The Czech Language
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Origin and History

Czech, along with Slovak, Polish, and the High and Low Sorbian, belongs to the western group of Slavic languages. More loosely it is related to the languages forming the east Slavic group (Ukrainian, Belorussian, and Russian) and the southern Slavic group (Bulgarian, Macedonian, Slovene, Serbian, and Croatian). As a Slavic language Czech belongs to the eastern, or satem, division of Indo-European.

Czech separated itself from the other Slavic languages by a number of changes, most of which took place in the 10th through 16th centuries (for a detailed account of the following changes and their impact on the breaking up of Czech into dialects see A. Lamprecht - D. losar - J. Bauer, Historick mluvnice etiny, Prague 1986). Among the most conspicuous sound changes were:

By the end of the 15th century Czech had virtually lost the dual number and two of the Slavic past tenses (the aorist and imperfect); on the other hand, the role of the verbal aspect had grown more significant and the number of declensions had increased.

The medieval Latin alphabet, without any modifications, was used to write down the Czech names and first glosses until the end of the 13th century. With the arrival of more extensive Czech texts a combinatorial writing system appeared, using digraphs and trigraphs to write down Czech sounds that had no equivalent in the Latin alphabet. At the beginning of the 15th century the religious reformer Jan Hus (John Huss) devised a diacritical writing system, placing diacritical marks over some Latin letters to distinguish the Czech palatal/palatalized consonants (, , , , , , ) and long vowels (, , , , , ); in the 16th century , indicating the long u resulting from the change >uo>, was added to the list. Digraphs and letters with diacritical marks were used in manuscripts and prints alongside each other for several centuries, but the diacritical system prevailed in the end. The only digraph surviving in modern Czech is ch, with the phonetic value similar to that of the German ch or Russian x.

Czech has been influenced by a number of languages, especially Old Church Slavonic (introduced into the area by Constantine and Methodius in the 9th century), Latin (once the Pan-European language of learning), and German (the language of numerous colonists, as well as the main language of the Habsburg empire). From the 14th century on, Czech has been the language of a continuous stream of literary production, although - as a consequence of the defeat of the Protestant Czech Forces and the integration of the Czech provinces into the Habsburg Empire - for the most part of the 18th century the Czech language was used rather infrequently for higher literary purposes. The language has been recorded, described, and analyzed in a number of grammars (the first grammar dating from 1533) and dictionaries (with the first dictionaries, written in verse, originating in the 2nd half of the 14th century).

For recent grammars and dictionaries see sections dealing with contemporary Czech grammar and vocabulary.

Karel Kuera, ©2001


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