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There are 10 vowel phonemes in Czech. 5 of them are short and 5 are long. The duration of the long vowels is approximately double in comparison with their short counterparts. Long and short vowels form minimal pairs. The length (quantity) is an important distinctive feature in Czech. It differentiates various word meanings, e.g. pata /pata/ (heel) and pátá /paːtaː/ (the fifth). Moreover, some authors regard the diphthongs /au̯/, /eu̯/, /ou̯/ as separate phonemes.
The Czech vowel system is three-grade and triangular (see the picture). The system of long vowels is regarded as symmetric with the system of short vowels, although the phoneme /oː/ occurs almost exclusively in words of foreign origin.
Besides the length, the distinctive features of vowels are the openness (open/mid/close) and the frontness/backness (front/central/back). The roundedness is not a separate distinctive feature, it enlarges the acoustic difference between the front and the back vowels. The back vowels are rounded while the front and central ones are unrounded.
Vowel modifications such as nasalization do not occur in Czech. The vowels are never reduced and undergo no assimilations. The vowel length and quality is independent of the stress.
The phonemes /o/ and /oː/ are sometimes referred to as /ɔ/ and /ɔː/. This transcription describes the pronunciation in Central Bohemia and Prague, which is more open. The standard pronunciation is something between [o(ː)] and [ɔ(ː)], i.e. mid back vowel.
Note that ě is not a separate vowel. It simply denotes [ɛ] after a palatal stop or nasal (e.g. něco [ɲɛtso]) and [jɛ] after other consonants (e.g. bě [bjɛ]).
There are three diphthongs in Czech:
Vowel groups ia, ie, ii, io, and iu in foreign words are not regarded as diphthongs, they are pronounced with /j/ between the vowels [ɪja, ɪjɛ, ɪjɪ, ɪjo, ɪju].
The following chart shows a complete list of the consonant phonemes of Czech:
|Stop||p b||t d||c ɟ||k (ɡ)|
|Affricate||t͡s (d͡z)||t͡ʃ (d͡ʒ)|
|Fricative||(f) v||s z||ʃ ʒ||x||ɦ|
The phoneme /r̝/, written ⟨ř⟩, is a raised alveolar non-sonorant trill. (Listen: Antonín Dvořák [ˈantoɲiːn ˈdvor̝aːk] (help·info)) Its rarity makes it difficult to produce for foreign learners of Czech, who may pronounce it as /rʒ/; however, it contrasts with /rʒ/ in words like ržát /rʒaːt/, which is pronounced differently from řád /r̝aːt/. The basic realization of this phoneme is voiced, but it is voiceless [r̝̊] when preceded or followed by a voiceless consonant or at the end of a word.
/t/ and /d/ can be pronounced as dental stops.
The voiceless realization of the phoneme /ɦ/ is velar [x].
Secondary articulations (aspiration, labialization, velarization, palatalization, etc.) are not used in Czech.
The glottal stop is not a separate phoneme. Its use is optional and it may appear as the onset of an otherwise vowel-initial syllable. The pronunciation with or without the glottal stop does not affect the meaning and is not distinctive.
The glottal stop has two functions in Czech:
In the standard pronunciation, the glottal stop is never inserted between two vowels in words of foreign origin, e.g. in the word koala.
The phonemes /f/, /ɡ/, and the affricates /d͡z/ and /d͡ʒ/ occur in words of foreign origin or dialects only. Phonetically, the affricates can occur at morpheme boundaries (see consonant merging below)
Other consonants are represented by the same characters (letters) as in the IPA.
Realizations of consonant phonemes are influenced by their surroundings. The position of phonemes in words can modify their acoustic realizations without a change of the meaning.
The former assimilation is optional. Realization as [tramvaj] is possible, especially in more prestigious registers.
Assimilation of voice is an important feature of Czech pronunciation. Voiced obstruents are, in certain circumstances, realized voiceless and vice versa. It is not represented orthographically where more etymological principles are applied. Assimilation of voice applies in these circumstances:
Voiced and voiceless obstruents form pairs in which the assimilation of voice applies (see table):
Sonorants (/m/, /n/, /ɲ/, /j/, /r/ and /l/) have no voiceless counterparts and are never devoiced. They do not cause the voicing of voiceless consonants in standard pronunciation, e.g. sledovat [slɛdovat] (to watch).
There are some exceptions to the rules described above:
Two identical consonant phonemes (or allophones) can meet in morpheme boundaries during word formation. In many cases, especially in suffixes, two identical consonant sounds merge in one sound in the pronunciation, e.g. cenný [t͡sɛniː] (valuable), měkký [mɲɛkiː] (soft).
In prefixes and composite words, lengthened or doubled pronunciation (gemination) is obvious. It is necessary in cases of different words: nejjasnější [nɛjjasɲɛjʃiː] (the clearest, the brightest) vs. nejasnější [nɛjasɲɛjʃiː] (more unclear). Doubled pronunciation is perceived as hypercorrect in cases like [t͡sɛnniː] or [mɲɛkkiː].
Combinations of stops (/d/, /t/, /ɟ/, /c/) and fricatives (/s/, /z/, /ʃ/, /ʒ/) usually produce affricates ([t͡s, d͡z, t͡ʃ, d͡ʒ]): dětský [ɟɛt͡skiː] (children’s). Both phonemes are pronounced separately in careful pronunciation: [ɟɛt.skiː].
Consonant merging is perceived as careless[clarification needed] at word boundaries, e.g. pojď sem (come here) realized as [pot͡sɛm]. It is necessary to pronounce all phonemes clearly and separately: [pojc.sɛm].
The stress is always fixed to the first syllable of a word. The exceptions are following:
Long words can have the secondary stress which is usually placed on every odd syllable, e.g. ˈnej.krás.ˌněj.ší (the most beautiful).
The stress has no lexical or phonological function; it denotes boundaries between words but does not distinguish word meanings. It has also no influence on the quality or quantity of vowels, i.e. the vowels are not reduced in unstressed syllables and can be both short and long regardless of the stress. Thus, the Czech rhythm can be considered as isosyllabic.
Czech is not a tonal language. Tones or melodies are not lexical distinctive features. However, intonation is a distinctive feature on the level of sentences. Tone can differentiate questions from simple messages, as it need not necessarily be indicated by the word order:
All these sentences have the same lexical and grammatical structure. The differences are in their intonation.
Open syllables of type CV are the most abundant in Czech texts. It is supposed that all syllables were open in the Proto-Slavic language. Syllables without consonant onset occur with a relatively little frequency. Using the glottal stop as a preture in such syllables confirms this tendency in the pronunciation of Bohemian speakers. In Common Czech, the most widespread Czech intedialect, prothetic v– is added to all words beginning with o– in standard Czech, e.g. voko instead of oko (eye).
The general structure of Czech syllables is:
Thus, Czech word can have up to four consonants in the initial group and three consonants in the final group (not including syllabic consonants). The syllabic nucleus is usually formed by vowels or diphthongs, but in some cases syllabic sonorants (/r/ and /l/, rarely also /m/ and /n/) can be found in the nucleus, e.g. vlk [vl̩k] (wolf), krk [kr̩k] (neck), osm [osm̩] (eight).
Vowel groups can occur in the morpheme boundaries. They cannot include more than two vowels. Both vowels in the groups are separate syllabic nuclei and do not form diphthongs.
Phoneme alternations in morphophonemes (changes which do not affect morpheme meaning) are frequently applied in inflections and derivations. They are divided into vowel and consonant alternations. Both types can be combined in a single morpheme:
The most important alternations are those of short and long phonemes. Some of these alternations are correlative, i.e. the phonemes in pairs differ in their length only. Due to historical changes in some phonemes (/oː/ → /uː/, /uː/ → /ou̯/), some alternations are disjunctive, i.e. the phonemes in pairs are different in more features. These alternations occur in word roots during inflections and derivations, and they also affect prefixes in derivations.
|Short phoneme||Long phoneme||Examples, notes|
|/a/||/aː/||zakladatel (founder) – zakládat (to found)|
|/ɛ/||/ɛː/||letadlo (airplane) – létat (to fly)|
|/ɪ/||/iː/||litovat (be sorry) – lítost (regret)|
vykonat (to perform) – výkon (performance)
|/o/||/uː/||koně (horses) – kůň (horse)|
|/u/||/uː/||učesat (to comb) – účes (hair style)|
(in initial positions in morphemes only)
|/u/||/ou̯/||kup! (buy!) – koupit (to buy)|
(in other positions)
Some other disjunctive vowel alternations occur in word roots during derivations (rarely also during inflections):
Emergence/disappearance alternations also take place, i.e. vowels alternate with null phonemes. In some allomorphs, /ɛ/ is inserted between consonants in order to make the pronunciation easier:
It also occurs in some prepositions which have vocalised positional variants: v domě – (in a house) – ve vodě (in water); s tebou (with you) – se mnou (with me), etc.
Some other alternations of this type occur, but they are not so frequent:
Alternations of hard and soft consonants represent the most abundant type. They occur regularly in word-stem final consonants before certain suffixes (in derivations) and endings (in inflections). Hard consonants are softened if followed by soft /ɛ/ (written <e/ě>), /ɪ/, or /iː/ (written <i> and <í>, not <y> and <ý>). These changes also occur before some other suffixes (e.g. –ka). Softening can be both correlative and disjunctive.
|/d/||/ɟ/||mladý (young – masc. sg.) – mladí (young masc. anim. pl.)|
|/t/||/c/||plat (pay, wages) – platit (to pay)|
|/n/||/ɲ/||žena (woman) – ženě (woman – dat.)|
|/r/||/r̝̊/||dobrý (good – adj.) – dobře (good – adv., well)|
|/s/||/ʃ/||učesat (to comb) – učešu (I will comb)|
|/z/||/ʒ/||ukázat (to show) – ukážu (I will show)|
|/t͡s/||/t͡ʃ/||ovce (sheep) – ovčák (shepherd)|
|/ɡ/||/ʒ/||Riga – rižský (adj.)|
|/z/||v Rize (in Riga)|
|/ɦ/||/ʒ/||Praha (Prague) – Pražan (Prague citizen)|
|/z/||v Praze (in Prague)|
|/x/||/ʃ/||prach (dust) – prášit (to raise dust)|
|/s/||smíchat (to mix) – směs (mixture)|
|/k/||/t͡ʃ/||vlk (wolf) – vlček (little wolf)|
|/sk/||/ʃc/||britský (British – masc. sg.) – britští (British – masc. anim. pl.)|
|/t͡sk/||/t͡ʃc/||anglický (English – adj.) – angličtina (English – language)|
|/b/||/bj/||nádoba (vessel) – v nádobě (in a vessel)|
bílý (white) – bělásek (cabbage white butterfly)
|/p/||/pj/||zpívat (to sing) – zpěvák (singer)|
|/v/||/vj/||tráva (grass) – na trávě (on the grass)|
vím (I know) – vědět (to know)
|/f/||/fj/||harfa (harp) – na harfě (on the harp)|
|/m/||/mɲ/||dům (house) – v domě (in a house)|
smích (laughter) – směšný (laughable)
The last four examples are emergence alternations. A phoneme (/j/ or /ɲ/) is inserted in the pronunciation, but for the historical reasons, these changes are indicated by <ě> in the orthography (see the orthographic notes below). These alternations are analogical with softening alternations, therefore they are mentioned here. They also occur in word roots together with vowel alternations (usually |ɛ/iː|).
Some other alternations occur but they are not so frequent. They are often little evident:
In some letter groups, phonological principles of the Czech orthography are broken:
|dy [dɪ]||ty [tɪ]||ny [nɪ]|
|di [ɟɪ]||ti [cɪ]||ni [ɲɪ]|
|dí [ɟiː]||tí [ciː]||ní [ɲiː]|
|dě [ɟɛ]||tě [cɛ]||ně [ɲɛ]|
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