Czech can be a very difficult language to learn for those who are not familiar with another Slavic language. Almost every business in Prague will be able to communicate in English, but it may come in handy to be able to say a few simple phrases in Czech correctly to impress the locals.
A brief lesson in Czech Pronunciation
All letters are pronounced in Czech phonetically and with usually equal strength of pronunciation. Either a word has an accent on the first syllable or the word is completely without accent. If there is a long preposition before a vowel (na = on, bez = without) the stress is used on the preposition and the following word will lose the accent on the first syllable.
The sounds that do not exist in English are:
- D’/T’ = Soft D and T that sound a bit like “Dyuh” and “Tyuh.” When placed at the end of a word, both are pronounced the same as “tyuh”
- Ch = Pronounced at the back of the throat as in “Chanukah”
- Ř = The most problematic sound in Czech for most produces a difficult “rzh” sound. To tackle this one, roll the R and add the sound of S “pleasure.” The sound produced quickly with the tongue at the front teeth.
- R = Roll those R’s! (but not too much!)
Vowels and Y (samohlásky)
- a = “ah” sound as in “caught”
- e = Canadian “eh?”, as in “rate”
- i = “eee” sound as in “me” if solitary or the long form Í/í (see below) or “i” as in “bit” if short.
- o = “oh” as in boat
- u = “oo” as in mOOn
- y = same as “i”
“J” in Czech is pronounced like English y as in “you.” For example jeden (ye-den) = one
Long vowels and “čárky”
The accent mark in Czech above some vowels is actually not an accent mark. Rather, vowels with this “čárka” above them are held longer when speaking. The long U will have a “čárka” at the beginning of a word, but located anywhere else in a word, it will have a small dot on top like this: ů.
Áá Éé Íí (“eee”) Óó Úú/ů Ýý (“eee”)
The presence of a “čárka” can change the meaning of certain words drastically:
do parku = to the park; do párku = into the hotdog
salát = lettuce/salad; BUT sálat = to emit, to radiate
“I” – Unlike the same-sounding “y,” “i” will have a softening effect on some preceding consonants such as “t” and “d.” For example: “ ti” (tyee) = “to you” VS “ty” (tee)= “you”
The difference in pronunciation can also drastically change the meaning of words. For example: “díky” = “thanks!” but “ dýky” = “daggers”
Diphthongs (dvojhlásky) in Czech
There are only a few diphthongs in Czech:
- au (OW! that hurts!; foreign words only); auto = car
- eu (EW! that’s disgusting!; foreign words only); pneumatic = tire
- ou (rOWboat; quite common); dobrou noc! = good night!
If a vowel belongs to a different syllable, there is no diphthong: “na-u-čit” = to learn; “po-u-žiť “= to use
Repeated vowels are equally pronounced: samoobsluha (self-service) = sam-o-ob-slu-ha
Hooks – Háčky
The v-shaped hook in Czech “č” is used to soften a consonant or as the vowel “ě.”
The vowel “ě” only follows and softens these preceding consonants: b, d, m, n, p, t, v
bě = bje, dě = dje, mě = mně, pě = pje, tě = tje, vě = vje
You can often imagine that the hook adds an “h” to the following consonants it pronounced in English
C (ts) —> Č = ch (proč? = why?)
R —> Ř = A Rzh-like sound. Roll the R and add the sound of S “pleasure.” The sound produced quickly with the tongue at the front teeth. (kuře = chicken; řeka = river)
S —> Š = sh (škola = school)
Z —> ž = zh sound as in “s” in “pleasure” (život = life)
The hook on the following consonants produces a soft j/y sound after the consonant. Note that the hook is not placed on the consonant when it is followed by ě or i/í but the soft pronunciation is implicit.
D —> Ď/ď (ted’ = now; pojd’ = come here!; děkuji = thank you)
N —> Ň/ň (něco = something; nic = nothing; kůň = horse)
T —> Ť/ť (ticho = quiet; pust’! = let go!);
TIP = “T” in Czech is not produced with the tip of the tongue to the teeth but rather with the front part of the tongue against the roof of the mouth.
The following are called paired consonants and they have special pronunciation:
b | p
d | t
g | k
h | ch
v | f
z | s
ž | š
Pronunciation of these paired consonants can be explained in a few rules:
1) When the first column of consonants is at the end of the word, it sounds like the second consonant. For example “meeting” sounds like “meetink,” “broskev” (peach) like “broskef”, and “ted’” (now) like “tet’”
2) When a consonant from the first column is followed by any sequence of consonants that ends in the second column “vstoupit” (to enter/get on) = fstoupit
3) The reverse of (2) is true as well- when a consonant from the second column is followed by a consonant from the first column. The most common example of this is the common question words “kdo, kdy, kde?” (who, when, where?), which sound like “gdo, gdy, gde?”
4) Pronunciation isn’t changed if “V” is the last consonant in the sequence.
These rules may seem quite bizarre at first, but the pronunciation starts to be natural once you get the knack for how the language sounds.
WHERE ARE THE VOWELS?!!!
Czech is known for having a lack of vowels in some words. This is not to say that there are no vowels in some words, but rather that the vowels are embedded in the pronunciation. Don’t worry too much, just take it one letter at a time and you’ll get it eventually.
Zmrzlina (ice cream). Difficult to pronounce but sounds (kind of) like “zmerzleena”
Strc prst skrs krk! (Stick your finger through your neck). Good luck with that one!