Polish orthography is the system of writing the Polish language. The language is written using the Polish alphabet, which derives from the Latin alphabet, but includes some additional letters with diacritics. The orthography is mostly phonetic, or rather phonemic – the written letters (or combinations of them) correspond in a consistent manner to the sounds, or rather the phonemes, of spoken Polish. For detailed information about the system of phonemes, see Polish phonology.
Poles adopted the Latin alphabet in the 12th century. However that alphabet was ill-equipped to represent certain Polish sounds, such as the palatal consonants and nasal vowels. Consequently, Polish spelling in the Middle Ages was highly inconsistent, as different writers used different systems to represent these sounds, For example, in early documents the letter c could signify the sounds now written c, cz, k, while the letter z was used for the sounds now written z, ż, ś, ź. Writers soon began to experiment with digraphs (combinations of letters), new letters (φ and ſ, no longer used), and eventually diacritics.
The Polish alphabet was one of two major forms of Latin-based orthography developed for Slavic languages, the other being Czech orthography, characterized by carons (háčeks), as in the letter č. The other major Slavic languages which are now written in Latin-based alphabets (Slovak, Slovene, Bosnian, and Croatian) use systems similar to the Czech. However a Polish-based orthography is used for Kashubian and usually for Silesian, while the Sorbian languages use elements of both systems.
The diacritics used in the Polish alphabet are the kreska (graphically similar to the acute accent) in the letters ć, ń, ó, ś, ź; the stroke in the letter ł; the kropka (overdot) in the letter ż; and the ogonek ("little tail") in the letters ą, ę. The letters q, v, x are often not considered part of the Polish alphabet; they are used only in foreign words and names.
Polish orthography uses the following digraphs:
|Digraph||Usual value||Rough English
|ch||/x/||hear||[ɣ] if voiced|
|cz||/t͡ʂ/||chat||[d͡ʐ] if voiced|
|dz||/d͡z/||bids||[t͡s] when devoiced (cf. C above)|
|dź||/d͡ʑ/||jeep||[t͡ɕ] when devoiced (cf. Ć above)|
|dż||/d͡ʐ/||jump||[t͡ʂ] when devoiced (cf. cz)|
|rz||/ʐ/||vision||[ʂ] when devoiced (cf. sz)|
|sz||/ʂ/||shock||[ʐ] if voiced|
In occasional words, letters that normally form a digraph are pronounced separately. For example, rz represents /rz/, not /ʐ/, in words like zamarzać ("freeze") and in the name Tarzan (note that in both these examples, there is a syllable boundary between the r and the z).
The sections below describe some further points concerning the spelling of Polish sounds. For more information about the sounds themselves, see Polish phonology. For rules concerning inflections, see Polish grammar.
Voicing and devoicing
Voiced consonant letters frequently come to represent voiceless sounds (as shown in the above tables). This is due to the neutralization that occurs at the end of words and in certain consonant clusters; for example, the b in klub ("club") is pronounced like a p, and the rz in prze- sounds like sz. Less frequently, voiceless consonant letters can represent voiced sounds; for example, the k in także ("also") is pronounced like a g. The conditions for this neutralization are described under Voicing and devoicing in the article on Polish phonology.
Palatal and palatalized consonants
The spelling rule for the alveolo-palatal sounds /ɕ/, /ʑ/, /t͡ɕ/, /d͡ʑ/ and /ɲ/ is as follows: before the vowel i the plain letters s, z, c, dz, n are used; before other vowels the combinations si, zi, ci, dzi, ni are used; when not followed by a vowel the diacritic forms ś, ź, ć, dź, ń are used. For example, the s in siwy ("grey-haired"), the si in siarka ("sulphur") and the ś in święty ("holy") all represent the sound /ɕ/.
|Sound||Word ending position
or before a consonant
|Before a vowel
other than i
Special attention should be paid to n before i plus a vowel. In words of foreign origin the i causes the palatalization of the preceding consonant n to /ɲ/, and it is pronounced as /j/. This situation occurs when the corresponding genitive form ends in -nii, pronounced as /ɲji/, not with -ni, pronounced as /ɲi/ (which is a situation typical to the words of Polish origin). For examples, see the table in the next section.
Similar principles apply to the palatalized consonants /kʲ/, /ɡʲ/ and /xʲ/, except that these can only occur before vowels. The spellings are thus k, g, (c)h before i, and ki, gi, (c)hi otherwise. For example, the k in kim ("whom", instr.) and the ki in kiedy both represent /kʲ/.
Other issues with i and j
Except in the cases mentioned in the previous paragraph, the letter i if followed by another vowel in the same word usually represents /j/, but it also has the palatalizing effect on the previous consonant. For example, pies ("dog") is pronounced /pˈjɛs/. Some words with n before i plus a vowel also follow this pattern (see below). In fact i is the usual spelling of /j/ between a preceding consonant and a following vowel. The letter j normally appears in this position only after c, s and z if the palatalization effect described above has to be avoided (as in presja "pressure", Azja "Asia", lekcja "lesson", and the common suffixes -cja "-tion", -zja "-sion": stacja "station", wizja "vision").
The ending -ii which appears in the inflected forms of some nouns of foreign origin, which have -ia in the nominative case (always after g, k, l, and r; sometimes after m, n, and other consonants), is pronounced as /ji/, with the palatalization of the preceding consonant. For example dalii (genitive of dalia "dalia"), Bułgarii (genitive of Bułgaria "Bulgaria"), chemii (genitive of chemia "chemistry), religii (genitive of religia "religion"), amfibii (genitive of amfibia "amphibia"). Pronunciation of it as a simple /i/ is considered a pronunciation error.
In some rare cases, however, when the consonant in case is preceded by another consonant, -ii may be pronounced as /i/, but the preceding consonant is still palatalized, for example, Anglii (genitive etc. of Anglia "England") is pronounced /anɡlˈi/. (The spelling Angli, very frequently met with on the Internet, is simply an error in orthography, caused by this pronunciation.
The words of Polish origin do not have the ending -ii but simple -i, e.g. ziemi (genitive of ziemia).
A special situation applies to n: it has the full palatalization to /ɲ/ before -ii which is pronounced as /ji/ - and such a situation occurs only when the corresponding nominative form in -nia is pronounced as /ɲja/, not as /ɲa/.
For example (pay attention to the upper- and lower-case letters):
|Genitive||(dań)||(/daɲ/)||(of dishes)||Danii||/daɲji/||of Denmark|
|Nominative||Mania||/maɲa/||Mary (diminutive of "Maria")||mania||/maɲja/||mania|
|Genitive||(Mani)||(/maɲi/)||(of Mary)||manii||/maɲji/||of mania|
The ending -ji, is always pronounced as /ji/. It appears only after c, s and z. Pronunciation of it as a simple /i/ is considered a pronunciation error. For example presji (genitive etc. of presja "pressure") is /prɛsji/; poezji (genitive etc. of poezja "poetry") is /pɔɛzji/; racji (genitive etc. of racja "reason") is /rat͡sji/.
The letters ą and ę, when followed by plosives and affricates, represent an oral vowel followed by a nasal consonant, rather than a nasal vowel. For example, ą in dąb ("oak") is pronounced /ɔm/, and ę in tęcza ("rainbow") is pronounced /ɛn/ (the nasal assimilates with the following consonant). When followed by l or ł (and in the case of ę, often at the end of words) these letters are pronounced as just /ɔ/ or /ɛ/.
Apart from the cases resulting from the sections above, there are three sounds in Polish that can be spelt in two different ways, depending on the word:
- /x/ can be spelt either h or ch (the spelling h appears mostly in loanwords);
- /u/ can be spelt u or ó (the spelling ó usually indicates that the sound developed from a historical long o; see Historical development in the article on Polish phonology);
- /ʐ/ can be spelt either ż or rz (the spelling rz usually indicates that the sound developed from palatization of a historical r).
Notice that doubled letters represent separate occurrences of the sound in question; for example Anna is pronounced /ˈanna/ in Polish. In practice a doubled consonant is often realized as a single sound pronounced in a prolonged manner.
There are certain clusters where a written consonant would not normally be pronounced. For example, the ł in the words mógł ("could") and jabłko ("apple") is omitted in ordinary speech.
Names are generally capitalized in Polish as in English. Polish does not capitalize the months and days of the week, nor adjectives and other forms derived from proper nouns (for example, angielski "English").
Titles such as pan ("Mr"), pani ("Mrs/Ms"), doktor etc. and their abbreviations are not capitalized, except in polite address. Pronouns (chiefly those of the second person) are often capitalized out of politeness when they refer to the person one is writing to.
Polish punctuation is similar to that of English. However there are more rigid rules concerning use of commas—subordinate clauses are almost always marked off with a comma, while it is normally considered incorrect to use a comma before a coordinating conjunction with the meaning "and" (i or oraz).
Abbreviations (but not acronyms or initialisms) are followed by a period when they end with a letter other than the one which ends the full word. For example, dr has no period when it stands for doktor, but takes one when it stands for an inflected form such as doktora and prof. has period because it comes from profesor (professor).
Apostrophes are used not to separate foreign-spelt stems from Polish inflected endings, as it is commonly (erroneously) worded, but to mark the elision of the final letter(s) of the foreign words unspoken before the Polish endings, as in Tony'ego (genitive of "Tony"; because of unspoken "y", pronounced Tonego) but Johna (genitive of "John"; final "n" is spoken); cf. genitive of Charles: English name—Charlesa (final "s" is spoken, pronounced Czarlza), French name—Charles'a (final "s" is not spoken, pronounced Szarla).
- Sadowska, Iwona (2012). Polish: A Comprehensive Grammar. Oxford; New York: Routledge. ISBN 978-0-415-47541-9.