Masaryk University Faculty of Arts

Introduction to Czech, Slovak and Russian languages

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3.Introduction to Czech, Slovak and Russian languages

Czech, Russian and Slovak all rank among the big group of Indo-European languages called Slavic or also Slavonic languages (“Slavic languages,” 2015). This Slavic language group is traditionally classified into three main branches which further consist of several subgroups. The three main branches are East which include Russian language, West which include both Slovak and Czech, and South as it can be seen in the table (Schenker, 2002, p. 60):

Table 5: Classification of the Slavonic languages














Upper Sorbian

Lower Sorbian








With regard to phonology, one of the most salient features of Slavonic languages is the presence of a substantial number of palatal and palatalized consonants. Typical, especially of the Russian language, are pairs of palatalized (soft) and non-palatalized (hard) consonants (Comrie & Corbett, 2002, p. 6).

In the previous chapter the basics of English phonetic system were introduced. Now the focus shifts to basic differences within the sound systems of the three respective Slavonic languages when they are compared to English. These differences are introduced and proceeding from them the most common errors made by the Czechs, Slovaks and Russians in English pronunciation are stated as well. Since Slovak and Czech belong to the same Slavic branch, and the same subgroup, the languages are very close and share many similarities. Therefore, their phonetic systems are analysed together in one chapter. Russian as another Slavonic language has certainly a lot in common with the other two as well, but because of its placement in a different branch, obviously, there are more distinctions and the language is discussed in a separate subchapter.

3.1. Czech and Slovak sound systems

3.1.1. Segmental level Vowels

Both Slovak and Czech languages have in their phonetic systems fewer vowels than English. In Czech there exist five simple short vowels with the set of five matching long vowels (Kr

mová, 1999, p. 87):

/ a – a:, e – e:, i – i:, o – o:, u – u: /

Apart from few very little quality differences, Slovak pairs of long and short vowels are the same (Kráľ, 1996, p. 48):

/ a – a:, e – e:, i – i:, o – o:, u – u: /

Moreover, there exists one more short vowel /æ/. The sound is orthographically written as ä. Although the vowel /æ/ belongs to the standard Slovak, it is not actively used. Only by about 5 per cent of speakers use it in their pronunciation. It is commonly replaced by the vowel /e/ (Short, 2002, p. 534).

In contrast to English, the pairs are primarily distinguished by their quantity (Kráľ, 1996, p. 92; Skaličková, 1974, p. 19). Considered the pairs, long vowels are basically formed by prolongation of short vowels (Melen, 2010, p. 13) in an approximate ratio of 1:2 (Kráľ, 1996, p. 92; Skaličková, 1974, p. 19). Quality differences of the sounds in each pair are hardly noticeable while in English they have the primary importance. Considered the timbre, each of the five basic spheres – A-ish, E-ish, I-ish, O-ish and U-ish – contain only two phonemes (excluding Slovak vowel /æ/ ) which are distinguished by their quantity, thus the vowel quality can extensively fluctuate and have different variations. In English each of the spheres is represented by several phonemes which are distinguished by the timbre, thus the quality variation has to be restricted and the individual phonemes must be pronounced more accurately. (Skaličková, 1974, p. 19) This is often a problem for Czech and Slovak learners of English to distinguish between the members of the vowel pairs and to observe the different timber of the sounds (Kráľová, 2011, p. 25; Skaličková, 1982, p. 185). Influenced by their mother tongues they often focus on quantity but ignore the importance of quality aspect.

One of the most frequent cases when the timbre differences are not correctly observed is the case of /e – æ/. As a consequence of missing the sound /æ/ in their system, Czech students often mispronounce words which contain this sound by replacing it by the vowel /e/ (Skaličková, 1982, p. 185). The fact that Slovak phonetic system contains sound similar to English /æ/ could seem as a certain advantage for Slovak learners when compared to Czech. However, as it was already mentioned /æ/ is used by almost none of the Slovak speakers and even in their language it is frequently substituted for /e/. Thus the Slovaks tend to do the same mistake and replace the vowel /æ/ by /e/ when speaking English (Kráľová, 2011, p. 25). In English this kind of mispronunciation can in many cases lead to change of meaning, for example, if the word bad is pronounced as /bed/ instead of its correct pronunciation /bæd/, the word gets completely different meaning. The basic thing that needs to be realized when /æ/ is pronounced is that “the mouth is more open than for /e/” (Gimson, 2008, p. 112). Based on the author’s experience, this little hint is a big step forward in achieving the aimed pronunciation.

Length makes certain difficulties for Czech and Slovak students too. Since their languages have only two grades of length, students tend to pay not enough attention to the different grades of length of English vowels influenced by the following consonant and pronounce them with incorrect duration (Kráľová, 2011, p. 25). For example, the words bit, bid are pronounced with an equally short length or words beat, bead with an equally long length instead of shortest length in bit, middle length in bid and beat and longest length in bead (Melen, 2010, p. 71).

Another difference in the phonetic systems which appears to have a significant influence on English pronunciation of Czech and Slovak speakers is the quality of the vowels in accented and unaccented syllables. Neither Czechs nor Slovaks in their systems distinguish diverse vowel quality between accented and unaccented syllables and in both cases vowels maintain their acoustic qualities. English, in contrast, is characterized by frequent reductions of the vowel quality in unstressed syllables in which vowels are reduced to the sounds /ə/ or /ɪ/ (Kráľová, 2011, p. 23; Skaličková, 1961, p. 16). However, Czech and Slovak phonetic systems do not involve the mixed vowel /ə/ either and thus Czechs and Slovaks are often not aware enough of its timber and replace it by the vowel /e/ (Kráľová, 2011, p. 25; Skaličková, 1982, p. 186).

Relevant differences which also need to be taken into consideration are articulation differences of which the most important one consists in the position of the tongue. In Czech and Slovak tongue is in so called convex position i.e. the tip of the tongue is practically always in contact with the floor of the mouth cavity. In English, on the other hand, the tip of the tongue is loose, oriented upwards and only rarely comes into contact with the bottom of the mouth i.e. the tongue is in so called concave position (Melen, 2010, p. 15; Kráľová, 2011, p. 25). Consonants

Czech phonetic system includes 27 consonantal phonemes. These are shown in the table below placed in different groups according to the place and manner of their articulation (Krčmová, 1999, pp. 97-98):

Table 6: System of Czech consonantal sounds





p, b, m

(f), v


t, d, n

c, (dz)

s, z, l, r, ř


č, (dž)

š, ž


ť, ď, ň


Velar, Laryngeal

k, (g)

ch, h

In IPA terms /ť/ = [c], /ď/ = [ɟ], /ň/ = [ɲ], /š/ = [ʃ], /ž/ = [ʒ], /č/ = [], /dž/ = [], /ř/ = [], /ch/ = [x] (Short, 2002, p. 457).

There are 27 consonantal phonemes in the Slovak phonetic system (Short, 2002b, p. 537). Among them there are palatalized l (ľ), long r (ŕ) and long l (ĺ) which are missing in Czech. Slovak system does not contain Czech trilled ř. Similarly as the Czech phonemes, Slovak ones are shown in the table below organized into groups according to classification by Kráľ (1996) based on the place and manner of their articulation (p. 49):

Table 7: System of Slovak consonantal sounds





p, b, m

(f), v


t, d, n

c, (dz)

s, z


č, (dž)

š, ž, r, l, ŕ, ĺ


ť, ď, ň

j, ľ

Velar, Laryngeal

k, (g)

x, h

In IPA terms /ť/ = [c], /ď/ = [ɟ], /ň/ = [ɲ], /ľ/ = [ʎ], /š/ = [ʃ], /ž/ = [ʒ], /č/ = [], /dž/ = [], /ch/ = [x] (Short, 2002, p. 535).

When consonants of English, Czech and Slovak languages are compared, it is discovered that in all three systems there are almost equal numbers of consonantal units: 24 phonemes in English, 27 phonemes in Czech and 27 phonemes in Slovak. Also, if Czech and Slovak systems of consonants are taken as one and compared to English, there can be found consonants which are quite similar and can be put into comparable pairs (English – Czech and Slovak):

/p/ – /p/

/b/ – /b/

/t/ – /t/

/d/ – /d/

/k/ – /k/

/g/ – /g/

// – /č/

// – /dž/

/f/ – /f/

/v/ – /v/

/s/ – /s/

/z/ – /z/

/ʃ/ – /š/

/ʒ/ – /ž/

/j/ – /j/

/h/ – /h/

/m/ – /m/

/n/ – /n/

/l/ – /l/

/r/ – /r/

In spite of their apparent similarities, in each pair there are substantial distinctions. Besides them, in each of the languages exist consonants which do not have their rough equivalents in the system of the other language. For the thesis English consonants which do not exist in Czech and Slovak are relevant since they are presumptive source of mispronunciation. These are mainly the sounds /θ, ð, w/.

Dominant characteristic for Czech and Slovak consonants is the contrast of voiced and voiceless pairs: b/p, d/t, ď/ť, dz/c, dž/č, z/s, ž/š, g/k, h/ch, v/f which are subjects to assimilation (Kráľová, 2011, p. 23; Skaličková, 1974, p. 64). Among the most frequent errors of Czech and Slovak speakers in English pronunciation is substitution of voiced consonants for their voiceless counterparts. This habit again arises from pronunciation within their mother tongues for which such replacements are typical. In Czech and Slovak the realization of the consonantal phonemes before a pause is neutralized and the obstruents are pronounced as their voiceless counterparts: zub – /zup/ (tooth) (Krčmová, 1999, p. 127; Short, 2002b, p. 535). The same happens to Czech and Slovak speakers in English but there such substitution can easily lead to a change of meaning. For example, when the word sad is realized as /sæt/ it denotes the word sat instead (Melen, 2010, p. 72). Similarly, influenced by the Czech and Slovak customs, wrong assimilation appears in consonantal clusters. In Czech and Slovak language when voiced and voiceless sounds meet assimilation is regressive i.e. the latter consonant determines the pronunciation of the sounds (Short, 2002a, p. 458):

Voiced + voiceless → /voiceless + voiceless/ e.g. hádka → /ha:tka/ (argument)

Voiceless + voiced → /voiced + voiced/ e.g. kde → /gde/ (where)

When the same is applied to English again the meaning can be changed, as for example, when the word backbone is incorrectly pronounced as /bægbəʊn/ (Melen, 2010, p. 72). Such mispronunciations can easily lead to confusions, therefore, the Czech and Slovak speakers should be aware of these differences and should try to suppress the influence of their mother tongues.

Yet another problem arises, especially for Slovak learners. In the Slovak language the sound /v/ is sometimes pronounced as non-syllabic bilabial /u̯/. One of the cases when this pronunciation is applied is when /v/ is in its final position e.g. in a word krv (blood) which is pronounced as /kru̯/ (Kráľ, 1996, p. 110). As a consequence of this feature, Slovaks tend to mispronounce the final /v/ in English resulting in confusing pronunciation. For example, a word love pronounced with the /u̯/ at the end would be perceived more as a word law. This might seem as a little disadvantage for Slovak speakers since Czechs do not have this feature in their language. However, Czechs in these cases tend to mispronounce the words in a different way. Based on above mentioned substitution of the voiced consonants by their voiceless counterparts before a pause, they pronounce there labiodental constrictive /f/ what can also lead to miscomprehension, e.g. the word love pronounced with the /f/ at the end could be perceived as the word laugh.

If considered the pairs of similar consonantal sounds of English and two respective Slavonic languages, quite significant difference is the feature of aspiration which concerns three English fortis plosives /p, t, k/ but does not occur within the Czech or Slovak sound systems. Consequently, when Czech and Slovak speakers speak English, these three consonants are often pronounced incorrectly without the aspiration what results in sounding as if their fortis opposites were pronounced (Kráľová, 2011, p. 23; Melen, 2010, p. 72). This means that the aspiration must be given more attention when they are speaking English otherwise they can be very easily misunderstood. For example unaspirated pan will sound more as ban etc.

Naturally, since the dental fricatives /θ, ð/ are unknown for the phonetic system of Czechs and Slovaks, they are often a source of mispronunciation as well. It is not unusual to hear the sounds /d/ or /t/ being pronounced in the positions where /ð, θ/ should take place. The issue is not only incorrect pronunciation but such a substitution can sometimes cause a shift of meaning as for example in the words: /ðen/ (later) – /den/ (lair). Another frequent case is when the pronunciation of /θ, ð/ is attempted but its articulation is realized incorrectly with the tongue being placed in between the teeth (Kráľová, 2011, p. 26; Skaličková, 1982, p. 188).

For Czech and Slovak learners of English also the velar nasal occlusive /ŋ/ appears to be a problematic sound. In their phonetic system the sound /ŋ/ exists but in contrast to English in which it is an individual phoneme, with ability to distinguish the words, it occurs only as an allophone of /n/ before a velar (/k,g/) as in a word banka [baŋka] (bank). This fact explains Czech and Slovaks unfamiliarity with the pronunciation of /ŋ/ in other cases, especially in its final positions or when followed by a vowel. The result is that, for example, instead of words sing /sɪŋ/, rang /ræŋ/ are pronounced the words sin /sɪn/ or sink /sɪŋk/, ran /ræn/ or rank /ræŋk/ which have completely different meanings (Kráľova, 2011, p. 23; Skaličková, 1982, p. 188).

Another pronunciation error of Czech and Slovak students is connected to the sound /w/. They usually do not have problems with its correct realization but they often do not distinguish between /v/ and /w/ and mix up the sounds. However, in English these two sounds exist as two individual units which distinguish meanings of the words: vale /veɪl/ – whale /weɪl/, vile /vaɪl/ while /waɪl/. (Kráľová, 2011, p. 26; Skaličková, 1982, p. 189).

3.1.2. Suprasegmental level Word stress

When a word stress is taken into consideration, in case of the Czech and Slovak languages there is nothing complicated about it. Unlike in English, Czech and Slovak stress is fixed, in individual words always falling on the first syllable (Kráľ, 1996, p. 163; Krčmová, 1999, p. 140). This becomes a problem when the Czechs and Slovaks speak English since they are not used to paying attention to different stress patterns. Similarly, Pavlík (2000) points out placement of the stress within a word as one of the main problems that the learners of English are faced with and the Czechs and Slovaks are no exceptions (p. 146). At the schools their attention is not drawn to the importance of the English stresses thus they often ignore the aspect when they learn new words. As a consequence they tend to stress the first syllables as they do in their mother tongues or they place the stress in incorrect positions which can lead to misunderstandings (Mocova, 2012, p. 39). In Czech and Slovak, stress only signalizes the start of a new word (Skaličková, 1961, p. 66; Kráľ, 1996, p. 164) but in English it can distinguish the meanings of words e.g. if words incite /ɪnˈsaɪt/ and insight /ˈɪnˌsaɪt/ were pronounced without the correct stressing, they would sound completely identical (Pavlík, 2000, p. 143). Word stress in English can also have a grammatical function i.e. it can distinguish parts of speech of the words with identical spellings e.g. if words as contrast, object, progress are stressed on the first syllable [ˈkɒntrɑːst], [ˈɒbdʒɪkt], [ˈprəʊgres] they determine the nouns but if they are stressed on the second syllable [kənˈtrɑːst], [əbˈdʒekt], [prəˈgres] they determine the verbs (Pavlík, 2000, p. 156). Generally, the difference between the stressed and unstressed syllables is stronger and more noticeable in English than in Slovak or Czech (Mocova, 2012, p. 38).

Furthermore stress is connected to sentence stress and that is closely connected to the rhythm. Here arises another troublesome aspect and often the origin of unintelligibility in Czech and Slovak speakers. Since the difference of the English and Czech or Slovak rhythm is substantial, the incorrect use of rhythm is a very frequent mistake (Skaličková, 1982, p. 182). Rhythm

To understand the difference of the rhythm in individual languages the nature of a rhythm unit in all three languages needs to be characterised. In Czech as well as in Slovak the foot i.e. a unit of rhythm which “begins with a stressed syllable and includes all following unstressed syllables up to (but not including) the following stressed syllable” (Roach, 1991, p. 121) is formed on the basis of the word stress. Also in Czech and Slovak there are words which are unstressed when they are part of a text, so called enclitic words, such as chiefly past and conditional auxiliaries and weak personal pronouns (Kráľ, 1996, p. 165; Krčmová, 1999, p. 140). Thus the foot can be formed by one word as well as by more words from which only one is stressed and the others are enclitic. The foot is a rhythmical unit and its extent is not identical to a semantic unit (Krčmová, 1999, p. 141). However, since the enclitic words do not appear in Czech and Slovak sentences as often as in English sentences (Skaličková, 1982, p. 174) and since the Czech and Slovak languages have the word stress always on the first syllable signalling the word boundary, it is almost a rule that their feet have their separate meanings:

[ˈU potoka ˈroste ˈkvíťí ] (= By the stream │ grows │ a flower)

In English this is not a typical case and it often happens that the foot begins and ends in the middle of a semantic unit as can be seen in the example by Skalíčkova (1982, p. 171):

[ˈpɪərɪəl rɪ ]

Here the foot is incomprehensible without the adjacent feet [ɪmˈpɪərɪəl rɪˈspɒns].

Likewise there is difference in stressing prepositions. In Czech and Slovak a preceding preposition, especially if it is a monosyllabic one, has the tendency to attract stress and becomes a part of the word, hence │ˈke stolu│ (‘to the table’) or │ˈna koni│ (‘on horseback’) (Short, 2002a, p. 461). In English a preposition in a sentence usually becomes a function word and only the content word which follows the preposition is the one which becomes stressed. Content words in English are often preceded by the articles or prepositions which grammatically belong to the word but phonetically belong to the previous rhythmical unit (Skaličková, 1982, p. 172):│ˈGive it to the │ ˈboy │.

Under the influence of their mother tongues, Czechs and Slovaks often do not consider the rhythmical units but try to look for the semantic units and since they do the same in their native languages, they tend to make pauses between the semantic units in English, resulting in not keeping the English rhythm. However, in English it is important to pronounce a rhythmical unit as if it was one word no matter if it has meaning as a real word.

Czech and Slovak speakers do not pay enough attention to the quantitative differences of the syllables, neither to the fact that the longer the foot is the shorter the syllables within it are (borrowing rule) (Skalčková, 1982, p. 183). Disruption of English rhythm is also caused by the absence of vowel reductions (Skaličková, 1982, p. 190). Neither in the Czech nor in the Slovak languages occur any reductions in unstressed syllables. In both stressed and unstressed syllables the vowels have the same quality. This is not the case in English where only the stressed syllables have the full quality vowels (Skaličková, 1982, p. 173). By not reducing the vowels the quantitative and rhythmical characteristics of the units are disturbed and thus English pronunciation of Czechs and Slovaks loses the attributes of a stress-time language.

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