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Spoken Czech, its character and use

In the traditional view, a Literary (Standard) norm, distinguished from a set of local dialects, usually was viewed as based on one of the dialects (prototypically on that of the central area), whereas the other dialects were understood to get more and more marginal. This view, still relatively adequate for most of the Slavonic languages, has been found insufficient for a description of the stratification of those modern languages with which a long and complex economical and cultural development has brought about a growing significance of the functional and social aspects, often connected with a backgrounding of geographical differences, with the dialects at least partly merging on another basis than that of the literary Standard. In this context, B. Havránek introduced the notion of 'language variety (formation)' (Cz. jazykový útvar) as a general concept covering dialects, Standard norm and other systems of a similar range.

The case of Czech is rather specific. Literary Czech (LC) was the carrier of an important body of culture in the 13th - 16th centuries, but its functions have been weakened due to the pressure of German in the 17th and 18th centuries. In the 19th century, LC was revived somewhat artificially on the basis of concentrated efforts of Czech writers, poets, translators, editors and teachers. In the meantime, however, most dialects in Bohemia merged into the central and majority variety of Common Czech (CC), a primarily spoken variety; CC was later characterized by Havránek (1934; 1955) as not being narrowly restricted in the geographical sense and as constituting a source of enrichment and development for the Standard norm.

The initiators of the revival of the Standard did not accept into its norm most of the specific phenomena of CC morphemics and phonemics. The reasons of their decision can be looked for in factors such as that

  1. they had to enrich the Standard above all in its lexicon;
  2. they were not prepared to leave the morphemics of the classical Czech language from the 16th and 17th centuries, which was connected with the mentioned epoch of a strong Czech state that exhibited a high level of cultural life, including especially the Czech Bible translation, 'Kralice Bible';
  3. they were hesitant to use CC (the geographical extent of which did not cover Moravia and Silesia, not to speak of Slovakia, which at that time could be hoped to continue using a Standard common with that of Czechia), although CC in fact was used as one of the layers of the Standard (also in Moravia) in the 18th century;
  4. they had at their disposal the comprehensive grammar of the classical language written by J. Dobrovský (in 1809), who in fact had not hoped that Czech could gain back the whole range of functions of a Standard language, so that he was much more interested in describing the norm connected with the great national tradition (regarding CC forms as manifestations of the decay of this norm, although he recognized the broad usage of some of them by marginal remarks in his grammar).

It might be possible to find the main features of Ferguson's (1959) diglossia in a short stage of the development of Czech in the middle of the 19th century, but later many of the German lexical loans occurring in CC were suppressed, so that understanding LC does not require a specific training. The main trend has been an increasing mutual influence of LC and CC, so that now the main remaining differences between the two varieties primarily concern the domains of morphemics and phonemics, rather than the lexicon or the sentence syntax (in which the opposition of written or official usage versus spoken or colloquial norms is more prominent than that of LC and CC).

The difference between LC and CC is characterized now by the following main points:

  1. two Old Czech sound changes are reflected in CC in the endings of the adjective paradigm dobrý 'good' and in word stems, but have not penetrated into modern LC:
  2. CC prothetic v- before o-: von 'he', vokno 'window', nevodešel 'he did not go away', etc.);
  3. purely morphemic items, e.g.
    1. the 1st Pers. Plur. of the Conditional Aux. CC bysme vs. LC bychom;
    2. reduced Gender oppositions in Plural (in grammatical agreement): CC malý města byly (Moravian malé města byly) vs. LC malá města byla and the presence or absence of palatalization in the Nom. Plur. of Masc. Anim. Adj. such as CC dobrý sportovci vs. LC dobří sportovci 'good sportsmen';
    3. Instr.Plur. CC jarníma měsícema vs. LC jarními měsíci 'spring months' (analogical levelling in CC), etc.;
  4. lexical pairs as CC šuple vs. LC zásuvka 'drawer', CC (also colloquial) brečet and LC plakat 'weep', or more complex sets, such as CC (and colloquial) pořád vs. LC (bookish) stále and purely CC furt 'always';
  5. in syntax a stylistical scale, rather than an opposition between two varieties is present: e.g. gerundives ("transgressives"), some conjunctions (jelikož 'because') are very rare in everyday speech.

There are several layers of German loans in the lexicon of Czech:

  1. old ones, which are not recognized by Czech speakers as loan words any more, belonging both to LC and to CC:
  2. muset 'must', děkovat 'thank', cihla 'brick' from Ziegel (Lat. tegula);
  3. words generally used in CC (partly also in the colloquial layer of LC): šuple 'drawer', pár 'a couple';
  4. words being slowly backgrounded, but still used by the older generation, substandard in the CC of present times: pucovat 'to clean', štamgast 'everyday customer', furt 'all the time';
  5. only used as pejorative or being obsolete nowadays: frajle 'miss, young lady', hausmajstr 'doorkeeper', šláfrok 'dressing-gown'.

LC and CC are too close to each other nowadays to cause such difficulties as those typical for a genuine diglossia; however, varying stylistic values of forms of expression and differing evaluations of the discourse situations lead to communicative difficulties (the speakers often feel to have to concentrate on the form of their utterances rather than on their content, see esp. Novák 1962). The forms of LC often sound too bookish and stiff for an informal conversation in Bohemia, but their non-Standard counterpats are not always well accepted by Moravian (and Silesian) speakers, by teachers, and so on. This makes it important to study the stratification of Czech in detail, looking for how to overcome the drawbacks of the present situation, or at least what to do in codifying the Standard norm not to hamper the development towards further convergence of CC with LC.

A transition from traditional prescriptivism to a functional view was started by some of the founders of the Prague Linguistic Circle (V. Mathesius, R. Jakobson, B. Havránek) in 1932, but discussions taking place since then have shown that this is by far not a simple task. It has been found that a third alleged variety, "Colloquial Czech" (viewed as a layer of the Standard) is not a full layer, but rather a functional domain of oscillation between LC and CC forms (see H. Kučera 1955), or of code switching. Different properties and scales of this switching have been revealed by research since the 1960s, in which the activities of J. Bělič, M. Krčmová, B. Dejmek, J. Hronek, A. Trnková, K. Kravčišinová-Králíková, L. Hammer and others have been important. A. Stich (see Kraus et al. 1981) pointed out that LC lacks stylistically neutral forms in some morphemic positions, e.g. lidma 'people Instr.Plur.' being non-Standard, while lidmi is exclusively Standard (i.e. more or less bookish).

There still are several tendencies in Czech linguists' attitudes to the issues of the codification of LC norm:

  1. during a recurrent process, the official codification has accepted for the Standard many peripheral phenomena previously proper only to CC (or treated in such a way): můžu 'I can' (along with the older Standard form mohu), kupujou 'they buy' (along with kupují), oblíknul 'he put on' (along with oblékl), etc.; however, the phenomena prototypical for the difference between LC and CC have been retained as relevant for the opposition of the two varieties (cf. above); thus also points in which LC lacks a stylistically neutral means still remain: bysme 'we would' is CC (or colloquial), bychom being bookish, and a similar relation obtains between lidma 'people Instr.' and lidmi, between velký města 'large towns' and velká města, etc. (B. Havránek, A. Jedlička, F. Daneš, and the late Z. Hlavsa are the main representatives of this trend).
  2. Another attitude requires to stop prescriptive activities, starting a quite liberal practice (Z. Starý).
  3. Further specialists claim that spoken Czech basically has the shape of CC, the spoken form of LC being secondary, used just in reading texts or in prearranged speeches and after specific training (F. Čermák).
  4. Another trend stresses the convergent tendencies, further reducing the traces of the old diglossia (partly A. Stich, more radically J. Hronek and P. Sgall).

Neither modern theoretical linguistics, nor the existing sociolinguistic methods offer a reliable starting point for a transition from prescriptive attitudes to a liberal linguistic policy. It is important for the speakers' attitudes that the speakers are not yet well informed about the given sociolinguistic situation and about the nature and necessity of the transition. School education still to a certain degree treats CC as territorially restricted in a way similar to the (inter)dialects of Moravia, so that it might be considered unsuitably to penetrate into more general usage (mainly due to TV), although it is accepted that CC is the 'mother tongue proper' of at least 60 % of the speakers of Czech.

Most of Moravia and Czech Silesia is still divided into relatively small (inter)dialectal areas, the largest of which, the Hanak area, may be estimated to represent between 25 and 30 % of the area of CC. Therefore, the tendency to use LC also in everyday speech is stronger there than in Bohemia. An actual colloquial layer already seems to be emerging in some Moravian towns (with non-Standard, Moravian elements such as the voicedness assimilation in kdybyh váz nepřivedl 'if I did not bring you here', su 'I am', chcu 'I want to'). The usage in most of Moravia also differs both from CC and LC proper in many lexical items (LC and CC truhlář vs. Mor. stolař, prkno vs. deska, úkol vs. úloha); western Moravia often goes with Bohemia in these lexical oppositions, and in part also in the morphemic and phonemic features mentioned above.

In Bohemia (and the westernmost part of Moravia), most of the speakers use CC also when addressing people from another part of the country, since the use of CC in the whole of Bohemia is relatively unified (although certain local differences in detail still are present); CC is understood as a majority code and the fact that it is relatively rarely found in active usage in most of Moravia is not felt as a strong factor that would make speakers from Bohemia to use items that are exclusively LC. CC endings are freely used also with technical terms and other purely LC words (e.g. such collocations as s těma chetitskejma textama 'with the Hittite texts' or redukovanejch samohlásek 'of reduced vowels' can often be heard in unofficial linguistic discussions at the University). However, bookish forms (bychom, lidmi, etc., cf. above) are required by school education and editorial practice, etc., to be used also in other stylistic contexts. There are speakers (esp. many teachers, politicians, or clerks and personnel in offices and stores of a "higher level", people of Moravian origin, and also careful mothers who would like their children to obtain a better start for their life careers in getting soon used to speak LC) who prefer a more or less consistent use of LC forms to a "negligent" usage of CC. The latter usage appears as natural, appropriate for spontaneous communication, to most speakers.

A major problem is connected with dialogues in TV or in radio, in which the professional moderator or editor should speak LC consistently, whereas the interviewed representatives of culture (painters, musicians, even authors of fiction) often do not, wanting to appear as spontaneous as possible. Their code-switching is not always positively accepted by Moravians, who still perceive CC as a non-Standard and geographically restricted code. In this situation, some linguists still (similarly to the pre-structuralist attitudes) believe in the possibility to stop the convergent development of LC and CC and to understand the latest changes in the codification of LC norm as the last ones.

In any case, the old stratification characterized by the opposition between local dialects and the Standard (and by a prescriptive support for the Standard, requiring bookish forms to be used as the only Standard items for many functions) has yielded to a new situation, where instead of the older local differences the functional ones prevail (Standard - colloquial) and the convergent tendencies of different registers are very strong. This has been made clear also by the increasing use of CC forms in texts of art (fiction, drama, film, pop-music, and so on thus exhibit a high degree of code-switching). These conditions help CC to penetrate to central and eastern Moravia (at first in passive use, perceived as coming from another territory, but accepted).


Code switching between LC and CC (exclusively Standard morphs are written in boldface types, exclusively CC morhs are in italics): Teď jsme měli zase... jednání krizového štábu s ekonomy... Je to jedna parta, oni patřej k Občanskýmu fóru... Komárek bude zpacifikován tak, aby nejel po nějaké vlastní, příliš nápadné nebo příliš divoké linii... Ale i tohle by mělo být do jistý míry důvěrný. Nejsou tady nějaký lidi navíc? ... To je bezvadnej chlápek ten novej ústřední tajemník. (from V. Havel's report on the session of the Civic Forum, December 5, 1989. In: Suk 1998, p. 55).

Hanák: Dokad je člověg mladé a zdravé 'a muže dělat všecko, tož - je to, ale jag musi potom - Včíl, ale dyž - štyry dni sem s tém ležela, měla sem to napřed zapuchly. ...a leti mi to tem - tou kosó až do palca. (From Bělič 1972, p. 250; we do not follow the phonetic subtleties rendered by M. Krčmová's original transcription, using the usual way of rendering the non-Standard Czech usage, with the addition of the sign ' for the glottal stop).


Čermák F. 1987. Relations of spoken and written Czech. Wiener slawistischer Almanach 20, 133-150.

Daneš F. 1957. Americká studie o mluvené češtině [An American study on spoken Czech], Naše řeč 40, 296-300.

Ferguson Ch. A. 1959. Diglossia, Word 15, 325-340.

Hammer L. 1986. Code-switching in colloquial Czech. In: Language and discourse: Test and protest (ed. by J. L. Mey), Amsterdam:Benjamins, 455-473.

Havránek, B. 1934. Nářečí česká [Czech dialects]. In: Československá vlastivěda 3. Praha.

Havránek B. 1955. K historické dialektologii, Slovo a slovesnost 16, s. 153-159.

Kraus J., Kuchař J., Stich A. and F. Štícha. 1981. Současný stav a vývojové perspektivy kodifikace spisovné češtiny [State and perspectives of LC codification], Slovo a slovesnost 42, 228-238.

Kučera H. 1955. Phonemic variations of spoken Czech, Slavic Word 1, 575-602.

Kučera H. 1958. The phonology of Czech. The Hague: Mouton

Kučera H. 1961. Language variability, rule interdependency and the grammar of Czech. In: American contributions to the Fourth International Congress of Slavicists. The Hague: Mouton 169-189.

Novák P. 1962. O smysl diskuse o mluvené češtině [On the sense of the discussion on spoken Czech], Slovo a slovesnost 23, 266-272.

Sgall P. and J. Hronek. 1992. Čeština bez příkras [Czech without embellishment]. Prague: H&H.

Sgall P., Hronek J., Stich A. and J. Horecký. 1992. Variation in language: Code switching in Czech as a challenge for sociolinguistics, Amsterdam: Benjamins.

Suk J. 1998. Občanské fórum [Civic Forum] II. Brno: Doplněk.

Townsend C. E. 1990. A description of spoken Prague Czech.Columbus, Ohio: Slavica.

Petr Sgall, ©2001

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