What does Polish sound like to someone who is hearing the language for the very first time?
The first time I heard Polish it wasn’t in a historic nor attractive location, it wasn’t Wałęsa nor John Paul II that was speaking, and the words didn’t mean anything to me. First dates can be disappointing.
Touring Europe as a student in 1995, my friends and I changed trains in Katowice as we traveled from Prague to Kraków. Waiting on the platform in the grey railway station, the loud speakers suddenly burst into life and I heard the Polish language for the first time. I assumed I was hearing an announcement about the arrival or departure of a train, but, of course, I didn’t understand a word. Although it was a completely alien stream of sounds, I could hear the tone, rhythm and emotion in the voice. Indeed, the main emotion seemed to be boredom and the speaker’s intonation was extraordinarily flat. I wondered whether Polish was a language that was specifically designed to be heard over loudspeakers.
Then, in the distance, I heard Polish for the second time. From somewhere further down the platform, I could hear a faint chanting. It sounded like a group of monks, but as it grew louder, my friends and I realised that it wasn’t a peaceful group of Hari Krishna that were approaching. We made the prudent decision to get out of the way and climbed some stairs to a balcony, where we watched the police escort around two hundred football fans out of the railway station. The fans were chanting something with a three-part rhythm: uh-uh, uh-uh, uh-uh-hu-hu.
So as we boarded the train to Kraków, I was left with those two impressions of the Polish language: flat intonation with a three-part rhythm.
Sound & Texture
Years later, having moved to Poland, I got the chance to hear Polish that wasn’t chanted nor transmitted through a loudspeaker, and I recall discussing the question of what Polish sounded like with a Canadian friend. We had both been in Poland for a few weeks and neither of us understood more than a few words of Polish. I said that, to my ears, Polish sounded like radio static, the sound that a radio emits when you are searching between frequencies for a station. The Canadian, Rob, said it reminded him of the sound you hear when you slowly pour sand onto a wooden floor.
While we disagreed on the best description, we definitely agreed that the key sound in Polish was sssszzzzz.
Apparently, Oscar Wilde described the sound of Polish as rustling, hissing and hushing that made his ears bleed. I definitely agree about the hissing and hushing sounds, but it doesn’t make my ears bleed. Quite the opposite in fact. I suspect that Oscar might have had a hangover that day, because actually Polish sounds soft and soothing. It sounds like something you’d want someone to whisper to help you fall asleep. Take for instance, the name Kościuszko:
Kosh – choosh – ko
It sounds like a lullaby, something a mother would sing gently to a baby as it drifted off to sleep. If the Prussians, Russians and Austrians had tried to turn Kościuszko in a bogeyman, they wouldn’t have fooled any of their children. ‘We’re not scared of Kosh-choosh-ko… he sounds sweet!’
There’s always a sense of mystery when you listen to a language for the first time. Not knowing where words begin and end, utterances sound like long strings of syllables, and you struggle to hear individual words. Yet when I first started listening to Polish, there was one word that stood out. Within the dense chunks of language a word emerged. I didn’t know what it meant, but it was short, simple and familiar… and it seemed to be used a lot.
That word was pan or pani or pana.
Every other sentence, especially in post offices or shops seemed to contain some reference to the Greek god of nature. I did wonder why post office clerks were arguing with customers about ancient mythology. This must be a well-educated population, I concluded.
And pan was everywhere… like, well… pantheism. And there was also reference to another God that I didn’t know, but who sounded even more important: Proshaypana or Proshaypani… this one sounded more like a Buddhist god. Blah blah blah Proshaypana blah blah blah. I wondered whether, by invoking this God’s name, the speaker’s were uttering a plea, a prayer or a curse.
So I gained another impression – that Polish was an erudite, respectful and religious language… well, it can be.
Tempo & Intonation
Not understanding the words allowed me to focus on other aspects of spoken language – tempo and intonation.
Polish doesn’t sound particularly fast. As a foreigner hearing it for the first time, I wasn’t blown away by its tempo. It’s not like Arabic or Irish. I did wonder whether the reason for this is physical. It’s probably not the kind of language that you can say quickly – there are too many consonant sounds and you might injure your tongue, mouth or jaw if you tried to say too many hard Polish syllables too quickly.
As regards intonation, first impressions can be deceptive. When I first arrived in Poland, I remember being told that Wojciech Mann was a great presenter. Really? I didn’t understand what he was saying, but I could hear that his intonation was flatter than the countryside in Mazowsze. He just didn’t sound like an interesting speaker. And that’s what a foreigner hears when they hear Polish for the first time. It’s not like Italian in which the intonation rises and falls like the Alps. Polish is flat.
Yet Wojciech Mann’s speaking style is an acquired taste. It was only after I had learned Polish for a few years that I came to share Poles’ appreciation for his flat, deadpan delivery.
So what does Polish sound like to someone hearing it for the first time?
In the end, it’s a subjective impression that’s tricky to describe. So maybe I’ll try to answer another way – with a Japanese Haiku.
Hissing sand falling … shushing the wooden floor … kosh choosh ko
thru static radio … a mann mumbles, deadpan tones … slow train approaching
a lullaby song … post office fans are chanting … old Proshaypana’s here.