On Words Part III – How You Say or the Polish Letter “Ł”

Recently, a friend of the site has raised an issue with the pronunciation of the word Suevi (or for that matter Suebi).  To the extent the “ue” was not pronounced as a “v”, it seems to have been pronounced as a “u”.  However, it has been claimed that the Slavic letter “Ł” – or rather the sound which the letter is currently understood to represent, i.e., the sound that in English would be written as a “w” – did not originally exist in Slavic languages.

In particular, it has been claimed that:

  1. Eastern and Southern Slavs pronounce their corresponding “Ł” sounds as “L”s.
  2. the aristocratic and sophisticated members of high society – the Polish elites – refused to adopt it up until after World War II (when they also happened to have been heavily thinned out).
  3. instead, what is today pronounced in Poland as a Suav or Swav was – as in most southern and eastern Slavic languages – previously pronounced Slav; and, the “w” sound in its current Polish form developed only “in the last quarter of the 16th century“; in fact, the great Polish writer Jan Kochanowski called the “w” pronunciation pejoratively “wałczenie”

What is the relevance of this?

Put simply, if the Suevi were pronounced Suevi (i.e., with a “u”, a claim we assume as true for purposes of this piece) but if Slavs were pronounced Slavs (i.e., with an “l”) and not Suavs then the notion that the two words were related – except in the more distant sense as set out by Jacob Grimm – would seem overturned.

Let’s take a look at these claims – starting with the easiest ones.


Claim 1 is not really debatable.  Current pronunciation of the word “Slav” in Eastern and Southern Slavic languages – and pronunciation of the same sound in those languages as far back as we can see – is indeed an “l” pronunciation.  This, however, should surprise no one.  After all the Greeks did write Sclavi – indicating that the Slavs that invaded Byzantium were Eastern Slavs.

In fact, some people in Eastern Poland (e.g., around Białystok) still pronounce the L “dentally”, i.e., have the tongue touch the upper teeth in pronouncing their “Ł”s (although the dental pronunciation is waning and remains – among Polish speaking peoples – primarily among ethnic Poles living in Belarus, Ukraine and Russia (but, apparently and curiously, not in the northern portions of the former USSR, e.g., not in Lithuania)).

Claim 2 is partly true – a large portion of the Polish nobility did pronounce the “Ł” as an “L” and so did the “classically trained” pre-WWII Polish actors.  However, that fact, in and of itself, does not show which is the “more Polish” or “more correct” pronunciation…

What of Claim Number 3?

The other claims, however, are much more problematic.  For example, it struck us as rather curious to pin point the alleged change from an “l” pronunciation to a “w” pronunciation so exactly to the “last quarter of the 16th century”.  Are we really to believe that the vast majority of the peasant population of Poland suddenly got up and changed how they pronounced a particular letter?  Presumably not.  Presumably the process should have been gradual.

But there is no evidence for a gradual process that has been developed.  What we see instead is an “l” pronunciation among the upper classes and people in Eastern Poland and a “w” pronunciation among the lower classes elsewhere in Poland.  (Add to that a potential “w” pronunciation among some of the Wends of Germany and among a portion of Polish nobles).

So what “happened” at the end of the 16th century that people are so focused on?

It turns out nothing that should be of relevance.

In order to formulate a response, however, one first has to go back to the facts…

Where are the Facts?

A good source for the facts is a proponent of the view that the “w” pronunciation was not the original one – Zenon Klemensiewicz.  Klemensiewicz provides a nice summary of the sources of the literature on this topic in his “History of the Polish Language” (Historia języka polskiego).


“[There was change in the articulation of the phoneme ‘ł ‘ a the turn of the 16th and 17th century expressed in the disappearance of the dental pronunciation, which with time led to the pronunciation by a significant portion of Poles of the ‘l’ as a ‘u’.]  The oldest signs of this “wałczenie” was discovered by A. Brückner in”Maciej Rywocki’s Peregrination Books (1584-1587)” (Archive for the Literature and Education in Poland, vol. XII, pp 177-257) and noted the same in the Etymological Dictionary under the entry ‘Narzecza’ [i.e., dialects].  We also find it in the documents of the Cracow Archive from the year 1588.  Kochanowski in Polish Orthography says about the ł “barbarum”, which suggests that he is talking about the ‘wałczone’ ł, which, indeed, would sharply contrast [in pronunciation] with the liquid ‘l’.  At the beginning of the 17th century we also find signs of wałczenie  in Maciek’s Peregrinations from the year 1612, e.g., okoo = okołopszezegnau, poetry.  [The spread of the pronunciation of the letter ‘ł’ as a ‘u’ falls into the New Polish Age [he means 1750-1939]].”

Note: As regards Klemensiewicz’s lead-in or his, last sentence, we can only say that the review of the literature shows them to be clearly unsubstantiated.  His reference to the “articulation of the phoneme ł” is also misleading in that, as we will see, the question in the 15th and 16th centuries was not of phonemes but rather of whether the letter “l” – which represented two phonemes “l” and “ł” – should be split into two different letters and, if so, how should these be written.

Nevertheless, Klemensiewicz’s source summary is helpful and we rely on it.

What are the Facts?

In 1584, a young gentleman – Maciej Rywocki – probably from Mazuria along with three of his friends and a servant set out for a three-year long trip to Italy.  He was no doubt one of many young scions of wealthy families who were sent to educate themselves in the arts and culture of post-Rennaissance Italy.  What those young gentlemen actually planned to achieve in Italy (and on the way there) when their parents’ ears were a distance away, was, of course, quite a different matter.

ksiegi peregrynackie

Rywocki, was unique, however, in three respects.  First, he – unlike some of the other “peregrines” – wrote down his adventures in a manuscript.  Second, the manuscript survived.  Third, the manuscript was deemed interesting enough, for one Jan Czubek, to publish it in print in 1910 under the pompous title “Maciej Rywocki’s Peregrination Books (1584-1587)”.

The published work describes how – on sheet 67 of the manuscript – Rywocki and his companions came across a mighty memorial stone placed in honour of Augustus.  Rywocki also describes on the same page below a miracle whereby a boy who lost a ball (which fell into a local church) saw the Virgin Mary appear to him.  In both of these descriptions – of the stone and of the church miracle – Rywocki spells  what in the literary language of the day presumably should have been an “l” as a “ul” instead.  This same “phenomenon” appears in other parts of the manuscript.


The published work and – perhaps too – the manuscript were examined by the Polish linguist and literary historian Aleksander Brückner.   Brückner published his great Polish etymological dictionary in 1927 and, under the definition of the word “narzecze” (roughly, “dialect”) he stated the following to describe a process that had been referred to before as “wałczenie” – that is the replacement (or rather alleged replacement) of the “l” sound by the “w” sound:


“Another aspect [of dialects], wałczenie, the [bi]labial pronunciation of the liquid ł [as opposed to dental], even more widespread [than mazurzenie], newer [why?], in the 16th century among the peasants constantly mocked [by whom Brückner does not say], it [i.e., this aspect of the peasant dialects] does not appear in the literary language (maybe in Mazur Rywocki’s [writing] who wrote in the year 1584 omglau, posłau, kardynau, etc.).”


Thus, Brückner claims that wałczenie was a “linguistic development”  That it was “newer” than mazurzenie.  That it was not reflected in the Polish literary language (by this he means that it was not reflected in the orthography of the day) except, perhaps, for the first time in 1584 in Rywocki’s writing (Brückner calls Rywocki a “Mazur”, i.e., a man from Mazuria).

Several things come to mind.

First, Brückner nowhere (at least not that we know of) shows why either of these dialectic aspects was a “development” from the “proper” Polish or Slavic in the first place.  Absent some other evidence, the only way to make this claim it seems is to assume that the Eastern/Southern Slavic languages were more ancient than the Western ones.  But that, in turn, may presuppose the direction of Slavic migrations – a question that (as our friend points out) we are trying to answer here in the first place.

Second, Brückner does not say that this development “occurred” in 1584 or in the “last quarter of the 16th century”.  He merely notes that the earliest evidence of the process in the literary language was – in his view – the Rywocki manuscript/book.  This is in stark contrast with claims that the “l” became a “w” sound “in the last quarter of the 16th century”.

Third, as to the geographic scope of these phenomena.  Brückner says that wałczenie was an even more widespread aspect of Slavic dialects than mazurzenie.  What does he mean by “widespread”?   Does he mean among the populace in the regions in question (wherever they may have been) or does he mean it more in a geographic sense?

Well, earlier in the same paragraph Brückner states that mazurzenie is itself quite “widespread.”  It is absent in Great Poland and in Kashubia, southern Silesia and also absent from the literary language.  This leaves – for Poland – Little Poland (around Cracow) and Mazovia (around Warsaw) as well as, obviously, Mazuria (i.e., southern portion of East Prussia).  But Brückner states that this process of mazurzenie is not exclusively Polish and that it covered entire Pomerania “even beyond the Elbe (and there it is found already around the year 1000), so also Old Prussia (in the 13th century) and Latvia, and reaches to Great Novogrod.”  If we take Brückner at his word and assume that wałczenie was even more widespread (in the same geographic sense that he just discussed for mazurzenie) than mazurzenie, then given what he wrote we are unsure of how even to limit wałczenie‘s geographic scope.

Fourth,  as to the chronology.  Brückner claims  that mazurzenie was already present around the year 1000 in Polabia…  (Assuming this to be true (he does not say here in which portions of Polabia), we cannot, however, conclude that it moved West to East from there for the simple reason that the state of knowledge at the edges of the Frankish Empire was greater than further East).  Brückner does not tell us here why  wałczenie is supposed to be younger (and how much younger) than mazurzenie.  But even if it were younger, given Brückner’s dates we could assume a time as early as the 11th century…  Certainly the end of the 16th century may simply be a time when the pronunciation started appearing among the upper classes of society as well or at least in the literary language – to the extent Rywocki’s diaries may be seen as that.

But there is more.  Given the lack of significant West-Slavic literary samples from before the 16th century and, even more importantly, given the free-for-all nature of Polish grammar and orthography at the time, there is very little that can be said of how written letters were actually pronounced and whether such pronunciation differed geographically, across socio-economic classes, etc.

All that we can really say here was that wałczenie could have been in place – using Brückner’s own assertions:

  • chronologically – maybe since the 11th century but, realistically, as far back as we are able to look.
  • geographically – unspecified, but covering a “more widespread” geographic area than mazurzenie which covered Little Poland, Mazovia, Mazuria, entire Pomerania as far as the Elbe/Laba (with the possible exception of Kashubia (Kashubian language does have an “ł”), Old Prussia, Latvia and Rus as far as Veliky Novgorod
    • whether and to what extent there was a territorial correspondence between these two aspects of “dialects” is not clear from Brückner’s description.

Put differently, there is no specific reason to believe based on the review of the above that the Polish (or Polabian or north-western Russian) peasantry pronounced the word “Slav” as anything other than “Swav” or “Suav” at any time for which we have sources.

Wałczenie a la Barbarum 

But maybe there are some other reasons to think wałczenie first appeared “in the last quarter of the 16th century”.  Here we come to the Kochanowski assertion.

And, what did Jan Kochanowski say about wałczenie?  Well, we have not found the term in Kochanowski…  (BTW it is not clear (to us) where it comes/originates from).

What Kochanowski did say (as Klemensiewicz correctly notes – see above) was that there was a second pronunciation of the letter L and that it was barbarum.  He did so in a book on Polish orthography called “The New Polish Character and Polish Orthography” issued in 1594 which he co-authored with Lukasz Gornicki (i.e., Łukasz (!) [Ogończyk] Górnicki) and Jan Januszowski.


There Kochanowski states the following under the heading for the letter “L”:


L. L, dwoje: jedno łacińskie, które tak pisać: ladaco, lód, wilk, ktokolwiek. Drugie barbarum, które tak pisać: kłótka, łaskawy, łakomy.”


L. L, two different ones: one is Latin, which should be written as follows: ladaco, lód, wilk, ktokolwiek.  The second barbarum, which should be written as follows: kłótka, łaskawy, łakomy.”

If you look closely you will see what he is talking about – Kochanowski says that the Latin L should be written curling towards the upper right whereas the “barbarum” L should be written with a dash starting at the top of the letter and then heading towards the lower left:


Kochanowski does not say how the “barbarum” L was pronounced, though it is clear that it was pronounced differently from the Latin L.

What is more interesting than what Kochanowski wrote is what his co-author Januszowski wrote.  Januszowski says that he does not like the different ways the same letter is used (i.e., the different pronunciations being associated with one letter).  But he says that (rather than what Kochanowski suggests (i.e., the curling right or the dashing left) which, in Januszowski’s view, may easily result in misspellings because the differences between the Kochanowski suggestions are so negligible), that we should instead leave the Latin l and L as they are and use a second l/L, a “Polish one” with a line through it, i.e., ł or, if capitalized, Ł.

Januszowski also notes that the third author –  Lukasz Gornicki (whose name would be most affected by these changes) – prefers to write – in lieu of the “Polish ł” – a double ll together.

A few points:

  • In none of this is there a suggestion of:
    • how the the letter Ł should actually be pronounced aside from the fact that it is pronounced differently than L;
    • the relative age of the pronunciation of either sound – or even any claim which is the newer one (barbarum simply meant the uncouth, non-Latin pronunciation).
  • Moreover, the fact that:
    • Kochanowski calls the Ł (w?) sound barbarum suggests not just that it was the uncouth, non-Latin pronunciation but that it was the older one, perhaps retained from the past by the peasantry (other than in the East perhaps) – this is because the lower classes, sheltered more from cosmopolitan influence – are more likely to preserve their ancient customs, rites and, yes, pronunciations;
    •  Januszowski calls the Ł a “Polish” letter hints also that the underlying sound itself which the letter was meant to represent may have been local.

Thus, based on this early book on orthography we are inclined to suggest that – notwithstanding Klemensiewicz and Brückner – the “w” pronunciation was at least as ancient as the “l” pronunciation with the difference (at least as far as the eye can see) being more geographic than chronological.  If one were to extrapolate from the above, one could tentatively associate the North and Northwest of Slavdom (Suavodom?) with the “w” and the East, the Southeast and the South with the “l”.

(Of course, the chronology of all of these is likely to be very complicated but we can say “at least for all practical purposes relevant here” – e.g., what the pronunciation may have been 4,000 years ago is anyone’s guess).

Wałczenie a la Parkoszowic

We also note that the question of how to spell some of these sounds was already tackled by our friend  (see here and here) Jakub Parkoszowic in his much earlier (circa 1440) treatise on orthography (this was a first known attempt to standardize Polish orthography):


“{ll} And so also the ‘l’ sometimes hardens, sometimes weakens, for example, [in] list it is a letter [used] for [the word] ‘leaf’ [but] listh is a part of a leg; lis that is a ‘fox’ [but also] lisz that is a ‘bold person’; despite the fact that all else remains the same, [the ‘l’] is once harder once softer; so [also] at the end [of a word], For example, Staal that is ‘steel’ [and] staal [that] is ‘he stood’.”

Note: Parkoszowic calls:

  • the “Latin L/l” a “soft L/l”; and
  • today’s “Ł/ł” (i.e., pronounced today as “u” a “ue/ua” or “w”) a “hard L/l”.

thus, stal as in ‘steel’ is pronounced as it looks in English (“softly”) but stał is pronounced ‘stau’.  

He continues further in the text:


“And let also the hard ‘l’ be written without the dash.  For example, lapka, lekce, liszego losze ludzy lothka.  But let the weak ‘l’ be written with a dash at the top.  For example, laasz, lis, loch, lesch, ludze, ląnkawka.”

Finally, he says:


“And so also with ‘l’.  If we decide to represent the soft ‘l’ by using [after it] a double ii [he means a ‘y’ so that the whole thing is written ‘ly’], in some cases that will be appropriate, in others absolutely not.  Thus, lyschka that is a ‘fox’, lysska is a ‘caterpillar’, lysth is a ‘leaf’.  Whereas, in accordance with what has been said above – each vowel that is written with two letters should be pronounced as a long [vowel], in all the above examples [the vowel] is a short one.  This is the first example of nonsense [in the current orthography].”

Note: Parkoszowic means that if we indicate the soft (Latin) ‘L’ by writing a ‘y’ after the ‘L’ then the impression would be that the vowel that follows the ‘L’ should be a long one (e.g., leeeeeeeeaf) which is wrong at least in some cases.  Thus, in fixing the pronunciation of the ‘L’ we give the subsequent vowel is to be pronounced.

“And also if one adds a double y to an ‘l’ that occurs at the end of a word then hat will result in a confusion of meanings.  For example, staal that is ‘steel’.  If after the ‘l’ one were to write a ‘y’, we would get staaly, which means ‘they stood’.  So where is [what happened to] our ‘steel’?  If we were to write without the ‘y’, then we would have  stal that is ‘he stood’.  That’s the other problem.”

“It would be better to express the difference [in pronunciation], if we were to write the hard ‘l’ without a dash, [but] with a ‘staff’ [instead]; hence, staał łyssy, that is ‘he stood [i.e., became] bald’ [current Polish: stał [się] łysy – ‘he became bald’]; whereas, the soft ‘l’ without adding the ‘y’ [such as] stal that is ‘steel’, listh that is ‘leaf’, luud that is people.”

Note: Thus, Parkoszowic in his treatise (written circa 1440) opted, in resolving the issue of a double pronunciation of the letter ‘L/l” to:

  • keep the “Latin” L/l as an L/l everywhere (no changes there); and
  • to create an additional letter – Ł/ł – to represent the “w/ue/ua” sound (as in Suevi or Suavi).  That additional letter would not have a dash going towards lower left on top but rather have a line or “staff” through it.  A century and a half later, years later in choosing the same “staff” crossing an ‘L’ to represent the “hard L”, Jan Januszowski would agree with Parkoszowic (Kochanowski, as we saw above, preferred the dash).


Based on our review of the sources, it seems the above claim 3 has absolutely no basis in any of the sources we saw or that are cited by its proponents.


Consequently, we feel confident once again to reiterate that – at least among Western and Northern Slavs – the “L” was pronounced as a “ue” as far back as anyone can see.  The only exception to that seem to have been portions of the nobility.  We are willing to be convinced otherwise, of course but are not holding our collective breaths.


Stefan Kulbakin making the same point in the Slavic Review

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October 13, 2015

4 thoughts on “On Words Part III – How You Say or the Polish Letter “Ł”

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