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Polish has a rather rich set of fricatives and affricates; I would like to describe only those which learners of Polish as a foreign language find notoriusly difficult to distinguish. This is how they can be transcribed (with the most typical spellings enclosed in angle brackets):




s <s>

ʂ <sz>

ɕ <


z <z>

ʐ <

ż, rz>

ʑ <


ʦ <c>

tʂ <cz>

ʨ <


ʣ <dz>

dʐ <


ʥ <


The ‘DENTALS’ (I omit the IPA dentality diacritic) are actually dento-alveolar laminal sounds, which means that the blade of the tongue makes contact with both the upper teeth and the alveolar ridge just behind them, leaving a narrow groove through which the air escapes. The tip of the tongue is held down and may be pressed against the lower incisors. These sounds are quite different from the most typical realisation of English [s] and [z], which are alveolar apicals, pronounced with the tip of the tongue approaching the alveolar ridge. Acoustically, they Polish sounds are more strident, producing a higher-frequency hissing noise.

The POSTALVEOLARS are nearly always transcribed like English ‘sh’, ‘zh’, ‘ch’ and ‘j’ ([ʃ], [ʒ], [ʧ], [ʤ]) in handbooks of Polish pronunciation. This transcription is misleading, since they lack the palatal component so essential for the correct pronunciation of the English sounds. It’s difficult to find suitable IPA symbols for them. The ones I use in the table are in principle reserved for retroflex consonants (pronounced with the tip of the tongue curled up towards the hard palate), but the Polish sounds are not true retroflexes, though they are apical and strongly retracted. The most accurate transcription would be [ṣ], [ẓ], etc. (with uderdots symbolising tongue retraction), but underdots make clumsy diacritics, being too easy to omit or overlook. In my opinion the Polish consonants are sufficiently similar to retroflexes both acoustically and articulatorily to justify the use of the same symbols for both sets. They are ‘hard’, i.e. the middle of the tongue is lowered and no [j]-like timbre is produceed. The lips are usually protruded, which strengthens the darkish quality of these sounds.

The ‘PALATALS’ are technically alveolopalatals; they are laminal sounds pronounced with the middle of the tongue touching the front part of the hard palate (the hard ‘roof of the mouth’ behind the alveolar ridge). They differ from the English ‘sh’ series in that the tip of the tongue is not involved in their articulation. The auditory impression is of sounds more clearly palatal than ‘sh’ etc.; Polish [ɕ] is intermediate between English [ʃ] and German [ç] (as in licht). I suppose the Sanskrit fricative series s, ṣ,

ś was virtually identical with the first row of my table; so is the Chinese series spelt s, sh, x in the pinyin system.

The main problem for speakers of English is that English [ʃ] is articulated halfway between Polish [ʂ] and [ɕ] and sounds rather similar to BOTH of them. English-speakers find it difficult even to hear the difference between [ʂ] and [ɕ], as in their minds both are identified with [ʃ]. In order to learn to distinguish them they ought to concentrate on the distinctive traits of both series — the strongly palatal character of [ɕ] versus the complete lack of palatalisation in [ʂ].

Another problem is that all the sounds in question may form clusters with other consonants, and what’s really hard to believe is that there are syllable-initial clusters of stop plus fricative CONTRASTING with affricates. Namely, the Polish spellings trz, drz correspond to [t|ʂ], [d|ʐ] (the bar separates phonemes), while cz,

stand for the affricates [tʂ] and [dʐ]. There are many minimal pairs like czy [tʂɨ] ‘whether’ : trzy [t|ʂɨ] ‘three’.

Actually, the contrast does not occur in ALL

varieties of Polish. In the traditional pronunciation of southern and western Poland (i.e. of Cracow and Poznań, as opposed to Warsaw) the sequences [t|ʂ] and [d|ʐ] have merged with the corresponding affricates. The pronunciation of trzysta trzydzieści trzy ‘333’ as ['tʂɨsta tʂɨ'ʥɛɕʨi 'tʂɨ] is a well-known shibboleth distinguishing regional accents of Polish.