Why you should learn to pronounce new words backwards

Today, I have a tip which I’ve found has worked for me for a while, but I’ve been trying to figure out WHY it works before I posted something.

At its core, it’s very simple.  You find a new word in Polish and it’s full of complex sound clusters & you inevitably stumble over it syllable at a time and wonder how badly you’re mangling the Polish language when you’re done.  Been there, done that a few hundred times..

Let’s start with an example which you may or may not find a challenge, but it helps me illustrate the point.

Your new word is Szczęsnowicz.  Don’t worry – if you find that one too obvious, just bear with me for the sake of the example!

So, if you do it the obvious way, you’ll start by saying something like:

Sz…  Szcz… Szczęs… Szczęsnow… Szczęsnowicz..

Success!!  🙂

Now compare what you’re saying to this native pronunciation : Szczęsnowicz

Go ahead and click that link and play it a few times… I’ll wait..

Ok, so if you’re anything like me then you’ll find you were emphasizing entirely the wrong syllable.  Listen again and you’ll notice that the emphasis is here : SzczęsNOWicz.

Now the Polish language is full of wonderful complexities, so I like to celebrate a common rule when I come across one, just to remind myself that fluency is achievable one day.  The rule with Polish spoken language is that the emphasis is always on the penultimate (next to last) syllable in the word.  

I’ll say that again because it’s a really important point and I finally realized that this was the cornerstone of why learning new complex words backwards was a great idea.

The rule with Polish spoken language is that the emphasis is always on the penultimate (next to last) syllable in the word.

So let’s go back to the way you’ve been stumbling through vocalizing new words :

Sz…  Szcz… Szczęs… Szczęsnow… Szczęsnowicz..

Because you’re focusing on the syllables as they rush up to meet you – you’re not going to spot the fact that you’ve reached the penultimate one.  Sure, you’ve reached the end and you’ve finally managed to say Szczęsnowicz, but if you’re anything like me, you’re probably emphasizing the częs part.

Instead of this let’s work backwards syllable by syllable :

icz… NOWicz… częsNOWicz… szczęsNOWicz..

Success!  Because it was the 2nd syllable you encountered, you can immediately start emphasizing it right and then hang on to that emphasis as you add successive syllables to your pronunciation.

Dog barking? Shhhh.. Wait!!

Sometimes I have a total mental block on a certain word.  While I’m on Skype with my teacher, my dog has a habit of wanting to join in the conversation.  As a result, I must have asked her the word for “bark” a dozen times in the past year and I was still failing to remember it.

Looking back through my notepad, I’ve written it down 8 times at least that I can quickly see.  It sticks in my head as a word with “sz” and “k” in it, but the rest just fades, yet today for the 1st time I noticed something obvious and I don’t think I’ll ever forget it again.

It comes right back to my usual mechanism for remembering words, which is anchoring some aspect of them to another word or image and it reinforces for me just how important it is to hold that web of connections.  This is a word, I’d just been keeping in isolation in my head.  I hadn’t really looked at it and made the effort to decompose the word or link it.

So, the word in question is Szczekać (to bark).  Take a second to sound that out a couple of times..  It’s just a series of shh and k sounds, which is where I fell down.  There’s a lot of other shh and k words in my head already & I didn’t make the effort to figure out how this one was special.  As a result, when I was searching my brain for it,  I kept coming up with words like skręcić (to turn) or skakać (to jump).  Similar sounds at some level, but totally unconnected words.

But today when I skimmed my word list for revision, this leaped out at me :

Szczekać = Sz  czekać

Czekać is a word I’ve known for ages.  It means to wait.

So now, when my dog is barking and being impatient, I’ll just tell him “Shhhh!  Wait!”

 

Similar words – Świat

Continuing my theme of clusters of words which are very similar in Polish, which I’ve struggled to get right, here’s another batch which have been plaguing me for a while.

Maybe it’s just my desire to see patterns, but if you think of a general theme where light and spirituality are thought of together and the world is a sacred place, then perhaps there’s a common origin for them.  At least that helps me remember them!

Świat – The world

Światło – Light (n)

Świeca – Candle

Świecić – To shine (v)

Świeży – Fresh (adj)

Święto – Holiday

Święty – Holy (adj)

Świetny – Excellent (adj)

Świetnie – Excellently (adv)

And similar enough to have confused me recently when I heard it :

Śmieci – Rubbish / Garbage (n)

Śmieciarka – Garbage truck

Kosz na śmieci – Rubbish bin

Similar words – Cześć

Today I was listening to a polish radio interview & doing my best to keep up with the general gist of the report.  My listening comprehension isn’t yet to the level where I can understand even half of what is being said by a native speaker, but I usually understand enough of the words to know roughly what they’re talking about – even if I don’t know what they’re saying about it..

I came away today rather confused though because no matter how many times I played it back, I couldn’t figure out what they were saying in one section and it all came down to a series of words which (to me) sounded practically the same.  So the idea for a new post was born.

Similar words or podobne słowa.

Today – ones which (to me) all sound a bit too close to Cześć to easily differentiate when I hear them spoken quickly in a sentence!  I decided it would be useful for me to write them all down in one place so I can see them together and hopefully learn to tell them apart better (each word is clickable to hear the pronunciation)

Cześć – Hi

Część – Part

Często – Often

Czeski – Czech

Czysty – Clean (adj)

Czynsz – Rent (noun)

Ciężki – Heavy

Cieszę się – To be pleased with

 

Pronouncing numbers – tip

A quick tip today on how some of the polish numbers are usually pronounced.  This one is direct from my teacher and made a huge difference to the stuttering noises coming out of my mouth when trying to say these words.

The cluster of letters is …ćdz…  You see it in the following numbers :

Pięćdziesiąt (15)

Sześćdziesiąt (16)

Dziewięćdziesiąt (19)

When you try to say these as they’re written, you end up trying to quickly change your mouth from saying CH to DZ.  In Polish however, the ć ends up being silent in these words.

Try saying them again like this :

Pięćdziesiąt

Sześćdziesiąt

Dziewięćdziesiąt

Much easier!

Common words with 1, 2-4 & 5+

I’ve mentioned in a previous post How many summers do you have? that there is some magic polish grammar that changes when you’re talking about 1 thing, 2-4 things or 5+ things.  It then repeats for 21, 22-24, 25+ then 31, 32-34, 35+ etc.  Though for the sake of completion, I’ll note here that teens (11,12,13,14,15+) all follow the 5+ pattern, so just be aware of that.

Today I thought I’d share some more case of common words which change in the same way.  I’m going to skip going into which case these come from & why today, so just worry about a few new words to learn and when to use them.

(Thanks to Marta, my great polish teacher on skype for helping my get my head around these better in today’s lesson – although any mistakes are purely my own! )

Tysiąc (thousand)

# word example
1 tysiąc tysiąc
2-4 tysiące dwa tysiące
5+ tysięcy pięć tysięcy

Milion (million)

# word example
1 milion jeden milion
2-4 miliony dwa miliony
5+ milionów pięć milionów

Rok (year)

# word example
1 rok jeden rok
2-4 lata dwa lata
5+ lat pięć lat

Godzina (hour)

# word example
1 godzina jedna godzina
2-4 godziny dwie godziny
5+ godzin pięć godzin

Minuta (minute)

# word example
1 minuta jedna minuta
2-4 minuty dwie minuty
5+ minut pięć minut

There are also similar patterns in the basic number words, but it’s not quite as simple to write, so I’ll list them below and highlight, which hopefully will make sense to you with a few examples :

10 – dziesięć

20 – dwadzieścia

30 – trzydziesći

40 – czterdzieści

50 – pięćdzieściąt

60-90  – ……dzieściąt

And the 100’s

100 – sto

200 – dwieście

300 – trzysta

400 – czterysta

500 – pięćset

600-900 – ……set

Directions vs Time of Day

For some reason, for a long time I had a mental block when it came to remembering the Polish words for North, South, East and West.

For reference, here they are :

Połnoc = North

Południe = South

Wschód = East

Zachód = West

I could often remember the 2 words for North/South, but not which was which.  The same for East/West.

I needed a pattern or something to help my brain tag them.

North and South

Then I realized one day that the word for afternoon was Popołudnie and since my habit when learning words is to pull apart the prepositions (po, od, na, etc) to break them down into other words, I looked it up and found that popołudnie could be thought of as po + południe (after + noon) and that południe is the word for noon or midday!

It’s amazing what you don’t notice until you look at a word from a different angle or context.  So, if południe means both South and Midday, what about Połnoc?  Well it turns out that it also means midnight!  Which when you think about it is fairly obvious..

Poł = half

Połnoc = Poł + noc

= half + night

= midnight

On a similar tangent :

Południe = Poł + udnie

= Poł + u + dni + e

= half + ? + day + ?

= midday

Ok, so that’s not perfect with the extra u and e, but it’s close enough to help me remember it..  One day I may find a logical grammatical reason for the u and e & I’ll come back and update this post.

East and West

So that spurred me on to look for something similar in the words for East (Wschód) and West (Zachód).  What I found wasn’t quite as satisfying, but it’s a start.

On this big spinning globe of ours, the sun rises every morning in the East and it sets in the West.  Lo and behold, the phrase for sunrise in Polish is Wschód słońca, which you could literally translate to East Sun as the word for Sun is Słońce.

Consistently, the word for sunset in Polish is Zachód słońca, or West Sun.

I would love to be able to say that chód meant something connected, then I could tie the prepositions of Za and Ws in a logical way, but so far I haven’t found one, so we just have to memorize the two words.  Again, if I find something, or if anyone reading this can suggest a link I would be very happy to update this.

My final problem then is remembering which of Za+chód and Ws + chód is East and which is West.  I have a mental note here which I try to remember it by – it’s not great, but it’s the best I have come up with & it’ll do until I consistently remember which is which & don’t need the help anymore..

  • Za = Behind, so Zachód is West because Sunset is when the sun goes behind the earth (and sun sets in the west)

  • W = In, so Wschód is East because Sunrise is when you are in the sun (and the sun rises in the east)

I’ve also produced a couple of pictures for my wall, laying out the compass directions next to the times of day if you visualize the day as a 24 hour clock.

24hr_clockcompass

I hope some of the rationale above or the pictures help someone else remember these words.  When learning new words, I recommend looking at the words carefully and seeing if they’re actually compound words made up from other words.  It not only helps to remember the word itself, but it can often lead to learning several other new words.

More examples on this theme to follow in future posts.