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My surname is Cuch. Though I don't know much about Polish, I assume that this derives from the Polish word for chain, łańcuch. I pronounce my name as I've been briefly told by relatives: /tsux/ in the IPA for Polish. However, online I read many sentiments to the effect that [x] is "also (in great majority of dialects) represented by ⟨h⟩", which would yield a great difference in pronunciation.

I only need to go to the IPA for Polish Wikipedia page to be told a bunch of perfectly valid information but which makes no sense to a beginner like me, such as:

"All voiced obstruents /b, d, ɡ, v, z, ʐ, ʑ, dʐ, dʑ/ are devoiced (so /d/ becomes [t], etc.) at the ends of words and in clusters ending in any unvoiced obstruents..."

I don't know much Polish vocab, but I've heard my father speak a lot to other relatives and in words like chleb and łańcuch his pronunciation seems to reflect [x] more than ⟨h⟩. However, perhaps modern Polish leans more towards ⟨h⟩.

My father's side of the family on the whole do not like to discuss the specifics of Polish or Poland much due to having seen a lot during the war. Hopefully posting here will give me a better idea.

  • @rsqLVo, I have stalked you as an expert on Polish. Maybe you'd like to offer a comment? :) – Mad Banners Aug 28 '16 at 13:51
  • Welcome to Linguistics.SE. Great question, BTW; it made me think. – bytebuster Aug 28 '16 at 16:22
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    A note about transcription conventions: when a symbol is present between angle brackets, like ⟨h⟩, it is not actually referring to a sound at all, and it isn't necessarily IPA. Writing ⟨h⟩ is shorthand for "the letter H." So it doesn't mean anything about pronunciation (or rather, what it means is that most Polish people pronounce the letter "h" as the IPA sound /x/). To transcribe pronunciations (like that of your name) you should use square brackets or slashes: /tsux/ or [tsux]. If you're using angle brackets, it means that's the way your name is spelled (for example: ⟨Cuch⟩ is correct). – brass tacks Aug 28 '16 at 22:52
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    The sentence in Wikipedia is similar to saying "In the English name "Thomas," /t/ is represented by ⟨Th⟩." – brass tacks Aug 28 '16 at 22:54
  • Thank you, I appreciate it @bytebuster. Any thoughts? – Mad Banners Aug 29 '16 at 2:41
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In Polish, most (if not all) words containing letter ⟨h⟩ are actually loanwords as there was no [h]/[ɦ] sound in Polish (as opposed to Czech, Slovak and Ukrainian, where [ɦ] evolved from Slavic [g]). As the voiced [ɦ] is a pretty rare sound, most languages including Latin used unvoiced [h], which was quite naturally adopted into Polish as [x], with which it is typically completely homophonous (AFAIK the Polish kids have to learn the differences in written Polish at school and confusing ⟨h⟩ and ⟨ch⟩ is a fairly common mistake in Polish).

Of course the [x] is an obstruent (belongs to the class of consonants whose main constituent is noise), so it undergoes voicing if followed by another voiced obstruent, and in these situations it is pronounced [ɣ] (if you are after correct pronunciation, you probably do not need to be overly concerned about this though because it will come quite naturally).

I have no knowledge of Polish dialects but it is entirely possible that somewhere the [x] sound might be drifting towards unvoiced [h] (again for both ⟨h⟩ and ⟨ch⟩ as graphical representations) and there may be even regions where ⟨g⟩ is pronounced like [ɣ] or even [ɦ], so some small confusion may arise in positions where voicing is neutered (i.e. before an obstruent or at the end of the speech clause, because Polish obstruents lose their voicing at the end of the speech clause).

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  • Great answer. Would it be possible to explain voicing (when [x] is pronounced [ɣ]) in a bit more detail? Thank you :) – Mad Banners Sep 1 '16 at 3:37
  • Certainly, however I would suggest to raise this as a separate question since the answer will hardly fit a comment. – Eleshar Sep 1 '16 at 7:58
  • Done. Please check my profile for the link :) – Mad Banners Sep 1 '16 at 15:23
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I'm Polish and I can assure you that nowadays "ch" and "h" are pronounced exactly the same. Only elderly people (really few), especially in Eastern Poland, still keep the sound [h]. By the way, this is one of the reasons why so many Poles struggle with spelling: they confuse "ch" with "h", the same happens with "u" and "ó" (both pronounced as [u]) or "ż" and "rz".

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  • Interesting. So which sound is is that "ch" and "h" both represent? – Mad Banners Aug 29 '16 at 0:52
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    They both represent sound /x/ (in modern standard Polish). – Paula Aug 29 '16 at 8:50
  • The extended sound? – Mad Banners Aug 29 '16 at 11:11
  • I'm not a linguistics expert, could you explain what you mean by extended sound? – Paula Aug 29 '16 at 15:42
  • This link may help to explain. But really my question is: is /x/ pronounced like the h in English history, heat, hard; or like the ch in Scottish loch? – Mad Banners Aug 30 '16 at 0:34
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There is some confusion of phonetic transcription with Polish spelling here. To clear things up:

The digraph "ch" and the letter "h" (when not preceded by "c") are pronounced in exactly the same way in modern standard Polish: as the voiceless velar fricative /x/. The sounds /h/ and /ɦ/ are absent in Polish. In fact, many Polish speakers can't pronounce /h/ and when they say, for example, the English word "hen", it sounds like /xɛn/ instead of /hɛn/.

There may be some dialectal variation, but I wouldn't be concerned about it too much. Unlike in languages such as German or Norwegian, there is very little difference in pronunciation among Poles. I, for one, can barely hear any difference in pronunciation between me and people from cities on the other side of Poland.

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