June 27, 2011 | Polish

Polish People Are Helping Me

I get free lessons in pronunciation and Polish history.

This letter in Polish has been causing me problems: ę. Its pronunciation sounds radically different to me from source to source.

Tea, Source of Pronunciation Challenges (This Came from One of My Lovely Japanese Conversation Partners, By the Way!)

Tea, Source of Pronunciation Challenges (This Came from One of My Lovely Japanese Conversation Partners, By the Way!)

In Rosetta Stone, when it is at the end of a word—such as herbatę, which is the accusative form of “tea,” such as you would use in the Polish equivalent of “I am drinking tea”—the letter is rather complicated and sounds kind of like ay-oh, and quite nasal. So “tea” as a direct object comes out something like hair-BAH-tay-oh.

In my Pimsleur lessons, the same word sounds like hair-BAH-tay. So no ay-oh fanciness at the end.

Fortunately, most of the women who work at the café I favor speak Polish, so when I have questions, I sometimes ask them. Their assessment in this case: although the Rosetta Stone version is technically correct, people don’t pronounce it that way in everyday speech. Rather, you would hear the Pimsleur version with the simpler vowel sound.

I would welcome any other thoughts on this point.

Anyway, while I was consulting with the café employees, a customer overheard my question. “Why are you studying Polish?” she asked me.

I told her. It turned out she was also Polish. Although she now lives in Boston, she lived in New York for many years. She is in her forties, and she had a Polish friend with her, a man somewhat older. 

The woman said that Greenpoint, the heavily Polish neighborhood in Brooklyn I have written a bit about previously, had gentrified greatly since she left New York in the 1990s. I don’t remember ever going there during that time, so I have no basis for comparison.

Greenpoint Today

Greenpoint Today

She said it used to be quite smelly, that you would notice it as soon as you exited the subway. I said that is not the case now and showed them pictures off my blog on my iPhone.

In 1980, at the start of the Solidarity movement, she was still living in Poland. The period of martial law that ensued was very difficult for her. She was 16 at the time, and one needed coupons for everything, and you couldn’t get sanitary napkins or shampoo and I think she also said acne cream! For a teenager with pimples and insecurities, she explained, that was traumatic.

It became easier after a couple of years, but then she moved to the U.S. in her twenties and has lived in the States ever since.

I think she and her friend and I were about the only customers in the café at the time of this discussion, meaning I was for a brief time the only non-Polish person in the room (there were the two Polish employees as well) in a French café in New York City! 

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