The Czech language is spoken by close to 11 million people in the world, and mostly in the Czech Republic (or Czechia as some call it) but you can also hear Czech spoken in a few other countries around the world.
The Czech language is closely related to Slovak and a little more remotely to languages such as Bulgarian or Russian which are, of course, Slavic languages.
The easy answer to the question “Is Czech a Slavic language?” is in fact “yes“.
Czech belongs to the Western group of Slavic languages which also consists of Slovak and Polish. It is indeed a Slavic language. This becomes clear when you compare pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar between Czech and other Slavic languages, but languages from other language families, such as German, has also influenced the Czech tongue.
In the following, I’m going to take a closer look at Czech, what’s typically Slavic about it and how it evolved from the “Proto-Slavic” ancestor of all Slavic languages.
- 1 How Czech Broke Away From Other Slavic Languages
- 2 Things That Are Typically Slavic About The Czech Language
- 3 How Other Language Families Influenced Czech
- 4 Conclusion: Is Czech A Slavic Language?
How Czech Broke Away From Other Slavic Languages
Except for invented languages like Esperanto and Klingon, all languages develop organically. They can be traced back to earlier “Ancestral” languages, sometimes with historical proof, other times a little more speculatively.
Modern Czech came from “Old Czech” which in turn developed from Western-Slavic, which again came from Proto-Slavic, a hypothetical language that is thought to have broken away from “Proto-Balto-Slavic” some 3500 years ago. We can even go further back to “Proto-Indo-European” which is the earliest known ancestor to most European languages.
By looking at this linguistic family tree, we can conclude that Czech must be closely related to Western Slavic languages like Polish, which is the case, a little more distantly to other Slavic languages, like Russian, quite remotely to Lithuanian and Latvian and finally, very remotely to other Indo-European languages like English.
English and Czech are, in fact related, but only as much as you are to your third cousin. The closest cognates that the two languages have (that aren’t due to modern influences) are words such as “maminka” (meaning “mom”). Grammar and pronunciation wise (and for almost all vocabulary), the two languages seem very different.
Where a comparison really makes sense in on the Slavic level. Czech, Russian and Bulgarian are very different languages and they’re far from being mutually intelligible. But when you take a close look at them, you’ll notice that they have a lot in common. Even if they remain different. That’s why we say that they all belong to the Slavic language family.
Things That Are Typically Slavic About The Czech Language
So what’s Slavic about Czech?
Well, almost everything. Whether you look at grammar, pronunciation, vocabulary or anything else specific about the Czech language, you’ll find that these all stand out as particular Slavic. It makes sense, because if they didn’t we’d probably have to go look for another family for the Czech language.
Ok, let me get into explaining a bit about the Slavic features of Czech.
What’s Slavic About Czech Grammar?
Something that’s common for most Slavic languages is the case-system (with the exception of Macedonian and to a lesser extent other South-Slavic languages).
Czech has seven cases which is a system of showing the “role” of a noun in a sentence. The noun endings basically change whether the noun is “doing something” in the sentence, if something’s being done to it, if something is being done by using the noun and so on.
- The man is eating apples with a fork. (Here’s “the man” is doing something and it’s being done to the “apples” and the “fork” is the instrument with which the action is being performed.).
If the above was a Czech sentence, each of the three nouns would be taking an ending specific to the role of the noun in question. This means that propositions are much less used in Czech and other Slavic languages and that word order is less important.
In English, we can use the genitive case as an example. “The man’s apple”. In English, to indicate the role of the “owner” of something, “‘s” is added to the end of the “owner” noun. In Czech, similar changes just happen to a lot of other types of roles as well.
For a really good explanation, watch the video below:
What’s Slavic About Czech Pronunciation?
One aspect of Czech pronunciation that’s typically Slavic is palatalization. Palatalization is when you pronounce a consonant, but with a slightly different tongue-position, often from the palate. In Slavic languages, it’s often referred to as “hard” and “soft” consonants.
They exist in English too, but in a much lesser extent – and without people really being very aware of the differences. An example is the word “night” which is pronounced with a hard “N” versus the word “new” which is pronounced with a soft “N”. Try pronouncing each word and you’ll notice that when saying “night” your tongue will be touching your front teeth, whereas it touches your palate when pronouncing “new”.
Czech, like most Slavic languages distinguishes between palatalized (or soft) consonants and hard consonants, and using the right version of the consonant can be crucial to be understood.
What’s Slavic About Czech Vocabulary?
This one is easy, because a large part of the Czech lexicon is simply closely related to other Slavic languages, while very different from non-Slavic languages.
Below, I’ll try and compare a few words in Czech, Polish, Russian and Bulgarian, Czech and Polish being West-Slavic languages, Russian being an East-Slavic language and Bulgarian being a South-Slavic language.
To make it easier for everyone, I’ll be using the Latin alphabet, so words are easier to compare.
As you can see from the above, many words seem very similar between the different Slavic languages. You do have to take into consideration, however, than multiple synonyms exist for each word. “Horse” can also be “steed” “mount” “mare” and so on, which means that while an equivalent word almost always seems to exist, it might not be the most currently used one.
Generally, though, Czech appears to be very close, vocabulary-wise to other Slavic languages and it’s interesting to note that they seem a great deal more similar than the Germanic languages like English, Norwegian, Dutch and German for example.
How Other Language Families Influenced Czech
Czechia is geographically located in the middle of Central Europe between German-speaking Austria and Germany and the Slavic-speaking Poland and Slovakia. It’s also close to Hungary.
The Czech Republic and the Czech language hasn’t been untouched by it’s neighbors during the centuries and especially its relationship with German-speaking peoples shine through when you look closely at the Czech language.
There are hundreds of German loan-words present in the Czech language today. Most of them stem from the period where Czechia was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, when German was the official, administrative language of the region, spoken by intellectuals.
Like many European languages, Czech has equally borrowed a lot of scientific terms from Greek and Latin, and more recently the language has been influenced by English, French, Hebrew, Arabic and Persian. (Although at a much lesser degree).
But are these foreign influences enough to confuse Czech for a Germanic, Romance, Semitic or even Iranian language?
Not at all. While there are many loan-words, especially of German origin, they’re transformed to fit with Czech pronunciation, the grammar remains distinctly Slavic and the bulk of words are Czech to the core.
Conclusion: Is Czech A Slavic Language?
So can we safely say that Czech, without a doubt, is a Slavic language?
Czech resembles other Slavic languages in grammar, pronunciation and vocabulary a great deal more than it resembles any other language group or family.
And while it’s got a little more German loan-words than, say, Russian, there’s no mistaking Czech for anything else than a Slavic language.
Do you want to learn to speak Czech? Check out this article: