A for alphabet

!!!NOTICE!!! In order to properly view letters from the Czech alphabet it is necessary to set your browser to Central European languages. Do all the accent marks above Czech letters puzzle you? Have you always wondered how to pronounce the name of the Czech composer Antonín Dvoøák correctly? Now is your chance to find out, in this week's ABC of Czech with Pavla Horakova.

Hello and welcome again to our new series of programmes on the Czech language. Today I'm here with Vladimir Tax. Now, if you've ever come across a Czech text, you might have wondered what all the accent marks that look like a cross of French, Spanish and Swedish mean. Well, Czech uses the standard Latin alphabet but has three diacritical or accent marks, which alter the pronunciation of certain letters. The short slanting line above vowels makes them longer - that means they last about twice as long. Normal short vowels are: "a", "e", "i", "o", "u". So "a" with the little line becomes "á" as in the word "máma" or "Mum". "E" becomes "é" as in the word "léto" or "summer" and so on. The little circle above the letter "u" has the same function as the line and makes it sound longer, only it is used inside or at the end of a word.

The Czech soft vowel "ì" can only occur after the following consonants: b, p, v, d, t, n and m. It can't stand on its own; its function is to soften the preceding consonant - as if a "j" sound were inserted. "Bì", "pì", "vì" is pronounced as "bje", "pje", "vje" as in the words "obìd" or "lunch", "pìt" or "five" and "vìc" or "thing". "D", "t" and "n" are softened in "dì", "tì", "nì" as in the words "andìl" or "angel", "tìlo" or "body" and "nìkdo" or "somebody". In the case of "mì" a "n" is inserted between the "m" and "ì" as in "mìsto" or "city".)

The little "v"- shaped sign above consonants makes them softer. So "z" becomes "¾" as in "¾ivot" or "life", "s" turns into "¹" as in "¹kola" or school. "C" changes into "è" as in "èeský" or "Czech", "d" becomes "ï", "t" is altered to "»", "n" turns into "ò" and - to save the best for last - the letter "r" becomes "ø". Now, "ø" is a sound unique to the Czech language (apparently, only one small South American native tribe uses the consonant). Ex-pats living in Prague like the sound so much they opened a bar called just that - "ø". I spoke to "ø" bartender Keith Kirchner, who told me why they've given the place such a weird name.

"We named it "Ø"- Bar for a couple of reasons. One was because we knew it would be annoying. But also we think it's a nice letter, we like the letter, it's got irony to it. Czech people tend to remember it if they hear it because they have never seen it before, believe it or not. And for us it says we're not just an ex-pat place, that we are kind of connected to the community in different ways."

What do the non-Czech guests call the bar - it must be difficult for them to pronounce the name. Keith Kirchner again.

"They can make some nice acronyms for your name no matter what it is and it's very hard to imagine they can make up too many easy ones with "ø". Some would say "R" bar, some say "Ø". Most of them are actually afraid to say it at all."

I put the same question to Andrew, a patron of "Ø"- Bar.

"Ø". 'Ø'- Bar over there. It's a new bar and this is a new name and it's unique to the Czech Republic. Nobody in the whole of the Czech Republic has a bar called "Ø"- Bar and this bar is called 'Ø'- Bar. But most English speakers who don't know how to say 'ø', they will say 'We are going to R-bar, like Our bar'."

Finally, Andrew told me a few useful tips how a foreigner can master the tricky letter.

"Ø". It sounds like French, like 'Je m'appelle'. But you have to roll the 'r' like in Spanish. So it's French and Spanish together. It's necessary to learn to letter right away. If you don't say it, nobody will understand what you want to say. It's very confusing if you say something in Czech where 'r' should be 'ø'."

And let me give you one example of that - while "rada" means a piece of advice, "øada" means a row or a line.

And that's it for today. Next week we'll be looking at the letter "b" which stands for - you've guessed it - beer. Until then you can practice your "ø". But if you can't pronounce it, don't despair. Many Czechs never learn this letter or the Czech rolled "r". By the way, the President himself is one of them.

See also Living Czech.