History and Czech
She was on her way to school. So many things had changed since the occupation. Troops patrolled the streets and the click of her shoes echoed in the silence. When she arrived at the university, she hurried to her first class. Everyone seemed so subdued today. She quickly found her seat and pushed her bookbag beneath the desk.
Professor Smith began passing out new books with what appeared to be some ancient writing on the cover. To be honest, it looked like hieroglyphics. The other students glanced around the room trying to understand what was going on.
"Class," the teacher began solemnly. "English will no longer be spoken here. From now on we will use Language X."
This hypothetical situation may seem like something from a science fiction novel, but it is an essential part of the tumultuous history of the Czech language and its people. What happens to a language when its people are forced to adopt another tongue? Moreover, how is the language changed when this process is undergone repeatedly?
Language change is usually a natural process. Languages adapt to the needs of the speakers. As human beings we are continually progressing and our language should reflect that progress. The Czech language has undergone many changes over the years. Contact with other countries, immigrant Czechs, and time have all contributed to the present state of the language.
To understand the language changes that have taken place, we need to familiarize ourselves with the history of its speakers. I have compiled a brief history of the Czech peoples to paint a clearer picture of their language progression.
Czech is a member of the Western Slavonic family. Although it shares many similarities with Latin, it is regarded as being closely related to the Baltic languages because of their declension patterns (Mann, p. 19, 1977). The most recent ancestor of Old Czech is what is referred as Old Church Slavonic. Old Church Slavonic is very similar to the Old Czech and only precedes it by about 200 years. We do not have much data on Old Church Slavonic, but we know that it shares many similarities with Old Czech (Mann, p. 20, 1977).
In the sixth century, the spoken language was Old Czech, but the written language is not documented. Most of the records we have are of little linguistic use to us. According to Stuart Mann, the literary texts of that time are written "in a variety of unphonetic and ambiguous spellings." Mann has also written that the records that we do have consist of "fragments, phrases, inscriptions, glosses, words embedded in Latin texts, and lists of words, proper names, and plant-names." Although researchers have tried to reconstruct Old Czech through onomastics, it has not proven very useful because of the Latinization of the words as well as the lack of diacritics. I have included a data sheet with some Old Czech terms. Much of the language has been lost through the extensive analogical leveling it has undergone (Mann, p.143-145, 1977).
Over time the Old Czech evolved and became a more concrete written language. In the tenth century, the religion, Judaism, established itself firmly in Czech lands. During these years the Czechs mingled with a Germanic tribe called the Franks, and the first Slavic royal line appeared. The different dialects of Czech became more pronounced at this time with the beginnings of the social classes. The nobility regarded their language as more advanced and civilized than that of the farmers (Nollen, p.15, 1997).
In 1306 AD, King Charles IV from the House of Luxembourg began his rule. He established the first university in central Europe. This great advancement firmly acknowledged the existence of literary Czech (Nollen, p. 16, 1997).
Religious reform came in the form of Jan Hus in the 1400's. The majority of the Czech speakers were Catholic under the Rule of King Charles IV. This accounts for the number of Latin terms adopted into Czech and other similarities between these two languages. While religious wars broke out involving the Hussites, Jan Hus followers, Hus developed a system of spelling and pronunciation. His contribution was a great asset to Czech orthography. His systematic use of diacritics helped alleviate confusion and misunderstanding (Mann, p.152, 1977).
History harshly threatened the Czech language over the following years. These threats came in the form of the Hapsburgs, the Nazis, and the Communists. In 1526 AD, the nobility of
the Czech lands elected the Hapsburgs to rule. Once these German-speaking Austrians developed a good footing, they consolidated their power and the Thirty Years War began. Over the course of their rule German became the official language of business. The Czech language was repressed as people lost their pride in the Czech language. In the mid-eighteenth century, however, national pride was restored through the efforts of Czech writers, politicians, and composers. During this time of revival, the Czech language once again surfaced (Nollen, p. 17, 1997).
World War II
During World War II, tragedy struck again as the Nazis overpowered the Czech people and occupied their lands. Under Nazi rule, the language was changed to German again and the Czech language went underground. This would account for the differences between spoken and literary Czech. Not many years later, the Communists took over the government and censored speech as well as expression of any kind. The Russians forced all the school age children to learn the Russian tongue. Because of the memories of oppression it brings, many Czechs refuse to speak Russian to this very day (Nollen, p. 18, 1997).
As you can see, history has played an integral role in the development of the Czech language. Through trade with the Poles and Germans, Czech has adopted words to accommodate itself. As much as the Czech people would like to forget the Russian occupancy, the Communists left their mark on the language (see Data Sheet 3).
Perhaps when we consider all that the people experienced, we can better understand the great gap between verbal and literary Czech. During times of oppression they were prohibited form speaking their mother tongue. I believe that they continued writing Czech in secret, to preserve the language for their children. I also feel that this accounts for the differences between the spoken and written word.
With all this strife threatening from other countries, we cannot fail to perceive the changes within. What we now refer to as the Slovak language was once a dialect of Old Czech. Essentially, it may still be regarded as such. Slovak and Czech come from the Western Slavonic branch of languages. Although Slovak and Czech have many similarities, they are two distinct languages, not dialects of Czech. It took several years for the Slovak language to become accepted and separate from Czech.
To understand this separation, we need to look at the dialects within the Czech Republic. The Czech Republic consists of three geographical regions. The first area is known as Moravia. It is closer to Slovak lands, the far eastern portion of what was known as Czechoslovakia, and is made up of the eastern third of the country. In Moravia, standard textbook Czech is spoken. They take great pride in their correct, prescriptive speech. Perhaps this explains somewhat the attitude of the nobility concerning their language. They pride themselves on their perfect speech and often feel themselves above the lower classes. Most of the Moravian Czech has remained unchanged over the years. It is often thought of as the "cultured" and "cultivated" form of Czech. Moravia’s history involves the German and German-speaking people, but they have always strived to keep the language pure and correct (Nollen, p. 13-14, 1997).
It is difficult to find a difference between Moravian and Bohemian Czech, however. Bohemia encompasses the greater portion of western Czech lands. The name Bohemia came from the Boii tribe. They were a group of Celts that settled in the western region of the Czech Republic around 300 BC (Nollen, p.13, 1997). Over time they have experienced the widest variety of linguistic change. Dialects are no longer tied to geographic regions, so the people must be conversant in several dialects. This knowledge of dialects has become a necessity and shows the extensive dialectal leveling occurring in Bohemian. Some of these include particular sound changes while others are broad morphological changes (Eckert, p.180-187, 1993). As this leveling process occurs, the verbal or non-literary Czech is converging with literary Czech. There continues to be a large gap, however, between the two although there has been some assimilation. (Eckert, 1993.)
Within Bohemia several dialects have become pronounced. The most noticeable change has been the vowel shortening that has taken place in the south. In central Bohemia, vowels have been shortened, but not in all cases. Following sibilants, the vowel stays the same as it does in literary form. I have included a data sheet that shows a few phonological changes that spoken Czech has experienced (Townsend, p. 24-40, 1990).4 Much of the change is simply accounted as being an unconscious phenomena. Many youth voice voiceless vowels, shift voweling, and not voice other voiced prepositional endings. These changes have occurred over generations and are nearly impossible to document for a fixed time.
The last geographical region is called Silesia. There is not much information available about this area. I have included a data sheet with a few regional words, but it is difficult to find adequate information. The only data I could find on Silesian stated that Silesian is a dialect of Czech. We do know that Silesia is found in the north and that its inhabitants are a mix of Poles, Germans, Czechs, and Moravians (Mann, p.158, 1977).
Each of these geographical regions have different dialectal variations of Czech. I assume this has much to do with cultural differences and outside contact. One of the most interesting things I have discovered in researching the Czech language, is the diversity within the language. It is especially enlightening to follow the language through each stage of change.
Eva Eckert of Connecticut College studied the change in immigrant Czech speakers in Praha, Texas. She did not record why they immigrated there or when, however her research includes dates as early as 1860 AD. Her method was to use tombstone inscriptions to illustrate the stages of development. She photographed more than one hundred and fifty stones and compared the inscriptions with the inscriptions from tombstones in the Czech Republic of the same time periods (Eckert, p. 189-215, 1993).
Eckert was able to find five distinct stages to the language change. Stage one involved
pre-1900 tombstones. These tombstones were written in indigenous Czech without any English influences. They showed a lack of grammar skills due to literacy levels but demonstrated a natural grasp of the language.
Stage two documented the early 1900's. While the people still used archaisms and diacritics, there began to be a definite use of English dating elements and naming models. Stage three showed the first signs of shift from the use of inflections and the integration of some English punctuation. The lack of grammatical agreement and loss of diacritics marked stage four. It is difficult to determine exactly when stages two through four occurred because it was over a number of years. We do know that this is the order of the change however.
Stage five, the final stage, involved the incorporation of English loan words. Eckert even documented the loss of word structure when the Czech words became unclear. The immigrants appeared to have begun spelling phonetically because of the loss of the Czech spelling. By the 1940's, the Czech tongue changed to an unrecognizable state. (Eckert, 1993.)
The Czech language has undergone many changes. Of all the possible factors involved, I believe time to be the most important. For a language to be alive, it must change. Eckert’s study clearly shows the effects that time and separation have had on the Czech language.
I am amazed at the strength of the Czech people. I hope I may be forgiven for referring to the Czech speakers as a people. I believe we are what we speak and I cannot research this language without obtaining a great admiration for its people. The Czech tongue is very special to me. My Grandmother is Czech. Her family immigrated to the Americas during World War II to escape Nazi rule and to find religious freedom. She has lost most of her native language over the years. I wonder if it is possible to hypothesize that many of the Czech people fled their homes, 55not only for freedom from oppression, but also to preserve their language for their children. This is my belief.
How could the Czechs have known the extent of the change for their children? How
could they have known the effects of history? Language changes to allow its speakers to adapt. History can teach us much about who we are. I do not speak Czech but it is a desire of mine to show my Grandmother the love I have for her language and my respect for the people who strove to preserve it, namely my great grandparents.
Language shows us how we can improve. We learn where we come from through the language we speak and the changes it has undergone. The Czech have a rich linguistic history. This has shaped their language to what it is today. It has altered to accommodate the needs of its speakers, and time will only tell what new changes will occur. Czech has surely been molten in a refiner’s fire.
Eckert, Eva. 1993. Varieties of Czech. Atlanta, Georgia: Amsterdam.
Mann, Stuart E. 1993. Czech Historical Grammar. Hamburg: Buske.
Nollen, Tim. 1997. Culture shock! A Guide to Customs and Etiquette. Portland, Oregon: Graphic Arts Center Pub.
Townsend, Charles E. 1990. A description of Spoken Prague Czech. Columbus, Ohio: Slavica Publishing Inc.
Old Czech Data Set (Mann, 1977)
Data Set 2 Czech words adopted from German (Mann, p. 159, 1977)
Data Set 3 Words adopted from Russian(Mann, p. 159-160, 1977)
Data Set 4 Vowel Deviations(Townsend, p. 24-40, 1990)
e > y / i
y / i > ej
u- > ou-
o- > vo-
Data Set 5 Moravian Silesian(Mann, p.157-159, 1977)
smal se, smol se, smel se