With this article I want to show that the Russian and Polish orthographies, although very different, express almost the same set of phonemes. I hope that this will help you, dear reader, to read either of the languages better.

Comments, corrections and criticism are always welcome.


By "phoneme" I mean the smallest meaningful part of the sequence of sounds that make up a word. In this text, I will transcribe the phonemes that a written word (Russian or Polish) represents using Latin letters in [brackets]. (Although this is a common way to show pronunciation, I'm completely uninterested in pronunciation in this text, since that would get in the way of comparing Polish and Russian.)

Both Russian and Polish use "softened" consonants. I will indicate those with a subscript J in my transcriptions, for example НЬ = Ń = [nⱼ]. The difference in spelling of softened consonants between the two languages will be a central topic in the following.

Softening in Russian

In Russian, softened consonants are generally expressed in writing by a following "soft" vowel. The "hard" vowels А, О, У, Ы and Э correspond to the "soft" vowels Я, Ё, Ю, И and Е. If a softened consonant is not followed by a vowel, the so-called soft sign is used instead: Ь

E.g.: медь [mⱼedⱼ] "copper", лёд [lⱼod] "ice".

(In these two examples, the final sound is actually pronounced as T instead of D, because of the devoicing of final consonants that occurs in both Russian and Polish, but in the transcription I nevertheless use D, to follow the written form of the original word.)

If a soft vowel appears in the beginning of a word, or after another vowel, it represents the sound [j] instead of softening: ясный [jasnyj] "clear".

Some consonants (Ж, Ш, Ц) are never soft, and some (Ч, Щ) are always soft.

Softening in Polish

In Polish, softened consonants are in principle expressed by letters with diacritical marks: Ć, Ń, Ś, Ź. However, if the vowel "i" appears after the softened consonant, the mark is removed (since "i" by itself indicates softening), and if another vowel follows, an extra "i" is inserted between the consonant and the vowel. This can cause spelling differences in different conjugations of the same work, for example: koń [konⱼ] "horse", konia [konⱼa] "of a horse", koni [konⱼi] "of horses".

The hard correspondent to Ć is not C, but T. Therefore I will write the soft C as [tⱼ] in my transcriptions, e.g.: ciasto [tⱼasto] "cake".

The soft correspondent to D is written DŹ (but without the diacritical sign when it appears before a vowel, according to the rules above). E.g.: dziki [dⱼiki] "wild".

The consonant L is exceptional. It is written Ł when hard and L when soft. E.g.: las [lⱼas] "forest", głodny [glodny] "hungry".

The consonant R is also exceptional. It is written R when it is hard and RZ when it is soft. E.g.: ręka [ręka] "hand", rzeka [rⱼeka] "river". (Ą and Ę are Polish nasal vowels that Russian no longer has. I leave them as is in the transcriptions, but will go into further detail below.)

The reader will probably protest against some of the above pairings, and will rightly remark that L/Ł, R/RZ, S/Ś sound completely differently in Polish, but again I'd like to point out that I'm not interested in pronunciation; to compare Russian and Polish, these need to be treated as related phonemes.


Armed with this system for transforming written words from the two languages into a single transcription, we can to begin with notice that many words have the same phonemes (though not always the same meaning):

  • кот = kot = [kot] "cat"
  • конь = koń = [konⱼ] "horse"
  • дети = dzieci = [dⱼetⱼi] "children"
  • сеть = sieć = [sⱼetⱼ] "net"
  • река = rzeka = [rⱼeka] "river"
  • неделя "week" = niedziela "Sunday" = [nⱼedⱼelⱼa]

In some words we find a vowel change. Fairly often this is caused by the Old Slavic vowel Ѣ "yat", which in Russian became [ⱼe] but in Polish became either [ⱼa] or [ⱼe] depending on conjugation:

  • белый [bⱼelyj] ≈ biały [bⱼaly] "white"
  • лес [lⱼes] ≈ las [lⱼas] "forest"
  • лесной [lⱼesnoj] ≈ leśny [lⱼesⱼny] "pertaining to (a) forest" (adjective)
  • вера [vⱼera] ≈ wiara [vⱼara] "belief"
  • место [mⱼesto] "place" ≈ miasto [mⱼasto] "city"

Sometimes Russian has an unstressed E where Polish has O:

  • сестра [sⱼestra] ≈ siostra [sⱼostra] "sister"
  • седло [sⱼedlo] ≈ siodło [sⱼodlo] "saddle"

The Polish nasal vowels Ą kaj Ę were originally written using the Cyrillic letters Ѫ "big yus" and Ѧ "little yus" (but in Polish those two sounds first collapsed into one and later separated again, such that it's not immediately obvious which of them was the original sound). In Russian, those sounds sometimes became [u], sometimes [ⱼa]:

  • пять [pⱼatⱼ] ≈ pięć [pⱼętⱼ] "five"
  • мясо [mⱼaso] ≈ mięso [mⱼęso] "meat"
  • счастье [sĉⱼastje] ≈ szczęście [ŝĉęsⱼtⱼe] "happiness" (here [ⱼa] is written with А because of an orthographic rule)
  • мука [muka] ≈ mąka [mąka] "flour"
  • рука [ruka] ≈ ręka [ręka] "hand"
  • мудрый [mudryj] ≈ mądry [mądry] "wise"
  • буду [budu] ≈ będę [będę] "I will be"

In some cases Russian has [olo], [oro] or [ⱼerⱼe], while Polish lacks the first vowel:

  • голос [golos] ≈ głos [glos] "voice"
  • берег [bⱼerⱼeg] ≈ brzeg [brⱼeg] "coast"
  • горох [goroĥ] ≈ groch [groĥ] "pea"
  • молоко [moloko] ≈ mleko [mlⱼeko] "milk"

With this article I want to show that the Russian and Polish orthographies, although very different, express almost the same set of phonemes.

A nice and useful article, and I especially like the topic of palatalization which is quite sore for the non-native learners of Slavic languages. My comment might not be on the topic though: why don't you consider the usual end-of-word devoicing in your transcriptions? Медь is never pronounced like [m'ed], it is [m'et']; лёд is actually [l'ot].
Comment by Зеленина Tue 02 Aug 2011 04:53:43 AM BST
The reason I didn't mention devoicing is that I wanted to focus on written words: all comparisons are just about manipulating sequences of letters in different ways, and this can be done without even thinking about pronunciation. But it's a good point; I added a note about the correct pronunciation in the article.
Comment by Magnus Wed 03 Aug 2011 10:08:49 PM BST