The History of the Czech and Slovak Languages


The History of the Czech and Slovak Languages

Czech and Slovak are both West Slavonic languages, that is to say: they are members of one of the three sub-groups of Slavonic languages (East, South and West). Other members of the West Slavonic sub-group include Polish, Kashubian, Silesian, Upper Sorbian and Lower Sorbian. The West Slavonic languages are all written using the Latin alphabet, unlike the East Slavonic languages (all Cyrillic) and the South Slavonic languages (half Cyrillic, half Latin). The major languages in the group are, obviously, Czech, Slovak and Polish. Czech and Slovak are considerably closer to one another than Polish is to either of them and there is a high degree of intelligibility between speakers of the two languages, so much so that Czechs and Slovaks can converse quite fluently – whereas in the case of a Czech speaking to a Pole the situation would be closer to that of, say, a Chilean speaking to a Portuguese, i.e., not easy but by no means impossible.

The Czechs and the Slovaks shared the country of Czechoslovakia from 1918 until 1993 with a hiatus during World War II in which the Czech lands (Bohemia and Moravia) were occupied by Nazi Germany, and Slovakia was an independent puppet state allied with the Axis. Broadly speaking, to travel from West to East through the old Czechoslovakia would be to move through a dialect continuum with two distinct centres that provide the standards for the two languages of Czech and Slovak.

Let us begin with Czech. The two-year Bohemian Revolt (1618-1620) which started the Thirty Years’ War was a key event in early modern Czech history. In 1620 the Czech protestant army was defeated by the forces of the Holy Roman Empire at the Battle of White Mountain, an event which marked the end of a long period of Habsburg toleration of Czech Protestantism. There followed a period of repression and denigration of Czech culture and language. The bulk of the Czech nobility went into exile, their properties were confiscated, and there was an organised programme of book-burning. Such changes led to the near extinction of Czech in the areas of state administration, literature and among the upper classes and relegated it to the status of a peasant language used largely by illiterate speakers.  

All this started to change at the end of the 18th century, partly due to reforms introduced during the reigns of the Habsburg monarchs Maria-Theresa (1740-1780) and Joseph II (1780-1790). The Czech Society of Sciences was established in 1784. A Czech literature and language chair was established at Charles University in 1791. The Czech National Musem was established in 1818. Between 1834 and 1839 the first German-Czech dictionary was published in five volumes. Key figures include Jan Jungmann, Josef Dobrovský and František Palacký; it was Jungmann who authored the Czech-German dictionary and in doing so revived various archaisms, decided which words to borrow from other Slavonic languages and invented many neologisms, all of which form part of the modern Czech language.

Due to demographic changes, Prague ceased to have a German-speaking majority in approximately 1860. A country known as Czechoslovakia appeared on the map in 1918. By 1950, most of the German speakers in the country had been expelled and, for the first time since the Middle Ages, German no longer had a role in the administration of the Czech lands. 

If the history of Czech can be presented as a struggle against dominance by German-speakers, the history of Slovak has two linguistic adversaries: Hungarian and, to a lesser extent, Czech.

Like the Czechs, late 19th-century Slovaks found themselves under the heel of a more powerful neighbour who spoke a foreign language. The Slovaks had been part of the Kingdom of Hungary since the tenth century when the Magyars (Magyar = Hungarian) had filled a power vacuum created by the collapse of the Great Moravian Empire and incorporated what is now Slovakia into their nascent state. The Kingdom of Hungary was a multi-ethnic polity from its inception and such linguistic tensions as may have existed did not become intolerable until the Magyarisation period of the late 19th century, by which time the nationalism which had spurred the Czech National Revival and provided the impetus for the Magyarisation programme had also taken hold in Slovakia. 

The key figure in the Slovak National Revival was Ľudovít Štúr, born in 1815 (in the same house, incredibly, where Alexander Dubček, leader of Czechoslovakia during the Prague Spring, was born in 1921).  From 1829 Štúr lived and studied in Bratislava and soon became a member of the Czech-Slav Society, an organisation of which he became president four years later.

The idea current at the time was that the Czechs and the Slovaks comprised one West Slavonic nation being oppressed by German-speaking Austrians and Magyar-speaking Hungarians. This being the case, they should work together to form a unified nation with a common language, and Czech was the ideal language for such an endeavour, according to the Czechs.

In 1836, Štúr wrote to František Palacký – a leading figure, you will recall, in the Czech National Revival – to point out that the Czech language used in Church services by Protestants in Upper Hungary was incomprehensible to ordinary Slovaks (remember that at this time Catholic masses were conducted in Latin, so no-one was expected to understand anything). He proposed the creation of a unified Czechoslovak language, provided that the Czechs would be willing to accept the inclusion of some Slovak vocabulary – just as the Slovaks would accept some Czech words. The Czechs declined his proposal and so Štúr and his fellow Slovak nationalists decided to introduce a completely new Slovak language standard instead.

There followed a series of disagreements and controversies and, famously, the 1841 ascent of the symbolic peak of Kriváň, a mountain in the Tatras associated with Slovak identity. Ultimately, a new Slovak standard language was promulgated in 1851.

All of this took place against background of Hungarian linguistic oppression of the Slovaks and other minorities within the Kingdom of Hungary. Magyarisation was based on the idea that non-Magyar peoples living in Hungary could be transformed into Magyars in much the same way that revolutionary and imperial France transformed its various Bretons, Provençals, Basques etc. into Frenchmen (i.e. by education, coercion and, where necessary, by the use of violence). After the Austro-Hungarian Compromise of 1867 things only worsened for the Slovaks and others in territory under Hungarian administration, and this in turn provided greater impetus, from the Slovak point of view, for the formation of the Czech-and-Slovak state which came into being after Word War I and was, in its 1918 borders, larger than the Kingdom of Hungary established by the Treaty of Trianon in 1920.

So how to tell Czech and Slovak apart? Here are some easy rules of thumb: if a piece of writing includes the letters ‘ř’ and/or ‘ů’ then it is Czech. If it includes the letters ‘ľ’ and/or ‘ŕ’ then it is Slovak, and that’s it – or, as they say in both languages: ‘To je ono!’