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Comprehensive Czech and Slovak pronunciation guide for the Sochi Olympics

February 18, 2014

A guest post from my fiancee. 

A Complete Guide to Czech and Slovak Pronunciation for Hockey Fans

I don’t expect everyone to pronounce Czech and Slovak names exactly the way they’d be pronounced natively, but I’ve heard some particular butchery from NBC announcers during the Olympics, and I thought some hockey fans might be at least somewhat interested in how these players really pronounce their names. I’m a native English speaker who used to live in the Czech Republic and speaks Czech well. The Czech and Slovak languages are very similar — pretty much any speaker of one language can understand the other with a little patience.

Stress

There is only one rule with regards to stress: it’s always on the first syllable! Always. Every single word.

While I’m sure there are some rules that linguists have deduced about stress in English, I don’t know what they are, and neither do most English speakers. So when we’re confronted with an unfamiliar word or name, we judge how it ought to be pronounced by comparing it to the words we already know. If you’ve never seen the name “Sekera” before, you’re going to think of other words with three open syllables — “banana”, “Sedona”, “Panera” — and decide that it’s pronounced with the stress on the second syllable. Most of the time, we’re right. But not this time, because it’s pronounced “SEK-er-a”. (For what it’s worth, it means “axe”.) Similarly, Polish surnames that end in “-ski” are relatively familiar to North Americans, and stress in Polish is usually on the second-to-last syllable. But not in Czech or Slovak. So it’s “ZA-bor-skee” rather than “za-BOR-skee” and “KO-pets-kee” rather than “ko-PETS-kee”, even though that feels a little funny.

This is probably the hockey-announcer mistake that irritates me the most. If you learn nothing else, at least learn this. Czech and Slovak names are always accented on the first syllable, okay? Thanks.

Vowels

So there are two kinds of vowels in Czech and Slovak: long and short. The long ones have acute accent marks over them, so you know which ones they are. Vowel length has nothing to do with stress, which we’ve already established is always on the first syllable. Short vowels, in both Czech and Slovak are just a, e, i, o and u, corresponding to the vowel sounds in “tack”, “tech”, “tick”, “tock*”, “took”. In both Czech and Slovak, the long A is like the vowel in “blah”, the long vowel e is like the vowel in “bleh”, the long vowel i is like the vowel in “meet”, and the long vowel u is like the vowel in “boo”. In Czech, in the middle of a word, the long U is spelled with a little circle over it: ů. It’s the same as the u with the acute accent. The sound “ou” is pronounced just like the “ow” in “blow”, not ilke the “oo” in “food”.

*Well, in some accents. If you’re from Chicago, make your lips a little rounder.

Troublesome Consonants

The little V that goes over some consonants in Czech, Slovak, and some other languages is called a háček, which means a “little hook”. It was invented by Jan Hus, who was subsequently burned at the stake (for his religious, not linguistic activities). You mostly see them over C’s, S’s, and Z’s, where they represent the sounds in “cheese”, “shirt”, and the “zh” sound in “pleasure” or “leisure”. Sometimes you see them over N’s, T’s, D’s, and L’s. The N is easy to explain, because it’s the same as the Ñ in Spanish, like in “mañana” or “habañero” — N with a little soft Y sound after it, basically. The T’s and D’s are the same sort of thing applied to a different consonant — like “tune”, “dune”, and “lure” as pronounced by someone on the BBC: “tyoon”, “dyoon”, and “lyure”. Bring the middle part of your tongue up to your soft palate as you’re pronouncing the consonant and make a sort of sticky sound there. When they’re written over T’s and D’s in lowercase, and L’s all the time, they look like apostrophes: Ľubomír. The Ľ is only used in Slovak, and to be honest I can’t pronounce it properly, so.

The R with a háček deserves its own paragraph. Czechs like to say that this is a sound that exists only in their language. It’s basically a rolled R with a “sh” sound at the same time. Little Czech children can’t pronounce it, and neither can a certain number of full-grown Czechs (Václav Havel, for instance, never could). I can, but it took a lot of practice.

In Czech, the letter “ě”, which is only ever lowercase, is used to indicate the softening of the consonant before it, so “ně” is pronounced “ňe” and “Nedvěd” is pronounced “Nedvyed”.

J is always pronounced like Y, just as in German. I’m sure everyone has that down by now.

C (without the hacek) in Czech and Slovak is always pronounced “ts”. Please don’t pronounce it “K”, ever. No excuse for that, really.

CH is pronounced as that coughing sound in “Bach” and “Chanukah”. You can approximate it as “K”, although it seems like people just pronounce it however they feel like. I don’t think anyone is ever going to pronounce Chára any differently than they already do, and I’m fine with that (I’m sure he is too), but a bunch of Slovaks laughed at my girlfriend in a bar for pronouncing it the Boston way, so.

To continue with Chára, his first name really is pronounced just the way it’s written. Two syllables. If you can pronounce “street” without saying “suh-treet”, you can pronounce “Zdeno” without going “Zuh-de-no”. “Mrázek” (a great name for a hockey player — “mráz” means frost) is two syllables, too. Czech and Slovak, and Slavic languages in general, often shove consonants together that we don’t see piled up very often in English. There’s not really any trick to it, there aren’t any extra hidden vowels or anything.

The Czech net at Sochi

July 21, 2013

Alexander Salak ruled the net for Färjestad this past season. 

All hail the NHL: it has allowed its players to participate in the 2014 Sochi Olympics. Yes, it was a fait accompli to some, but with the deal sealed, hockey for everyone is looking up.

The NHL media machine was quick to start churning out content for the Olympics now that it’s been green-lighted.

One piece, projecting the possible Czech team, caught my attention. The Czechs struggled in the 2010 Olympics at Vancouver. A stellar Slovak team even put them to shame. But they’ve succeeded in IIHF tournaments since, and I think they’re poised to have a strong Olympic campaign. Truth be told, these Olympics may be the sunsetting affair for the likes of Jagr and Elias, and then, this could be it for Hanzal and potentially Hejda. This is a “win now” team. As the Czech Republic has struggle to produce top end talent at the draft the last five years, the future is a little bit murkier.

Familiarity with the big ice, a share of Czechs in the KHL, and proven chemistry should give this team ample lift. I can’t argue with most of the players proposed by these three NHL writers. I’d say that Tomas Kaberle is out of the picture, and Jan Hejda too. But, the Czechs appreciate their veterans, and there’s a pinch of nostalgia and seniority that has to be considered. Would the Czechs throw a Martin Frk in the mix? Possibly. But they could use more young defensemen. And that just doesn’t appear to be coming. So, Jan Hejda it is.

My main gripe comes in net. It seems a severe bias about the Penguins’ Stanley Cup playoff run led Tomas Vokoun to be included here. The old adage applies about players getting loads of attention, warranted or not, whenever there is a deep playoff run, especially one with controversy hitched to it. Everyone watched Vokoun this spring. And he did alright. And he did steal the job from Fleury. But will he continue to perform at that level? Doubtful. I think the Czech national team would be better served looking to the future. Yes, Vokoun started in each game in the last Olympics, performing admirably. But, his time has come.

Ondrej Pavelec has been crowned heir apparent of the crease for the Czechs. This has been clear from his many starts in net for the national team, deserved or not, while he toils behind a mediocre Thrashers/Jets squad. He’s probably the most technically sound, most experienced.

Michal Neuvirth? To be blunt, without the fall from grace of Semyon Varlamov, Neuvirth risked flying under the radar in perpetuity. He is a red herring to me.

Alexander Salak should make the grade for 1A goalie at the Sochi Olympics. He set bundles of records in the Elitserien this past year, brought Färjestad to a championship two years ago, and he will be suiting up for SKA St Petersburg. Again, ice surface, plus familiarity with players and styles, making him the steadfast netminder the Czechs can rely on. Keep in mind the Czechs’ group C contains Sweden, Switzerland, and Latvia. This is possibly the best balanced of the groupings.

Salak had a spotty and short-lived stint in the Americas, with the Rochester Americans and Rockford Icehogs. Making the show full-time was never in the cards for him, sadly. He stood to be the next breakout Czech goaltender, but couldn’t jump in for the right team at the right time. So, he’s been banished to European obscurity for some. SKA should draw attention. He’s athletic, composed in high pressure.

He’s 1A.

Hot streaking

March 3, 2013

Tonight, the Bruins will take on the Habs at TD Garden. Above, Alex Galchenyuk, Russian-American superstar and young gun.

Hockey fans across New England ought to rejoice at the turn of events to our North, in Montreal. This shortened season has brought a bounty of talent and fresh energy to the Montreal Canadiens, in no small part to their rookies and the returned health of cogs Andrei Markov and Brian Gionta.

Last year was an anomaly. A Bruins v. Habs game was less heated match, more painful kicking of a man already down. Are there Bruins fans content with this? Of course. Were most, and should they be? No. 

A rejuvenate Habs club keeps the Northeast interesting. Sure, the Leafs might sneak into the playoffs this year, but the Northeast division has lacked the combustion of other divisions in recent years. Bruins v. Habs, while over-hyped, over-trodden, is still the gold standard.

What makes this Canadiens team different, the same? Michel Therrien for one. The dog of Martin’s teams is gone. Therrien, though still an interim solution, has brought clean new systems and life. Brendan Gallagher and Galchenyuk bring bright youth, and have and will change, for the future, the complexion of these match-ups. Unlike Canadiens of yore, this are highly skilled, but also hard-driving forwards. They head to the dirty areas, rush the net, and don’t stick to perimeter passing. This segues into what’s the same–this team is still built on specialty teams, small but skilled forwards and smart, European-styled hockey. Gionta, Plekanec, Pacioretty, et al. still play the Canadien-style.

I hope this team makes the playoffs, not just to keep pressure on the Bruins, but for the whole NHL.

 

 

Bruins camp kicks off

January 13, 2013
The boys are back in town.

The boys are back in town.

 

On a mild January day, overcast, somewhat wet, the Boston Bruins opened their 2013 training camp.

It seemed less a camp, less an exercise, less an event, than a collective exhaling by the players, the coaching staff, and the fans in attendance today at TD Garden. The fans ranged from old timers to children, hipsters to die-hards. There were probably a few thousand filling the lower bowl. The Bruins did a first-class job–free hot dogs, sodas and popcorn for all, plus a 30-foot dessert spread that was being constantly replenished. Sure, all the tortes, cakes, macaroons and crumpets in the world couldn’t erase the heartache of the past four months for hockey fans. But it was a gesture, an apology, and a thank you. It felt like it counted for something in an arena where a beer will run you $9 and an ice cream $7.75. Cam Neely even appeared for good measure and shook hands and signed autographs.

But how about that on-ice product? The timing and speed were lacking, but the energy certainly wasn’t. The green and grey-shirted borderliners (Bourque, Spooner et al.) had the most pop. Mostly likely owing to the most regular AHL playing-time, but their own motivation too. Tuukka looked sharp. Dougie Hamilton appeared as much the nervous rookie as you’d expect, staying on the ice the longest. He looked to be highly observant, longing to become one of the group. Among forwards, Seguin stood head and shoulders above the rest in terms of speed and hands. He will be a terror this season.

Let this season begin.

And we’re back!

January 6, 2013
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Boston Blades facing the Russian women’s national team in Somerville this past November

 

It’s only been, what, eight months? Yowzer! 2012 was a jam-packed year: a new job, a move, a girlfriend moving in with me, and a host of other happenings, as if that wasn’t all enough. And then, there was a lockout. And today, that lockout broke.

It wasn’t the worst thing at all, this lockout. I didn’t feel like writing after midnight struck on September 15th, though I’d be lying if I said the urge didn’t strike. It’s just that, well, I don’t care. I enjoy law and the business side of the sport, but frankly, this labor debacle was too much–and I wound up apathetic, like a lot of fans and followers (and probably journalists).

In this lockout, I took in as much women’s hockey (thank you, Boston Blades of the CWHL) and college hockey (Harvard, BC–the wonders of Omaha at Nebraska versus Colorado College on the odd weeknight) as I could. I returned to pirated streams of KHL games and watched them weekend mornings over breakfast. My girlfriend and I translated and enjoyed the Czech Extraliga as we long have. Got some luxury box tickets to the Celtics from work (heck, they played the Raptors so I even got to hear “O Canada”), and started to understand the rules of football. And I played my own hockey.

But boy, am I glad to have the NHL back. I can’t wait. I can see TD Garden from my office at work. Certainly, in the last four months, the butterflies haven’t come from staring down that building every day. Instead, it was nearly insulting.

The Bruins are back. Watching games after work is back. Having something great to enjoy a beer with when you’re alone–it is all back. And I could not be happier.

2012 Stanley Cup playoff predictions, first-round

April 8, 2012

Yes, it’s the most wonderful time of the year, again. I am going to take a look at just the first-round, for now. I will run a full bracket in a few days. But for now, let’s take on just the wildest, most exciting round: the first one. Without further ado…

Western Conference

1. Vancouver Canucks v. 8. LA Kings

Vancouver, in six. The Kings started to rebound from a dreadful start under a Sutter, but can they take down the President’s Trophy winner (two times going) and do so with change to spare? Jonathan Quick has been incredible, the Kings’ offensive began firing of late. But their frayed nerves from the Pacific race may be pressed further by their much Northerly neighbors. The ‘Nucks have this.

2. St Louis Blues v. 7. San Jose Sharks

St Louis, in five. Nothing can stop a Ken Hitchcock train, least of all the aging and increasingly dull Sharks. Sure, the Sharks are the kind of balanced, strong club that can beat any team, any time, injured or healthy. But they lack the pop, and fearsome fight, they had before. And the Blues are just too good, their goaltending elegant and efficient.

3. Phoenix Coyotes v. 6. Chicago Blackhawks

Chicago, in six. Chicago’s got this. They’re a playoff team par excellence. There’s little more to it. As much as we’d love more success in the desert nationwide, Chicago is simply too deep. The Coyotes, like the Sharks, can give any team fits. But unlike the Sharks, the Yotes’ are still ascendent, with young talent and decent draft picks to propel them for years to come. The Blackhawks do have question marks: this has been Patrick Kane’s worst season, and Jonathan Toews will be returning from a concussion that’s left him sidelined for two months. Phoenix does have a shot.

4. Nashville Predators v. 5. Detroit Red Wings.

Nashville, in five. This will be perhaps one of the most thrilling series. I think Nashville’s time is now, its health is now, its goaltending is now. The Red Wings struggle too much on the road–but truly, that’s the only knock against them. Otherwise the Wings march on, older, but still nimble creatures of happen, capable of scoring at all angles, possessing the puck mightily, stout in their defense, decent if not strong in goal.

Eastern Conference

1. New York Rangers v. 8. Ottawa Senators

Ottawa, in seven. Yup, it runs counter to all logic and wisdom. Won’t say more than that.

2. Boston Bruins v. 7. Washington Capitals

Boston, in six. And while the regular season series tilted in the Caps’ favor primarily due to Boston’s injuries or psycho-drama, I think this series could give them fits they aren’t expected. Brayden Holtby could play out of this world and change everything, too. Also, I’m going to raise the homer card on this: the Bruins have to win.

3. Florida Panthers v. 6. New Jersey Devils

NJ, in seven. I wish the Panthers had the might to move forward, but I am afraid they do not. The Devils have playoff experience as a unit, they have superstar scoring. The Panthers have a bunch of fellas that have won Cups and played big time games, and this will make it close, however. I wonder about goaltending for both clubs. This could be a surprisingly exciting series.

4. Pittsburgh Penguins v. 5. Philadelphia Flyers

Christ, I have no idea, but probably Pittsburgh in seven, in triple OT.

2012: Alexander Radulov returns

March 20, 2012

Radulov in the 2010 Olympics.

Back in August I wrote about an interview Ufa star Alexander Radulov gave with a Czech newspaper. This morning, Radulov released the tweet-heard-round-the-hockey-world: himself, on an airplane, apparently bound for NYC, then Nashville.

Mr Radulov is to be a Predator again. And the Nashville Predators are set to be a real Stanley Cup contender this time around. The Predators organization remains quiet on the Radulov front. Whether work in the NHL offices in NYC is required, what visas and contracts issues must be sorted out, we don’t know. Maybe he is just connecting via JFK? Surely, the business class seat he is seated in in the photo he tweeted, with “business” monogrammed at the top, an olive-looking branch below, couldn’t be more perfect.

Alexander Radulov, the KHL’s meteoric star, is a man on a mission. Even if only for the next three months, until he must return to complete the final year of his contract in the KHL, or so we believe, so Dmitri Chesnokov of Yahoo! has determined (I trust this man’s words). It was downright refreshing to read the comments from Shea Weber and Barry Trotz about Radulov. He isn’t looked upon as a pariah, a turn-coat or one seeking attention–but as a compatriot with a different plan. Again, playing hockey isn’t one-size-fits-all. There are different ways, different roads, for every player. Radulov abandoned a contract as a 20-something. 20-somethings make mistakes. They also demand more work mobility than anyone. Some on a grander stage than others.

The Predators have already been remarkably deep and resilient this season. They are playing an efficient brand of hockey. With their locked-down goaltending and defense (hey, remember a couple years ago when Anders Lindback was all the rage?) and their now more stout looking forward groups (those Kostitsyns, Fisher, Hornqvist, Gaustad, Erat, Legwand, etc) and now Radulov, are the Predators capable of defeating anyone in the playoffs? Maybe. It’s easy to forget (and shame on me) just who plays for the Predators and how great they can be).

The Western Conference is looking a lot different this year than in seasons past. It is refreshing to find the Blues in the playoff picture, along with Dallas. It is spooky to see the Sharks and the Kings outside the bubble, or playing to the 8th seed, much like the Capitals. And to see the Nashville Predators, an expansion club, surging, while still in the midst of uncertainty about Suter and Weber, is fantastic.

How does Radulov fit in? I am sure his reunion with the team is a scenario he’s played out 10,000 times in his head. I think the same must go for David Poile, Trotz and the players themselves. He is a Predator, always has been, always will be. He could have stayed in Russia as the NHL post-season began. But he elected to come to Nashville. While it might just be a money power-play, it speaks volumes about character, commitment and maturity. He could have waited until he was 27, gone UFA. But he didn’t. While it just may be for three months, it’s great to have him back.

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