Czechoslovakia Table of Contents
The correct American English adjective for the language, people, and culture of Slovakia is Slovak; Slovak belongs to the Slavic group of languages. British usage employs Slovakian for the American Slovak and uses Slavonic where the American usage is Slavic. The adjective for the Czech people, language, and culture is Czech. The form Czechoslovak is used when referring to the government or a person's or thing's official function, e.g., Czechoslovak citizenship.
Czech and Slovak, the two official languages of Czechoslovakia (as of 1918), are similar but separate languages. They are actually so close as to be mutually intelligible, and Czechoslovak media use both languages, knowing that they will be understood by both Czechs and Slovaks. Czech is spoken by approximately 10 million people, primarily in the Czech Socialist Republic (Bohemia and Moravia); about 5 million people, primarily in Slovakia, speak Slovak. Both are West Slavic languages and are closely related to Polish (also a West Slavic language). Czech and Slovak are more distantly related to Russian (an East Slavic language), with which they share a number of features, although they are not mutually intelligible. Despite the similarities between Czech and Slovak, their literary languages emerged at different times. Both languages use the Roman alphabet, but the alphabets differ slightly.
In addition to the two literary languages, a number of dialects are spoken throughout the country. Everyday speech among villagers (especially older people), for example, will usually be in dialect, whereas in urban areas the dialects are losing their foothold, especially among the educated.
The Slovak literary language as it is known today was not established until the nineteenth century, although Slovak in its different dialects had been spoken for many centuries. At various times, Latin (the official language of Hungary for a time), Hungarian, and Czech had been used as the literary language of the Slovaks. As with Czech, it was the mid-nineteenth century surge of nationalism that finally saw the widespread adoption (earlier efforts had limited success) of what is today's literary language, based on the central dialects.
Change in Slovak, as in all other languages, is an ongoing process. Words, phrases, and idioms fall out of use, while others come in to replace them. Some of today's new words are formed from Slovak elements, but many are borrowed, primarily from English and Russian. The Russian words are part and parcel of the political and economic systems and serve to reinforce connections between the two government systems. English words come into the language mostly in the fields of science and technology (display for a computer display), but also in everyday speech (sexbomba for sex symbol). These are most often words for which there are no terms in Slovak. What worries some purists is that foreign words are replacing some perfectly good Slovak words, e.g., generacia (generation) for pokolenie.
The oldest written records of the Czech language are found in eleventh-century texts. After the tumultuous historical events of the early seventeenth century and the resulting Counter-Reformation, German took precedence over Czech as Prague became a provincial capital. It was only with the upsurge of nationalism throughout Europe in the nineteenth century that Czech came back into its own.
It is often said that the "best" Czech is spoken in Moravia. Various dialects exist, but the most prestigious is that of Prague. As is the case with German in German-speaking countries, there are actually several versions of Czech. This presents difficulties for foreigners wishing to learn to speak Czech. The standard written literary language, spisovna cestina, carries the greatest prestige. It is based on the Czech spoken in fourteenth-century Prague during the days of the Czech Golden Age. Today, the written language is the language used in education, the government, the press, most literature, television and radio, industry, and science. It is also the language that foreigners learn. However, outside of university lectures, television and radio, and official meetings, no one really speaks it. Most people, even those who are highly educated, speak a colloquial version of Czech among themselves known variously as obecna, hovorova, or bezne mluvena cestina. Although local dialects produce variations from place to place, this living language is characterized by certain simplifications of the archaic, written literary language. Many modern writers have experimented with it in their writings, and not only in dialogue. Some members of the KSC have proposed dropping the established literary form of the language in favor of a simplified written version of the spoken language, as it is "the language of the masses." But this idea has met with strong opposition, especially in academia. One peculiarity of the spoken language is that it often retains German words that have been purged from the written language.
Today, because of close ties with the Soviet Union, Russian has become the major influence on modern Czech. Many English words have also made headway, including vikend (weekend), kempink (camping, campground), and diskzokej (disc jockey). Articles occasionally appear in the press criticizing such "foreignisms." In an attempt to avoid foreign vocabulary, many old Czech words have been revived or new Czech words formed from old roots.
Data as of August 1987
Czechoslovakia Table of Contents