English Polish


Philip Taylor has asked about the anglicisation of Łódż. I have mentioned this place before, here, but only in passing, so perhaps it is time to give a bit more background.

Until about 1980, the BBC recommendations for Polish took no account of the barred l, partly because it had such an apparently strange pronunciation, partly because no British publications used it, and partly because there were occasions when two names existed, one with and the other without the bar, and our Polish informants were uncertain which was correct in a specific case.

In 1979, however, two things happened almost simultaneously – a Polish Pope was elected: John Paul II, whose Polish family name included the barred l – Wojtyła, and the Solidarity movement was constantly in the news, led by a man whose name not only included a barred l, but also an ogonek (reverse cedilla under a vowel letter, indicating that it is a nasalised vowel): Lech Wałęsa. The recommendations were ‘voytíllă’ and ‘vălénssă’.

Shortly afterwards, the complaints started arriving: didn’t we know that the l had a line through it, which meant it was pronounced as a ‘w’, not as ‘l’? Yes, we did, but it was a policy decision to ignore it. To which the reply was “you’re wrong, then”. Even in 1979 there were many thousands of people in Britain who were either Polish refugees who had stayed after the Second World War, or else their families, and they all “knew” the correct pronunciation. Clearly, we had to do something about it.

One of my colleagues, Sharon Fairman, was a Polish speaker, and she took on the job of revising the Polish component of our massive card index, which was easier said than done: it was totally alphabetical by name, not by language, so she had about 250 thousand cards to look at in order to extract all the Polish entries. Then she devised an anglicisation system that would answer the complaints, but still be easily pronounced by broadcasters. Two years later we were ready: “barred l” now became ‘w’, and the vowels were nasalised, as in French, rather than treated as a sequence of vowel + nasal. So, ‘voytí-wă’ and ‘vow-é(ng)ssă’ were our new recommendations. These were immediately accepted by newsreaders, and all others who came to us for advice, possibly because only one or two letters were affected, and the others were easily comprehensible. A harder case was that of Wrocław, the city formerly known by its German name, Breslau. It was clearly impossible to recommend simply ‘rócklaw’, which is what it looks like, and the only change we needed to make in the 1980s was from the former recommendation of ‘vróts-laff’ to ‘vróts-waff’, adding ‘-aff as in ‘daffodil’ as extra explanation (I wonder how many listeners connected Wrocław with Breslau?).

In the case of Łódż, however, which would become ‘wootch’ under the new system, we didn’t think the British public was ready for it. It was already familiar, with the pronunciation ‘lodz’, to film aficionados, because the Łódż Film School had produced luminaries such as Andrzej Wajda, Roman Polanski and Krzysztof Kieślowski. Also, how does a listener associate ‘wootch’ with what he sees in his newspaper written as ‘Lodz’?

We kept ‘lodz’ and added “established anglicisation” after it.

Nearly thirty years on, the British public is more sophisticated, and while I suspect that most English speakers with no knowledge of Polish (surely well over 90%?) will continue to say ‘lodz’, they are prepared to accept that the ‘correct’ pronunciation is ‘wootch’ when they hear it on radio or television. If the print media was willing to add diacritics to foreign names – not difficult now that most print is computer type-set, and fonts contain the necessary letter shapes – then it would become even more acceptable to use the more native pronunciation.


  1. Does that mean American English speakers can be expected to pronounce British place names, for example, Edinburgh, properly? 😉

  2. It’s not just Americans: English people frequently mispronounce Scottish and Welsh place names, and many Scots have problems with some English place names.

  3. Leaving aside the slight digression to Scottish, Welsh and English names, the recommendation that Łódż be pronounced as “Lodz” rather than “Woodge” interests me, in particular because I am not entirely convinced that Graham’s earlier question as to whether one should use “the native pronunciation of a place name if [one knows] what it is” is directly relevant here. Graham asked “[d]oes this mean that when I am speaking French, I should continue to say “London” rather than “Londres”? Should Spaniards say “United States” rather than “Estados Unidos”.” In both of these examples, we are actually discussing two different names for the same place; in Łódż/Lodz, we have only one (the Polish name), albeit frequently spelled without diacritics. So my gut feeling is that it is not unreasonable for a newscaster to use the “correct” (i.e., local) pronunciation for a given place if (a) the name is the same in both languages (modulo diacritics) and (b) the name has not become so common in its anglicised form that use of the foreign pronunciation would seem “precious” [1]. “Paris” would be an obvious example of the latter.

    [1] In sense 4 of Answers.com’s definition : Affectedly dainty or overrefined: precious mannerisms.

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