Practical Advice for English Speakers from PALA President Leonard Kniffel
Polish names are notoriously difficult for English speakers to pronounce. I was at the airport one time with my Polish cousin Bartek Wiśniewski from Warsaw when a voice came over the loudspeaker paging someone named “Wiz-new-ski.” I said, “Hey, Bartek, they are paging someone with your name.” Puzzled, he looked at me and said, “My name is not ‘Wiz-new-ski.’” I replied that I am afraid it would be if he lived in America. Kiss the proper pronounciation, “Vee-shnief-ski,” goodbye.
Which brings us to the fact that the World Library and Information Congress of the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) will meet in 2017 (August 19-25) in the city of Wrocław in Poland. It has long been my dream that IFLA would hold an annual conference in Poland, which will bring thousands of librarians from around the world to the Polish city. But I always assumed IFLA would meet in Warsaw or Krakow, both of which have been anglicized (from Warszawa and Kraków) enough to eliminate pronunciation difficulties. Apparently, Wrocław is better equipped to handle a conference such as this, so when Poland bid to host, it was put forward as the preferred location.
What English speakers need to understand about the Polish alphabet is that it is not the same as the English alphabet, even though it is Roman rather than Cyrillic like Russian and other Slavic languages. The letter “w” is pronounced like the English “v.” The “ł” or capital “Ł” is the English letter “w.” Which brings us to the pronunciation of Wrocław. Think of it as “Vrohts-wahf.” The first “w” becomes a “v” and the last “w” is a “v” softened almost to an “f.”
So there you have it, Vrohts-wahf. It helps if you can trill the “r” a little too, but that may be too much to ask. Just try not to call it “Rack-Law.”
However you say it, Wrocław is a beautiful and underrated European destination. Known before World War II as the German city of Breslau, it boasts a 13th-century Main Market Square as lovely as any in Europe and a unique architectural heritage influenced by Bohemian, Austrian, and Prussian styles. This year, the city was declared a “World Book Capital” by UNESCO. The city also overlooks the beautiful Oder River, which is blessedly called the “Odra” in Polish, making it seem much more fragrant.