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Czech Consonants and Vowels

Grammar & Vocabulary (Gramatika a slovní zásoba) | Grammar Notes (Poznámky o gramatice)

Do we write "i" or "y"?It might happen when you start learning the Czech alphabet, or during the dark encounter with the Czech declension system: your teacher (or the handbook you're using) starts babbling about some kind of "soft" and "hard" consonants and endings... What the hack? you think and can't wrap your head around it... "Hard" and "soft" consonants? When I touch them on paper, they all feel the same!

  1. Let's start with the Czech alphabet...
    • The English alphabet
      A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, J, K, L, M, N, O, P, Q, R, S, T, U, V, W, X, Y, Z
    • The Czech alphabet
      A, Á, B, C, Č, D, Ď, E, É, Ě, F, G, H, CH, I, Í, J, K, L, M, N, Ň, O, Ó, P, Q, R, Ř, S, Š, T, Ť, U, Ú, Ů, V, W, X, Y, Ý, Z, Ž (more on Czech pronunciation)
    • The difference
      Á, Č, Ď, É, Ě, CH, Í, Ň, Ó, Ř, Š, Ť, Ú, Ů, Ý, Ž
    • Let's group them 
      • those with a straight line: Á, É, Í, Ó, Ú, Ý
      • those with a crooked line: Č, Ď, Ě, Ň, Ř, Š, Ť, Ž
      • the one with a circle: Ů
      • the leftover: CH
    • What does it mean?
      • The straight line (called čárka) makes the sound longer. 
        • I've read somewhere it's about twice longer, but it depends on what region the speaker comes from - people from around Ostrava will pronounce them much shorter than people from Prague, for example.
      • The crooked line (called háček) makes the sound "soft". 
        • More about that further.
      • The circle (called kroužek) has basically the same function as čárka - it makes the sound longer. 
        • There's practically no difference between Ú and Ů in pronounciation, the only difference is in writing - there's a rule that Ú goes at the beginning of words and Ů in the middle or at the end of words. Kroužek is a remnant from the times when "u" was followed by "o" in the words, such as "kuoň", "stuol", "duom", etc. - the "o" moved up above the "u" and it became long in pronunciation: "kůň" (a horse), "stůl" (a table), "dům" (a house), etc. 
        • However, there are some words that have Ú in the middle, such as "pedikúra" (a pedicure), "manikúra" (a manicure), "kúra" (a cure), "túra" (a tour, a hike) or "múza" (a muse). As you can see, these words are originally foreign. If you make a mistake and write Ů instead of Ú, most of them will keep their meaning - except "kůra", which means "bark" (the top layer of a tree trunk).
        • Honestly, kroužek is a thing that's here just to bother and make writing more difficult than it needs to be - even for Czechs. For Czech children, the differentiation between Ú and Ů is just another reason for drills and tests in their "ČJ" (= český jazyk = Czech language) lessons - and many of them grow up still mixing it up and not giving a damn.
      • CH is a sound that's created when you get your mouth ready for "h" (as in hungry), but then instead of voicing the sound in your throat, you just let out breath noisily - that is directed towards the upper roof of your mouth...
        • CH is a sound that isn't found in English, but it's doesn't appear solely in Czech either. Russian has it as "х" (e.g. in хохот), German has it as "ch" or sometimes "g" (e.g. in richtig), Spanish has it as well - as "g" before "e" or "i", I believe... It's the sound of laughing: cha-cha-cha! Or of panting... 
  2. What is a "vowel" and a "consonant"?
    • The English alphabet has these:
    • The Czech alphabet differentiates these:
      • vowels (samohlásky)
        • short (krátké samohlásky): A, E, I, O, U, Y
        • long (dlouhé samohlásky): Á, É, Í, Ó, Ú, Ů, Ý
        • plus a special case: Ě 
          • "Ě" softens pronunciation of the preceding consonant
          • "Ě" only follows after these consonants: , , , (pronounce "MNĚ"), (pronounce "BJE"), ("PJE"), ("VJE"), ("FJE")
          • incorrect: CĚ, ČĚ, ĎĚ, GĚ, HĚ, CHĚ, JĚ, KĚ, LĚ, ŇĚ, QĚ, RĚ, ŘĚ, SĚ, ŠĚ, ŤĚ, WĚ, XĚ, ZĚ, ŽĚ
      • consonants (souhlásky)
        • soft (měkké souhlásky): Ž, Š, Č, Ř, C, J, Ď, Ť, Ň 
        • hard (tvrdé souhlásky): H, CH, K, R, D, T, N, G
        • ambiguous (obojetné souhlásky): B, F, L, M, P, S, V, Z, X
        • ommitted because rare in Czech: Q, W
  3. Why should I care?
    • The good news is that when you just want to speak, you don't have to care, as the difference between "soft", "hard" and "ambiguous" consonants is only in writing. (Originally, there used to be a difference in pronunciation as well: between "i" and "y" - just as there still is in Russian, but in Czech, there isn't anymore.)
    • However, you should know the difference in pronounciation between these pairs, or rather fours:
      • di - dy -- dě - de
      • ti - ty -- tě - te
      • ni - ny -- ně - ne
  4. How can a consonant be "soft"?!
    • What makes a consonant "soft" is that it can only be followed by "i" (which is called "soft i" = měkké i in Czech) in Czech words in written Czech, i. e.:
      • correct: ŽI, ŠI, ČI, ŘI, CI, JI
      • incorrect: ŽY, ŠY, ČY, ŘY, CY, JY
    • What about "Ď, Ť, Ň"?
      • It works like this: Ď + A = ĎA, Ď + O = ĎO, Ď + U = ĎU, BUT: Ď + E = DĚ, Ď + I = DI, AND never! Ď + Y = (similarly for Ť and Ň).
      • correct: DI, TI, NI
    • But I've seen "Y" after "C"!!!
      • I bet you have! But those words are not originally Czech - some examples: cyklista, cyklon, cyklus... 
  5. What makes a consonant "hard"?
    • A "hard" consonant can only be followed by "y" (which is called "hard i" - tvrdé i in Czech) in Czech words in written Czech, i. e.:
      • correct: HY, CHY, KY, RY, GY
      • incorrect: HI, CHI, KI, RI, GI
    • But I have seen some words with "HI", "CHI", "KI", etc.!
      • It's possible, but those words were not originally Czech. Some examples: hierarchie, kinetika, risk...
    • What about "D, T, N"?
      • DY, TY, NY are pronounced in a "hard" way, it's just putting the sounds D + I, T + I, N + I together, without softening the pronunciation of D, T, N - it's the "natural" way for an English-speaking foreigner to pronounce the combinations, it usually doesn't cause trouble. However, you must remember, that in Czech, only DY, TY, NY are pronounced this "hard" way, because DI, TI, NI in Czech words are pronounced "softly" (it happens when you press the back of your tongue towards the upper roof of your mouth when pronouncing the "hard" variant - as if you wanted to whisper or giggle). 
      • A note: in foreign words, DI, TI, NI are pronounced this "hard" way, i. e. as DY, TY, NY. Some examples: diabetik, tip, nikotin.
    • But my kids go to Czech school and they are only learning "H, CH, K, R, D, T, N"!
      • Yes, that's true. Because G is also pretty rare in Czech words - but not as rare as Q and W, so it is added to the group of hard consonants. Some examples: gymnázium, synagogy, drogy.
  6. An "ambiguous" consonant?! What do you mean?
    • These are consonants that are sometimes followed by "i" and sometimes by "y"
    • In spoken Czech, you don't hear any difference, and that is also the reason why it causes so much trouble to Czechs themselves to learn where to write which one. Czech children are forced to learn so called vyjmenovaná slova (listed words), i. e. words where the "ambiguous" consonants are followed by "y". If a word is not on the list, you write "i". The thing is that not only the actual words on the list count, but also related words, so in order to know whether to write "i" or "y", you have to know the meaning of a word - you have to recognize whether it is semantically related to a listed word or not. This makes it extremely difficult for foreigners to learn.
      • correct: BI/BY, FI/FY, LI/LY, MI/MY, PI/PY, SI/SY, VI/VY, ZI/ZY, XI/XY
    • X also counts, seriously? But my kid doesn't learn that...
      • It's the same as with G - it's not taught at schools because it's very rare in Czech words. But some examples are: praxe - praxi, taxa - taxy.
    Vyjmenovaná slova - an overview Vyjmenovaná slova after BLM Vyjmenovaná slova after PSVZ
  7. So if I don't want to write, I don't have to care?
    • Actually, there is one area where you do have to care, and that's declensions. It's not about knowing whether to write "i" or "y", or a difference in pronunciation - it's about chosing the right model / pattern for declensions, and it concerns the masculine gender. 
    • What follows is a table listing forms of masculine nouns, based on whether they're animate (= living - for people and animals) or inanimate (= not living - for things), whether they have a "hard" ending or a "soft" ending. "Hard" ending normally means a hard consonant, but some ambiguous ones count as well. "Soft" ending means a soft consonant, but some ambiguous ones go here (e. g. the -tel ending, as in učitel - a teacher, přítel - a friend / boyfriend, podnikatel - an entrepreneur, etc.). 

"hard" ending
"soft" ending
"hard" ending
"soft" ending

    • As you can see, depending on the ending, masculine nouns ending in a consonant have different forms in all cases except the instrumental (and the accusative for inanimate nouns). (Note: I have only given you the most common endings, the table is not exhaustive!)

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