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14-11-2019, 06:57 UTC
Living Czech

A Vowel a Day Keeps the Doctor Away...

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Hello and welcome to Living Czech. I'm Nick Carey, and I am joined today in the studio today by Zuzana Durcakova, our very own producer. Our theme for this week is definitely topical, one and that I have heard discussed by many people, and that is vowels in Czech, or to be more specific, the lack of vowels.

It has been rumoured for many years that on some of the more obscure and out of the way border posts on the Czech-Austrian frontier, there are signs which proclaim boldly in several languages - Beware, here be consonants! - in order to warn hapless tourists of the Czechs' vowel deficiency. Now I don't know if these signs actually do exist, as I have not explored the smaller border outposts between the Austrians and the Czechs, but this is definitely believable, as there are many vowel-less, or nearly vowel-less, words in Czech, such as srp, a sickle, ètvrt, a quarter, which is not to be confused with ètvr», which is a city district, or zmrzlina, ice cream.

There is even an entire tongue twister in Czech devoted to the language's dearth of consonants, and this is strè prst skrz krk, which means stick your finger through your throat. This tongue twister actually does not contain one single vowel. I'll tell you what, though, let's have that again in slow motion so that you can hear the lack of vowels: strè prst skrz krk.

What on earth can have caused the Czech language to go into vowel withdrawal, leaving us with words like smrk, a spruce tree, or ¹krpál, which is a slang term for an old shoe. Indeed, texts from old Czech have a great deal more vowels than nowadays, so they must have gone somewhere.

In fact, the answer, as far as I can make out from reliable sources, is that they were removed. During the centuries when what is now the Czech Republic was part of the Hapsburg empire, the Czech language all but died out. German was the dominant language in towns and cities, and Czech was relegated to small villages. Then came the Czech National Revival at the beginning of the nineteenth century, when the Czechs began to search for their own national identity. A group of celebrated scholars got together, and decided to revive the Czech language. As many points of grammar were very vague, they often filled in gaps with Latin-based derivatives and odds and ends from other Slavonic languages. They also, for some reason, removed a lot of vowels, leaving us with srst, fur, or brnk, which means an onomatopoeic noise rather like a bump or thump.

Some Czechs call the National Revival the greatest advertising campaign of all time, as this small group of scholars managed to persuade the vast majority of a nation to speak a completely different language, with vowel-less words such as trs, a bunch, or near vowel-less words such as chrchel, which is the noise you make when you clear your throat.

Well, that's all we have time for this week. Next week we will have a look at another interesting point of pronunciation in Czech and this is words that involve the letter ø. Until next time, mìjte se fajn, or take care.

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