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I decided to start an online Polish course, but I am still confused about the Polish sound system.

My question is (I am still not so good in phonology):
What is the difference between the following pairs of sounds:
ć and cz, ź and rz, dź and dż, and between ś and sz ?

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  • Specify which languages you speak, to let the answerers relate to sounds you already know.
    – michau
    Sep 12 '16 at 9:22
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In short, ć, ź, and ś are alveolo-palatal consonants, all articulated with the tongue raised towards the alveolar ridge (located just behind the upper teeth) and the palate (the roof of the mouth behind the alveolar ridge):

Tongue position in alveolo-palatal sounds. Source: Wikipedia

On the other hand, cz, ż, and sz are retroflex consonants, all articulated with the tip of the tongue pointed upwards or even bent back (hence the name): Tongue position in retroflex sounds. Source: Wikipedia

Note that English ch, s (as in "pleasure"), j and sh are similar to the sounds in question, but are palato-alveolar. It means that English ch is articulated somewhere in between Polish cz and Polish ć, and so on.

If you are familiar with sounds of Serbo-Croatian, it may be helpful to note that Polish ć is basically the same as Croatian ć, and Polish cz is similar to Croatian č (I'm not quite sure if the latter is retroflex or palato-alveolar). Similarly, Polish is the same as Croatian đ, and Polish is similar to Croatian .

It may be easier to tell sz from ś if you know some Russian: Polish sz is pronounced the same as ш in Russian "шут", and Polish ś is similar to сч in Russian "счастье" (but somewhat shorter).

Finally, take a look at the transcription of these consonants in the International Phonetic Alphabet. It may be useful if you want to look them up in Wikipedia or find them in pronunciation charts to learn more about how they sound.

ć  [t͡ɕ]   cz [t͡ʂ]  
dź [d͡ʑ]   dż [d͡ʐ]  
ś  [ɕ]    sz [ʂ]  
ź  [ʑ]    ż  [ʐ]  
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  • Thanks for the explanation! Yes, I know a little Russian, because my native language (Bulgarian) has much in common with it. We also have letters for these sounds, but only one for a sound: ш, ц, ч, ж. But I know that in my language many sound markings have disappeared through the ages. For example we don't have now nasal markings, which I know exist in Polish. Sep 12 '16 at 14:48
  • @KirilMladenov You're welcome. I think you wanted to write ш, дж, ч, ж (ц is a different sound, equivalent to Polish c). According to what I see in Wikipedia, all those sounds are palato-alveolar in Bulgarian, which means that they are the same as the English sounds I mentioned. So Bulgarian ш is between Polish sz/Russian ш on the one side, and Polish ś/Russian сч/щ on the other.
    – michau
    Sep 12 '16 at 15:11

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