Czech phonology: Wikis

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This article discusses the phonological system of the Czech language

Contents

Vowels

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.

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

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

/iː/ is represented by letters í and ý
/uː/ is represented by letters ú and ů
/ɛː/ is represented by letter é
/aː/ (actually an open central unrounded vowel [äː]is represented by letter á
/oː/ is represented by letter ó

Short vowels

/ɪ/ is represented by the letters i and y
/u/ is represented by the letter u
/ɛ/ is represented by the letters e and ě
/a/ (actually an open central unrounded vowel [ä]) is represented by the letter a
/o/ (actually a mid back rounded vowel [o̞]) is represented by the letter o

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 an alveolar plosive or nasal, which then becomes palatal (e.g. něco [ɲɛtso]) and [jɛ] after other consonants (e.g. [bjɛ]).

Diphthongs

There are three diphthongs in Czech:

/au̯/ represented by au (almost exclusively in words of foreign origin)
/eu̯/ represented by eu (in words of foreign origin only)
/ou̯/ represented by ou

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].

Consonants

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

Labial Alveolar Post-
alveolar
Palatal Velar Glottal
Nasal  m  n    ɲ    
Plosive p b t d   c ɟ k (ɡ)  
Affricate   t͡s (d͡z) t͡ʃ (d͡ʒ)      
Fricative (f) v s z ʃ ʒ   x       ɦ
           
Trill        
   r        
Approximant    l    j    

The phoneme /r̝/ (written as <ř>) is a raised alveolar non-sonorant trill; its rarity makes it difficult to produce for foreign learners of Czech. 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. (Listen: Antonín Dvořák Cs-Antonin_Dvorak.ogg [ˈantoɲiːn ˈdvor̝aːk] )

The voiceless realization of the phoneme /ɦ/ is velar [x].

Secondary articulations (aspiration, labialization, velarization, palatalization, etc.) are not used in Czech.

Glottal stop

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:

  • The emphasis on the boundaries between words or in composite words is usually inserted between two vowels which do not form a diphthong, e.g. používat [po.ʔuʒiːvat] (to use), táta a máma [taːta ʔa maːma] (dad and mum); in words beginning with a vowel, it separates prepositions from words beginning with a vowel, e.g. z okna [s ʔokna] (out of the window); it is also inserted before initial vowels of the second part of composite words, e.g. trojúhelník [troj.ʔuːɦɛlɲiːk] (triangle). This usage of the glottal stop is usual in Bohemia. Pronunciation without it is obvious in Moravian regions, e.g. [trojuːɦɛlɲiːk], [zokna]. Both variants are regarded as correct.
  • Certain words can be emphasized by the use of the glottal stop.

In the standard pronunciation, the glottal stop is never inserted between two vowels in words of foreign origin, e.g. in the word koala.

Peripheral consonant phonemes

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)

Consonants in the script

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

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

Consonant assimilation

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

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

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

Assimilation of voice

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:

  • In consonant groups – all obstruents in the group are realized either voiced or voiceless. It is mostly given by the last consonant in the group (regressive assimilation), e.g. roztok [rostok] ('solution').
  • Voiced obstruents are realized voiceless in the final position in words (final devoicing). Compare led (ice) – ledu [lɛdu] (genitive form) vs. let (flight) – letu [lɛtu] (genitive form) – the nominative forms of the both words (led – let) have the same realization [lɛt] due to the final devoicing. But in the other inflection forms their pronunciation differs.

Voiced and voiceless obstruents form pairs in which the assimilation of voice applies (see table):

Voiceless Voiced
[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:

  • The phoneme /v/ also does not cause the voicing of preceding voiceless consonants (that is, it acts as a sonorant before vowels), e.g. světlo cs-světlo.ogg [svjɛtlo] (light). However, /v/ followed by a voiceless consonant is also realized voiceless, e.g. vsadit [fsaɟɪt] (to bet).
  • The phonemes /x/ (written <ch>), and /ɦ/ (written <h>) form a special voice pair even though the places of articulation differ, e.g. vrh cs-vrh.ogg [vrx] (a throw) – vrhu cs-vrhu.ogg [vrɦu] (genitive form). The phoneme /x/ followed by a voiced obstruent can by realized as either [ɦ] or [ɣ], e.g. abych byl cs-abych byl.ogg [abɪɣ.bɪl] (so that I would ... (conditional)). The phoneme /ɦ/ undergoes progressive assimilation after /s/ in Bohemian pronunciation, e.g. na shledanou [na sxlɛdanou̯] (good-bye), meanwhile standard regressive assimilations are obvious in Moravian pronunciation, [na zɦlɛdanou̯].
  • The phoneme /r̝/ does not cause assimilations of adjacent consonants, but it undergoes progressive as well as regressive assimilation according to its surroundings, e.g. i cs-při.ogg [pr̝̊ɪ] (by, during). Its basic realization is voiced. In final positions, it is voiceless.

Consonant merging

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 cs-cenný.ogg [t͡sɛniː] (valuable), kký cs-měkký.ogg [mɲɛkiː] (soft).
In prefixes and composite words, doubled pronunciation (gemination) is obvious, i.e. both phonemes are pronounced separately. 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 plosives (/d/, /t/, /ɟ/, /c/) and fricatives (/s/, /z/, /ʃ/, /ʒ/) usually produce affricates ([t͡s, d͡z, t͡ʃ, d͡ʒ]): ts [ɟɛt͡skiː] (child’s). Both phonemes are pronounced separately in careful pronunciation: [ɟɛt.skiː].

Consonant merging is perceived as careless at word boundaries, e.g. pojď sem (come here) realized as [pot͡sɛm]. It is necessary to pronounce all phonemes clearly and separately: [pojc.sɛm].

Prosody

Stress

The stress is always fixed to the first syllable of a word. The exceptions are following:

  • One-syllabic prepositions usually form a unit with following words. Therefore, the stress moves to the prepositions, ˈPraha (Prague) --> ˈdo Prahy (to Prague). This rule is not usually applied in words which have four or more syllables: e.g., na ˈkoloˌnádě (on the colonnade).
  • Some one-syllabic words (e.g. mi (me), ti (you), to (it), se, si (oneself), jsem (am), jsi (are), etc.) are clitics—they are not stressed and form a unit with preceding words, therefore they cannot be the first words in sentences. Example: ˈNapsal jsem ti ten ˈdopis (I have written the letter to you). (See Czech word order for details.)

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

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

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

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:

  • kniha /kɲɪɦa/ [kɲɪɦa] (book)
  • v knize /vkɲɪzɛ/ [fkɲɪzɛ] (in a book)
  • knížka /kɲiːʒka/ [kɲiːʃka] (little book)

Vowel alternations

The most important are alternations 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/ 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):

  • |a/ɛ|: šťastný (happy) – štěstí (happiness); vejce (egg) – vajec (gen. pl.)
  • |ɛ/o|: veze (is carrying) – vozí (carries)
  • |aː/iː|: About this sound át (to warm) – zahřívat (to warm up)
  • |aː/ɛ|: otřást (to shake) – otřes (tremor)
  • |aː/o|: vyrábět (to produce) – výroba (production)
  • |ɛ/iː|: zaječice (doe) – zajíc (hare)

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:

  • |ɛ/Ø|: matka (mother) – matek (gen. pl.); lež (lie) – lži (lies)

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:

  • |ɪ/Ø|: vypsat (to write out, to extract) – výpis (abstract, extract)
  • |ɪː/Ø|: vytknout (to reproach once) – vytýkat (to reproach); ubrat (to take away once) – ubírat (to take away)(examples of verb pairs with perfective and imperfective aspects)
  • |u/Ø|: suchý (dry) – schnout (to become dry)

Consonant alternation

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.

Hard Soft Examples, 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:

  • |p/Ø|: topit se – tonout (to be drowning – both words)
  • |b/Ø|: zahýbat (to be turning) – zahnout (to take a turn)
  • |p/Ø|: vléct (to lug) – obléct (to dress)

Orthographic notes

In some letter groups, phonological principles of the Czech orthography are broken:

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

References

  • Dankovičová, Jana (1999), "Czech", Handbook of the International Phonetic Association, Cambridge University Press, pp. 70-74 
  • Šiška Z. Fonetika a fonologie. Univerzita Palackého v Olomouci, 2. vyd., Olomouc 2005. ISBN 80-244-1044-3.
  • Duběda T. Jazyky a jejich zvuky. Univerzálie a typologie ve fonetice a fonologii. Karolinum, Praha 2005. ISBN 80-246-1073-6.
  • Karlík P., Nekula M., Pleskalová J. (eds.). Encyklopedický slovník češtiny. Nakl. Lidové noviny. Praha 2002. ISBN 80-7106-484-X.
  • Karlík P., Nekula M., Rusínová Z. (eds.) Příruční mluvnice češtiny. Nakladatelství Lidové noviny, Praha 1995. ISBN 80-7106-134-4.
  • Čermák F. Jazyk a jazykověda. Karolinum, Praha 2004. ISBN 80-246-0154-0.

See also


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