It seems to me that these two sounds often puzzle foreigners. Polish is hard – it distinguishes more sounds than most Slavic languages, not to mention most other languages in the Indo-European family. This means that where most other see no difference between two sounds, Polish sharply distinguishes the two. Or others simply just don’t have them.
The two sounds are – on some level of general description – called nasal vowels. “Ą” is a nasal ‘o’, shifted from ‘a’ on course of history, while “Ę” remained a nasal ‘e’. Closest to the Polish system of nasal vowels is the Portuguese language.
Here we can look into Roland Sussex and Paul Cubberley’s “The Slavic Languages” (2006), from Cambridge University Press, pages 115-116. Not exactly modern book, and it was written by Anglophones, but from a reliable university, citing Slavic researchers in it.
“This, combined with the weak integration and articulatory complexity ofthe nasal vowels, led to their demise in most of the area fairly early: probablyin the tenth century in all East Slavic, in all but Polish and Polabian in WestSlavic, and in B/C/S, but somewhat later in the rest of South Slavic. Tracesmay still be found in some dialects of Bulgarian, Macedonian and Slovenian (10.2).”Sussex, Roland; Cubberley, Paul (2006), The Slavic Languages
Without diving deep into the books: Slavic languages had nasal vowels, but few retained them. Polish is one of such languages.
Nasal vowels usually appear when a syllable ends with a nasal consonant, and the two merge. For example, “France” in French has a nasal ‘a’ as a result of merger of the ‘n’ (which you no longer hear) onto the ‘a’. This seems particularly easy to occur if the following sound is a fricative (hissing sound) such as ‘s’.
Depending on how deep you want to dive into the subject, there are two perspectives, general and detailed. The general one will allow you to quickly ‘get it more or less right’, which will allow you to communicate without causing misunderstandings, you will just have a foreign accent, to which Poles respond very well. The detailed one will allow you to nail it.
- “Ą ą” is a nasal o, not a.
- They are nasal vowels. You say nasal vowels by saying the usual ‘o’ and ‘e’ sounds through your nose. Chance is, if you try it, you will overdo it a bit (as with trying any new sounds), so once you get it, try to make it a bit more subtle.
- “Ę ę” at end of words gets denasalised and is pronounce just as normal ‘e’. So, “cię” sounds the same as “cie”.
- Before “Ł ł” and “L l” both sounds get denasalised. So “wzięła” is just “wzieła”, “wziął” is just “wzioł”.
As long as you get the general perspective, you will discover that many things still feel off. This can induce the feeling that it makes no sense and it’s impossible to learn it. Relax, it makes sense, it just isn’t easy.
Polish ą and ę behave differently than nasal sounds in French.
They follow a rather complex pattern depending on sounds before and after them. For those language nerds that do know the International Phonetic Alphabet, I will leave the sound notation in square brackets, but I assume most readers do not know it.
Fricatives are the ‘hissing’ sounds. They are made by air flowing through a narrow gap that you make with your lips or tongue. Those sounds are ‘v’, ‘f’, ‘s’, ‘z’, ‘sz’, ‘ż’, etc.
Before those sounds, the nasal vowels act like two sounds, gliding from pure ‘vowel said through the nose’ onto second, unwritten sound, where the back of the tongue rises up. That is the hardest part. The closest to this sound in English is the sound ‘w’ as in “white”, but ‘w’ focuses on rounded lips while back of the tongue rising is a secondary feature, here lips are relaxed, and the back of the tongue is raised as if trying to go for ‘ng’ like in “sing”, but not quite touching the palate. The IPA symbol for this is [ɰ].
- Ę ę: “kęs” [kɛ̃ɰ̃s] – a small bite.
- Ą ą: “wąż” [vɔ̃ɰ̃ʂ] – a snake.
Please notice the tilde above those sounds. This is a symbol for nasal sound.
Labials are sounds made with lips alone. Those are easy: ‘p’, ‘b’, ‘m’. The nasal sound remains, but the secondary, unwritten sound is the ‘m’.
- Ę ę: “tępy” [‘tẽmpɨ] – dull.
- Ą ą: “ząb” [‘zɔ̃mp] – tooth.
Here you will notice I do not add a tilde above [m]. This is because that sound is so common across human languages that they were marked as understood by default. Same is with [n] and a number of other sounds.
Before dentals and alveolars
The difference between the two is rather blurred in Polish. Those are mostly ‘d’, ‘t’, ‘dz’, ‘c’, and sometimes ‘cz’, ‘ż’, are described as alveolar. In my opinion, they are all dental, which means the upper tip of the tongue touches the back of the front teeth.
- Ę ę: “pęd” [pɛ̃nt] – velocity.
- Ą ą: “kąt” [kɔ̃nt] – corner.
Before alveolo-palatals affricates
Those are the sounds like English “ch” and “j” in “jam”, but much softer, with more ‘i’-flavour to them. This happens with the mid part of the tongue lifted very close to the palate. In Polish, those sounds are ‘ć’ and ‘dź’. The sound ‘ń’ (equivalent to Spanish ñ, in American English I heard it as exception in the word “ranger” instead of “n”) is inserted here.
- Ę ę: “będziesz” [bɛ̃ɲd͡ʑɛʂ] – you will.
- Ą ą: “wziąć” [vʑɔ̃ɲt͡ɕ] – to take.
Velar sounds are those where the back of the tongue makes contact with the so-called soft palate, the soft part of the palate from which the ‘hanging punching bag’ called uvula is suspended. The soft palate has this phonetic function that it shuts or opens, and this biological valve controls where a sound is nasal or oral, and it happens all the time, also in English (‘n’ is a nasal sound, for instance). In Polish, before velar consonants, such as ‘k’, ‘g’, a “ng” sound is inserted, one that occurs in English (“sing“), but not in Polish in other situations.
- Ę ę: “męka” [‘mɛ̃ŋka] – suffering.
- Ą ą: “mąka” [‘m̃ɔŋka] – flour.
Before Ł and L, and ę at end of words
Here the sound just gets denasalised and is pronounced the normal way.
- Ę ę: “wzięli” [‘vʑɛli] – they took.
- Ę ę at end of words: “cielę” [‘t͡ɕɛlɛ] – calf.
- Ą ą: “wziął’ [vʑɔw] – he took.
You will notice the tilde, marking nasal sound, is gone.
Nasalisation of vowels in Polish often tends to expand beyond the usual repertoire, because it doesn’t follow a table with rules, it follows a general tendency to blend the nasal consonant onto the vowel in contexts not always foreseen by its spelling or history.
This mostly occurs in rapid speech and will raise brows if you tell the Polish they actually do it, but it appears to be very common, regardless of regional accents that might feature, for instance, nasal ‘a’ (then spelled ‘ã’, as in Kashubian). Here, I mean the same sounds appearing in standard Polish.
- Actual nasal ‘a’: “tramwaj” [‘trãɰ̃vaj] – tramway, also pronounced [‘trãɱvaj], or probably the most common example, “szansa” [‘ʂãɰ̃sa] – chance (makes it sound very French!).
Also, “Gdańsk”, with a nasalised ‘j’! [gdãj̃sk].
- Nasal ‘u’: “tuńczyk” [‘tũɲt͡ʂɨk], or even [‘tũj̃t͡ɕɨk], again with nasalised j.
- Nasal ‘i’: “Mińsk” [mĩj̃sk], appears common to me.
- Even nasal ‘y’: “rynna” [‘rɨ̃nːa], as someone suggested, though I personally do not remember anyone saying a nasal ‘y’, so I mark that report as doubtful.
Certainly Polish sounds, also the ą and ę, aren’t easy. This article aimed at marking the very limit of aspects of this whole story, and with it to mark when do you sound more native. That said, certainly just listening to Poles speak and practising with them is a sure way to get it right – given enough time.