Curiosities of the Polish spelling

Part two

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6. There exist three pairs of characters symbolizing one and the same sound, for a prevailing part of Poles:

Today only little number of Polish speakers still distinguishes ch from h in their pronunciation (in fact the pronunciation of h as a voiced laryngeal spirant should have been acknowledged today to be dialectal, incorrect), the litterary language does not also permit even the weakest difference between u and ó as well as between ż and rz. These three pairs remain today only a needless difficulty for Polish learners, in this number for Poles themselves. Desisting from using ó, rz and ch would be accepted especially by schoolchildren who are now defeated in dictations, with all their hearts.

A frequently repeated argument for preserving ó, rz, ch is existing homophone pairs – words with the same pronunciation but different spelling. Examples:

If you can speak Polish, you can find more examples here.

Different spelling as if allows to differentiate these homophones from one another. But in the same time many homonymes exist in Polish (word forms with the same spelling and pronunciation but different meaning, ex. bal, bez, długi, droga, gram, ich, jak, kary, kawka, koło, lata, łaska, majtki, mat, miał, muł, mus, nie, nim, orka, paść, piec, piłka, płytki, pokój, postać, rabaty, rad, rakieta, smoczek, stan, stopy, szybka, tam, tur, wal, ważki, wieść, wyżąć, zamek, zasada), and somehow it does not harm at all in communication. Besides we do not differentiate ex. rzyć and żyć in speech, and despite of this, misunderstandings are practically absent.

Regarding the very preservative character of the spelling in languages with literary tradition, I do not foresee, telling the truth, that decidents (people who have right to make decisions) would suppress this historical ballast, useless for the language, in the future that can be foreseen. I cannot however find any logic reason for existence of these three pairs of symbols today.

Above I have mentioned the lack of precision in the Polish spelling in distinguishing the affricates dz, dż, dź from the sequences d+z, d+ż, d+ź on the border of the prefix and the stem. This problem is deeper and it concerns also the juncture, i.e. the laryngeal stop (or j) pronounced before a vowel at the beginning of the stem, e.g. in ziścić, podorywki, odautorski, zarchiwizować (compare podomka, odaliska, zaraza without the juncture), and not indicated in writing. The solution, e.g. the using an additional apostrophe or hyphen, would restore the univocal meaning of the digraphs.

The threefold writing of the postalveolars (see pt. 1) is also a spelling ballast. Since we have the special letters ć, ń, ś, ź, they should be used with more consequence, independently of their position. The spelling of the type ćoća, ńiski, śiny, źemia, even if it could seem shocking for a Pole today, would shorten the volume of Polish texts a little (one character instead of two) and it would remove problems with the differences in pronunciation between siny, silny – sinus, silos, spelt in the same way today.

The connected postulate is reintroduction of the spelling of j wherever it is pronounced. In the old days one wrote e.g. energja, in accordance with pronunciation, today we write energia, going away from the phonetical principle. A needless difficulty is also the omitting of the iota in forms like żmii instead of the form consistent with the pronunciation: *żmiji. In other forms with ~ii, the sequence *~ji should be written evidently (accordingly to the pronunciation), e.g. *mańji, *Arabji. Another problem for a possible spelling reform would be the problem of the non-syllabic (consonantal) u (in the International Phonetic Alphabet: [w]). In today’s Polish, the same pronunciation is for ł, there exists however a group of words spelt with u, e.g. auto, Europa. Leaving the u here would not be well-founded, because there exist words of a similar shape, in which however the u denotes a vowel (e.g. nauka). However introducing of the international sign w would be a spelling revolution because at the same time one should change today’s w into its international equivalent: v. The chances for such a revolution seem not to be very big.

The Polish language does not mark the stress place either, even if sometimes it would be useful, since there exists a group of words and forms, in which the stress does not fall on the penultimate syllable, like it is due to the Polish language custom. Perhaps this problem could be solved to a certain degree by a change of the spelling rules: in one word or two. If one separated the pseudo–ending ~bym in the form poszedłbym (stressed on o), the stress would be due to the rules. Maybe under the influence of the today’s spelling an incorrect stress place happens in pronunciation of some Poles, among others e.g. some VIPs. Their erroneous pronunciation becomes a common subject of sneer and scoff later.

It is worth to notice here that Polish prepositions join following pronouns in one words, what is not even noticed by the spelling (even if it should be) of course. Hence the differences in stressing e.g. in wyszedłem z wody na brzeg (na unstressed), but spójrz na mnie (the stress on the preposition). If the spelling is to be an image of pronunciation (and not of ideas like Chinese ideograms), it should somehow differentiate unstressed and stressed prepositions.

A pretty important spelling problem is sometimes the spelling of the negative word nie with particular parts of speech. Today the rule says that

e.g. nie ma, nie palę, nie pisać, nie byłby – niepalący, niepisanie, niedobrze. Where such a difference comes from, and what it is well-founded with, I really do not know. In fact the negation nie is always pronounced as if it was a part of the next word. A proof is the stress place: nie ma, nie wiem, nie byłby (~by is a particle here, I do not know why it is spelt in one with the verb). À propos, still some tens of years ago it was spelt niema – the present spelling is a step back (and in fact onward, but toward the pictogramic writing). Let me add that the separate spelling is obligatory when we have the opposite or ellipsis of the hyphen word jest, e.g. nie pisanie, ale czytanie, what is of course logic and conformable to the pronunciation.

A next serious spelling difficulty is preserving of spelling of voiced and voiceless consonants in accordance to their origin, and not their pronunciation. This so called morphological rule makes us write ławka, prośba, jabłko in spite of the pronunciation [łafka], [proźba], [japko]. For the same rule the spelling ą, ę is preserved where om, em, on, en, oń, eń or only the vowel e, without a nasal element, is pronounced today. A slightly different problem is spelling of final consonants. There the pronunciation depends only on the next sound. So even if we dropped out the morphological rule, the writing buk for each of words bóg, Bug, buk would not always be true phonetical in spite of appearances, since in the contexts bóg wielki, Bug wielki, buk wielki, g is pronounced at the end of all the three words! In other contexts (before a vowel or a sonorant) the pronunciation likes to be various and it depends on the region of Poland (but not on the spelling). It is hard to find a good solution here.

In accordance with the pronunciation (but if really the best?) would be only using “double” spelling, depending on the next word (and the real pronunciation). So e.g. *bug wojny but *buk pokoju. Such a solution can seem to be shocking but a similarly non-stable spelling, conformable to the pronunciation, is known in Sanskrit – a still used today old Indian language, but there the changes can be much bigger. E.g. the word adas ‘this, he’ can assume much shapes depending on the neighbourhood: adah. – adas – adaç – adas. – ada – ado – dah. – das – daç – das. – da – do. It is similarly in Celtic languages (e.g. in Irish), where however the beginning of the word changes (so how to seek a word in a dictionary? – e.g. cara, chara, gcara are all various forms of one word). What more, even in the Polish language there exists an instance of differentiated spelling, it concerns however the prefix and not an independent word (a matter of argument is for me whether this prefix is independent to some degree – it does not join the stem strictly but with using the juncture! – so it has some features of word). E.g. zarchiwizować, zerodować, ziścić, zoperować, zubożały, zbierać, zdeptać, zdziczeć, zgasić, zjeść, zlać, złączyć, zmęczyć, zniżać, znosić, zrąbać, zrzednąć, zinątpić, zziajany, zzuć, zżerać, zhańbić, zsiadać, zsypać, zszyć – but scalać, schować, sczepiać, sfotografować, skopać, spadać, stoczyć as well as ścierpieć. As you can see, the spelling of the element z~ is close to be phonetical (only on the diachronic plane; in fact the Polish z~ is a result of contamination of two old Slavic prefixes: s~ and iz~). Of course, one does not mark the following juncture (before a vowel), before h, z is written “in remembrance” of its old voiced pronunciation, at last before s one writes z exceptionally not in accordance to the pronunciation, without any actual reasons (to avoid two s’s?).

One assumes that preserving of traditional spelling is to serve easier identification of written forms, it is to make easy building of correct forms in inflexion and word-formation, and first of all it is to be a homage to the past of the language. The first argument does not convince me completely: but when talking, the spelling is not used, so a form consistent with the phonetics is perfectly enough to understand the imparting! Moreover in many languages the morphological rule is broken with using spelling much close to phonetical (e.g. in Serbo-Croatian or Turkish, even not speaking of Sanskrit, where assimilations named sandhi exert a mighty influence on the shape of the language) and somehow it does not give trouble with understanding written texts to anybody. When making new forms or words, the spelling not always gives us enough instructions anyway, and the morphological rule likes to be ignored. So why we write tchu but dech, and we may not write *kretka but kreda? What for to write góra using ó, since there does not exist a derivative word in the litterary language, which would preserve o explaining such spelling? The argument that in other languages (e.g. in Russian) there is o in this word is not convincing – why in that case we write Jakub instead of Jakób, but in other languages we have o here (e.g. Jacob)!

The questions above have no answers of course. The Polish written language evolves evidently from the stage of the phonetic writing (or close to phonetic) to the stage of the picture writing. The motivation that the various spelling of the words bóg – Bug – buk with their same pronunciation lets identify them by a reader more easily with the things they denote, is nothing different as acknowledging that the Polish spelling has symbolic character at least to a certain degree, just like Chinese ideograms. By way of consolation to all who complain of the Polish spelling, I recommend them to have a look on the English language where it seems that there are no rules of spelling and pronunciation at all. Even if this feeling is wrong, in any case it is the most simply to learn the pronunciation and spelling of each new known word separately. Polish is still very far from such a chaos.

In the English language, especially that used in USA, there exists a tendency to leave historical customs. That is why we can meet the spelling nite, wanna, gonna, thru instead of night, want to, going to, through more and more often. By the by, both spellings, that traditional and that “vulgar”, are often similarly far from the phonetic writing (why not e.g. nait?). In Poland a conscious (or unconscious) breaking the spelling that is laid down would be felt like a proof of the lack of education (shortly speaking, the ignorance), of no respect for the national culture and of the lack of the personal cultivation. In our technicized and computerized world less and less people have time for cultivating the tradition however and so one should hope that with the time we will give unnecessary historical ballasts up and we will make the spelling closer to the actual pronunciation. It would be, to a certain degree, a paying homage for the past even much older, when the alphabetical writing came into being, and when people wrote phonetically in principle.

7. Are orthographic norms need in the language? Do they bring more profits or more harm rather? Can we acknowledge such norms to be “scientifically” well-founded? I am not a professional linguist and that is why my voice on the Polish spelling may be treated not too seriously. For just this reason I would like to quote a translation of a fragment of the book by Professor W. Mańczak “Problemy językoznawstwa ogólnego”, p. 234n (see bibliography) devoted to this problem – for regularity I would say that I learnt that work of Professor Mańczak after I had written my own text and I had published it on the Internet.

— Beginning of the quotation —

First of all it should be stated that if numerous linguists, in this number those of such great calibre like Baudouin de Courtenay, renounce the normative grammar, it is not without reason.

What is first of all that strikes in decisions of “normative grammarians”, that I say so, it is no clear recognizing of matters that they busy themselves. Let’s take into consideration even if the matter of spelling. It is not hard to determine what conditions should be fulfilled by rational spelling:

1. Words should be written by such means that there should be only one way to decipher them. In this respect the spelling of the words ul, król is faultless because each Pole will read these words in the same way.

2. There should exist only one way of writing of heard words. From this point of view the spelling chmura, hektar is not ideal because when hearing [xmura], [xektar] you can have doubts if you should use h or ch and u or ó. On the other hand in this respect the spelling of the type dom is faultless because when hearing [dom] you have not another contingency for writing of this word in Polish.

3. The spelling should be economical, so e.g. having the choice between h and ch for marking the sound [x], one should choose h, just like it has been done by the Croatians or the Rumanians who write the equivalents of Polish technika as tehnika and tehnică respectively.

Not a few European spellings, especially English and French, stray from this perfection considerably, and in consequence of this, people waste quite a long time doing a completely unproductive activity that is learning of spelling. In Poland the situation is better in this way than in France or in Anglo-Saxon countries, but anyway in respect of rationality the Polish spelling falls slightly behind not a few other spellings, e.g. Serbo-Croatian or Italian. It is easy to count that only modernization of spelling itself after the example of the Czechs, the Slovaks, the Slovenians, the Croatians, the Lithuanians, etc, i.e. replacing w with v, sz with š, cz with č etc, would cause cheapening of books by some per cent as well as lessening of the cubage of rooms for books (stores, libraries) by just as much. Still more advantage (this means saving time used for learning of spelling and looking into a spelling dictionary) would be accomplished by cancelling useless differences of the type u : ó, ż : rz, h : ch etc. Just as useful it would be annulment of arbitrary regulations concerning unhyphened and separate spelling and replacement of them with one simple rule: all adhesions are written in one. There is not a reason that we write nie with various parts of speech in different ways after the example of foreign languages (cf. Lat. immobilis but non movet, or Germ. unbeweglich but er bewegt nicht), since in Polish there is not a difference between stressing of niezły and nie mam (similar situation is in Czech and the Czechs are right to write ne in one with verbs). There is also no reasons that some adhesions of the type od nas, beze me, we dnie, na czczo, spode łba would write separately while other adhesions, e.g. przezeń, naraz, dotychczas, are spelt in one in accordance with pronunciation. The aim of spelling regulations should be making easy and not making hard to write to millions of people.

— End of the quotation —

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