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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.

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