Czech phonology

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This article discusses the phonological system of the Czech language.

Consonants[edit]

The following chart shows a complete list of the consonant phonemes of Czech:

LabialAlveolarPost-
alveolar
PalatalVelarGlottal
Nasalmnɲ
Stoppbtdcɟk(ɡ)
Affricatet͡s(d͡z)t͡ʃ(d͡ʒ)
Fricative(f)vszʃʒxɦ
 [1]
Trill 
r
Approximantlj

1 The phoneme //, written ř, is a raised alveolar non-sonorant trill. (Listen: Antonín Dvořák About this sound [ˈantoɲiːn ˈdvor̝aːk] ) 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/ "to neigh", which is pronounced differently from řád /r̝aːt/ "order". 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.

Glottal stop[edit]

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.

Marginal consonant phonemes[edit]

The phonemes /f/, /ɡ/, and the affricates /d͡z/ and /d͡ʒ/ occur in words of foreign origin or dialects only. (However, [f] and [g] may also occur as a result of voicing assimilation of /v/ and /k/ respectively, see "assimilation of voice" below.) Phonetically, the affricates can occur at morpheme boundaries (see consonant merging below). [f] also appears in the verb doufat and its derivatives (as a result of contraction of Proto-Slavic *upvati), and in some words of onomatopoeic origin (foukat).

Consonants in the script[edit]

Other consonants are represented by the same characters (letters) as in the IPA.

IPACzech alphabet
/ʃ/š
/ʒ/ž
/ɲ/ň
/c/ť
/ɟ/ď
/ɦ/h
/x/ch
/t͡s/c
/t͡ʃ/č
/d͡ʒ/
/r̝/ř

Consonant assimilation[edit]

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.

Assimilation of the place of articulation[edit]

Labiodental [ɱ] is a realization of /m/ before labiodental fricatives /f/ and /v/, e.g. in the word tramvaj About this sound [traɱvaj] (tramway).
Velar [ŋ] is a realization of /n/ before velar stops /k/ and /ɡ/, e.g. in the word banka About this sound [baŋka] (bank).

The former assimilation is optional. Realization as [tramvaj] is possible, especially in more prestigious registers.

Assimilation of voice[edit]

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):

VoicelessVoiced
[p][b]
[t][d]
[c][ɟ]
[k][ɡ]
[f][v]
[s][z]
[ʃ][ʒ]
[x][ɦ]
[t͡s][d͡z]
[t͡ʃ][d͡ʒ]
[r̝̊][r̝]

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:

Consonant merging[edit]

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 About this sound [t͡sɛniː] (valuable), kký About this sound [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]): ts [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].

Vowels[edit]

There are 10 monophthongal and 3 diphthongal vowel phonemes in Czech: /iː ɪ ɛː ɛ aː a oː o uː u eu̯ au̯ ou̯/. Czech is a quantity language: it differentiates five vowel qualities that occur as both phonologically short and long. The short and long counterparts generally do not differ in their quality, although long vowels may be more peripheral than short vowels.[1]

As for the high front vowel pair /iː/-/i/, there are dialectal differences with respect to phonetic realisation of the contrast: in the Bohemian variety of Czech, the two vowels are differentiated by both quality and duration, while in the Eastern Moravian variety of Czech the primary difference is that of duration. Therefore, in the Bohemian variety, the transcription [iˑ]-[ɪ] more accurately reflects the trade off between the qualitative and the durational difference in these vowels, while in the Eastern Moravian variety of Czech, the transcription [iː]-[i] captures the primary durational difference.[2]

Besides length, Czech differentiates three degrees of height and three degrees of backness.[3]

Vowel modifications such as nasalization do not occur in Czech. The vowels are never reduced and undergo no assimilations. Vowel length and quality is independent of the stress.

Czech vowel chart, based on Dankovičová (1999:72)

Short vowels[edit]

/ɪ/ is spelled as i and y
/ɛ/ is spelled as e and ě
/a/ is spelled as a
/o/ is spelled as o
/u/ is spelled as u

Long vowels[edit]

Long vowels are indicated by an acute accent (čárka) or a ring (kroužek).

/iː/ is spelled í and ý
/ɛː/ is spelled as é
/aː/ is spelled as á
/oː/ is spelled as ó (this phoneme occurs almost exclusively in words of foreign origin)
/uː/ is spelled as ú and ů

Diphthongs[edit]

/au̯/ is spelled as au (occurs almost exclusively in words of foreign origin)
/eu̯/ is spelled as eu (occurs in words of foreign origin only)
/ou̯/ is spelled as ou

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. [bjɛ]).

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].

Prosody[edit]

Stress[edit]

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.krásněj.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.

Intonation[edit]

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:

On to udělal. (He did it.)
On to udělal? (Did he do it?)
On to udělal?! (He did it?!)

All these sentences have the same lexical and grammatical structure. The differences are in their intonation.

Phonotactics[edit]

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:

(C)(C)(C)(C)V(C)(C)(C)
C – consonant
V – vowel or syllabic consonant

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.

Morphophonology[edit]

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:

Vowel alternations[edit]

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 phonemeLong phonemeExamples, notes
/a//aː/About this sound zakladatel (founder) – About this sound 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) – About this sound 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:

Consonant alternation[edit]

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.

HardSoftExamples, notes
/d//ɟ/About this sound mladý (young – masc. sg.) – About this sound mladí (young masc. anim. pl.)
/t//c/plat (pay, wages) – platit (to pay)
/n//ɲ/žena (woman) – ženě (woman – dat.)
/r//r̝̊/About this sound dobrý (good – adj.) – About this sound 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/About this sound vlk (wolf) – vlček (little wolf)
/t͡s/vlci (wolves)
/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/m (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:

Orthographic notes[edit]

In some letter groups, phonological principles of the Czech orthography are broken:[which?]

VoicedVoicelessNasal
dy [dɪ]ty [tɪ]ny [nɪ]
di [ɟɪ]ti [cɪ]ni [ɲɪ]
[ɟiː][ciː][ɲiː]
[ɟɛ][cɛ][ɲɛ]
[bjɛ]
[vjɛ]
[pjɛ]
[fjɛ]
[mɲɛ]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Kučera, H. (1961). The Phonology of Czech. s’ Gravenhage: Mouton & Co.
  2. ^ Šimáčková, Š., Podlipský, V. J., & Chládková, K. (2012). Czech spoken in Bohemia and Moravia. Journal of the International Phonetic Association, 42 (2), 225–232. DOI: 10.1017/S0025100312000102
  3. ^ Kučera, H. (1961). The Phonology of Czech. s’ Gravenhage: Mouton & Co.

Bibliography[edit]