Ahoj! Today we’re talking about Czech, or Bohemian as it was known until the 20th century. Nowadays, Czech is spoken by about 11 million people, the large majority of which live in the Czech Republic. It is a recognised minority language in Slovakia, Romania, Poland, Austria, Croatia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Large communities of Czech speakers are also found in Portugal, Germany and the USA.
The origins of Czech date back to the end of the 10th century, when this and other Slavic languages began to separate from the common protolanguage of Ancient Slavonic. However, the first known Czech writing is only from the 13th century, when Czech literature began to develop. Throughout the years, the language hasn’t changed much, to the point that modern Czech differs very little from the language spoken in the 18th century. There have been two important moments in history of the standardization of spelling and pronunciation: the first was in the 15th and 16th centuries, in great part due to the work of the religious reformer Jan Hus and to the Kralice Bible (the first complete translation of the Bible into Czech). The second was the Czech national revival of the 18th and 19th centuries, with Josef Dobrovský’s grammar assuming a leading role.
On the subject of grammar, let’s take a look at some interesting grammatical aspects of Czech. Firstly, there are three genders: feminine, masculine (divided into animate and inanimate), and neutral. Secondly, unlike English, it doesn’t rely on word order. Czech speakers can just move around the words in any way they want, depending on what they want to emphasise. This is because the grammar is declensional, that is, names and adjectives change according to one of seven different grammatical cases, depending on their meaning. So, for example, “big dog” is velký pes in one case, but s velkým psem in another. Quite a lot to remember! And also interesting when looking at this from a translators perspective.
Czech is also one of the most phonetic languages in the world, and each sound corresponds to one letter. The alphabet has 30 letters – five vowels, which correspond to 10 sounds (Czech is one of the only European languages to distinguish between long and short vowels), and 25 consonants, some of which can function as vowels. Therefore, many of the words in the language do not contain vowels. It is actually possible to make entire sentences without using a single vowel! Strč prst skrz krk is an example. It is a tongue twister that means “put your finger through your throat”. Lovely, right?
All this makes Czech one of the most difficult languages to learn and to pronounce correctly.
The domination of the Czechs by the Hapsburgs of Austria from 1620 to 1918 hampered the development of the Czech language and literature. Nevertheless, some Czech words made it around the world, like dollar, pistol and polka. The word robot is also of Czech origin. It comes from the Czech robota, the term called to the peasants that were obliged to work under the feudal system. It was first mentioned in 1920 by the writer Karel Čapek, in his play R.U.U.
On the other hand, when adopting English words, Czechs can be very creative. They simply take a verb and add the Czech grammatical affix –ovat, making for example googlovat, mailovat, esemeskovat (this one is texting (SMS), in case you’re wondering). Perhaps they should add hugovat to their vocabulary, since there’s no word for the act of hugging someone.
Some famous Czechs are movie director Miloš Forman, who received Academy Awards for Best Director for the movies One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Amadeus, writers Milan Kundera (The Unbearable Lightness of Being) and Franz Kafka (The Metamorphosis), and goalkeeper Petr Čech.