One of the most common questions asked to our guides on the City Walks Krakow free walking tour is, ‘is it Cracow or Krakow?’
Well the answer, surprisingly, is both and neither all at once. Let’s break it down.
Let’s start with Krakow spelt with a K (pronounced Krak-ov). This is probably the most commonly heard pronunciation of our great city among tourists.
In fact, this is also the version that some tourists use to tell other people who describe it differently, that they’re wrong.
In Polish, just as in this example, the city of Krakow is spelt with a K. It’s also pronounced with the same ‘v’ sound at the end. However, there is no letter V in the Polish language. Instead, the letter w is pronounced much like the English letter v.
This is the same reason that Krakow’s Wawel Castle should be pronounced ‘va-vel’ and not ‘wa-wel’.
So that’s it settled then right, Krakow with a K is the correct term? Well, not exactly. Read on.
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Cracow with a C, pronounced (Krak-ow), is also, technically not wrong either. Cracow with a C is the English name for the city. In much the same way that the German city of München is pronounced Munich, Torino is Turin and Paris is…well Paris.
In the 16th century when Poland was part of the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth, it was one of the largest and most powerful countries in Europe.
At that point, Krakow/ Cracow was also the capital of what was a vast area encompassing what is now: Poland, Lithuania, Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus, Latvia, Estonia and parts of Russia. At its largest point, the commonwealth stretched for nearly 1 million kilometres across central Europe.
Not surprisingly then, given that it was the capital city (before the capital was moved to Warsaw), our fair city was pretty well known across Europe.
In German, it’s Krakau. In French, it’s Cracowie. And in English, it’s Cracow.
Cities all around the world are known in both local languages and international languages and ours is no exception.
English is a Germanic language, which explains why the English pronunciation of the city, Cracow, is much the same as the German pronunciation, Krakau.
Why is it Cracow in English?
So why did English adopt the Cracow spelling with a C and not K like in German, you might wonder?
Well, years ago the letter C was much more commonly used in Latin than K. Think of the Catholic church for instance. It’s not spelt Katholic is it?
Although a Germanic language in its roots, English gets many of its semantics, in terms of spellings, from Latin rather than German. Mainly because of French influence in England. French of course, being derived from Latin.
Meaning, that although some words in English are pronounced in ways that sound similar to German, they’re sometimes spelt in ways that are more similar to Latin.
So, when it comes to the name of our Polish city, it seems the German pronunciation Krak-au (Krak-ow) met with the French/Latin spelling Cracowie and ended up in English as Cracow.
So as you see, it’s not quite as simple as being cultured or uncultured in your pronunciation of a place. It can depend upon your country of origin.
So it has to be either Krakow or Cracow that’s correct, right? Read on.
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The name of the city in Polish is Kraków (pronounced Krak-oov; rather than ‘ov’ or ‘ow’).
This version, spelt with an ‘o’, is decorated with a line above it (a diacritical mark). In Polish, this is a stand-alone letter that exists alongside the regular letter O and is pronounced ‘oo’.
Given that this is a Polish city we are discussing, then that surely suggests that the Polish pronunciation is the official pronunciation. Right?
We have now have three pretty valid arguments for how to correctly pronounce the name of our city: Krakow, Cracow and Kraków. So how do you know which one to use?
Well, the important thing to remember is that, really, none of the above is wrong. For most people, it’s important to try to use the same terms as the locals do. Meaning that Kraków is the official and “correct” pronunciation.
However, given that the letter ó doesn’t exist in many languages, it’s understandable that people don’t always know how to pronounce it and therefore substitute it for o. Which gives some validation to the use of Krakow (Krak-ov). And as we’ve seen, in English, Cracow is the official term.
So, just as it wouldn’t be correct to tell a German person not to use Krakau or a French person not to say Cracowie, so it is also not right to correct someone who is speaking in English (which we are right here) for the use of Cracow.
So as we’ve seen, there is validity in all of the terms we’ve discussed. It’s also easy to see why there is so much confusion in the first place! Just know this, whichever term you choose to use, as long as you remember what you learnt here today, you will always have a comeback if anyone ever tries to pull you up on your pronunciation. 😉
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