Thursday, September 1, 2011

Culture Corner: Polish Pronunciation 101

When I was a language teacher giving a lesson on pronunciation, I would often ask my students: what’s the verbal difference between a vowel and a consonant? What do ‘p,’ ‘g’ or ‘m’ have that ‘a-e-i-o-u’ do not? The answer is: (bum, bah-da-dah) the repression of breath. All consonant sounds in some way either stop or partially block the air released from your lungs as you speak. Conversely, all vowel sounds are issued a free pass to move unhindered from the lungs to the outside world, occasionally aided by carbonation. (Try belching ‘nbg,’ but don’t blame me if you end up in the hospital with shredded nostrils and a permanent tingling feeling in your forehead). If you try making the sound ‘a’ or ‘e,’ you’ll notice your mouth is slightly open and air passes smoothly through out of your mouth. That being said, try saying ‘p’ and you’ll notice your lips begin the sound while closed. Try saying ‘ch’ and you’ll notice your tongue flicks forward to momentarily block the air moving through your mouth. Taking all this into consideration, it’s a wonder Polish people do not walk around blue-faced and dizzy, fighting for breath while speaking.

I say this because speaking Polish is like hanging on to a runaway tongue-twister. Consonants flying like propaganda in Russia, I’ve heard the Polish language described as a “chainsaw in a hurricane,” “bumblebees trapped in the mouth,” and “what happened when God dropped the Scrabble box.” Not as grating on the ears as German or Dutch (sorry to my German and Dutch friends, but I must be honest), Polish is nonetheless a harsh language. I’m not trying to say English is beautiful (try to hear only the sounds of “crotch sharks bite the broth woodpecker” and you’ll immediately agree), the ‘szcz,’ ‘stny,’ ‘jczy’ as well as other, wilder consonant groupings of Polish are at times a harrying task to spit out. Try to pronounce the following words smoothly and easily if you doubt me:

wzdłuż (across) – the closest English equivalent would be vzd-wooz, the latter ‘z’ pronounced like ‘s’ in ‘measure.’ Try to say ‘vzd-wooz’ quickly. (With four consonants in a row, this is also one of the top words as far as ratio is concerned - 5:1)

zachrypnięty (hoarse) – ‘za-hri-p-nien-ti’ Awkward, no?

mgła (fog) – the English equivalent is similar, mgwa. Try to say ‘mgwa’ and not laugh.

przeziębienie (a common cold) – the closest English equivalent is ‘pshe-shien-beea-nee-a.’ Try to say that ten times fast…

Wrocław (the name of the city where I live) – It’s pronounced like ‘vrots-luv’ but I bet you initially tried to say something like ‘raw-claw’ – the native English speakers, that is.

wypływ (outcome) and wpływ (income) – the first is ‘vi-pwiv’ and the second ‘v-pwiv.’ Try to say them so that you can hear a difference between them. Then imagine trying to discern the difference between the two while someone is speaking Polish at a native speed.

Here’s a normal Polish sentence, give it a try! “Mamo, dziś przedstawię wam mojego nowego chłopaka.” (Mom, today I’ll introduce you to my new boyfriend.)

Did your tongue end up in knots?

So, if you’ve ever wondered what makes the romance languages so romantic, it’s their vowels – and lots of them. Scattered profusely throughout words and sentences, it’s much easier to sing or quote poetry to your love with your mouth open, rather than closed trying to pull together ‘xzdkjl’ (not a Polish word, just a little of my frustration at learning the language leaking out). Just check out the French phrase “aujourd'hui en Guinée” compared to the same in Polish “dzisiaj w Gwinei.” In the former, consonants are scattered like tumbleweeds, nary a fricative or nasal in sight, while in the latter, a harsh ‘d’ and ‘z’ start the phrase, not to mention one ‘e’ was not good enough in “Guinée,” so they put in another!

Of course Polish love songs exist, and people fall in love, lose a love, and love to love listening to them, the impact not lost within the context of the language itself. What I’m curious about is if the French are so romantic because there’s such a rhythmic inflow/outflow of oxygen? In other words, do their brains have a fresher supply of oxygen because of constantly trying to keep up with what’s expended navigating the exhilarating vowel landscape of French? And conversely, have the Polish shot themselves in the romantic foot by having to wait so long between breaths? I mean, each sentence is like a Tommy Gun shooting consonant bullets, no chance to pause and catch your breath and ponder whether the person across from you is beautiful, jolting from one ‘mgła’ to the next ‘wzdłuż.’

But I digress. I’m being too harsh. If the Polish have lost any brain power by having to stutter their breath while speaking, they more than make up for this by having to properly decline every sentence they utter—yes, decline a sentence. You’ll have to attend next lesson to learn another meaning of the word “decline” and in turn discover why the Polish are a leg up in intelligence quota from birth.

(It goes without saying this post was all for fun, so I hope none of you are truly offended. :)

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