To come to the point - I don't speak Czech. But thanks to countless trips to the Czech republic, I got used to the language gradually and increased the number of words I know. And - quite important - learned how to read Czech. The language belongs to the Slavic language group, which I am quite familiar with. However, knowing other Slavic languages is only useful to a certain level.
In contradiction to most Eastern and some Southern Slavic languages, e.g. Russian, Bulgarian, Macedonian or Ukrainian, the Roman alphabet is used in the Czech language. So much about the good news. Additionally, many diacritical marks, i.e. special characters with signs above or below (in Czech only above) the roman letter, are in use.
At first sight, the regular 26 roman letters, so to say the English alphabet, are in use. But all in all 15 diacritical marks need to be added (in German only three). Czech diacritical marks can be divided into four groups:
- Vowels with čárka ("acute accent", accent aigu): á, é, í, ó, ú, ý. These vowels are simply lengthened. The ý is pronounced as a long [ee] as in [bee]. The use of é and ó is usually limited to foreign words.
- Vowels with krouzek (circle): Actually there's only one: ů, which is technically the same as ú, e.g. pronounced as the [oo] in [boot]. This vowel can be seen very often.
- Vowel with háček (hook): Limited to ě, which is pronounced as the [ye] in [yes]. As far as I know, this letter can be found in all Slavic languages.
Consonants with háček (hook): As there are č, ď (capital: Ď), ň,
ř, š, ť (Ť) and ž. These diacritical marks a bit more complicated.
č is pronounced as the [cz] in [Czech]
ď is pronounced as the [du] in [duke]
ň is pronounced as the Spanish [ñ/ny] in [cañon/canyon] in "cañon"
ř is very complicated and a mix of [r] and [zh] spoken at the same time. To make things worse, this sound has a voiced and unvoiced version. Better ask a native speaker for the proper pronunciation (or simply mutter a [rzh]). As far as I know, this sound is unique and doesn't exist in any other Slavic language.
š is much easier and pronounced as the [sh] in [share].
ť is pronounced as the [tu] - in [tube].
Last but not least ž, pronounced as the soft [s] in [ casual ].
There are more pronunciation rules to be aware of. The letter C is always pronounced as the [ ts ] in [tsar]. ch is pronounced as the same in the Scottish word [loch] (phonetical symbol:'x'). [CH] is treated like a single letter - words and names beginning with [ch] are to be found right after [h]. The Czech R is not rolled but a so-called 'tongue-r', quite similar to the English [r].
The good news is that, keeping the rules above in mind, Czech words are pronounced as written. This means that sch is not pronounced [sh] or [sk] but [s-ch(x)] and [ou] is [o-u]. Being able to read a language is highly important when buying tickets or ordering in a restaurant. To give an example, most travellers make the mistake to pronounce →Cheb as [tsheb], which would be simply unintelligible to the ticket vendor, because the proper pronounciation, written in phonetical symbols, is [xeb] and therefore completely different. By the way - in Czech, the stress is always put on the first syllable.
As in Polish and some other Slavic languages, Czech language suffers a lack of vowels. Some words are just a conglomerate of consonants without a single vowel, and so the ignorant visitor might think 'What the hell is this!? A quiz?' An example par excellence is Vlk zmrzl, zhltl hrst zrn - obviously a tongue twister. It means [A frostbitten wolf is gulping down a handful of grain]. Another nice word is čtvrthrst, which is a 'quarter handful'. The word Zmrzlina, meaning 'Ice-cream' can be seen everywhere. However, for people having some knowledge of Slavic languages it's possible to unveil the mystery. The word Vlk (wolf) is [wolk] in Russian. The word hrst (handful) is [ gorstj ] in Russian (there's no 'h' in Russian, so it becomes 'g'). Polish is quite close to the Czech language, so they can understand each other or at least get the main idea. However, the closest language to Czech is →Slovakian.
Comparison of words:
When travelling around Eastern Europe, it's inevitable that one gets in contact with Slavic languages. To master Slavic grammar and vocabulary can be challenging at the beginning, but after a while it's fun to find out common facts and similar vocabulary. (This of course excludes →Albanian, →Hungarian and →Romanian, since they are not Slavic).
The interested traveller will soon discover things in common, which can be seen in the table below. Especially formal words such as 'Good day' are almost the same in every language. However, the diversity of Slavic words for simple expressions like 'Thank you' can be frustrating.
|Table of important words in several Slavic languages|
|да [da]||да [da]||tak||да [da]||да / da||ano||так [tak]|
|No||не [nje]||не [nje]||nie||нет [njet]||не / ne||ne||ні [ni]|
|Good day (f)||Добър ден
|Dzień dobry||Добрый день
|Dobrý den||Добри день
|Na shledanou2||До побачення
|Excuse me4||извинете ме
|How much is...||Колко струва
|Ile to kosztuje||Сколько стоит
|Kolik to stojí||Скільки
Note: Pronunciation is given following international rules. To make it easier to find out similarities, I applied a colour code. Yellow = Czech vocabulary and similar words. Red = Bulgarian (as Bulgarian has developed from Old Church Slavic) words and similar vocabulary. Blue = Polish. Purple = Ukrainian, Russian.
1 Nowadays, Serbo-Croation is not seen as one language but as three different languages - Serbian, Croatian and Bosnian. However, above vocabulary is virtually the same in all three languages. Serbian (above) is written in cyrillic, Croatian and Bosnian (below) is written in Roman letters. Pronunciation is almost identical.
2 I'm not sure whether these words really have the same origin. It's just an assumption.
3 ђ (in Croatian Đ ) is close to the pronunciation of the [ja] in [jam]
4 In some languages also used as [sorry] (=forgiving).
For more information on several Slavic languages, please refer to the following links within this website:
Piotr Surówka wrote:
ř - As far as I know, this sound is unique and doesn't exist in any other Slavic language. "
well, in Polish is RZ which has exactly the same history (it sounds exactly the same as ř, but depending on the ethymology we write RZ or ż)
Posted by Piotr Surówka on July 25, 2008 05:31
Piotr: ř and ž have two different sounds in Czech, as opposed to Polish rz and ż, which are their respective historical equivalents but now sound the same. There is an "r" component in ř which is lacking in the Polish sound rz.
Posted by Giorgio on September 5, 2008 21:43
Hi, your article is really great, but you made a mistake. The sentence "Vlk zmrzl, zhltl hrst zrn" does not mean A frostbitten wolf is gulping down a handful of grain. It is written in past tense, so it means: A wolf froze to death, gulpped down a handful of grain.
Posted by Helga on October 30, 2009 05:12
"The word hrst (handful) is [ gorstj ] in Russian (there's no 'h' in Russian, so it becomes 'g')" (c)
Hey, just wanted to let you know that there IS letter 'h' in Russian (and it's a very common letter and can be seen in plenty of words).
Posted by Talvinen on October 25, 2011 16:57
Mike Rosoft wrote:
Nope. In the Cyrillic script there is letter H, but it's pronounced [n]. The sound [h] doesn't exist in Russian language; the letter Г is pronounced [g] in Russian (but [h] in Ukrainian).
Posted by Mike Rosoft on December 11, 2011 00:36
1) Contrary to the text, Czech is the only living Slavic (and perhaps world) language where the letter ě is found. You can find it in Latin transcriptions of Church Slavic and reconstructed old Slavic, though.
2) In the table: "простите" means "excuse me" in Russian (it's a less formal version of "извините"). If you want "please", use "пожалуйста".
3) Some of the colouring doesn't make sense. I am not sure whether you intended to mark common origin or mere similarity, but nevertheless:
3a) "Простите" and "prosím", apart from different meaning, probably don't stem from the same root.
3b) The whole "how much" row is pretty arbitrary. Either you should base your colouring on the pronoun, which means that all cells share the same colour except Polish, or you should take both words into account, thus having six different colours.
3c) Pociąg, воз and поезд are neither related nor similar, they shouldn't share the same colour.
@Talvinen: there is letter Х/х in Russian, which is pronounced like Czech ch (unvoiced velar fricative), and which is transcribed as H/h in languages which lack the sound (including your supposed native Finnish). There is not an equivalent of Czech h (voiced glottal fricative) except in Ukrainian Russian and dialects near the Ukrainian border, where (like in the Ukrainian language proper) it replaces the standard Russian Г/г (voiced velar plosive).
Posted by prase on March 1, 2012 18:52