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Brief inventory of the main features

An insight into some of the major features of the Czech language, reflected within the word boundaries (as against those of syntax), may be gained by looking at a simple sentence, such as

Vyslech/l/i jsme si tu přednášk/u se zájm/em.

(Roughly: We have listened to the lecture with interest.)

In contrast to English, there are mainly these features to be observed:

Inflection (Noun cases and Verb endings):

-u Acc. sg Fem., -em Instr. sg Masc.

tu Acc. sg Fem. of the Demonstrative pronoun ten

-l- Past tense marker, -i Plural verb marker (person is determined here by the form of the auxiliary jsme) si pragmatic benefactive particle conjoined with verbs

vy- Verb prefix often signalling the Perfective Aspect

Inside the sentence, these, and other, features are markers of a rich inflectional system giving the language a prominent character. In practice, basically all nouns, adjectives and verbs (including most pronouns and numerals) undergo inflectional modifications, by taking endings, at the right-hand end. Thus in text, there are hardly any words left which remain unchangeable and intact (including most of grammar words, such as prepositions or conjunctions). Most of the functions expressed in Czech by these endings are rendered by the English Word Order and some grammar words, while some of the functions, such as si or the verbal/aspectual prefix vy- or the Noun Gender (implied in some of the endings above), have no exact English counterpart.

Typologically, Czech represents a rather strong case of the inflectional type of language which is rather prominent in it (next to an admixture of other features). Due to the fact that inflectional endings, simply added to the end of the word or alternating with another ending, express two or three functions at the same time, the grammatical information in the Czech words, or rather their forms, is somewhat condensed. Thus, the Czech word forms tend to be of medium length, on the average. To help distinguish functions of endings of many minor inflectional classes and, at the same time, to help resolve the almost inevitable homonymy, Czech has evolved its Gender distinction in Nouns (4 genders: Masculine inanimate, Masculine animate, Feminine and Neutre Genders).

Thus, knowing the Gender and coming across, for example textual forms, such as měst/u (town, Neutre, Dat.), makes one readily aware that the ending -u stands for a different case and function on each form. Unfortunately, many of the numerous inflectional classes are so small that they might give the overall impression of a high degree of irregularity of the inflectional system as such.

Some changes, largely positional, occur independently of a particular morpheme and in pronunciation only. There are, however, other changes linked to morphemes which are characteristically regular and related to inflectional changes of the word or its derivatives. Due to these morphonological changes (allomorphs) identitcal morphemes often have a number of formal variables. There are several types of allomorphs, consisting of the following alternations:

  1. Vocalic Changes:
    1. length : a-á, i-í, e-é etc., eg. dát-dal,píše-piš...

    2. (give-he gave, he writes-write!)
    3. quality : stůl-stolu, květ-kvítek, můj-moje, vítr-větru

    4. (table-of table, flower-little flower, my/Masc-my/Fem, wind-of wind)


  2. Consonantic Changes:
    1. Simple:
    2. Clusters: deska-destička (desk-little desk)

      řecký-řečtina (Greek-Greek language)

      městský-měšťan (urban-town-dweller)

      jezdit-ježdění (ride/go-riding)

      sl-šl myslet-myšlenka (think-thought)

      ruka-ruce-ruční (hand-for hand-manual)

      noha-noze-nožní (leg-for leg-foot-operated)

      d-ď-z mladý-mladík-omlazený (young-young man-rejuvenated)

      t-ť-c plot-oplotit-oplocený (fence-surround with fence- surrounded with fence)

Hence, three fifths of Czech word roots are variable in this sense. As to the internal structure of roots, some 50 % of Czech roots are CVC, i.e. three phoneme combinations made of a consonant (C), a vowel (V) and one more consonant (C).

Usually, the internal structure of Czech words is made up of several morphemes, typically of a single root and prefixes and/or suffixes (derived words), an average length of the word being 3-4 morphemes or, alternatively, 7-8 graphemes (letters) distributed to 2-3 syllables. Much less often words made of two roots and some prefixes or suffixes are to be found, too (compound forms). Derivation is rather rich in nouns (there are several hundred suffixes in use) and slightly less in adjectives, while verbs, on the other hand, abound in prefixes (up to some 20 for the same verbal stem). Going down to the morpheme structure, more particularly to the root, Czech is very high on the list of languages with rich consonant clusters. Thus, words like zvlášť (especially) are not really exceptional; similarly with polysyllabic words.

František Čermák, ©2001

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