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Vowels

Vowels of Polish. from Jassem (2003:105)

The Polish vowel system is relatively simple with only six oral and two nasal vowels. All Polish oral vowels are monophthongs, which are shown to the right. The /ɨ/ (spelt ‹y›) and /i/ (spelt ‹i›) have largely complementary distributions. Except for after labial consonants, which can be followed by both /ɨ/ and /i/, /i/ is usually pronounced when word-initial and after palatal and alveolo-palatal consonants, while /ɨ/ appears elsewhere (see Soft vs. hard consonants below). In some phonological descriptions of Polish that phonemically distinguish labials with palatalization, /ɨ/ and /i/ can be treated as allophones. The vowels /ɨ/ and /i/ also rhyme in Polish poetry.

Similar allophony, though finer, applies to certain other vowels. Next to a soft consonant, and especially between two soft consonants or between a soft consonant and /j/, /ɛ/ is often near-close ([e]) and /a/ is more front (that is, cardinal [a] rather than [ä]).[1] These distinctions are not represented in the spelling and native speakers are mostly not aware of the differences.

Example words
Polish script IPA Example
i /i/ miś ('teddy bear')
e /ɛ/ ten ('this one')
y /ɨ/ mysz ('mouse')
a /a/ kat ('executioner')
u / ó /u/ bum ('boom')
o /ɔ/ kot ('cat')

While other Slavic languages have lost the Proto-Slavic nasal vowels, they are preserved in Polish.

Unlike those in French, nasal vowels in Polish often consist of an oral vowel followed by a nasal semivowel (so that Polish is pronounced [sɔw̃] like Portuguese são rather than French sont; all of which mean, 'they are'),[2] or, before stops and affricates, by a nasal consonant homorganic with the following stop or affricate (e.g. kąt is pronounced [ˈkɔnt], gęba pronounced [ˈɡɛmba], ręka pronounced [ˈrɛŋka], piszący [pʲiˈʂɔnt͡sɨ], pieniądze [pʲeˈɲɔnd͡zɛ], pięć [ˈpʲeɲt͡ɕ], jęczy [ˈjɛnt͡ʂɨ]).[3 ]

Polish nasal vowels
Polish script IPA Description English approximation Polish example
ę /ɛ̃/ nasal open-mid front unrounded nasal e, similar to the vowel in ben węże ('snakes')
ą /ɔ̃/ nasal open-mid back rounded nasal o (not a), similar to the vowel in long wąż ('snake')

Other nasal nuclei exist in loanwords, though such words are in free variation with the typical diphthongal pronunciation (e.g. instynkt [iw̃stɨŋkt~instɨŋkt] 'instinct').[4] Similarly, the palatal nasal [ɲ] in coda position is in free variation with a nasalized palatal approximant [ȷ̃].[3 ] The majority of speakers denasalize word-final /ɛ̃/.

The length of a vowel is not phonemic in Polish, which means that how long a vowel is pronounced does not change the meaning of a word.

This was not the case in Proto-West-Slavic (including Proto-Polish), which reintroduced the full distinction of vowel lengths as a result of yer vocalization/disappearance. (The distinction had been almost lost in the Late Proto-Slavic period.) Yers were two weak vowels — the so called hard yer (ъ) and the soft yer (ь), which either disappeared or turned into other vowels. If the yer (or another vowel) disappeared, then the preceding vowel became long (unless the preceding vowel was also a yer, because then it turned into a short e). All other vowels became short (except for yers, again, which disappeared in the respective positions). No matter what happened to it, soft yer usually palatalized the preceding consonant. Example:

'day' in nominative: *dьnьdzień
'day' in instrumental: *dьnьmъdniem

The system of new vowel lengths is well preserved in Czech and to a lesser degree in Slovak. In the emerging modern Polish, long vowels were shortened again but simultaneously became higher—apart from the vowels which were already high, like i and u. Typical for the spoken dialects, this shift was finally incorporated into the standard language only in the case of long o and the long nasal vowel, mostly for the vowels located before voiced obstruents. The vowel shift may be presented like this:

long a → short a (certain dialects: o)
long e → short e (certain dialects: y or i)
long y or i → short y or i
long o → short /u/, written <ó>
long u → short /u/, written <u>
long /ã/ → short /ɔ̃/, written <ą>

Note that the u which was once a long o is still distinguished in script as <ó>. Former long e was written <é> until the nineteenth century whereas <á> for long a became disused sooner. Present-day /ɛ̃/, was derived from the earlier short /ã/. The medieval /ã/—both long and short—written as <ø>, was derived from the merged nasal and *ǫ of Late Proto-Slavic (they have merged but has left its trace by palatalizing the preceding consonant). Therefore, the contemporary Polish distinction of /ɛ̃/ and /ɔ̃/ does not continue the Proto-Slavic distinction.

As another result of the long vowel shift, alternations o:ó and ę:ą permeate the contemporary word inflection and derivation. Examples:

'corner' in nominative: *rogъróg
'corner' in instrumental: *rogъmъrogiem

'oak' in nominative: *dãbъdąb
'oak' in instrumental: *dãbъmъdębem

Consonants

The Polish consonant system is more complicated and its characteristic features are the series of affricates and palatal consonants that resulted from four Proto-Slavic palatalizations and two further palatalizations which took place in Polish and Belarusian. Retroflexes and voiced affricates are often marked by digraphs. Palatal consonants (known in Slavic grammatical tradition as "soft" consonants) are marked either by an acute accent or followed by an i. Voicing is phonemic.

Polish consonants[5]
  Bilabial Labio-
dental
Dental/
Alveolar
Retroflex1 Palatal2 Velar Glottal
palatalized2 plain
Nasal m   n   ɲ   (ŋ)  
Plosive p  b   t  d       ɡʲ k  ɡ  
Affricate     t͡s  d͡z t͡ʂ̠  d͡ʐ̠ t͡ɕ  d͡ʑ      
Fricative   f  v s  z ʂ̠  ʐ̠ ɕ  ʑ (ç)    x  (ɣ)    (ɦ)3
Trill     r          
Approximant     l   j   w  
  1. The retroflex consonants are also transcribed with /ʃ/, /ʒ/, etc. However, laminal retroflex is more accurate.[6]
  2. /kʲ/ and /ɡʲ/ are less commonly transcribed as /c/ and /ɟ/. /ɲ/, /t͡ɕ/, /d͡ʑ/, /ɕ/, and /ʑ/ are alveolo-palatal
  3. In some Polish dialects, /ɦ/ is distinguished from /x/ (see below).

Within this consonant system one can distinguish three series of fricatives and affricates:

  • alveolar, a.k.a. "hissing" (ciąg syczący): z s dz c
  • laminal retroflex, a.k.a. "rustling" (ciąg szumiący): ż sz dż cz
  • alveolo-palatal, a.k.a. "hushing" (ciąg ciszący): ź ś dź ć

In some Polish dialects, for example Masurian, the consonants of the rustling series are replaced by those of the hissing series.

The phoneme /x/, apart from the voiceless allophone [x] has also a voiced allophone (voiced velar fricative) [ɣ], which appears obligatorily whenever /x/ is followed by a voiced obstruent (also across a word boundary), e.g. dach is [dax] but dach domu is [daɣ dɔmu]. The occurrence of a voiced glottal fricative [ɦ] is found only in the speech of those people from Eastern Borderland and (Upper) Silesia who distinguish between the pronunciation of <h> and <ch>. The same can be said about the velarized alveolar lateral approximant, the so-called "dark l" ([ɫ]), which is a former standard pronunciation of <ł> (now usually [w]).

Example words
Polish script IPA Example Polish script IPA Example
m /m/ masa ('mass') / dz(i) /d͡ʑ/ więk ('sound')
b /b/ bas ('bass') ć / c(i) /t͡ɕ/ ćma ('moth')
p /p/ pas ('belt') ż / rz /ʐ/ żona ('wife')
rzeka ('river')
w /v/ wór ('bag') sz /ʂ/ szum ('rustle')
f /f/ futro ('fur') /d͡ʐ̠/ em ('jam')
n /n/ noga ('leg') cz /t͡ʂ̠/ czas ('time')
d /d/ dom ('home') ń / n(i) /ɲ/ koń ('horse')
t /t/ tom ('volume') g(i) /ɡʲ/ gips ('plaster cast')
z /z/ zero ('zero') k(i) /kʲ/ kiedy ('when')
s /s/ sum ('catfish') g /ɡ/ gmin ('populace')
dz /d͡z/ dzwon ('bell') k /k/ kmin ('caraway'), buk ('beech tree')
c /t͡s/ co ('what') h / ch /x/ hak ('hook'),chór ('choir')
r /r/ krok ('step') j /j/ jutro ('tomorrow')
l /l/ pole ('field') ł /w/ mały ('small'), łaska ('grace')
ź / z(i) /ʑ/ źrebię ('foal') l(i) /ʎ/ liść ('leaf')
ś / s(i) /ɕ/ śruba ('screw') h(i) / ch(i) /ç/ historia ('history'), chichot ('giggle')
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Soft vs. hard consonants

Multiple palatalizations and some depalatalizations that took place in the history of Proto-Slavic and Polish created quite a complex system of so called "soft" and "hard" consonants. The exact scope of these classes depends on the criteria chosen (in particular, deciding whether some consonants and vowels are allophones of the same or two different phonemes) but some distinction between "hard" and "soft" consonants (and consequently, "hard" and "soft" word stems) can be helpful in describing contemporary word inflection patterns or other morphological processes. According to the simplest criterion, soft consonants are those that can precede the contemporary vowel i /i/, whereas hard ones are those that can precede the contemporary vowel y /ɨ/.

Polish hard and soft consonants (auditory distinction)
before i or y m
/m/
b
/b/
p
/p/
w
/v/
f
/f/
not before i n
/n/
d
/d/
t
/t/
z
/z/
s
/s/
h / ch
/x/
ł
/w/
r
/r/
ż/rz
/ʐ/
sz
/ʂ/

/d͡ʐ̠/
cz
/t͡ʂ̠/
dz
/d͡z/
c
/t͡s/
not before y ń/n(i)
/ɲ/
/dz(i)
/d͡ʑ/
ć/c(i)
/t͡ɕ/
ź/z(i)
/ʑ/
ś/s(i)
/ɕ/
g(i)
/ɡʲ/
k(i)
/kʲ/
h(i)/ch(i)
/ç/
l
/l/
j
/j/
neither before i nor before y g
/ɡ/
k
/k/

The above table is a simplification since it does not take into account certain few loanwords where /d/, /t/, /z/, /s/, /r/, and /t͡ʂ̠/ appear before i, or where /ɡ/ and /k/ appear before y.

There exist also some phonological descriptions of Polish which distinguish between "hard" labials m /m/, b /b/, p /p/, w /v/, f /f/ and "soft" labials m(i) /mʲ/, b(i) /bʲ/, p(i) /pʲ/, w(i) /vʲ/, f(i) /fʲ/. This softness (palatalization) is hardly heard before /i/ and absent in the syllable coda (unlike in Russian). In this analysis, the pairs [ɨ]-[i], [ɡ]-[ɡʲ] and [k]-[kʲ] can be treated as allophones. The pair [x]-[ç] can almost be unified; [ç] occurs mostly in loanwords. This description leads to the following classification of hard and soft consonants.

Polish hard and soft consonants (inflectional distinction)
hard m
/m/
b
/b/
p
/p/
w
/v/
f
/f/
n
/n/
d
/d/
t
/t/
z
/z/
s
/s/
c
/t͡s/
l
/l/
r
/r/
g
/ɡ/
k/
/k/
(c)h
/x/
dz
/d͡z/
rz/ż
/ʐ/
sz
/ʂ/

/d͡ʐ̠/
cz
/t͡ʂ̠/
j
/j/
ł
/w/
soft m(i)
/mʲ/
b(i)
/bʲ/
p(i)
/pʲ/
w(i)
/vʲ/
f(i)
/fʲ/
ń/n(i)
/ɲ/
d(i)
/dʲ
t(i)
/tʲ
ź/z(i)
/ʑ/
ś/s(i)
/ɕ/
ć/c(i)
/t͡ɕ/
l(i)
/lʲ/
r(i)
/rʲ/
g(i)
/ɡʲ/
k(i)
/kʲ/
(c)h(i)
/xʲ/
/dz(i)
/d͡ʑ/

Consonant clusters

Polish, like other Slavic languages, permits complex consonant clusters, which historically arose after the disappearance of yers (certain short vowels existing in late Proto-Slavic):

  • bezwzględny [bɛzvzɡlɛndnɨ] ('absolute')
  • przestępstwo [pʂɛstɛmpstfɔ] ('crime')
  • Strwiąż [strfʲɔ̃ʂ] (name of a river)
  • wstrząs [fstʂɔ̃s] ('shock')

The existence of complex clusters is, however, not an exclusively Slavic feature; even bigger clusters can be found in Georgian or Salishan languages.

Polish distinguishes between affricates and plosive + fricative consonant clusters, for example:

  • czysta [ˈt͡ʂɨsta] ('clean' fem.) vs trzysta [ˈtʂɨsta] ('three hundred')
  • dżem' [d͡ʐɛm] ('jam') vs drzem (part of word drzemka meaning 'nap') [ˈdʐɛm], also the imperative of drzemać, ('to have a nap').

In consonant clusters, adjacent obstruents are either all voiced or all voiceless. That is, a consonant cluster cannot contain both voiced and voiceless obstruents. All the obstruents are either voiced (if the last obstruent is normally voiced) or voiceless (if the last obstruent is normally voiceless). This is also true across a word boundary. Word-final obstruents are also pronounced voiceless if the following word starts with a vowel. This rule does not apply to sonorants - a consonant cluster may contain voiced sonorants and voiceless obstruents. Some regional variations of pronunciation, especially in Western and Southern Poland, make voiceless obstruents voiced if the following word starts with a sonorant (for example [ˈbrad ˈojca] instead of the expected [ˈbrat ˈojca])

Examples:

  • łódka [ˈwutka] ('boat'), /d/[t] (k is normally voiceless)
  • kawka [ˈkafka] ('jackdaw'), /v/[f] (w is normally voiced)
  • także [ˈtaɡʐɛ] ('also'), /k/[ɡ] (ż is normally voiced)
  • jakby [ˈjaɡbɨ] ('as if'), /k/[ɡ] (b is normally voiced)
  • król [krul] ('king'), /k/ does not change (r is a sonorant)
  • wart [vart] ('worth'), /t/ does not change (r is a sonorant)

The consonants w and rz are normally voiced, but if a consonant cluster ends with w or rz and the preceding consonant is normally voiceless, then the whole consonant cluster is voiceless. W remains voiced after a voiceless consonant in dialects of Wielkopolska and Kresy Wschodnie, but is devoiced in other varieties.

Examples:

  • krzak [kʂak] ('bush'), /ʐ/[ʂ] (k is normally voiceless)
  • odtworzyć [ɔtˈtfɔʐɨt͡ɕ] ('to reproduce'), /d/[t] & /v/[f] (d and w are normally voiced)

The most popular Polish tongue-twister, a fragment of the poem Chrząszcz by Jan Brzechwa, may serve as yet another example:

W Szczebrzeszynie chrząszcz brzmi w trzcinie.
[fʂt͡ʂɛbʐɛʂɨɲɛ xʂɔ̃ʂt͡ʂ bʐmi ftʂt͡ɕiɲɛ]
In [the town of] Szczebrzeszyn a beetle buzzes in the reed.

Stress

The predominant stress pattern is penultimate stress with alternating preceding syllables carrying secondary stress (e.g. człowiekowi [ˌt͡ʂwɔvʲɛˈkɔvʲi] 'human being dat. sg.').[7] Loanwords complicate this, as they introduce antepenultimate stress (e.g. fizyka [ˈfʲizɨka] 'physics'). However, even loanwords may move stress to the penultimate syllable upon suffixation as in uniwersytet [uɲiˈvɛrsɨtɛt] ('university' with antepenultimate stress) which becomes [uɲivɛrsɨˈtɛtu] (with penultimate stress) when the genitive singular affix [u] is added. Over time, loanwords become nativized to have penultimate stress.[8]

Outside of loanwords, exceptions include:

  • verbs in first and second person plural past tense, for example zrobiliśmy ('we did') - the stress is on the third syllable from the end
  • verbs in conditional, for example zrobiłbym ('I would do') - stressed on the third syllable from the end
  • verbs in first and second person plural conditional, for example zrobilibyśmy ('we would do') - the stress is on the fourth syllable from the end

The explanation for the irregular verbal stress is that these endings are clitics, not verbal inflections: zrobili=śmy, zrobił=bym, zrobili=byśmy. They are remnants of the auxiliary być ('to be'). This can be demonstrated with phrases such as Kogo=ście zobaczyli? (in spoken Polish Kogo zobaczyli=ście?) ('Who did you see?'), where the clitic attaches to the word kogo 'who' rather than to a verb (Kogo zobaczyli=ście?), but kogo maintains its normal stress. However, these endings are in the process of being reanalyzed as suffixes, and as this happens, the stress is shifting to penultimate position in colloquial speech (though by prescriptive grammarians this is still considered an error): zrobiliśmy, zrobiłbym, zrobilibyśmy.[9]

References

  1. ^ Jassem (2003:106)
  2. ^ Gussman (2007:2), citing Biedrzycki (1963), Biedrzycki (1978), Wierzchowska (1971:135) in arguing that they are more accurately called diphthongs.
  3. ^ a b Gussman (2007:2-3)
  4. ^ Gussman (2007:3), citing Dukievicz (1995:32-33)
  5. ^ Jassem (2003:103)
  6. ^ Hamann (2004:65)
  7. ^ Gussmann (2007:8), deferring to Rubach & Booij (1985) for further discussion.
  8. ^ Gussmann (2007:9)
  9. ^ Phonetics and Phonology of lexical stress in Polish verbs,Dominika Oliver, Martine Grice, Institute of Phonetics, Saarland University, Germany

Bibliography

  • Biedrzycki, L. (1963), "Fonologiczna interpretacja polskich głosek nosowych", Biuletyn Polskiego Towarzystwa Językoznawczego, pp. 25-45  
  • Biedrzycki, L. (1978). Fonologia angielskich i polskich rezonantów. Porównanie samogłosek oraz spółgłosek. Warsaw: PWN.  
  • Dukievicz, L. (1995), "Fonetyka", in Dukievicz, L., Gramatyka współczesnego języka polskiego. Fonetyka i fonologia, Krakow:: Wydawnictwo Instytut Języka Polskiego PAN, pp. 7-103  
  • Hamann, Silke (2004), "Retroflex fricatives in Slavic languages", Journal of the International Phonetic Association 34 (1): 53–67, doi:10.1017/S0025100304001604  
  • Gussman, Edmund (2007). The Phonology of Polish. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-926747-7.  
  • Jassem, Wiktor (2003), "Polish", Journal of the International Phonetic Association 33 (1): 103–107, doi:10.1017/S0025100303001191  
  • Wierzchowska, Bożena (1971), Wymowa polska, Warsaw: PZWS  

See also


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