Many Czech-speaking people are to be found in Austria (particularly in Vienna), Poland, Germany, Ukraine (the Volhynian Czechs), Croatia (especially around Daruvar), and in western Romania (Banat). Several tens of thousands of Czechs live in Slovakia, where they have remained since the break-up of the Czechoslovak Republic (in 1993).
Czech is also spoken outside of Europe – in Australia, Canada, and particularly in the United States, where the greatest number of Czechs reside outside of the Czech Republic. The largest communities are in New York City, Chicago and Cleveland, but they are also to be found in agricultural regions of Texas, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Nebraska. Altogether, more than 90,000 Czechs live in the United States (according to the census in 1990), but millions of Americans have some Czech roots.
Czech is the only official language of the Czech Republic, and it is spoken by about 96% of the population. Besides this, other languages can be heard here, particularly Slovak, German, Polish and Romany.
“A thousand-year history flows through each word. We do something magnificently old and historic when we speak Czech.” (Karel Čapek)
The origins of the Czech language date to the end of the 10th century, when Czech, just like other Slavic languages, began to separate from a common protolanguage – ancient Slavonic. The first written evidence of its existence comes from this period (e.g. the Czech proper nouns Myslata, Boleslav, and Melník on Bohemian denarius coins from the turn of the 10th and 11th centuries). Evidence of its existence did not begin to mount until the second half of the 12th century. Thus it is only possible to consider Czech as a historically documented language from this time.
In the Middle Ages, Czech developed into a rich and elaborate language with a literature of many genres. With the expansion of the Bohemian state, the Czech language also spread beyond the borders of Czech national territory. In the period from the 14th to the 16th century, it’s possible to speak of an expansion of the Czech language. In particular, it was used in Upper Silesia, but also in Hungary and of course in Slovakia. It most noticeably influenced standard Polish. Of course, individual Bohemian expressions can be found in other languages (e.g. Russian), and in their time the names of Hussite weaponry spread throughout Europe, e.g. pistala (“fife”), houfnice (“howitzer” orig. “catapult”).
Everyone who speaks Czech can understand each other without difficulty. At the same time, as regards the state of the Czech language, there is a relatively large characteristic difference between traditional standard written Czech and the language that is commonly spoken.
The non-standard speech of the population is differentiated on a regional basis. In Bohemia, an interdialect (a transdialectal division) predominates, which is called common Czech. This has evolved on the basis of the main characteristics of the Central Bohemian dialectal group. In Moravia, there are more pronounced dialectal differences. This concerns three distinct dialectal regions: the Haná (central Moravian) region, the Moravian-Slovak region (or the east Moravian region, including Moravian Wallachia) and the Lassko (Silesian) region.
A good demonstration of the phonetic differences can be found in the following sentence :
The differences between standard written Czech and common Czech are striking (in comparison with other languages). In particular, this is because it does not just concern a specific vocabulary, but primarily involves systemic changes influencing declension and conjugation.
The Czech language has one completely specific consonant, which is denoted by the letter ř. Another characteristic feature is the syllabic sounds of r and l. Thanks to these, Czechs can pronounce words like vrh (“throw”), vlk (“wolf”), strhl (“ripped”/“torn down”), svršky (“goods/chattels”), etc. without any problem. But Czech also amasses other consonants in a manner that causes considerable trouble for foreigners: zvlášť (“separately”/“particularly”), vzplane (“to catch fire”) or even: pštros s pštrosicí (“an ostrich with an ostrich hen”).
Czech always places the emphasis on the first syllable of the word. For the most part, it has a declining sentence intonation. It only rises at the end in questions for which we expect a yes or no answer.
Czech spelling is based on the phonetic principle – each phone (speech segment) usually corresponds to one letter.
The oldest written documents in Czech are written using the letters of the Latin alphabet. There are fewer letters in this alphabet than there are Czech phones. Soon, however, digraphs or compound letters began to be used, i.e. one or more letters for one phone.
The use of diacritics is characteristic of our contemporary spelling system, i.e. the carka or acute accent for indicating the length of vowels (thus Czechs are able to distinguish between the meanings of words such as pravá (right/right-hand) and práva (rights/law)), and the hacek, which looks like a breve mark and is primarily found above the letters š, ž, č, ř, ň, as well as ť, ď and ě. It is used to indicate those phones for which the required letter cannot be found in the original Latin alphabet. This rule very cleverly respects the phonetic affinity of consonants. Its principles were formulated as far back as the 15th century by Jan Hus in his work De ortographia Bohemica.
However, the Czechs also have one other diacritical mark: the kroužek, or little circle above the long ů. This is a peculiarity motivated by purely historical reasons, and from today’s perspective the pronunciation of the letters ů and ú are not differentiated – both marks cause the same lengthening of the vowel.
The Czech language, therefore, uses a considerable number of graphic symbols
a - á - b - c - č - d - ď - e - é - ě - f - g - h - i - í - j - k - l - m - n - ň - o - p - q - r - ř - s - š - t - ť - u - ú - ů - v - w - x - y - ý - z - ž