Czech (čeština) is a West Slavic language, spoken by about 12 million people as a native language. It is the official language of the Czech Republic and also one of the official languages of the European Union. It is very similar to Slovak, and to a lesser extent Polish and Serbian. The language was known as ‘Bohemian’ in English until the nineteenth century, based on the English name of the Czech state, Bohemia, in turn derived from ‘Boii’, the name of the Celtic tribe who inhabited the area from around the first century AD. Apart from standard Czech, two distinct dialects can be distinguished: ‘Common Czech’, spoken mostly in Bohemia, and the variant spoken in Moravia and Silesia.
At the end of World War I, the Czech lands of Bohemia, Moravia and Silesia united with Slovakia to form the new country of Czechoslovakia, one of the successor states of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Czechoslovakia was formally separated on 1 January 1993 into the Czech Republic and the Slovak Republic, as two completely independent nations. Given their shared history, it is not surprising that Czech and Slovak are generally mutually intelligible in both their spoken and written forms, though there are some words and phrases which differ considerably and may cause comprehension problems, particularly for younger generations.
The Czech alphabet is a version of the Latin alphabet and has 42 characters. It forms the basis for the alphabets of many other Eastern European languages. Czech is an almost entirely phonetic language. Some Czech words do not contain any vowels, e.g. ‘smrt’ (death) or ‘ztvrdl’ (hardened).
The Czech language is regulated by the Czech Language Institute, based in Prague. It is part of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic, the country’s leading non-university public research institution. The Institute was founded in 1946 and replaced the Office of the Dictionary of the Czech Language which had been in place from 1911.
Czech Centres is an organisation founded in 1986 by the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs to promote Czech language and culture abroad. Its headquarters are in Prague but it has centres in 20 countries around the world, including one in London.
Czech names, as in English, consist of given names and surnames. In the past, parents had to choose given names from an approved list, corresponding to name days in the Czech calendar, and even now registry offices may reject particularly unusual names. Women’s surnames often differ from men’s surnames, as they are adjectives and require a feminine ending.
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