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How to use hard and soft consonants and which case endings to use with them

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Disclaimer: this may be inaccurate or incomplete. Yell at me if something is wrong, missing or unclear. Many of the rules below have exceptions which I either omitted or forgot.

This is also not a full grammar guide, but it only deals with this specific topic.

I'm assuming that you are familiar with Polish spelling (if not, read https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polish_orthography ) and basic grammar terms.


The crucial element of many parts of Polish grammar is the concept of soft and hard consonants. Unlike in Russian (which some of you speak a little), in Polish some declension endings are different depending on whether the last consonant is hard of soft, and it may be a source of confusion for learners.

The division of consonants into the categories is based on both historical pronunciation, which has evolved over the centuries, and modern phonotactics. Polish spelling usually follows the pronunciation, so the grammar rules, when explained using modern spelling, may look intimidating.

Here is how I group the consonants:

  • Hard: p, b, m, f, w, ł, t, d, s, z, n, r, k, g, h/ch

  • Mixed: c, dz, cz, dż, sz, ż/rz

  • Soft: p(i), b(i), m(i), f(i), w(i), l, ć, dź, ś, ź, ń, j

Disclaimer: different people will use different terms. The terms above are my personal preference.

We will call the noun form without the final ending a stem. A stem almost always ends in a consonant. If that consonant is hard, we'll call it a hard stem, and so on.

<h1>Soft consonant spelling</h1>

Soft consonants ć, dź, ś, ź, ń are spelt as c, dz, s, z, n before i and as ci, dzi, si, zi, ni before other vowels. They only keep their original form when before a consonant or at the end of the word. That's why their original letter forms are rare and are the highest-value Scrabble tiles (Ś – 5 points, Ć – 6 poinits, Ń – 7 points, Ź – 9 points).

Soft consonants p(i), b(i), m(i), f(i), w(i) are spelt p, b, m, f, w before i and pi, bi, mi, fi, wi before other vowels. They never occur in other positions (but see the remark about phantom soft consonants at the end). For many people, before i they are pronounced almost the same as their hard counterparts, and before other vowels they're pronounced like pj and so on. In 16th century, the difference was actually audible (as it still is in Russian) and they were even supposed to have their own letters when not appearing before a vowel (ṕ, b', ẃ, and I think also f' and ḿ).

<h1>Vowel use</h1>

Many declension endings can contain either y or i (I will denote them as y/i or i/y). In that case, this is how you pick the correct vowel:

  • after k or g, always use i

  • after other hard consonants, or mixed consonants, use y

  • after soft consonants, use i

  • ji after a vowel is simplified in spelling to i

For example, the ending for genitive singular for feminine nouns is i/y. This is how it works:

  • ręka (arm) – ręki

  • głowa (head) – głowy

  • raca (flare) – racy

  • wiśnia (cherry) – wiśni

  • szyja (neck) – szyi

  • sesja (session) – sesji

Many declension endings contain e. After k and g, replace it with ie. Note that this does not apply to ę – it stays ę.

Letter pairs ke and ge appear only in loanwords. So do ky and gy, but they're even more rare.

<h1>Consonant shifts during noun declension</h1>

In certain declension endings, hard consonants turn into soft or mixed consonants:

  • p → p(i), b → b(i), m → m(i), f → f(i), w → w(i)

  • ł → l, t → ć, d → dź, s → ś, z → ź, n → ń, r → rz

  • k → c, g → dz, ch → sz or ś

(h is a rare and controversial thing, ignore it for now)

In case of certain consonant clusters, the entire cluster gets shifted: st → ść, zd → źdź, sn → śń, zn → źń, sł → śl, zł → źl This usually doesn't happen with other clusters, so tk → tc, not ćc.

Note that I used accented versions of ć, dź, ś, ź, ń, but since after adding an ending they are going to appear before a vowel, they will be spelt as c, dz, s, z, n or ci, dzi, si, zi, ni instead. Just keep it in mind.

A shift from a hard or mixed consonant to a soft consonant is called a palatalization, and the soft consonants (except for l and j) are also called palatalized.

<h1>Noun endings depending on whether the consonant is hard or soft</h1>

I'm not going to teach you all the cases, since endings of most of the cases are independent on whether the stem is hard or not. I'll just focus on those cases when they aren't.

Locative singular of nouns

The rule for locative singular is:

  • -mię → -mieniu, other -ę → -ęciu

  • masculine words ending in -k, -g, -ch, -h get -u

  • words ending in -ko, -go, -cho, -ho get -u

  • all the other words with a hard stem get -e and the consonant gets shifted (ch → sz)

  • if the stem is soft or mixed, feminine words and words ending in -a get -i/y, masculine and neuter words get -u

Examples:

Masculine:

  • słoik (jar) → w słoiku (in a jar)

  • karateka (karateka) → o karatece (about a karateka)

  • chłopiec (boy) → o chłopcu (about a boy)

  • słoń (elephant) → na słoniu (on an elephant)

  • mur (free-standing wall) → na murze (on a wall)

  • mężczyzna (man) → o mężczyźnie (about a man)

  • maharadża (maharaja) → o maharadży (about a maharaja)

Feminine:

  • krowa (cow) → na krowie (about a cow)

  • ilość (amount) → w ilości (in the amount)

  • sól (salt) → w soli (in the salt)

  • mysz (mouse) → o myszy (about a mouse)

  • trawa (grass) → w trawie (in the grass)

  • woda (water) → w wodzie (in the water)

  • misja (mission) → na misji (on a mission)

Neuter:

  • okno (window) → w oknie (in the window)

  • oko (eye) → na oku (having an eye kept on)

  • słońce (sun) → o słońcu (about the sun)

Vocative singular of masculine nouns

Since the regular form of the vocative of masculine nouns is the same as the locative, it follows the same rules:

  • głupek (oaf) → głupku!

  • brat (brother) → bracie!

Dative singular of feminine nouns and nouns ending in -a

It has the exact same form as the locative.

Note that most neuter nouns have -u and most masculine nouns have -owi.

Vocative singular of female given names ending in -a

Female given names ending in -a following a soft consonant have the ending -u in vocative instead of normal -o:

  • Agnieszka → Agnieszko! (hard)

  • Natasza → Nataszo! (mixed)

  • Maja → Maju! (soft)

All other words ending in -a have the vocative in -o.

Nominative and vocative plural of nouns

The nominative plural is formed as follows (excluding indeclinable loanwords and exceptions):

  • neuter -o, -e or -um → -a

  • -mię → -miona, other -ę → -ęta

  • -anin → -anie

  • feminine nouns ending in -ość always get -i; other feminine nouns ending in a consonant get either -y/i or -e, it's pretty irregular

  • if the noun is masculine personal – I'll explain later

  • otherwise: if the noun stem ends in a hard consonant, use -y/i; if soft or mixed, use -e

Examples:

  • okno (window) → okna (windows)

  • kot (cat) → koty (cats)

  • miecz (sword) → miecze (swords)

  • krowa (cow) → krowy (cows)

  • owca (sheep) → owce (sheep)

  • wiśnia (cherry) → wiśnie (cherries)

Masculine personal nouns, whether ending in -a or a consonant, are a bit less regular:

  • some words get -owie – there are no hard rule for this

  • if the last stem consonant is hard, it gets shifted (ch → ś) and the ending is -y/i

  • if the consonant is c, the ending is -y

  • if the last stem consonant is soft or mixed, the ending is -e, as with non-masculine-personal nouns

Examples:

  • mężczyzna (man) → mężczyźni (men)

  • ojciec (father) → ojcowie (fathers)

  • chirurg (surgeon) → chirurdzy (surgeons)

  • chłop (peasant) → chłopi (peasants)

  • profesor (professor) → profesorowie or profesorzy (professors)

  • generał (general) → generałowie (generals)

  • gracz (player) → gracze (players)

  • chłopiec (boy) → chłopcy (boys)

  • gość (guest) → goście (guests)

  • mnich (monk) → mnisi (monks)

Since there's so much variation it's recommended to learn this form explicilty for each masculine-personal noun.

Vocative plural is always identical to nominative plural.

Genitive plural of nouns

There's a lot of variation with genitive plural endings, but one of few sure rules is that -y/i ending is never used with hard stem nouns, just some mixed and soft stem ones.

The exact rules are fuzzy, beyond scope of this document, and even native speakers get it wrong.

Accusative plural of nouns

The accusative plural is equal to genitive for masculine personal nouns and nominative otherwise. Mentioning for sake of completeness.

<h1>Consonant shifts in adjective declension</h1>

Adjectives in nominative plural have different form for masculine personal and non-masculine personal:

  • masculine personal gets -y/i and the consonant gets shifted, if possible

  • non-masculine personal gets -e

The shifts are the same as with nouns, but with the following differences:

  • ch → ś (cichy (quiet) → cisi, ciche)

  • h → ś (błahy (fiddling, trivial) → błasi, błahe)

  • sz → ś (większy (larger) → więksi, większe)

  • ż → either ź (duży (big) → duzi, duże) or ż (boży (God's) → boży, boże)

<h1>Consonant shifts during verb conjugation</h1>

The verbs that have the third-person singular present tense ending in a soft consonant and -i often have a mixed consonant in the first person singular and third person plural. The shifts are as follows:

  • c → ć: płacę (I pay) → płaci (pays)

  • dz → dź: radzę (I advise) → radzi (advises)

  • sz → ś: wiszę (I hang) → wisi (hangs)

  • ż → ź: włażę (I barge in) → włazi (barges in)

  • żdż → źdź: jeżdżę (I ride) → jeździ (rides)

  • szcz → ść: poszczę (I fast) → pości (fasts)

The verbs that have the first-person singular present tense ending in a hard consonant, have a soft consonant and -e in the second/third person singular and first/second plural. The shifts are as follows:

  • t → ć: plotę (I weave) → plecie (weaves)

  • d → dź: wiodę (I lead) → wiedzie (leads)

  • s → ś: niosę (I carry) → niesie (carries)

  • z → ź: wiozę (I transport) → wiezie (transports)

  • m → m(i): dmę (I blow) → dmie (blows)

  • n → ń: tnę (I cut) → tnie (cuts)

  • r → rz: biorę (I take) → bierze (takes)

  • w → w(i): zwę (I call) → zwie (calls)

Few verbs ending in -c in infinitive have the following consonant pairs:

  • g → ż: mogę (I can) → może ((it) can)

  • k → cz: piekę (I bake) → piecze (bakes)

See https://www.duolingo.com/comment/12281032 for more about verb conjugation.

<h1>Vowel shifts</h1>

In certain words, if -a- or -o- is after a soft consonant and the following hard consonant gets shifted to a soft or mixed consonant, the vowel can turn into -e-:

  • świat (world) → na świecie (in the world)

  • wiara (faith) → o wierze (about faith)

  • niosę (I carry) → niesie (carries)

  • miał ((he) had) → mieli ((they) had)

It's not a regular thing and you need to remember each word where it happens. The largest mostly regular group is verbs ending in infinitive in -eć after a soft consonant, which usually have -ał/-ała/-ało/-eli/-ały in the past tense.

<h1>Final remarks</h1>

Loanwords with -ia

Loanwords ending with -ia treat the i as both a mark of palatalization and as a consonant j. This means those nouns get the -ii ending in several oblique cases, and -io in vocative.

Phantom soft consonants

Phantom soft consonant is a word-final consonant that looks and sounds hard, but turns into a soft one if a vowel appears after it. Examples of forming the genitive singular:

  • żółw (turtle) – żółwia

  • gołąb (pigeon) – gołębia

  • krew (blood) – krwi

The only consonants that can by phantom-soft are p, b, m and the most common one: w. (Theory allows for a phantom-soft f, but it simply doesn't occur.)

Consonant shifts before fleeting vowels

There are several nouns, where a consonant gets shifted if a fleeting e (in few words: fleeting o) appears and gets back hard when it disappears:

  • dzień (day) → dni/dnie (days) [partially irregular plural]

  • tydzień (week) → tygodnie (weeks) [notice -go- appearing out of nowhere]

  • owca (a sheep) → owiec (of sheep - plural)

  • osioł (donkey) → osły (donkeys)

  • kocioł (cauldron) → kotły (cauldrons)

  • marzec (March) → w marcu (in March)

  • kwiecień (April) → w kwietniu (in April)

  • grudzień (December) → w grudniu (in December)

but:

  • wrzesień (September) → we wrześniu (in September)
2 years ago

10 Comments


https://www.duolingo.com/A_User
A_User
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Bardzo dziękuję!

2 years ago

https://www.duolingo.com/conor.raff
conor.raff
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Didn't get through all of it yet (only a quarter) but it already answers questions I've had (like why chłopiec (sing.) - chłopcy (plural).

Thanks so much! bookmarking

2 years ago

https://www.duolingo.com/TseDanylo
TseDanylo
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I don't know enough Polish to explain this thouroughly but many nouns where the -ie- is the final vowel in the root (the part that is left when you take away the final vowel in the nominative) it usually loses its -ie- when it adds something on for example, dzień -> dni, dnia / pies -> psy, psa

1 year ago

https://www.duolingo.com/Emwue
Emwue
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If you know some linguistics(especially phonotactics), google "yer" – that should explain to you why it works like that, and if you don't, just thread it as an exception.

Unfortunately, unless you are a native Slavic speaker, the resolution of yers in Slavic languages can't be simply explained, without huge linguistic background. :(

1 year ago

https://www.duolingo.com/TseDanylo
TseDanylo
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I speak Ukrainian and Bulgarian so I kinda understand what you mean. Aren't the yers the two Cyrillic letters that denote hard and soft consonants? Like if Polish was in Cyrillic it would be Дзевчинъ- and Мęжчинь- for the roots? idk I'm just guessing

1 year ago

https://www.duolingo.com/Emwue
Emwue
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Yers were short vowels that existed in Proto-Slavic. At some point in history, they developed into "weak" and "strong" yers and subsequently, the weak yers got deleted while the strong ones resolved to full vowels(mostly, the resolution of yers is actually what separated the Common Slavic into west, east and south Slavic dialects, which later developed into the languages we now know), but the pattern of alternating between weak and strong yers is still in place, for the most part.

The dropping of yers is the reason behind the seemingly impossible consonant clusters in Slavic languages and also why „pies” changes to „psa” and so on, but again, knowing that will not help you much, because without some background in linguistics(and/or being native of one of the Slavic languages), you won't be able to apply Havlík's law to words, so as to know where changes like „sen→snu” will happen.

Unfortunately, for some things there are no short cuts. ;)

1 year ago

https://www.duolingo.com/TseDanylo
TseDanylo
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Seems interesting, thanks for the info!

1 year ago

https://www.duolingo.com/RicardovanBelzen

Thank you so much for this! This makes everything much clearer. Have a lingot for this!

2 years ago

https://www.duolingo.com/mizinamo
mizinamo
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Wow, that looks... daunting!

2 years ago

https://www.duolingo.com/Physiker729
Physiker729
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This is wonderful! Very comprehensive. Polish phonotactics is fascinating!

2 years ago