See W. E. Harkins, A Modern Czech Grammar (1953); R. G. A. de Bray, Guide to the Slavonic Languages (rev. ed. 1969); M. Heim, Contemporary Czech (1982).
West Slavic language spoken by some 12 million people in the historical regions of Bohemia, Moravia, and southwestern Silesia, all now in the Czech Republic, and in émigré communities, including perhaps a million speakers in North America. The earliest Old Czech texts date from the late 13th century. The distinctive orthographic system of Czech, which adds diacritics to letters of the Latin alphabet to denote consonants that did not exist in Latin and to mark vowel length, was introduced in the early 15th century and is associated with the religious reformer Jan Hus. The system was later adopted by other Slavic languages that use the Latin alphabet, including Slovak, Slovene, and Croatian (see Serbo-Croatian language). When Czech was revived as a literary language in the early 19th century, Josef Dobrovský based his codification of the language largely on the norms of 16th-century Czech, as exemplified in the Kralice Bible (1579–93), an authoritative translation. This decision has resulted in a wide gulf between Standard Czech, the literary language, and Common Czech, the spoken language.
Learn more about Czech language with a free trial on Britannica.com.
Czech (čeština ˈʧɛʃcɪna in Czech) is a West Slavic language with about 12 million native speakers; it is the majority language in the Czech Republic and spoken by Czechs worldwide. Czech is similar to and mutually intelligible with Slovak and, to a lesser extent, to Polish and Sorbian.
Czech is widely spoken by most inhabitants of the Czech Republic. As given by appropriate laws, courts and authorities act and make out documents and executions in the Czech language (financial authorities also in the Slovak language). People who do not speak Czech have the right to get an interpreter. Instructions for use in Czech must be added to all marketed goods.
The right to one's own language is guaranteed by the Constitution for all national and ethnic minorities.
Czech is also one of the 23 official languages in the European Union (since May 2004).
The name "čeština", Czech, is derived from a Slavic tribe of Czechs ("Čech", pl. "Češi") that inhabited Central Bohemia and united neighbouring Slavic tribes under the reign of the Přemyslid dynasty ("Přemyslovci"). The etymology is unclear. According to a legend, it is derived from the Forefather Čech, who brought the tribe of Czechs into its land.
The phonology of Czech may also be very difficult for speakers of other languages. For example, some words do not appear to have vowels: zmrzl (froze solid), ztvrdl (hardened), scvrkl (shrunk), čtvrthrst (quarter-handful), blb (fool), vlk (wolf), or smrt (death). A popular example of this is the phrase "strč prst skrz krk" meaning "stick a finger through your throat" or "Smrž pln skvrn zvlhl z mlh." meaning "Morel full of spots dampened from fogs". The consonants l and r can function as the nucleus of a syllable in Czech, since they are sonorant consonants. A similar phenomenon also occurs in American English, where the reduced syllables at the ends of "butter" and "bottle" are pronounced [bʌ.ɾɹ] and [bɑ.ɾl], with syllabic consonants as syllable nuclei. It also features the consonant ř, a phoneme that is said to be unique to Czech (Polish has a similar sound, written rz) and quite difficult for foreigners to pronounce. To a foreign ear, it sounds very similar to zh, though a better approximation could be rolled (trilled) r combined with zh, which was incidentally sometimes used as an orthography for this sound (rž) for example in the royal charter of Rudolf II, Holy Roman Emperor from 1609. The phonetic description of the sound is "a raised alveolar non-sonorant vibrant" which can be either voiceless (terminally or next to a voiceless consonant) or voiced (elsewhere), the IPA transcription being [r̝ ], however this is contested as not representing the ř sound properly.
There have been some disputes as to whether there are really ten or only five vowels in Czech. These can however be settled by a simple list of minimal pairs:
There are three diphthongs in Czech:
When these groups come together at morpheme boundaries, they do not form diphthongs in standard Czech; for instance naučit, neučit, poučit (or ). Vowel groups ia, ie, ii, io, and iu in foreign words are likewise not regarded as diphthongs; they may also pronounced with /j/ between the vowels .
|Place of articulation →||Labial||Coronal||Dorsal||(none)|
|Manner of articulation ↓||Bilabial|| Labio‐|
|Plosive||p b||t d||c ɟ||k ɡ||(ʔ)|
|Fricative||f v||s z||ʃ ʒ||x (ɣ)||(h) ɦ|
* [r̝] is a specific raised alveolar non-sonorant trill which can be pronounced both voiced and voiceless (regarded as two allophones of one phoneme).
There are also 4 affricates:
|t͡s||voiceless alveolar affricate|
|ʣ||voiced alveolar affricate|
|ʧ||voiceless postalveolar affricate|
|ʤ||voiced postalveolar affricate|
Other consonants are represented by the same characters (letters) as in the IPA.
(See also: Czech alphabet)
Long words have secondary stress, which is usually placed on every odd syllable, e.g. ˈnej.krás.ˌněj.ší (the most beautiful).
Stress in Czech denotes boundaries between words, but does not distinguish word meanings. It also has no influence on the quality or quantity of vowels. Vowels are not reduced in unstressed syllables and both long and short vowels can occur in either stressed or unstressed syllables.
As in most Slavic languages, many words (especially nouns, verbs and adjectives) have many forms (inflections). In this regard, Czech and the Slavic languages are closer to their Indo-European origins than other languages in the same family that have lost much inflection. Moreover, in Czech the rules of morphology are extremely irregular and many forms have official, colloquial and sometimes semi-official variants.
The word order in Czech serves similar function as emphasis and articles in English. Often all the permutations of words in a clause are possible. While the permutations mostly share the same meaning, they differ in the topic-focus articulation.
For example: Češi udělali revoluci (The Czechs made a revolution), Revoluci udělali Češi (It was the Czechs who made the revolution), and Češi revoluci udělali (The Czechs did make a revolution).
Nouns, adjectives, pronouns and numbers are declined (7 cases over a number of declension models) and verbs are conjugated; the other parts of speech are not inflected (with the exception of comparative formation in adverbs).
In the Czech Republic two distinct variants or interdialects of spoken Czech can be found, both corresponding more or less to geographic areas within the country. The first, and most widely used, is "Common Czech", spoken especially in Bohemia. It has some grammatical differences from "standard" Czech, along with some differences in pronunciation. The most common pronunciation changes include -ý becoming -ej in some circumstances, -é becoming -ý- in some circumstances (-ej- in others). Also, noun declension is changed, most notably the instrumental case. Instead of having various endings (depending on gender) in the instrumental, Bohemians will just put -ama or -ma at the end of all plural instrumental declensions. Currently, these forms are very common throughout the entire Czech republic, including Moravia and Silesia. Also pronunciation changes slightly, as the Bohemians tend to have more open vowels than Moravians. This is said to be especially prevalent among people from Prague.
The second major variant is spoken in Moravia and Silesia. Nowadays it is very close to the Bohemian form of Common Czech. This variant has some words different from its standard Czech equivalents. For example in Brno, tramvaj (streetcar or tram) is šalina (originating from German "ElektriSCHELINIE"). Unlike in Bohemia, Moravia and Silesia tend to have more local dialects varying from place to place, however just as in Bohemia, most have been already heavily influenced and mostly replaced by Common Czech. Everyday spoken form in Moravia and Silesia would be a mixture of remnants of old local dialect, some Standard Czech forms and especially Common Czech. The most notable difference is a shift in used prepositions and case of noun, for example k jídlu (to eat - dative) (as in German zum Essen) becomes na jídlo (accusative), as it is in Slovak na jedlo. It is a common misconception that the use of Standard Czech in everyday situations is more frequent than in Bohemia. The Standard Czech became de-facto standardized with a new translation of the Bible (Bible of Kralice) using an older variant of the then-current language (for example, preferring -ý- to -ej-). These Standard forms are still common in spoken language both in Moravia and Silesia. Some Moravians and Silesians therefore tend to say that they use "proper" language, unlike their Bohemian compatriots. A special case is the Cieszyn Silesian dialect, spoken in the microregion of Cieszyn Silesia. It is spoken generally by the ethnic Polish minority. The dialect itself is a dialect of Polish but with strong Czech and German influences.
It should be noted that some south Moravian dialects are also sometimes, although rarely, considered (also by Czech linguists in the 90's or later, e.g. Václav Machek in his "Etymologický slovník jazyka českého", 1997, ISBN 80-7106-242-1, p.8, who speaks about a "Moravian-Slovak" dialect from the region of Moravian "Slovácko") to be actually dialects of the Slovak language, which has its roots in the Moravian empire when Slovaks and Moravians were one nation (without Bohemians) with one language. Those dialects still have the same suffixes (for inflected substantives and pronouns and for conjugated verbs) as Slovak.
The minor dialect spoken in Pilsen and parts of Western Bohemia and in wester parts of former Prachens region differs, among other things, by intonation of questions: all the words except for the last word of a sentence have a high pitch. This is the reason why the people from Pilsen are said to be "singing". Words that start questions are often given an additional "-pa": "Kolipa je hodin?" (regular Czech: "Kolik je hodin?"; English: "What time is it?"). The words like "this" (regular Czech: "tento/tato/toto") are often replaced by "tuten/tuta/tuto"); some examples: "What is this? or "What's happening?" is "Copato?" instead of "Co se stalo? / Co je to?" or "Why?" is "Pročpa?" instead of "Proč?". Region of Chodsko is home of very special Czech-Polish dialect of Chods people who were displaced about 10th century from Silesia because of protection of western border of Bohemia.
The noun cases are typically referred to by number, and learned by means of the question to which they are the answer. When learning a new word, children recite the cases using a set of example phrases, shown as follows:
|2.||bez koho/čeho? (without whom/what?)||genitive|
|3.||komu/čemu? (to whom/what?)||dative|
|4.||vidím koho/co? (I see whom/what?)||accusative|
|5.||oslovujeme/voláme (we address/call)||vocative|
|6.||o kom/čem? (about whom/what?)||locative|
|7.||s kým/čím? (with whom/what?)||instrumental|
The case used depends on a number of variables, and for foreigners can be very confusing.
The simplest of the rules governing noun declension is the use of prepositions (předložky). Excepting expressions and common phrases, each preposition is matched with a certain noun declension case depending on use. The following are basic examples of common prepositions and their corresponding noun cases (note: these examples represent only one circumstance. Often each preposition can be used with two or more noun cases depending on the sentence).
Many of the above prepositions are used in different circumstances. For instance, when motion or a change of position is expressed, prepositions like nad, mezi, na, pod, etc. are used with the accusative case.
The second factor affecting noun declension is the verb used. In Czech grammar, the accusative case serves as the direct object, and the dative case serves as the indirect object. Some verbs require the genitive case to be used. For example, the verb "zeptat se" (to ask) requires that the person being asked the question be in the genitive case (Zeptat se koho/čeho), and that the thing being asked about follow the preposition "na" and be in the accusative case (Zeptat se koho/čeho na koho/co).
That's in colloquial use. In literary use, there is an additional rule: the above system is based only on the last word of the number. Thus a number like 101 uses the singular (sto jeden muž) and 102 uses the ordinary plural (sto dva muži). For numbers which can be read in two ways, such as 21, the grammar may depend on which one is chosen (dvacet jeden muž or jednadvacet mužů). This system is becoming less common and is not used in every day speech, as well as becoming harder to find in modern literature.
Numbers also have declension patterns in Czech. The number two, for instance, declines as follows:
The numbers are singular (jednotné číslo), plural (množné číslo), and remains of dual. The number two, as declined above, is an example of the now-diminished dual number. The dual number is used for only several parts of the human body, of which each person has two: hands, shoulders, eyes, ears, knees, legs, breasts. In all but two of the above body parts (eyes and ears) the dual number is only vestigial and affects very few aspects of declension (mostly the genitive and prepositional cases). However, in Bohemian Czech it has become a common part of slang to use the dual ending of the instrumental case for ALL plural instrumental declensions, for example, "s kluky" (with the boys) becomes "s klukama", and so on for all nouns.
The three genders are masculine, feminine, and neuter, with masculine further subdivided into animate and inanimate. Words for individuals with biological gender usually have the corresponding grammatical gender, with only a few exceptions; similarly, among the masculine nouns, the distinction between animate and inanimate also follows meaning. Other words have arbitrary grammatical genders. Thus, for instance, pes (dog) is masculine animate, stůl (table) is masculine inanimate, kočka (cat) and židle (chair) are feminine, and morče (guinea-pig) and světlo (light) are neuter.
Past is used in almost all instances of past action, and replaces every past tense in English (past perfect, imperfect, pluperfect, etc.). The past tense is usually formed by affixing an -l- on the end of the verb, sometimes with a minor (rarely significant) stem change. After adding the -l-, letters are added in order to agree with the subject (-a for feminine, -i or -y for plural).
The present tense is precisely the same as in English. It is also used in cases where one would say, for instance, "I have been doing this for three hours". In Czech, the present indicative is used and is directly translated as "I do this for three hours".
There are also sometimes second forms of certain verbs (like to go, to do, etc.) that indicate a habitual or repeated action. These are known as iterative forms. For instance, the verb jít (to go by foot) has the iterative form chodit (to go regularly).
There is also no tense shifting (as in reported speech). E.g. "He loves her" -> "He said he loved her", the time is shifted from present to past. In Czech it is "Má ji rád" -> "Řekl, že ji má rád". The "má rád" implies present tense in both cases.
The conditional is something of an oddity, with no real indication of time. It is the same regardless of whether the action discussed is a future, present, or past action. The conditional is formed by using the auxiliary "conditional marker" and the past tense of the root verb. The condition marker appears as follows:
So, "I would have gone" would be translated as "Já bych šel" (or, more usually, "Šel bych").
The future tense is another fickle part of Czech grammar. Often, verbs that appear to be present tense are actually future tense. For instance, the verb "vyhodit" (throw out) appears like a normal present tense, but actually indicates a future action. This form of the verb has no present tense — it indicates a completed action (perfective aspect), so a present tense wouldn't make sense: either the action is already completed (past) or yet to be completed (future). A different form, "vyhazovat", indicates an ongoing action (imperfective aspect) and has all three tenses.