The official language of the Czech Republic is Czech. It is spoken by approx. 10.6 million people. Czech falls within the West Slavic language group and therefore is similar to Polish, as well as Russian and Croatian. An interesting phenomenon is its great similarity to Slovak. And did you know that the famous writer Franz Kafka spoke Czech? Or that Czech ranks among the most complicated languages in the world?
Although the vast majority of the population of the Czech Republic (96%) speaks Czech, you can also hear Slovak, Russian, Polish, Ukrainian, or Vietnamese as these are languages of the largest national minorities in the Czech Republic.
Tourists will usually make themselves understood in English and quite often also in German or Russian.
The deaf are advised to use, if possible, Italian or Austrian sign language, since these are closest to Czech sign language.
10 things you (probably) did not know about Czech
- Although Czech is not a very common language, the whole world uses one word originating from it ... and this word is robot! First used in the novel “R. U. R.“ by Czech writer Karel Čapek, it was created by his brother Josef Čapek.
- Czech is one of the most complicated languages in the world, as classified by scientists from the U.S. Defense Language Institute. Similarly, as Finnish, Russian, Bengali, and Thai.
- Franz Kafka, a German language novelist, was fluent in Czech because he lived in Prague. Czech is also the mother tongue of the famous writer Milan Kundera, who lives in France. One of his well-known novels is “The Unbearable Lightness of Being.”
- Do you know what a raised alveolar non-sonorant trill is? It is the name of the "ř" sound, which is very specific for Czech, since other languages do not have any similar sounds like that. Foreigners find it very difficult to pronounce "ř" and without good training it is almost impossible. If however you wish to give it a go, slightly purse your lips, keep the teeth together, place the tip of your tongue on the roof of your mouth and vibrate it. The sound you are looking for is something like a horse neighing or a motorbike starting up.
- Czech is spoken almost exclusively in the territory of the Czech Republic. It is possible to come across small Czech-speaking enclaves in Romania, Ukraine, the United States, Canada and Australia.
- Czechs can pronounce words containing no vowels at all. And surprisingly, they use them quite often. For example, “prst” means “finger”, čtvrt is “quarter“ and krk means “neck”.
- There is a special relationship between the Czech and Slovak languages, referred to by scientists as passive bilingualism. Simply put, it means Czechs understand Slovak without much effort or study and vice-versa Slovaks comprehend Czech.
- Nonetheless, throughout its history the Czech language was strongly influenced by German, as is shown for example in its word-stock and geographical names. Interestingly, towns close to the German border often have not only Czech but also a German name. This is the case of the spa town of Karlovy Vary known as Karlsbad or Liberec referred to as Reichenberg in German.
- Although the Czech Republic is a relatively small country, there are several considerably different dialects. So you may quite easily witness a situation when two confused Czechs will not understand what people from around Olomouc are saying to them.
- A typical feature of the Czech language is the use of diacritics - small hooks (carons) and acute accents (dashes) written above the letters. These symbols indicate pronunciation and simplify spelling. They were not always used in the Czech language; their beginning is connected with the reform of the late 14th and early 15th century. The main advocator of the diacritic concept was Master Jan Hus, who was burned at the stake in Konstanz for his criticism of the Church. His monument dominates Old Town Square in Prague.
Basic glossary of words and phrases, which may come handy in the Czech Republic
Hello = Ahoj [aɦɔj]
Good day = Dobrý den [dɔbriː dɛn]
Good-bye = Na shledanou [na sɦlɛdanɔʊ̯]
Thanks = Děkuji [Djɛkʊjɪ]
Not at all = Není za co [Nɛɲiː za tsɔ]
Beer = Pivo [Pɪvɔ]
Another one = Ještě jedno [Jɛʃcɛ jɛdnɔ]