Background Information

Number of Speakers: 12 million

Key Dialects: Bohemian, Central Moravian, Eastern Moravian, Silesian

Geographical Center: Czech Republic


Czech is spoken by about 12 million people, the majority of whom live in the Czech Republic where it is the official language (Grimes 1992). Czech is considered the language of the historical regions of Bohemia, Moravia, and Silesia — the central and western parts of former Czechoslovakia — that now make up the Czech Republic. A significant number of Czech speakers live in the United States (approximately 1.4 million), Canada (27,780), Ukraine (21,000), and to a lesser extent in Poland, Austria, and Israel (Grimes 1992).

Linguistic Affiliation

Czech is a Slavic language belonging to a group of West Slavic languages which include Polish, Slovak, Cassubian (northern Poland), Sorbian (Saxony and Brandenburg, Germany), and Polabian, now extinct.

Slavic languages (with the Baltic languages–Latvian and Lithuanian) form a branch of the Indo-European language family. Other Slavic subgroups are South Slavic (Old Church Slavonic, Slovene, Serbian/Croatian, and Bulgarian) and East Slavic (Russian, Ukrainian, Belarusian). Czech and Slovak are very similar and mutually intelligible.

Language Variation

Czech dialects are generally divided into four major groups: Bohemian, Central Moravian (Hana), Eastern Moravian or Moravian Slovak, and Silesian (Lach) (Short 1987). The Prague dialect is the basis for standard written Czech, also known as Standard or Literary Czech. The colloquial spoken form of the language is called Common Czech. It is rooted in Central Bohemia but is spoken beyond this traditional area. Local dialect differences are increasingly subsumed by Common Czech, which is itself influenced by local dialect differences. The Eastern Moravian dialect is a transitional dialect between Czech and Slovak. The dialects are all mutually intelligible. Bohemian forms of Czech are fairly uniform with greater diversity in Bohemia; Silesian dialects are most diverse and form a continuum with the Polish dialects.


Czech uses a modified Roman orthography that has been adapted to the Czech language. It was developed very early in the current century and has undergone standardization; beginning with that of Jan Hus (1373-1415) and continuing until very recently (see Short 1987).

Linguistic Sketch

Czech is a richly inflected language like other Slavic languages. Nouns which are feminine, masculine, and neuter are declined in six declensions. Adjectives agree with nouns in number, gender, and case. Number (singular and plural) is distinguished as is gender by inflectional endings on stems. The seven case endings are nominative, accusative, genitive, dative, instrumental, locative, and vocative. Czech also marks an animate/inanimate distinction for masculine nouns. The language has no definite article.

Verbs have three major conjugations distinguishing first, second, and third persons, singular and plural. Subject pronouns are often omitted unless they are emphatic.

In syntax, main verbs agree in person and number with their subjects. Adjectives agree in person, gender, and case with the noun they modify. One of the prominent features of the system of gender and agreement is a high degree of redundancy: the same gender and number information may be repeated several times in the sentence.

Word order is grammatically free with no particular fixed order for constituents marking subject, object, possessor, etc. However, the neutral order is Subject-Verb-Object. The inflectional system takes care of keeping clear grammatical relations and roles. Pragmatic information and considerations of topic (what the sentence is about, or old information) and focus (new information conveyed by the sentence), as in other Slavic languages, is important in determining word order. Constituents with old information precede constituents with new information, or those that carry most emphasis.

Czech has five short vowel and five long vowel phonemes (although one of these only occurs in loan words), plus three diphthongs, only one of which occurs in native words, and a consonantal system of 25 phonemes. It has distinctive palatalization. Voiced consonants at the end of words are devoiced. Stress is invariably on the first syllable.

Czech has borrowed extensively from German.

Role in Society

Modern Standard Czech is the language of publication, education, and cultivated speech, but it exists alongside Common Czech, a sixteenth century development that in some cases rivals the standard (see Short 1992). Czech has an extensive literature with a long standing historical foundation.

There is a very strong tradition of translating into Czech and Slovak. In the former Czechoslovakia an average of 650 non-dramatic works of literature, 150 plays, and 200 films (dubbed or subtitled) were translated annually, and about 28 percent of television time was spent on translated material (Short 1987).


Both Czech and Slovak descend from “Middle Czech,” which was spoken in fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and ultimately from “Old Czech,” which dates back to the eleventh century. Although Czech and Slovak are closely related, they are considered distinct languages — a result of their political and linguistic heritage. For example, the German influence on Czech, seen in the substantial number of loan words from German, derives from the period when Austria dominated Bohemia and Moravia. Slovak, on the other hand, shows signs of Hungarian influence, due to political domination by the Hungarian Empire.


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Jakobson, R. 1955. Slavic Languages: A condensed Survey. New York: King’s Crown Press.

Lee, W. R. and Z. Lee. 1964. Teach Yourself Czech. English Universities Press, London.

Linguistic Society of America. 1992. Directory of Programs in Linguistics in the United States and Canada: 1993. Washington, DC.

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