Language as a (nonviolent) weapon

« previous post | next post »

From the movie "Jak rozpętałem drugą wojnę światową" (How I Unleashed World War II):

The initial Q&A:

Q: Name und Vorname?
A: Grzegorz Brzęczyszczykiewicz.

Waveform, spectrogram, F0 track:

Just the answer:

"Birthplace" Q&A, at the end of the scene:

Q: Geboren?
A: Chrząszczyżewoszyce, powiat Łękołody.

From the English Wikipedia entry:

In a particularly famous scene, Dolas is questioned by a German-speaking Gestapo officer in Austria and answers that his name is "Grzegorz Brzęczyszczykiewicz"; the officer gets increasingly frustrated trying to write the fictitious Polish name.

…linking to "The 9 Most Unpronounceable Words in Polish".

The full movie (all 3:39:14 of it) seems to be here.

Update — I agree with Jarek Weckwerth that the difficulty is mainly a matter of orthography. But the actor's pronunciation of the (fictitious) first and last name is also not easy for non-Polish speakers to hear, remember, and imitate.


  1. Jarek Weckwerth said,

    July 6, 2023 @ 5:27 pm

    This, and some of the other words mentioned on the linked page, is not half as bad as you might think. It's the Polish spellings that make them undecipherable for people unfamiliar with the language. OK, the clusters at syllable boundaries may sometimes be a bit of a challenge. But the individual syllables are just fine.

    Brzęczyszczykiewicz, when tranlated into the phonemic system of English, would be

    bʒen tʃɪʃ tʃɪk je vɪtʃ

    The only thing that is a bit of a challenge is the initial cluster. All of the others are perfectly cromulent English sequences.

    Ben Chish. Chick Yeah. Vitch.

    Add the ʒ in the first syllable and Bob's your uncle. And it's not such a big ask. Bren is quite close. Experiment a little.

    Another one that frustrates me to no end is Wrocław. If you can say vroom in English, there's zero difficulty in that one.

    Vrots. Waff.

  2. Benjamin E. Orsatti said,

    July 7, 2023 @ 8:03 am


    Thanks for clearing that up. And, really, Anglophones SHouLDn't have a problem wiTH TWo or THree consonants combiniNG to make just one sound. In other words, a 6-consonant cluster might only be 2, phonetically.

    I remember signing up for Russian I in college and thinking, "Slavic languages can't be THAT consonant-impoverished", and then the teacher taught us our first word, "здра́вствуйте" (zdrávstvujte). It was okay, she said, most Russians elide the first "в"/v. Oh, goodie!

  3. Coby said,

    July 7, 2023 @ 12:17 pm

    If Polish had adopted the hachek, like all the other Latin-script Slavic languages, the name would have been Gřegoř Břęšyščykiewič. It's the digraphs that make Polish look so weird.

  4. Jarek Weckwerth said,

    July 7, 2023 @ 12:32 pm

    Well, @Coby, that's true, but the spelling is a rather good morphophonemic system. Within Indo-European, it's English that is the odd one out with an absurdly deep, ancient, unhelpful spelling. Only Danish and Irish come close.

    (And the digraphs are a German conspiracy aren't they ;)

    @Benjamin, Polish absolutely can have some crazy long consonant sequences, up to 10 (or maybe even 11) across a word boundary, in phonemic, not graphemic, terms. But for that to happen, you need to make up examples most of the time. Normal running text is not much of a problem from the point of view of English. You see, Germanic is second in line (again, within Indo-European) behind Slavic in terms of consonant clusters.

    In other words, as an Anglophone, once you get your head around the spelling, you should be good 90% of the time.

    Speakers of Romance, or Chinese etc., yes, they will have a much harder time; but then so do they do with English.

  5. Dara Connolly said,

    July 7, 2023 @ 3:56 pm

    I disagree with lumping Irish in the category of "unhelpful spelling". Irish orthography encodes Irish phonology almost perfectly. If you know how an Irish word is written, you can predict the pronunciation with very high accuracy (although the reverse is not true).

    While I'm here, I also disagree that the "problem" in the film is one of orthography, rather unfamiliarity. When Grzegorz says his name (and later his birthplace), non-Polish speakers can't catch what he says, let alone remember it, repeat it, or write it in any spelling system.

  6. A. Barmazel said,

    July 10, 2023 @ 5:22 am

    > If Polish had adopted the hachek, like all the other Latin-script Slavic languages, the name would have been Gřegoř Břęšyščykiewič. It's the digraphs that make Polish look so weird.

    ⟨ie⟩ is also a digraph, rendered as ⟨ě⟩ in Czech; so, that's Gřegoř Břęčyščykěwič for one-to-one phonemic spelling.

  7. Benjamin E. Orsatti said,

    July 10, 2023 @ 7:03 am

    Not to go off on a hachek tangent here, but I wonder if the reading speed of one whose L1 is diacritic-free (e.g. English, any Bantu language, etc.) is faster when reading digraphs versus diacritics and/or vice-versa?

  8. Taylor, Philip said,

    July 10, 2023 @ 1:33 pm

    I have a little familiarity with both Czech and Polish, and on the basis of a single experiment I think that my reading speed is faster (or more accurate, or something) when reading Czech than when reading Polish. My test case : Jiří v. Jerzy. With the háček over the "r", I am in no doubt of the sound. But were I not familiar with the name "Jerzy", I might briefly hesitate over whether it is (mentally) pronounced /ˈjɜːr ʒi/ or /ˈjɜːr zi/.

  9. Jarek Weckwerth said,

    July 12, 2023 @ 4:53 am

    @Philip Taylor: Jerzy is ˈjɛʒɨ, no r. There are very few words where rz doesn't stand for ʒ or ʃ. The only frequent one is marznąć 'freeze (feel cold)' and its derivatives.

    @Dara Connolly: Granted, OK, maybe I was too harsh to Irish. It really is in the same league as French. But on unfamiliarity vs. orthography, being unable to catch what is being said at normal speeds is the usual symptom of not speaking a language, and I think it applies to all languages, even ones considered comparatively simple phonetically such as Japanese or Spanish. But in the clip, and on the linked page, spellings do play a central role.

  10. David Marjanović said,

    July 26, 2023 @ 11:45 am

    In Irish there doesn't seem to be a way to tell which one of two successive vowel letters is pronounced and which one is a diacritic for the consonant letter next to it as long as neither vowel letter bears an accent.

RSS feed for comments on this post