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Introduction

Vitejte – Welcome

Czech (Čeština) belongs to the West Slavic group of the Slavic branch of the Indo-European language family. It is spoken by 9.2 million people in the Czech Republic. There are expatriate Czech communities in Austria, Bulgaria, Canada, Israel, Poland, Romania, CzechRepublicMap mapSlovakia, Ukraine, and USA. The worldwide population of Czech speakers is estimated at around 9.5 million (Ethnologue). Czech is close to Slovak. In fact, Czech and Slovak speakers are usually able to understand each other.

Status

Czech is the official language of the Czech Republic. The dialect of Prague, capital of the country, forms the basis for Standard Czech. Standard Czech is the language of government administration, all levels of education, the media, and of publication. It is used alongside Common Czech, the colloquial spoken language.

Dialects

Czech has a number of mutually intelligible dialects (Ethnologue):

  • Central Bohemian
  • Czecho-Moravian
  • Hanak
  • Lach
  • Northeast Bohemian
  • Southwest Bohemian

 

There is an increasing mutual influence between Literary Czech and Common Czech, so that the main remaining differences between the two varieties now have to do with pronunciation and morphology (internal structure of words), rather than with syntax and vocabulary.

Structure

Sound system

Vowels

Czech has five vowel phonemes, i.e., sounds that differentiate word meaning. Most vowels can be either long or short. Vowel length makes a difference in the meaning of words.

Close
i
u
Mid
e
o
Open
a

 

Consonants

Czech allows a variety of consonant clusters. They are affected by voice assimilation, e.g., bt is pronounced as [pt], and tb is pronounced as [db] with the last consonant in the cluster determining if the whole cluster is voiceless or voiced. Voiced stops are devoiced in final position, e.g., dub ‘oak’ is pronounced as [dup]. The consonants /l/ and /r/ are syllable-forming, e.g., pln ‘full’ or prst ‘finger’. Consonants in parentheses have low frequency in the language.

Glottal
Stops
voiceless
p
t
c
k
voiced
b
d
ɟ
(g)
Fricatives
voiceless
f
s
ʃ
x
voiced
v
z
ʒ
ɦ
Affricates
voiceless
ts
voiced
(dz)
(dʒ)
Nasals
m
n.
ɲ
Laterals
l
Trill
r, r̝
Approximants
j
  • /x/ = ch in Loch
  • /ʃ/ =sh in shape
  • /ʒ/ = s in measure
  • /ɦ/ has no equivalent in English
  • /tʃ/ = ch in chat
  •  // = j in jet
  • /c/ = similar to t in nature
  • /ɟ/ = similar to j in juice
  • /ɲ/ = first n in canyon
  • /r̝/ has no equivalent in English

 

Stress

Stress alone does not distinguish word meaning. It always falls on the first syllable of a word.

Grammar

Czech is a richly inflected synthetic language with a grammar that is very similar to that of other Slavic languages. Grammatical categories are expressed as synthetic inflections added to the stems of nouns, adjectives, verbs, and most pronouns. All native Czech stems are inflected, as well as most borrowings from other languages.

Nouns, adjectives, pronouns, and numerals

Czech nouns are marked for gender, number, and case. The three are fused into one ending, as is the case in all Slavic languages.

  • There are three genders: masculine, feminine, and neuter. Each gender has its own declensional paradigm: hard (unpalatalized) stems, soft (palatalized) stems, and special types of stems.
  • There are two numbers: singular, and plural, with some vestiges of the dual number.
  • There are seven cases: NominativeGenitiveDativeAccusative, Instrumental, LocativeVocative. Only a few nouns have retained the vocative forms;
  • Masculine nouns have animate endings in the DativeAccusative, and Locative singular, and Nominative plural.
  • Adjectives agree with the nouns they modify in gender, number, and case. Like nouns, they have both hard- and soft-stem declensions.
  • Pronouns use endings from noun and adjective declensions. Personal pronouns have full and short forms.
  • Cardinal numerals are inflected for case. The numerals jeden ‘one’ and dva ‘two’ are also marked for gender. Ordinal numerals are declined like adjectives.

 

Verbs

Czech verbs have conflated endings that express person and number for non-past conjugations, and gender, number, and person for past conjugations. They agree with their subjects in person and number.

  • There are three persons: first, second, third. Like all Slavic languages. Czech is a pro-drop language, i.e., personal pronouns are normally dropped because the verb ending makes the person clear. Pronouns are used only for emphatic purposes.
  • There are two tenses: past, non-past. Present and future tenses have the same endings.
  • Verbs have two aspects: imperfective and perfective. Perfective and imperfective verbs are formed from basic verb roots by adding prefixes and suffixes. Non-past conjugation of perfective verbs indicates future tense, non-past conjugation of imperfective verbs indicates present tense. Imperfective verbs form future tense with the auxiliary verb byt ‘be’.
  • There are three moods: indicativeimperative, and conditional.
  • Verbs have two voices: active, passive.
  • Verbs of motion constitute a special subcategory of verbs. They are characterized by a complex system of directional and aspectual prefixes and suffixes.

 

Word order

The neutral word order in Czech is Subject-Verb-Object. However, other orders are possible since inflectional endings take care of clearly marking grammatical relations and roles in the sentence. Word order is principally determined by topic (what the sentence is about, or old information) and focus (new information). Constituents with old information precede constituents with new information, or those that carry the most emphasis.

Vocabulary

Most of Czech vocabulary is derived from Common Slavic roots that are shared by all Slavic languages. In addition, Czech has been influenced by a number of languages, especially Old Church Slavonic, introduced into the area by Cyril and St. Methodius in the 9th century, as well as Latin and German, the latter due to integration of Czech provinces into the Habsburg Empire.

Hello, good day. Dobrý den
Good bye Na shledanou
Please Prosím
Thank you. Děkuji
Excuse me S dovolením
I am sorry. Promiňte
Yes Ano
No Ne
Man Človĕk, muž
Woman Žena

 

Below are the Czech numerals 1-10.

1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
jeden
dva
tři
čtyři
pĕt
šest
sedm
osm
devĕt
deset

 

Writing

Until the end of the 13th century, Czech was written with an unmodified Latin alphabet. Later, this alphabet was expanded to include digraphs and trigraphs to represent Czech sounds that were not included in the Latin alphabet. At the beginning of the 15th century, the religious reformer Jan Hus devised a writing system in which digraphs and trigraphs were replaced with diacritics over some Latin letters to indicate palatalization of consonants and length of vowels. Digraphs and letters with diacritical marks were used alongside each other for several centuries, but the diacritics prevailed in the end. The only digraph in modern Czech is ch, that represents a velar fricative (similar to that of the German [ch] of Bach). The modern Czech alphabet consists of 42 letters. It is given below.

A a
Á á
B b
C c
Č č
D d
Ď ď
E e
É é
Ĕ ĕ
F f
G g
H h
Ch ch
I i
Í í
J j
K k
L l
M m
N n
Ň ň
O o
P p
Q q
R r
Ř ř
S s
Š š
T t
Ť ť
U u
Ú ú
Ŭ ŭ
V v
W w
Y y
Ý ý
Z z
Ž ž
  • The letters Qq and Ww are used exclusively in foreign words.
  • The acute accent over vowels indicates vowel length.
  • The letter Ĕĕ signals palatalization of the preceding consonant.
  • The letters Úú and Ŭŭ represent the same sound:  Úú is written at the beginning of words, ŭ is written elsewhere.
  • The letter Cc represents the sound [ts] as in cats.
  • The letter Čč represents the sound [ch] as in chat.
  • The letter Žž represents the pronunciation of s in pleasure.
  • The digraph ch represents the sound of ch in Loch.
  • The letters ĎďŇň, and Ťť represent palatalized consonants.

 

Take a look at Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Czech.

Článek 1Všichni lidé se rodi svobodní a sobĕ rovní co do důstojnosti a práv. Jsou nadáni rozumem a svĕdomim a mají spolu jednat v duchu bratrství.
Article 1All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

 

Did You Know?

English has borrowed a few words from Czech. Here are some of them:

robot From the English translation of the 1920 play R.U.R., by Karel Čapek (1890-1938); from Czech robotnik ‘slave’, from robota ‘work’.
howitzer From Czech houfnice ‘catapult’, introduced to Germany during the Hussite wars of the 14th century.
polka From Czech polka, the dance, literally ‘Polish woman’.

 

Difficulty

Language Difficulty
questionHow difficult is it to learn Czech? Czech is considered to be a Category II language in terms of difficulty for speakers of English.

15 Responses to Czech

  1. Martin

    Good bye – “Na shledanou” [na schledanou] “CH” – as is word Loch (Ness)
    Thank you – it is not “Děkuyi” but “Děkuji”
    :)

     
    • Irene Thompson

      Thank you. :)

       
      • Petr

        Actually, nashledanou can be both…

        [nasxledanou] (by progressive assimilation)

        or

        [nazɦledanou] (by regressive assimilation)

        Tha latter si common especially in the eastern parts and is also considered acceptable by the codification standard.

         
  2. Martin

    “…co do dŭstojnosti a práv..”

    “ŭ” does not exist in the czech language. It is “Ů,ů” – long vowel /uː/

     
  3. Aria

    How can I improve this language if I already learned a good percentage of it in basic conversation but want to take it to the intermediate level, after having few years inactive of practicing it?

     
    • Petr

      Aria, you could ask a patient native speaker with linguistic/phonetic/Czech for Foreigners background (such as myself) and let him/her help you. ;) Reading aloud is another option…

      Just don’t give up! :)

       
  4. Petr

    Dear Irene,

    In the section on Vowels you talk of a five-vowel system, but the table below displays seven of them. While it might describe the (phonetic) variability across dialect areas, it does not correspond to the phonology.

    A question arises here if “a five-vowel” system is an accurate description at all; ater all, there are five short and five long ones (the extent of phonemicity varies, however, with /I/ ~ /i:/ being solid, but /o/ ~ /o:/, for instance, rather peripheral).

    As to the phonetics and phonology, there are a couple of other points that should be mentioned here:

    1) /r̝/ has a voiced and voiceless allophone

    If it really were a doubly articulated consonant (which it is not, see below), your description would have to includ [r]+[ʃ] (by progressive or regressive assimilation to the neighbouring consonant).

    2) Unfortunately, /r̝/ is NOT a DOUBLY ARTICULATED consonant, which is a perpetuating myth. The trick consists in the raising of the apex, whereby the frequency of the trill is increased as well, leading to the well-known acoustic/auditory impression of a friction-cum-vibration sound.

    3) This is merely a suggestion: if you put most of the allophones in brackets, then, maybe, the voiced velar fricative (an allophone of /x/) should be included as well, and so should be the labio-dental nasal (an occasional allophone of /m/ before /v/ and /f/) and/or the velar nasal (as the regular allophone of /n/ before velar stops).

    Moreover, I wonder if putting /f/ in brackets makes sense synchronically. Granted, it does only occur peripherally in the native lexicon (especially onomatopoeia), but, due to the tremendous (and steady) influx since the times of, I dare say, Proto-Slavic of Germanic and Latin(ate) borrowings, the phoneme has acquired a firm position within the phoneme inventory of Czech. No native speaker would confuse “Fanda” (the hypocor. variant of the name “František”/”Františka”) for “Vanda” (or “Wanda”), or “fary” (=”parsonages”) for “vary” (=”spa”).

    4) As for the vowel system, a few things, perhaps. Czech /o/ is somewhere between IPA [o] and [ɔ], so we ususally transcribe it as [o] with the “lowered” diacritics. Describing it as similar to the vowel in “thought” may be a bit misleading, especially if the reader’s native variety of English is, say, Standard American. Czech /e/ is /ε/ in reality, while [e] is its (marked) eastern variant.

    I hope my comments will help you a little. This is a wonerful website, indeed! :-)

     
    • Irene Thompson

      Thanks once again. We really appreciate this type of input, and we will certainly try our best to incorporate your input. We cannot be experts in all languages, so it is up to experts like yourself to keep us straight.

       
  5. Petr

    As to Stress:

    It does go on the first syllable, but when a monosyllabic preposition precedes, it shits to it:

    okno /’okno/
    na okno /’na okno/ (not /’na ‘okno/)

    Also, clitics are special words that are never stressed:

    Já jsem se mu to byl pokusit vysvětlit.
    /’ja: (j)sem se mu to bil ‘pokusit ‘visvjetlit/ (an example of Wackernagel clitics)

     
  6. Petr

    As to :

    It does indicate palatal pronunciation after /t, d, n/:

    te /te/ ~ tě /ce/
    de /de/ ~ dě /ɟe/
    ne /ne/ ~ ně /ɲe/

    BUT

    after labials /p, b, f, v/ it stands for the sequence of /je/:

    pe /pe/ ~ pě /pje/
    be /be/ ~ bě /bje/
    fe /fe/ ~ fě /fje/
    ve /ve/ ~ vě /vje/

    In addition, after /m/ it indicates the sequence /ɲe/ in Literary Czech and most non-standard varieties (except for the /je/ still sometimes heard in the eastern parts):

    me /me/ ~ mě /mɲe/

    Czech school children (as well as many adults, I am afraid) have problems spelling some of the oblique forms of the 1sg pronoun correctly:

    GEN, ACC /mě/ [mɲe]
    DAT, LOC /mně/ [mɲe]

    As mentioned above, only in some parts of Moravia are the two pronunciations differenciated ([mje] for the former vs. [mɲe] for the latter).

     
  7. Irene Thompson

    I made some changes, but I had to sacrifice some of the detailed information because of the need to be brief and accessible to a wide readership without the necessary background in linguistics, particularly in phonemics. Just to let you know that I did not ignore your careful comments. Could you take a look and see if additional fixes are needed.

     

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