Reading time: 10 – 15 minutes
Introduction to the Series
Now the Czech language may have a reputation for difficulty, but it isn’t entirely fair. Like in any language, things in Czech exist for a good reason, even though that reason may not be very obvious. There is actually very little in the language that is truly irregular and inexplicable.
Something that can be explained is something that sits in the mind more comfortably; good explanations make for easier learning. I would like to try to offer such explanations for certain aspects of Czech, sharing ideas that have illuminated the language for me, and have therefore helped me in turn to speak and write it more accurately.
Cheat Your Way to Czech is my idea for a series of blog posts that, by the power of linguistics, discuss and clarify the things that went into making the language what it is today. Hopefully, as well as offering some interesting language info for a general audience, this will translate into useful knowledge for learners. In my experience, linguistic ideas are like shortcuts to fluency, and so feel a little bit like cheating!
Topic 1: Czech Sounds and I
The Mischievous Letter I
(Please note: letters and words in /dashes/ or [square brackets] are referring specifically to sounds, using standard IPA symbols. Stand-alone capital letters are intended to refer to written letters.)
Anyone who’s been through the Czech education system will be familiar with the difficult letter I. It is, I’d say, the most important letter of the Czech alphabet, because of the sounds it represents and the effects those sounds have on the language. It’s even more important than the infamous Ř sound, because it’s what created Ř.
As in English, the letter stands for a vowel. In modern Bohemian Czech, it can represent the short vowel /ɪ/ (as in English ship) or the long vowel /iː/ (as in English sheep). If the latter, the written letter is marked with an acute accent, as in Čína ‘China’ (pronounced like ‘Cheena‘). Because these two very similar vowels are produced with the tongue pushed forward in the mouth, we can call them ‘front’ vowels. For simplicity, I’ll refer to both sounds of I with the IPA symbol /i/.
The difficulty with I comes from the fact that there is another letter of the alphabet that represents these vowels: the letter Y. The two letters are by no means interchangeable – there are strict rules about when to use I and when to write Y. The letters even distinguish words that are homophonous:
mýt – to wash
mít – to have
(both pronounced like English meat)
Although Czech prides itself on its good ratio of ‘one letter to one sound’, the reason for this apparent redundancy of I and Y is historical and etymological: they used to represent two different vowels.
Czech used to have both /i/ and another vowel /ɨ/. The latter is made with the tongue further back and so is a ‘central’ vowel. To express this in writing, /i/ was written with I and /ɨ/ with Y. When the two vowels merged into one, the difference in spelling was maintained. Neighbouring Polish still has this distinction today in both sound and writing.
This old difference in Czech sounds is of vital importance for the modern language. This is because the vowel /i/ had a big effect on the surrounding sounds within a given word. The vowel /ɨ/ did not.
Consequently, even though the vowel /ɨ/ is no longer part of Czech phonology, this difference between the affecting vowel /i/ and the non-affecting /ɨ/ is still present in the written language. Where you see the letter I, expect a change in the letter’s surroundings. Where you see the letter Y, expect no such change.
What does it mean though for a vowel to have an effect on other sounds? What exactly was the effect of /i/? In a word, the effect was palatalization.
The Power of the Palate
The vowel [i] is produced with the tongue forward and raised, close to the hard palate – the bony roof of the mouth.
Sounds that have this place of articulation are hence known as ‘palatal’ sounds. As well as [i], palatal sounds include the consonants [j] (as in English yolk) and [ɲ] (as in Spanish niño).
The vowel [i] has the power to make other sounds in a word palatal too. It can drag them forwards or backwards in the mouth towards the palate. This is the process of palatalization, which has occurred over time in many languages, including English. It’s an economical change; if a word contains a consonant and then the vowel [i], it’s easier on the tongue to pronounce the consonant more like [i] – that is, to make the consonant more palatal.
Back at a historical point in time when /i/ and /ɨ/ were separate sounds in Czech, the vowel /i/ and the palatal semi-vowel /j/ consistently palatalized preceding consonants. This is a historical and completed change, no longer ongoing, but it’s had a very big effect, and it’s responsible for so much of the modern Czech system of sounds. Palatalization even created several brand-new consonants for Czech. These include everyone’s favourite, Ř.
For example, the nasal consonant /n/ (as in English nose), when used in a word before /i/ or /j/, shifted backwards to become the palatal nasal /ɲ/. Take the Czech word slanina, meaning ‘bacon’. The two N’s in slanina are not pronounced the same. This is due to the vowel that follows each. The front vowel /i/ has palatalized the first into /ɲ/, while the vowel /a/ had no such effect on the second.
Hence, slanina is pronounced (in IPA symbols) /slaɲɪna/, with the first N like Spanish Ñ.
For another example, we have the important word dobrý, meaning ‘good’. The basic root of the word is dobr-, while the rest varies according to how the adjective is used. In dobrý specifically, we have the masculine singular ending -ý. Remember that this was once the non-affecting vowel /ɨː/, which left the root dobr- unchanged. The same goes for the feminine singular ending -á.
What though about the masculine plural ending -í? Add -í to dobr- and we get dobří. The vowel changes the original R into the more palatal sound Ř.
In traditional terminology, this is referred to as ‘softening’. The letter I is commonly called měkké i, the ‘soft I’ that softens the preceding consonant. Y on the other hand is tvrdé y, the one that keeps consonants ‘hard’ and unchanged. As Josef Vachek puts it, the letter Y has been “re-evaluated” over time to “signal the non-palatal status” of certain letters (Vachek 1994: 4).
Not all consonants could be affected though. Sounds produced not with the tongue but with the lips (‘labial’ sounds) were not bothered by a following /i/. This is why the letters B, P, F, V and M, which all represent sounds with a labial quality, are said to be ‘neutral’ – they can precede both I and Y in spelling, and no shift takes place.
Using the modern Czech letters for the sounds and then the standard IPA symbols, here are, in a nutshell, the changes that happen when certain consonants meet /i/ and /j/:
|T >||Ť||/t/ >||/c/|
|D >||Ď||/d/ >||/ɟ/|
|N >||/n/ >||/ɲ/|
|R >||Ř||/r/ >||/r̝/|
|K >||C or Č||/k/ >||/t͡s/ or /t͡ʃ/|
|H >||Z or Ž||/ɦ/ >||/z/ or /ʒ/|
|CH >||Š||/x/ >||/ʃ/|
Notice how all the resulting consonants are sounds produced in the mouth closer to the hard palate. The sounds that Czech denotes with Ť and Ď don’t exist in English (they’re similar to the sounds in church and judge), but what matters is that they are palatal consonants. Going in the opposite direction, the velar fricative sound written CH shifts forward to become Š. Moreover, it’s often said that Ř is like a combination of R and Ž, and palatalization shows us that this is a fair understanding; it comes from R, but has gained an additional palatal quality also found in Ž.
A quirk of Czech spelling that I really should mention is that the palatal T, D and N are not written with the dedicated palatal letters Ť, Ď and
Ň when they precede the letter I. We see this above in slanina, which has a palatal nasal sound, yet is not written slaňina. We can tell, however, that the consonant is palatal because of the safe assumption that the shift has taken place. If the letter I follows them, T, D and N must stand for their palatal counterparts, even though this is not shown in the spelling.
(There are exceptions to this, mind you. I was recently corrected for pronouncing the word optik ‘optician’ with a soft palatal consonant before the I. As a borrowed word, the T remains hard and the rules do not apply. My calls for spelling it optyk instead, with a hard Y, gained no supporters.)
Putting It All Together
With this change and this table in mind, we can explain why some consonants alternate with other consonants in Czech – and even predict when it happens!
For instance, we have the word hoch, which means ‘boy’. To make hoch plural, we need to add the ending -i. According to the table, we can expect that this mischievous vowel will change the CH of hoch into Š. Sure enough, the plural of hoch is hoši, just as the plural of Čech can be Češi. Another ‘boy’ word is kluk. The final K of kluk is also a candidate for shifting forwards through the palatal properties of -i. Kluk becomes plural kluci. One male cat is a kocour; two are kocouři.
Czech has the special suffix -ák, which can be added to place-names to make a noun meaning ‘person from X’. Now it’s true that -ák has no palatal sound like /i/ or /j/, but we can presume that it used to, since it triggers the usual shifts. If we add -ák to Praha ‘Prague’, the H changes to Ž, giving us Pražák (‘Praguer’). Likewise, a man from Brno is a Brňák. Similarly, we can tell from other, older Slavic languages that the suffix -ský (which makes adjectives out of nouns) used to have an /i/ too. The vowel may be lost in Czech now, but the effects are still there; the adjective for Praha is pražský.
Although their I and Y stand for the same vowel today, the words ty (‘you’) and ti (‘those’) are pronounced differently. As discussed, this is because the vowels used to be different, with only the I in ti standing for the softening /i/. Thus the palatal shift occurred and they differ today not in their vowels but in their consonants, being pronounced /ti/ and /ci/.
We can now also understand the history of some loanwords in Czech. At an early point in time, Slavic languages borrowed the Latin word scrīnium, meaning ‘case’ or ‘box’. Being an old borrowing, scrīnium arrived in time to go through the process of palatalization. The two /i/ vowels affected the /r/ and the /n/ of the Latin original. What we expect is what we get: scrīnium became Czech skříň.
Similarly, the Devil himself was not immune to the influence of Czech sounds. The Latin word (itself borrowed from Ancient Greek) is diabolus. Having entered Czech, the /i/ changed the preceding /d/ into the palatal plosive /ɟ/, written with the letter Ď.
The /i/ then disappeared, resulting in Modern Czech ďábel. It’s interesting that this final step did not happen in Slovak, which typically preserves the vowel and is a bit more conservative in this regard. In this case, Slovak has diabol. Likewise, Slovak has the word rieka, meaning ‘river’, which has the vowel I and an unaltered R; Czech has neither in its word řeka.
There is so much more to say on the topic of Czech I, but this only meant to be an introduction, not an encyclopaedia. I truly hope that it has at least successfully set out and explained a complicated subject, and has demonstrated the importance of palatalization in the development of Modern Czech.
My take-home point is that, if you’re learning the Czech language, you need to watch out for the letter I; it’s a vowel with a long history of linguistic mischief – but mischief that you can definitely get under control.
Vachek, J. 1994. Some Remarks on the Revaluation of Redundant Graphemes. Praguiana 1945-1990. 172-183. John Benjamins Publishing.
Featured picture from here.