The Czech Language is spoken by approximately 12 million people, most of them living in the Czech Republic. With the dissolution of Czechoslovakia into the two separate entities of the Czech Republic and Slovakia, the Czech Republic’s interaction with the outside world has increased and the Czech language has gained significance.
Classification of the Czech Language
The Czech language is part of the Slavic language, a subfamily of the Indo-European language of families. With the resettlement of the Slav people throughout Eastern Europe in the 6th century AD, the Slavic language was divided into Eastern, Western, and Southern groups. The Czech language is categorized as part of the Western branch, along with Slovak, Polish, and Sorbian.
After this, it was not until the 11th century that significant linguistic changes occurred. Around this time, the regional Slavic dialects in the area then known as Moravia, where the Czech Republic and Slovakia are now found, finally began to develop into distinct languages.
Origin of the Term “Czech”
The name “ceština”, which translates to Czech, is believed to have stemmed from a Slavic tribe known as the Cech, or Ceši in plural form. These peoples inhabited Central Bohemia, what is today the western part of the Czech Republic, and ruled over a number of Slavic tribes in the Premyslid Dynasty.
Although the exact etymology of the word “ceština” is not totally clear, many people in the Czech Republic point to the legend of the forefather Cech, who led his tribe of Ceši to the land of the modern-day Czech Republic.
The Written Czech Language: From Old Church Slavonic to Latin
Until about the 11th century, the written Czech language utilized the Old Church Slavonic language, the first Slavic literary language. Old Church Slavonic was developed by the saints Cyril and Methodius, missionaries who were wanted to bring their work to areas of Eastern Europe, including present-day Slovakia and the eastern regions of the current Czech Republic.
In the 11th century, the written Czech language faced a landmark event, as the Latin language came to replace the use of Old Church Slavonic for both religious and literary purposes.
Development from a “Peasant Tongue” to a Respected Literary Language
Until about the 14th century, the Czech language was largely suppressed, as it was seen as a peasant tongue unworthy of any type of formal official or literary use. This changed when religious reformer Jan Hus (John Huss) undertook the project of developing a uniform Czech language spelling, giving the language a more respectable standardized characteristic.
Throughout the 15th and 16th centuries, Hus’s work was consolidated and further developed by a Protestant sect known as the Unity of Brethren, or the Moravian Brethren. Thanks to the literary Czech language works produced by the Moravian Brethren, the newly standardized Czech language was fully stabilized and established as a true literary language.
Developments of the 19th Century Nationalist Revival
In the 19th century, a movement led by the Czech national revivalists led to the standardization of the standard Czech language dialect. The movement turned to an older version of the Czech language than was spoken at the time, looking back to an over 200-year old Czech translation of the Bible as a basis for standardization. This standard form of the Czech language is still spoken today, primarily in the areas of Moravia and Silesia.
Relationship Between the Slovak and Czech Languages
The Czech and Slovak languages are very similar; in fact, they are for the most part mutually intelligible, so that Czech language speakers can understand Slovak language speakers, and vice versa. The languages share a common past and a similar developmental path, and aside from increased vocabulary, neither one has undergone any type of significant change since the 16th century.
Despite the dissolution of Czechoslovakia into the separate countries of the Czech Republic and Slovakia, the two languages still share many similarities, and the modern Czech and Slovak languages have only slight differences in pronunciation and syntax.
Creation and Dissolution of Czechoslovakia
The sovereign state of Czechoslovakia, a combination of modern-day Czech Republic and Slovakia, was born in 1918 with independence from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In 1920, the country’s constitution named Czechoslovak as the official language, meaning that Czech and Slovak were considered dialects of a single language.
In World War II, this area was forcibly divided as part of the country was incorporated into Germany. However, the Czech government continued to function in exile and Czechoslovakia remained intact after the war. It was not until 1993 that, due to growing nationalist tensions, Czechoslovakia split into the two countries now known as the Czech Republic and Slovakia. The division was enacted by the Czechoslovakian parliament, and was completed peacefully.
Differentiating Czech from Other Slavic Languages
One major way in which Czech differs from other Slavic languages is the fact that it uses a Latin alphabet instead of Cyrillic. Other differences are found in pronunciation: the accent is generally placed on the first syllable of the word, and “r” and “l” are prominently used as vowels. The staccato-style speech of the Czech language also is unique among other Western Slavic languages.
Another distinct aspect of the Czech language is the haeek, a chevron-like symbol that sometimes appears over certain letters. One example is the letter è, which would be pronounced with a “ch” sound.
Modern-Day Czech Language and Dialects
The Czech language is spoken by approximately 12 million native speakers, most of them located in the Czech Republic. Since May 2004, the Czech language also has served as one of the official languages of the European Union.
Distinct regional dialects of the Czech language can be found throughout the country, with a variety of mutually intelligible dialects spoken in various regions of Bohemia, Moravia and Silesia, and Pilsen. Local dialects also can be found within these broader regional dialects. One notable case is the Cieszyn Silesian dialect, spoken by an ethnic Polish minority. The dialect is technically Polish, but has strong Czech language influences.
Czech Quick Facts
Alternate Names & Spellings: Cestina
Language Family: Indo-European, Slavic, West, Czech-Slovak
Official Language of: Czech Republic
Spoken by Approximately 12,000,000 people
Also Spoken In: United States
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