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Lesson Transcript

Writing System
Beata: All About Polish Lesson 2 - Learn the Polish writing system
Nick: Hey, everyone. Welcome back. In this lesson, Beata and I are going to explain a little bit more about one of the most interesting aspects of the Polish language…the writing system!
Beata: That's right! There are a lot of things that we're going to cover in this lesson.
Nick: Definitely. The Polish writing system is quite unique. It's based on the Latin alphabet, with a few additional letters that are used to represent sounds unique to the Polish language.
Beata: Yes, that's correct. Special diacritical marks were added, such as an acute mark and a dot that are written above certain letters, and a little hook that is attached just to the vowels "-a" and "-e" to make them sound nasal.
Nick: From what I know, the acute mark you were just talking about is not an accent; its function is mainly to soften some consonants, but it also appears above the vowel "-o."
Beata: That's absolutely correct. Also, throughout the ages, Polish has gained a lot of consonant clusters that represent one sound; however, they consist of two or even three letters. I know that a lot of foreigners are very often intimidated by the number of consonants in just one Polish word.
Nick: I guess your last name would be a perfect example of how confusing and scary Polish can be.
Beata: Probably at the very beginning, yes, it might be overwhelming looking at my last name and trying to pronounce it. My last name is Szczepańska, and it's spelled "-S" "-Z" "-C" "-Z" "-E" "-P" "-A" "-Ń" "-S" "-K" "-A," where out of eleven letters, eight of them are consonants.
Nick: Oh, yes. I forgot about the fact that the Polish language has only nine vowels and, believe or not, twenty-three consonants. On top of that are the consonant clusters like the "-sz" or "-cz" that are present in Beata's last name.
Beata: However, please remember that the cluster "-sz," for example, is used to represent one sound, even though it it's written using two consonants.
Nick: And the same rules apply to the second consonant cluster that is in your last name, "-cz." It consists of the consonants "-c" and "-z"; however, you read them as one sound.
Beata: Exactly. You got it, Nick. It obviously takes time to get used to the idea of putting the consonants together instead of reading them separately, but it's definitely a doable task. In time, you will see that it's not as difficult as it may seem.
Nick: So was the Polish writing system always like that? How did it develop?
Beata: Of course, it went through a lot of changes and standardizations to look the way it looks today.
It took Poles a lot of time to unify the writing system simply because for a very long time Latin was the official language used in matters of government and liturgy, whereas Polish was used by the lower classes.
Nick: So since the better-educated part of the Polish society spoke Latin, they also probably wrote texts in Latin instead of Polish. I'm sure that Polish appeared here and there; however, it probably wasn't used on a day-to-day basis.
Beata: Exactly. Most of the documents that were preserved from this era, that is, from the eleventh to thirteenth centuries, were entirely written in Latin. Single Polish words, and soon the first entire Polish sentence, were to be found in those documents.
Nick: What about the first Polish text?
Beata: The first written text entirely in Polish comes from either the end of the thirteenth century or from the beginning of the fourteenth century. It's a Polish religious song, and also incidentally the first Polish national anthem, called "Bogurodzica."
Nick: Poles are probably very proud of this song since it's considered to be the first Polish anthem.
Beata: Absolutely. But there is another reason why this song is so well known by Poles. It's believed by some that this song was sung by the Polish army before the battle of Grunwald, which took place in 1410; this was a victorious battle of the Polish nation over the invincible, at that time, Teutonic Knights.
Nick: Very interesting. So then, I would assume that after "Bogurodzica," you started to have more and more documents written solely in Polish, especially since the arrival of the printing era was soon to come.
Beata: Good point, Nick. After "Bogurodzica," an increasing number of texts and documents written entirely in Polish appeared; however, these were mainly translations performed by monks of devotional and religious texts.
Nick: From what I know, monks were able to perform such translations because they were very well educated and, most of all, fluent in Latin.
Beata: Yes, they were very good at Latin. However, we can't forget about one simple fact. Since in Polish there were some sounds that Latin did not have, what they would do is simply use the same Latin letter to represent many different sounds in Polish...
Nick: and this must have caused a lot of confusion. I can't even imagine what a huge amount of inconsistency there was as to what Polish letter substitutes for what Latin letter.
Beata: And like you mentioned before, with the arrival of the printing era, something had to be done to eliminate the confusion.
Nick: So what happened?
Beata: So when print finally found its way to Poland, which took place at the beginning of the sixteenth century, printers demanded a greater deal of standardization within the alphabet.
Nick: Wasn't this period called the Golden Age of Polish Culture?
Beata: Yes, this period is often referred to as the Golden Age. It brought new dictionaries, grammar, and treatises on spelling that helped unify the Polish writing system, a system still used today.
Nick: We're glad it got unified because otherwise it would be impossible to learn it. You can learn it with us here at PolishPod101.com.