Poland campaigns to preserve its complex spelling

AP News
Posted: Feb 21, 2013 11:22 AM
Poland campaigns to preserve its complex spelling

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Polish language experts launched a campaign Thursday to preserve the challenging system of its diacritical marks, saying the tails, dots and strokes are becoming obsolete under the pressure of IT and speed.

The drive, initiated by the state-run Council of the Polish Language, is part of the UNESCO International Mother Language Day. The campaign's Polish name is complicated for a non-Polish keyboard: "Je,zyk polski jest a,-e,."

That's a pun meaning that Polish language needs its tails and is top class. Part of the meaning is lost and the pronunciation sounds wrong if the marks aren't there.

Computer and phone keyboards require users to punch additional keys for Polish alphabet. To save time, Poles skip the nuances, and sometimes need to guess the meaning of the message that they have received. This is also true for IT equipment users of other languages with diacritical marks, like Russian or Romanian.

As part of the new campaign, some radio and TV stations are playing songs with words stripped of diacritical pronunciation, making them sound odd to the Polish ear. A rap song concludes: "Press the right Alt sometimes" to obtain Polish letters, referring one of the keyboard buttons that Poles need to press to write characters with diacritical marks.

In Poland, linguist Jerzy Bralczyk said the diacritical marks are a visual, defining feature of the Polish language, and they carry meaning and enrich the speech.

"Today, the Polish language is threatened by the tendency to avoid its characteristic letters," Bralczyk said. "The less we use diacritical marks in text messages, the more likely they are to vanish altogether. That would mean an impoverishment of the language and of our life. I would be sorry."

The tails make "a'' and "e'' nasal, strokes over "s," "c'' and "n'' soften them and sometimes make them whistling sound, a stroke across "l'' makes it sound like the English "w," and a dot over "z'' makes it hard like a metal drill. And each change matters.

"Los" means "fate," but when you put a slash across the "l'' and add a stroke over the "s'' it becomes "elk." "Paczki" are "parcels," but "pa,czki" are doughnuts.

Foreigners who know Polish say the diacritical marks are a visual sign that it's a tough language and that they add to the complexity of the grammar and vocabulary, which does not derive from Latin or from Germanic languages.

Russia has its own campaign to protect twin dots over the letter "e'' — pronounced "yo" — and which, experts say, often fall victim to a writer being lazy. Education Minister Dmitry Livanov last year pledged to look into the problem.

In Romania, the tongue's tails on "t'' and "s," circumflexes on "a'' and "I'' and hats on "a'' are ignored even by state officials and institutes. Some words have up to four diacritical marks, and not using them changes the pronunciation and, in some cases, the meaning, to the point of no meaning at all.


Alison Mutler in Bucharest and Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscow contributed to this report.