Czech: Česky, prosím!

Czech, please!

I love saying the word Czech. Even more so, I’m excited to review it, if only to find other possible words to repeat.

I’m not the only one either. About a month ago, my friend Patrick, who has visited the Czech Republic during his time abroad in Europe, distinctly remembers it as one of the most beautiful languages he’s ever heard. I hope I have that experience!

So, let’s check in with Czech. Did you know that the modern day republic is the original land of Bohemia? You might have guessed Germany like I did. Historians trace the beginning of the Czech state to founder Praotec Čech and his tribe, who settled there in 644. For several centuries, Bohemia was known as a kingdom and later became part of the Holy Roman Empire. Around the 13th and 14th centuries, Bohemia saw a rise in German immigration, which would make up a large portion of the population for centuries.

One of the biggest events to hit Bohemia were the Hussite Wars, predecessor to the Protestant Reformation. In the 1400, Jan Hus, a professor from Prague, criticized the Church’s power and influence at the time. Although the King went along with Jus’s claims, Jus didn’t back off on his criticism, which ignited a fury from the Catholic Church and unfortunately led to Hus’s execution, in which he was burned at the stake. Even after Hus’s death, war raged between Catholic supporters and Hussites for the rest of the 15th century. The wars were brutal to the population.

Eventually the Hapsburgs, who controlled Austria-Hungary, took control of nearby Bohemia. During their rule, this period would be known as the Dark Age in Czech history. The Hapsburg rulers banned Protestants and made Catholicism the only religion, which caused the population to drop dramatically. Bohemia’s population also suffered greatly from war, famine and invasions from the Ottoman Empire.

Thousands more would lose their lives in WWI, before Czechoslovakia, the mother of the Czech Republic and Slovakia, was formed in 1918. The period after this had just as much strife, as Czechoslovakia was essentially annexed by Hitler, resulting in the deaths of thousands of Czech citizens and many more who were sent to concentration camps. After WWII, Old Bohemia would fall under the wings Communism, becoming part of the Iron Curtain. It wouldn’t be until the late 1980s when Czechs formed a new democracy and later two separate countries, known as the Velvet Revolution. Despite its rough patches, the Czech Republic has become the most successful ex-Communist country of all of Europe, with a very healthy economy and high Human Development Index.

WRITING SYSTEM: Much credit to the modern Czech language can be given to Hus, who modified the already existing Latin alphabet by adding letters with diacritics, which appear below. A lot of the letters resemble the ones in English, so I just added pronunciation only for some consonants but all the vowels (thanks to Phespirit). All the letters with diacritics are long vowels and are highlighted:

A a – uh as in huh
Á á – a as in draw
B b
C c – cz as in czar
Č č – ch as in check
D d
Ď ď – du as in duel
E e – e as in bet
É é – ai as in pair
*Ě ě – a “ye” sound as in yes
F f
G g
H h
CH ch – ch as in loch
I i
Í í – e as in me
J j – a y sound
K k
L l
M m
N n
Ň ň – a “nya” sound as in onion
O o – o as in hot
Ó ó – aw as in yawn
P p
Q q (only in loan words)
R r – r as in rat, but rolled like a Spanish r
Ř ř – (a rolled “er” sound as in bourgeois, crossed with ž below – no similarities in English)
S s
Š š – sh as in shut
T t
Ť ť – tu as in tune
U u – u as in push
Ú ú / Ú ú – oo as in fool
V v
W w (only in loan words)
X x (only in loan words)
Y y – i as in bit
Ý ý – e as in me
Z z
Ž ž – su as in pleasure

*Ě ě is not actually a vowel. It’s in the Czech alphabet only for historical reasons.

Czech is also influenced by Old Church Slavonic, which you might remember from the South Slavic languages, like Bulgarian and Macedonian. We can also sprinkle in some German, as the huge population of immigrants there throughout contributed to the Czech language.

FIRST IMPRESSIONS: Patrick, you were right — this language does sound beautiful, if not sexy (can I say that?). It sounds a lot softer than its Slavic cousins, although you can still tell its from that branch in the Indo-European family. I am, however concerned about the ability to actually pronounce words so beautifully. For example, Czech words are known for not having vowels (take for example vlk, which means wolf), in which an r or l functions as one. But this is the only possibly issue I see.

Has Czech swept me off my feet? I don’t know yet. But here’s a really interesting video by a Czech band called Kryštof.

7 thoughts on “Czech: Česky, prosím!

  1. Keith,

    As a pseudo-native Czech speaker (born in Canada to Czech parents, grew up speaking the language at home, but with very limited exposure to other Czech speakers) I have some quibbles with your pronounciation guide, particularly the following line:

    Ř ř – an “er” sound, like er in herb

    If only “ř” was as easy to pronounce as that. Your source, Phesprit, is a little closer to the mark when they describe it as “sound like ‘rg’ in bourgois” (disregarding the misspelling of bourgeois) but even that’s not quite right. The actual sound is perhaps best described as the sounding of a rolled “r” simultaneously with the “ž” sound to create a phoneme that may not have an equivalent in any other language. (As a child, I recall finding it listed in the Guiness Book of Records as one of the most difficult phonemes to pronounce, right up there with the Khoisan “clicks”.)

    The vowels aren’t quite right either. There are 5 basic vowel sounds in Czech — a, e, i, o, u — and each has a long equivalent (á, é, í, ó, ú) identical to the basic vowels but, well, longer. So, for example, á does not sound like the vowel in “draw,” but rather more like “Aaaahh” (as in “open wide and say…”). And ó definitely doesn’t sound like the vowel in “code”; it’s just an extended version of an o similar to (though not identical with) the one in “hot” (as if you’re complaining, “It’s so h-o-t,” dragging out the last word).

    HTH!

  2. I was impressed by your history summary, great job! As Hannah said, there are some misinterpretations in the pronounciation, but I’m aware of the fact that it’s not very easy to find English equivalents for Czech phonemes.

    Glad to see that you find our language beautiful! I’ve never met anyone who’d consider the language sexy, that’s pretty intriguing for me 😀

  3. Hannah/Bitter Chocolate: Thank you so much for the comments! It appears I had a “d’oh!” moment myself. Upon further review, it appears that the vowels with diacritics just indicate they’re long vowels, as mentioned.

    As for the Ř ř sound, I listened to a video with the sound and I can definitely understand how it would be difficult for English speakers to pronounce. Interesting, though!

    I made the changes accordingly in the post. Thank you for spotting those and more importantly, thank you for reading!

    -Keith

  4. Hi,

    Hi,
    The posted blog is good and very useful.
    Can u please Translate the following below CZECH sentences and Translate them in to the ENGLISH..

    1. FRIGO
    2. ZMĚNA ROZMĚRU PŘEDNÍHO LEMU Z 67,5 NA 37,5mm,
    3. ODEBRÁNÍ DĚR 8,1 USTAVENÍ ZAD
    4. ODEBRÁNÍ DĚR 4,3 PŘIŠROUBOVÁNÍ ZAD
    5. HREBEN UKOTVENI VYPARNIKU DLOUHÝ
    6. PLECH DESKY ZAD PLÁŠTĚ VNITŘ. KAB.
    7. KONEC ZMÁCKONOUT A ZAPÁJET
    8. PŘIDÁNÍ KRČKU PRO ZÁVITY M4 FOR REV B
    9. VYTLACIT KRCKY
    10. VŠECHNY VNĚJŠÍ SVARY BROUSIT MATICE NEVAŘIT PO CELÉM
    OBVODU – NAVAŘIT SIMETRICKY MIN. 2 BODY HRANY NATUPO
    NEVAŘIT V CELÉ DÉLCE – POUZE CCA 10mm
    11. NAVARIT
    12. ZKRZ
    13. SVAROVAT
    14. SVARYA
    15. PŘIVAŘIT ZEMNÍCÍ ČEP .

  5. I have been studying czech for a bit now and it IS sexy. it is probably thye most pleasing, beautiful, interesting, rich, deep languages i have ever heard and seen and studied. I studied swedish for about a year but kinda lost interest in it due to the simplicity of it…sadly…but that happens when one is searching for their soul mate language group i suppose. Anyways, i have become extremely comfortable with czech for the most part and have fully wrapped my mind around its difficult nature and speak it often to myself and to friends for random practice. I find myself regretting not studying it when I had gym because my gym teacher was from the czech republic…well i know you have settled with Norwegian but if you still have any questions about czech i could help you if you would like?

    1. Wow … this is amazing! I love that you mentioned the complexity aspect as well — I think that’s what really drew me to Turkish. Not just a desire to learn the language, but also a desire to understand its complexities. But it’s awesome you love Czech so much. Are you quite fluent in it?

      If I do look at Czech again, I’ll definitely consult you! 🙂

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