Cultural Musings

Common Polish words that are hardest to pronounce

Polish pronunciation is famously challenging for people from abroad. Not many are able to master even the simplest words, much less tongue twisters or ridiculous names. If one more person says Grzegorz Brzęczyszczykiewicz to me, I’ll scream. Ever met someone with that name? No. I know it’s hard to say and hilarious to hear foreigners try to say it, but I’m talking about it words which we actually USE. Read on to find out which Polish words I use frequently that I’ve found the hardest to master.

Oh Polish… how difficult you’ve made my life…but also how many funny situations you’ve brought me! Everyone is always talking about how Polish is the “hardest” language in the world. For sure it is one of many. According to this article from unbabel.com about the 10 hardest languages for English speakers to learn, it’s No. 10, due to the fact that at least it has a familiar alphabet, despite a few funky letters (ą, ę, ł) and only 7 cases (apparently Hungarian has 26… mother of god…)

There’s also this article from culture.pl, about the 9 most unpronounceable words in Polish, some of which I agree with and some of which I don’t.

Words like Pszczyna and Szczebrzeszyn are maybe hard to say but just don’t seem worthy of being on this list. Perhaps for people who don’t know anything about Polish – ok – but for me as a second language learner, perhaps at the A2-B1 level, I don’t find these difficult. But maybe I just don’t have trouble with “sz” and “cz”. And anyway, how often do you get to say them? (I say Pszyczyna pretty often as my sister-in-law lives there!)

What I do agree with:

źdźbło – translated as “a blade of grass”. However, how often do you even use this word? It might be hard to say but who gives a shit if I don’t need it on a daily basis?

bezwzględny (ruthless, absolute) this kind of stuff including ze względu (due to) – Hard to say but eh how often do I use these? Basically never.

Szczęście – (luck) or (happiness) – we use it a lot – “szczęśliwy” or “na szczęście” and with the “szcz” plus “ś” you have to move your mouth in weird ways. Unnatural!

Here’s my very own list of hard Polish words to pronounce:

Chrzciny (baptism) – This is the only Polish word I honestly can’t pronounce even after lots of practice.

For Americans and Brits – those of us who can’t really roll our “r’s”, many very simple words in Polish are some of the hardest to pronounce. Bardzo (very), for example, which you need basically ALL THE TIME. Some of my least favorites are: tort (birthday cake) and targ (market). That goes also for words with “r” at the beginning – names like Radek and Renata, rabat (discount), reżyser (film director) and the worst, rower (bike) and rurka (pipe).

Common verbs

Być (to be) – it’s very hard to hear and say the difference between this is and the word “bitch” in English, and thus could be a bit strange for English speakers.

Zdecydować (decide) – I always bungle this word in speech… Zdecydowałam… kill me

Chcieć/chcę (want) – a very simple and very common word which begins with a voiceless sound the comes from the back of your throat. Very difficult to master for English speaks and always sounds like you just have something stuck in your throat when you try to say it.

Wziąć (bring) – Took me years to master this and now I understand why the incorrect version “wsiąść” is becoming more and more popular. It’s easier to say.

Numbers

Trzy (three) – Like in English, it’s a bitch to master. Who’s fucking brilliant idea was that? Torturing children and second language learners alike. 

Trzydzieści/czterdzieści (thirty/forty) – again like in English 30 and 40 are hard to say – fuck! 

Sześćset (six hundred) – going from “ść” to “s” requires me to space out the syllables so much that it sounds like two separate words. 

Names

Grzegorz – I feel bad for these guys when they have to tell people abroad what their name is. I suppose they just use “Greg” but what about when your name is, idk, Zbyszek? No translation for that.

Piotr – This is my husband’s name. Thanks a lot honey. I always just called people with this name Peter before so as to avoid this issue but then I married one of them. Bardzo dobry pomysł. “T” and “r” pronounced together with no vowel (i.e. in Piotrek) after is kinda hard. My mom asked me how to say it and when I told her promptly told me “I can’t say that.” I feel that pain on a daily basis.

Krzysztof – Christoper in Polish. It’s a doozy as well.

Siostra (sister), siostrzeniec (nephew), siostrzenica (niece) … just… no comment.

Random hard words

Księżniczka (princess) – I remember this is one of the words that was so hard for me in the beginning. Such a simple thing and popular with kids so it should be an easy word. Nope!

Rzemieślnicze (handcrafted) – wtf? Ok this word isn’t essential but it’s incredibly hard to say without lots of practice. I can now boast about my ability to say this word but only after years of bemusement. It’s important nowadays as every ice cream shop describes themselves this way.

Wszystko / wszystkiego – (everything) – Now pair it with “najlepszego” to make “wszystkiego najlepszego” or a very common Polish phrase at birthdays or holidays, literally meaning “All the best”.

Przestrzeń (space, inside a building) – “rze” twice – nearly impossible to repeat this correctly.

Cudzoziemców (foreigners) – Someone did this just to punish us.

Any word with “skrzy” like skrzypce (violin), skrzynka (mailbox), skrzyżowanie (intersection)

sztućce (cutlery)

strzyżenie (haircut)

English-y words with Polish pronunciation

Burger – with the Polish rolled “r” this is just fucking impossible. It sounds so ridiculous, seriously.
Euro – proposed by Phil, an Australian, my friend from expatspoland.com. Check out the post about Phil’s first year in Poland.
Video – I have to make a stupid face in order to say this and it bothers me.
Indywidualny (individual) – I think the pronunciation of the “i” is the hardest part.
Teorii (theory) – As in English, it’s rather hard to say properly and it feels artificial coming out of my mouth.
Priorytet (priority) – As someone suggested in my Facebook post about this, saying “poproszę priorytet” at the post office is a total tongue twister, especially when forced to say it in front of like 10 people waiting in line behind you. Masakra.

I’m sure I’m missing plenty of hard words from this list so if you have any to add, please feel free! What words are the hardest for you to pronounce? I know different sounds may be harder or easier depending on the native language, so let us know below!

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28 Comments

  • Reply Wiktoria 24 September 2018 at 12:21

    when i had some voice emission courses (because of my studies and ps. i’m native Polish) i was said that we shouldn’t say “sześćset” like it is written, because it’s like.. too correct 😀 and my teacher said that it should be more like “szejset” 🙂

    • Reply Leah Morawiec 24 September 2018 at 21:02

      Oh really? Your teacher even say it’s better? I mean that makes sense as it’s essentially impossible to say correctly and you have to separate the sounds! So now I feel good 🙂

  • Reply sipsam 24 September 2018 at 12:31

    As for you trzy is difficult to pronounce, for me three is really problematic. I just feel like I’ll never say it right and I’ve been learning English since kindergarten (so it’s like 20 years now or so~).

    Also I guess you switched letters by mistake – it’s indywidualny, not indiwydualny 🙂

    • Reply Leah Morawiec 24 September 2018 at 21:01

      Thanks for pointing out that mistake! It’s fixed 🙂 :)… I guess there are just some things we’ll never be able to say 100% perfectly! And that’s ok in my opinion! I think accents are sweet.

  • Reply Natalia 24 September 2018 at 12:58

    Hey. I read your blog all the time, I think its great!
    I found one little mistake, this is how you write „szczęście„ with no „ć” 🙂

    • Reply Leah Morawiec 24 September 2018 at 21:00

      Thanks Natalia!! I fixed it 🙂 I appreciate that. I should have had my husband check first. And thanks so much for reading!!

  • Reply Lidka 24 September 2018 at 13:29

    I personally thank you for sevent different ways to pronounce “ough”. That should make us even 😉

    • Reply Leah Morawiec 24 September 2018 at 20:59

      Oh god I totally agree with this. Who’s idea was that anyway?

  • Reply Natalia 24 September 2018 at 14:54

    I think it’s great that you’ve been putting effort into learning Polish, it’s impressive. I hope nobody has ever given you a hard time for mispronouncing something!

    • Reply Leah Morawiec 24 September 2018 at 20:59

      Definitely no one gives me a hard time for pronouncing things incorrectly but sometimes people laugh when I make grammatical mistakes and that really pisses me off! I never laugh at people for making mistakes in English.

  • Reply Piotr 24 September 2018 at 15:23

    How about Silesian vocabulary? Any hard–to–pronounce words?

  • Reply Sven 24 September 2018 at 16:20

    Hi Leah,

    again a great summary of what we foreigners struggle with.
    But come one: Grzegorz Brzęczyszczykiewiczis great :-), i particularly love this scene. I cannot stop laughing from it, especially the stupid faces from that officer and that soldier.

    What also makes that language so massively complicated to learn is the fact, that the vocabulary is incredibly big. Very often you have words, that almost sound the same, but have completely different meaning and it really takes a lot practice to be able at all to distinguish between certain things. Some differences are smaller, some are bigger.
    Once (when i was new in Poland) I was invited for some party and there was the usual not manageable amount of food. I was so full – I thought I would explode in case I have to put anything more into my mouth. And then it was about time to leave. When doing the usual goodbye session, which again takes long, the husband of the friend said something that I should still try and i understood szynka. I was dying internally as i thought i should eat even more. But it turned out he only talked about szkrynka, so some box.

    More complicated is it with wejście and wyjście. I still struggle to understand, if someone is talking about entrance or exit.

    In my mother tongue German it is quite normal, that you simply combine existing words and almost everybody will understand, what you are talking about. But in Polish there exist separate words for these, and they then sound often similar like others and then again I struggle to get the point. the simple size of the dictionary often makes me despair.

    And the i think 12 different ways to make “SH’-sounds… sz, rz, zi, si, cz etc.. how the hell should anybody manage that without problems???

    • Reply Leah Morawiec 24 September 2018 at 20:58

      Hahah Sven your problems are similar to mine. I also have a problem sometimes with wjechać/wyjechać or włączyć/wyłączyć… that kind of stuff. It’s nearly impossible to hear the difference in conversation! It’s a disaster.

  • Reply Piotr 24 September 2018 at 17:53

    How about Silesian words? Are any hard to pronounce for you? According to my experience with Pszczyna even when people don’t speak Silesian they speak Polish with high amount of Silesian words (however it doesn’t make communication impossible).

    • Reply Leah Morawiec 24 September 2018 at 20:57

      Hmm I mean honestly I guess I know a few words – hasiok, kusiol, dziołcha… but I feel like my students/friends mostly say Silesian words as a joke. Do you know any that might be just added into the conversation without realizing it?

      • Reply Piotr 24 September 2018 at 21:27

        I’m not from Silesia and I don’t know what „hasiok” and „kusiol” mean. „Dziołcha” seems to be used country-wide. I only know that „krepiel” is pączek.

        • Reply Leah Morawiec 25 September 2018 at 13:12

          Hasiok is kosz and kusiol is buziak 🙂

  • Reply GoHa Samo H 24 September 2018 at 20:09

    Great article! It is awesome to see others’ perspective on things you think very easy or you just don’t think because who would bother about them. For example, I would never set być and bitch in one line or thought about them they are even far close to similar. Ć and ~CZ-like-sound in those are so different to me.

    But in the other hand, I didn’t saw the difference between sheet and shit or sheep and ship for years until I finnaly saw a video on YT where English speakers laughed froma Polish speaker who couldn’t tell the difference between those. I started wondering and found that they actually differ – a bit. I suppose this is the same case 😀

    Also, when I started e-mailing with my comapny’s customers I wondered if I had to use Gosia (abstract deriveration from Małgorzata) to ease the reading or stay with Małgorzata in “Regards” section. So.. I use Gosia with e-mail malgorzata@blahblah.com … This probably confuses readers, but maybe helps them to address me 🙂

    Love to read your posts!

    • Reply Leah Morawiec 24 September 2018 at 20:54

      I’m sure using Gosia helps them a lot! Małgorzata looks scary for foreigners. Oh yeah my students don’t hear the difference between things like “sheet” and “shit”, which is really funny for me and makes for a lot of jokes during the lessons 🙂

  • Reply Agnieszka 24 September 2018 at 20:11

    I’m speaking polish as a native, but if you have problem with pronoucing word “sześcset” – say “szejset”, because it’s pronounced like that in common speech. It’s the same thing as “jabłko” and “japko”. Most of us say “japko”, because everyone know what we had on our mind saying that and it’s simpler and faster 😉

    • Reply Leah Morawiec 24 September 2018 at 20:52

      Yeah! I was just talking about this with my husband. I just realized I say “szejset”. Never even noticed! Well basically that’s because the correct version is basically impossible 🙂

      • Reply GoHa Samo H 24 September 2018 at 23:02

        As far as I can recall, in “mid”-school there was a lesson about pronouncing and the teacher pointed that some words “shouldn’t” be pronounced exact way as you write them. As it was mentioned earlier those were words like jabłko (jabko/japko), all those that end on “ę” (sie instead of się, kąpie instead of kąpię etc), szejset, mrófka, łótka, sąsiatka etc. The reason I remeber she provided was that those words sound that way when you speak fast – and in the everyday life you speak fast and don’t care much about how you pronounce.

        Here is an article (in Polish) about this phenomen if you are interested:
        https://kursy.operon.pl/Blogi/Blog-dra-Marcina-Szczerbinskiego/O-rozbieznosciach-miedzy-wymowa-a-pisownia-i-o-tym-jak-alfabet-fonetyczny-zobaczyc-je-pomaga

        • Reply Leah Morawiec 25 September 2018 at 13:11

          Oh this is awesome!! Thanks so much! How about prośba, which I’d say is also weirdly pronounced.

          • Wojtek 25 September 2018 at 16:48

            In many cases it’s about voiced and voiceless vowels. Human speech organs can’t simply move so easily from a voiced sound to a voiceless one (and vice versa). So jakby becomes jagby, jabłko – japko.

            Ps. When did you start using bad words so openly?

          • Leah Morawiec 5 October 2018 at 21:17

            Me? Bad words?? 😉

  • Reply Piotr 25 September 2018 at 18:57

    Great post as always! Polish language is really difficult to learn-even for natives! So don`t worry and head up! If we are talking about hard Polish words-how about these ones:

    -szyszka (cane)- diphthong “sz” must be a tough cookie for foreigners, right?
    -ssać (to suck)-double s and soft c in the same verb. What a tongue twister!
    -czkać (to have a hiccup)-an another pain in ass for non-natives…
    -pchła(flea)-only one vowel and lots of consonants. Big headache almost guaranteed while trying to speak out this.
    -trząść (się) ( to shake)-the next word with almost no vowels and two (different!) diphthongs! Two soft sounds in the same phrases seem to be really complicated to say-even for Poles!
    What do you think about my proposals? I have tried to choose words that are used pretty often. Hope you like them. Cheers!

    • Reply Leah Morawiec 5 October 2018 at 21:17

      Hey Piotr! Ohhh these are some gooood ones. I didn’t even think about ssać but it’s common and useful and weird!!! I think szyszka is pretty easy though but czkać?? horrible and pchła is also bizarre as it has “ch” in the middle and therefore you feel like you’re just blowing air of your mouth!

  • Reply Magdalena 3 October 2018 at 12:58

    Great article 🙂 It’s true about polish language, but also it’s nice to know it and speak to friends with those funny words, with they can’t repeat 😀

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