, d͡z/ unless /ʐ/ is spelled ⟨rz⟩ (a few centuries ago, it represented a palatalized trill /rʲ/, distinct from /ʐ/; only the latter sound occurs in modern Polish).
The predominant stress pattern in Polish is penultimate: the second-last syllable is stressed. Alternating preceding syllables carry secondary stress: in a four-syllable word, if the primary stress is on the third syllable, there will be secondary stress on the first.
Each vowel represents one syllable although the letter i normally does not represent a vowel when it precedes another vowel (it represents /j/, palatalization of the preceding consonant, or both depending on analysis; see Polish orthography and the above). Also, the letters u and i sometimes represent only semivowels after another vowel, as in autor /ˈawtɔr/ ('author'), mostly in loanwords (so not in native nauka /naˈu.ka/ 'science, the act of learning', for example, nor in nativized Mateusz /maˈte.uʂ/ 'Matthew').
Some loanwords, particularly from classical languages, have the stress on the antepenultimate (third-last) syllable. For example, fizyka (/ˈfizɨka/) ('physics') is stressed on the first syllable. That may lead to a rare phenomenon of minimal pairs differing only in stress placement: muzyka /ˈmuzɨka/ 'music' vs. muzyka /muˈzɨka/ - genitive singular of muzyk 'musician'. When additional syllables are added to such words through inflection or suffixation, the stress normally becomes regular: uniwersytet (/uɲiˈvɛrsɨtɛt/, 'university') has irregular stress on the third (or antepenultimate) syllable, but the genitive uniwersytetu (/uɲivɛrsɨˈtɛtu/) and derived adjective uniwersytecki (/uɲivɛrsɨˈtɛt͡skʲi/) have regular stress on the penultimate syllables. Over time, loanwords become nativized to have a penultimate stress.
Another class of exceptions is verbs with the conditional endings -by, -bym, -byśmy etc. Those endings are not counted in determining the position of the stress: zrobiłbym ('I would do') is stressed on the first syllable and zrobilibyśmy ('we would do') on the second. According to prescriptive grammars, the same applies to the first and second person plural past tense endings -śmy, -ście although this rule is often ignored in colloquial speech (so zrobiliśmy 'we did' is said to be correctly stressed on the second syllable, although in practice it is commonly stressed on the third as zrobiliśmy). The irregular stress patterns are explained by the fact that these endings are detachable clitics rather than true verbal inflections: for example, instead of kogo zobaczyliście? ('whom did you see?') it is possible to say kogoście zobaczyli? – here kogo retains its usual stress (first syllable) in spite of the attachment of the clitic. Reanalysis of the endings as inflections when attached to verbs causes the different colloquial stress patterns.
Some common word combinations are stressed as if they were a single word. That applies in particular to many combinations of preposition plus a personal pronoun, such as do niej ('to her'), na nas ('on us'), przeze mnie ('because of me'), all stressed on the bolded syllable.
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