What does Jan Hus have to do with Czech spelling?

Jan Hus

If you live in the Czech Republic, you’ll have been enjoying two extra days off from work due to a pair of consecutive public holidays this week. 5th July, Saints Cyril and Methodius day, and 6th July, Jan Hus day, both have a connection to the way Czech is written – but what is it? And is Czech really easier to learn to read and write than other languages? Our reporter and amateur linguistics enthusiast, Anna Fodor, spoke to well-known Czech linguist Karel Oliva, to find out.

Source: Radio Prague International

Czech has a reputation for being one of the most difficult languages for foreigners to learn. But there is one respect in which it is remarkably easy – it has one of the most phonemic and consistent writing systems of any language in the world. My partner, who is from Texas and had never studied any Slavic languages before moving to the Czech Republic, learnt to correctly pronounce Czech words when reading in a matter of minutes (even if he couldn’t understand what he was reading).

If English is not your native language – or even if you’re a native speaker who struggles with spelling – you will appreciate what I am talking about. English spelling is more a matter of memorization than anything else. Why are ‘Czech’ and ‘check’ written differently but pronounced the same? And why are ‘desert’ (as in to leave, e.g. the army) and ‘desert’ (as in an arid area, e.g. the Sahara) spelt the same but pronounced differently? What about ‘rain’, ‘rein’, and ‘reign’, all spelt differently but pronounced the same? And the many ways (seven? Or is it eight, or nine?) of pronouncing “ough”?

Illustrative photo: Jaymis Loveday,  Flickr,  CC BY 2.0

How many of us, native and non-native English speakers alike, have said a word aloud, only to be gently – or not so gently – corrected on our pronunciation? An avid bookworm as a child, I encountered many words through reading before I ever heard them spoken aloud, leading to many embarrassing mispronunciations over the years. My favourite mispronunciation that I ever heard was the word 'segue', which I heard pronounced (by a native speaker) as 'see gee'.

In Czech, these problems do not exist. One letter more or less corresponds to one sound, with very few exceptions, so there is usually only one way to spell a word. So although you may struggle with noun declensions and verb conjugations, you will never have to puzzle over how to spell ‘Čech’.

Karel Oliva | Photo: Matěj Baťha,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY-SA 3.0

And we have one man (probably – as you will find out) to thank for that – the very same man we have to thank for today’s public holiday. But why is that? And how did Saints Cyril and Methodius, to whom we owe yesterday’s free day, have a part to play in this story?

I spoke to linguist, polyglot, and former head of the Institute of the Czech Language of the Academy of Sciences, Karel Oliva, to explain it to us.

6 July is Jan Hus Day, so if you’re in the Czech Republic, it’s a public holiday. We broadcast for an international audience so if they know anything about Jan Hus, I think most people probably know him as a church reformer who was burned at the stake. But we’re here to talk about him in a different context, which is his connection to Czech orthography, i.e. spelling. So what is the connection between Jan Hus and the Czech written language?

“Well, there is the general opinion that it was Jan Hus who introduced diacritics into Czech orthography.”

Hold on – what are diacritics exactly?

Sometimes called ‘accents', diacritics are the various little dots and squiggles which, in many languages (but not English) are written above or below certain letters of the alphabet to indicate something about their pronunciation.

If you speak or have studied French, for example, you’ll be familiar with the ‘accent grave’ and the circumflex; German has the umlaut; and in Czech you’ll find so-called ‘háčky’ and ‘čárky’.

Letters with ‘háček’ | Illustrative photo: Szomjasrágó,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC0 1.0 DEED

The ‘čárka’ is similar to the acute accent in French. It looks like an apostrophe or short diagonal line, and you find it above vowels in Czech to indicate that they should be held longer when pronounced (e.g. the accent over the letter ‘á’).

The ‘háček’ looks a little like a tiny ‘v’, and you find it above certain consonants in Czech (e.g. the accent over the letter ‘č‘) and it changes their sound, for example an ‘s’ with a háček becomes what in English would be written as ‘sh’, and ‘c’ becomes what in English would be written as ‘ch’. 

OK, back to Karel Oliva.

So which diacritics exactly was Jan Hus supposed to have introduced?

Letters "u",  "ú"  (u with ‘háček’) and "ů"  (u with ‘kroužek’) | Photo: ŠJů,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY-SA 3.0

“He introduced what we call today háčky and čárky. They were not exactly in the form you see them nowadays – it was more of a point and an accent. What he did not introduce, however, was the kroužek (small circle) over a long u (ů) – this appeared only 150 years later.”

And what was so revolutionary about these diacritics – what makes them so special?

“Well, the story is – taken with a grain of salt – that if you compare Czech orthography and English orthography, in Czech, each sound corresponds to one letter, and each letter corresponds to one sound.

Illustrative photo: Kat,  Flickr,  CC BY-SA 2.0

“Which is different from English, where you use digraphs [= two letters corresponding to one sound, e.g. ‘th’, ‘sh’, ‘ch’]. For example, in the word ‘Czech’, the initial sound is written with two letters, ‘C’ and ‘z’, and the final [k] sound at the end is written with two letters, ‘c’ and ‘h’. Or the sound at the beginning of ‘thirsty’, which is written with two letters, ‘t’ and ‘h’.

“The idea is that, in reading, it’s much more natural if you have one-to-one correspondence between sounds and letters. So this is the big invention which Jan Hus gave to the Czechs, but also to a lot of other nations, like the Baltic nations, the Slovenes, the Croats – it dispersed quite a lot in central and eastern Europe.”

Illustrative photo: Gerd Altmann,  Pixabay,  Pixabay License

So for anyone who struggled with spelling, which even a lot of English native speakers do, this is one thing that’s actually quite easy about learning Czech, that you can learn to read it relatively quickly.

“In this respect, I really have to complain about English. For a foreign learner of English, English is almost like Chinese, because there is no real correspondence between letters and sounds. It doesn’t matter much whether I have to learn Chinese symbols or I have to learn how to spell a word in English, because you have to learn the spelling and the pronunciation separately.”

Your example of the word ‘Czech’ – that made me think that you can also have the word ‘check’ written differently and it means something else.

Illustrative photo: attanatta,  Flickr,  CC BY 2.0

“Yes, that’s another point. There are a lot of homographs and homophones in English. Words which are pronounced the same way but spelt differently, and also the other way around – there are very many words in English written the same way, but pronounced differently, e.g. ‘lead’, as in to be the leader, or ‘lead’, as in the metal. There are very many, very many.”

OK, so that’s basically how Jan Hus is supposed to have reformed Czech spelling – he introduced these little dashes and dots on top of letters called diacritics, and it changed the way Czech was written, making an almost one-to-one correspondence between letters and sounds.

But, that’s not the whole story. Actually, there are two things that might be wrong with this story, as Karel Oliva tells us now.

Jan Hus | Source:  Museum of Vojvodinian Slovaks,  Wikimedia Commons,  public domain

“There are two points to be corrected on the general stance that Hus is the author of everything. First of all, he was not really a big inventor – he just reformed the existing systems and combined them into one single system. Secondly, it’s not 100% certain that it was Jan Hus. It’s quite probable that it was, but it’s not really certain.

“It is to be noted that, first of all, the different diacritical systems existed even before Jan Hus. But the point is that these were different in every monastery – I would even say each scribe had his own system. So there was no unified system.

“Then came someone, who might have been and presumably really was Jan Hus, but it’s not really sure, who introduced a reform summing up all these systems into one in a manuscript, which only very much later – in the 19th century – got a title, De orthographia bohemica, which means ‘about Czech orthography’. But this manuscript is not preserved in the original form, only in a copy from about 1450 or 1460, long after the death after Jan Hus. So there is no title or author in the manuscript, but due to literary research into other manuscripts authored by Hus, it is generally assumed that Hus is the author. But it’s not really 100% sure.”

De orthographia bohemica

So who attributed De Orthographia Bohemica to Hus in the first place?

“It was František Palacký, an important Czech historian, who discovered the manuscript in the old library of the city of Třeboň. About 1820 or 1830 he discovered the manuscript, published it, give it its title, and also write an article accompanying it, stating that the most probable author is Jan Hus.”

What happened to the original – you said that it doesn’t exist anymore?

Source:  Czech TV,  Czech Radio,  Czech Academy of Sciences,  janhus600.cz,  hus2015.cz,  spisovatele.cz,  Wikimedia Commons

“We don’t know what happened! It happens very often with old manuscripts that they kind of disappear and exist only in copies. Or maybe they exist somewhere and have not been discovered yet, but it’s not very common.”

But just to go back to Jan Hus for a moment – is this something that’s generally known among Czech people? Do people learn at school that Jan Hus was the reformer of the Czech spelling system?

“Yes. In Czech schools, you are told the simple story – that Jan Hus was the big reformer who invented and introduced diacritics. I just wanted to make it a little bit more exact for your listeners.”

If he wasn’t the author, are there any other ideas who the author could have been?

František Palacký

“For sure it was somebody from the circle of Jan Hus – some personality from the university of his time. Definitely it was created there. But as no authorship is given on the manuscript, it’s an educated guess. But it’s a well-formed guess, so I would say it was Jan Hus.”

And why did Palacký attribute the book to him if there was no name – do you think it’s somehow tied in with his narrative of the Czech nation, because he was a kind of a father of the Czech national revival movement [of the 19th century]?

“Well if you take the manuscript and compare the literary style to other manuscripts authored by Hus, you would probably come to the conclusion that it seems to be the same author – so this was the reason. I don’t at all want to diminish the importance of Jan Hus – I just wanted to make clear that we are not really 100% sure. Let’s say that we are 99% sure.”

Saints Cyril and Methodius | Photo: Jiří Sedláček,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY-SA 4.0 DEED

So there you have it – someone, who may or may not have been Jan Hus, but probably was him, published this big old Latin book about Czech orthography and introduced diacritics. So we have Jan Hus to thank not only for attempting to reform the Catholic church and losing his life for it, but also for reforming Czech spelling, so that at least one thing about Czech is relatively straightforward.

But what about our other public holiday, Saints Cyril and Methodius day on 5th July? I mentioned they also had something to do with Czech orthography. Well, to find out, we have to go significantly further back in time – back to the 9th century.

Going a little further back in time now, 500 years before the publication of De orthographia bohemica, Czech wasn’t written using Latin script at all – it was written using another script. Could you tell us about that?

Glagolitic  (left) and Cyrillic  (right) alphabets | Photo: Olga Vasinkevich,  Radio Prague International

“Well, I wouldn’t quite put it like that. The language which was written in this other script – Glagolitic – was not Czech exactly. It was a language called Old Church Slavonic, which is a very funny language in a way, because it never existed as a native language for anyone. It was a completely artificial language which was created for the purpose of church services, a prestigious language for use in church services. To put it simply, it was a mixture of Old Bulgarian and Old Czech. However, Old Bulgarian and Old Czech are terms which are untenable in the scientific community.

“In the 9th century, there was more or less still only one Slavic language which only had dialects. And the language spoken in today’s Bulgaria and north-eastern Greece was one dialect, and Cyril and Methodius came from there, from Thessaloniki, and they came to Great Moravia and heard another dialect, something like Old Czech or proto-Czech. So they took these two languages and combined them into this solemn language, Old Church Slavonic, for solemn occasions like church services. And this language was first written in Glagolitic script, and then later Cyrillic developed out of this script.

Glagolitic script | Source:  Wikimedia Commons,  public domain

“But it was not Czech which was written in this script. The first Czech words which we have are attested from about the year 1100, and they are just glosses, which means there are some small notes in the margin [of a manuscript]. And these first Czech words are written in Latin script.”

And do we have any idea who first wrote Czech in Latin script?

“Generally, it was monks. This first Czech sentence appears in something like the Domesday book of the chapter of the monastery of Litomeřice. So it was some monk – we of course do not know his name.”

And I guess every monk just invented his own spelling?

Czech SMS without diacritics | Illustrative photo: Petra Ševců,  Czech Radio

“They spelt in a way which we can very nicely compare to SMS messages today – that is, Czech without diacritics. So in a way, history just repeats itself.”

So you mentioned Saints Cyril and Methodius who nicely tie into the other public holiday that the Czech Republic will be celebrating which is on 5 July. They were responsible for bringing Christianity to the Czech lands – is that right?

“Again, this is what Czech children are taught at school, but it is not quite exact. I have to start by saying Cyril and Methodius arrived in Great Moravia in 863. But by the year 800, with the foundation of Great Moravia, there were monks coming from Western Europe, from the empire of the Franks, who came as missionaries, so there was some kind of Christianity in the Czech lands even before. But the story is that the rulers of Great Moravia did not like it very much because with these monks also came some influence from the Frankish empire. So they at last decided to ask the Emperor of Constantinople, of the Eastern Roman empire, to send their envoys, their missionaries.

Saints Cyril and Methodius | Source: public domain

“So this was how they [Cyril and Methodius] arrived, and they really did a big important job here, introducing not only Christianity, but also translating part of the Bible into Old Church Slavonic – that means, in a language which was not used on the streets, but which was generally fully understandable.

“So it was not that they really introduced Christianity, but their impact was the largest.”

I see – so Christianity had started to creep in from the Frankish empire, but the rulers of Great Moravia didn’t want the cultural influence that came with it?

“Exactly. But later the Czech lands came under the influence of the Frankish empire anyway. So basically this is the reason why we write in Latin script today – if we had kept the eastern influences we would probably be using Cyrillic.

Illustrative photo: Dragovit,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC0 1.0 DEED

“We should take into consideration that this happened centuries before the split into eastern and western Christianity – it was still one Christianity all together.”

How did the split come about with the east Slavic lands using the Cyrillic alphabet and the west Slavic lands using the Latin alphabet?

“I think the true reason is the split into Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism under the influence of the Frankish empire, the Germans, the Italians, or whatever. It’s a funny story, because on the one hand the ruling earl of Great Moravia introduced the missionaries from Constantinople, but his children or grandchildren who were ruling after him, they expelled them again because there was too much influence from Constantinople and they introduced the Westerners again. So it’s politics.”

A classic story of East versus West. And what was the reason for creating this language [Old Church Slavonic] that didn’t exist, like you said, that wasn’t actually spoken by anyone natively?

Old Church Slavonic | Source:  Wikimedia Commons,  CC0 1.0 DEED

“I think the reason was that they wanted to have a special language for church services which would be solemn, which wouldn’t be profane, and secondly, they were not native speakers of the local Czech dialect, so they had to take what they brought from their home and they had to kind of combine it. And the reason for introducing the script was of course that they wanted to give the people some written sources in a language that was understandable to them. Obviously Latin was used for church services, but it was also obvious that coming to a pagan country and bringing a religion where the service is held in a language which is incomprehensible to the local people would be doomed to fail. So the only way of trying to convince the local people would of course be to talk to them in a language which would be understandable to them.”

So even though it wasn’t spoken as a native language, it would still have been comprehensible to them?

The origin and migration of Slavs in Europe between the 5th and 10th centuries AD | Source: Fphilibert,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY-SA 3.0

“Oh yes, yes. The Slavs came into this part of Europe in let’s say the 5th, 6th, 7th century partly. So this was only two or three centuries later. So the dialects of course were developing, because there was not so much travel as there is now, so the local dialects started to develop but they were still mutually intelligible.”

And where were Cyril and Methodius from?

“Well, they are said to be – again it’s not very sure – from Thessaloniki, which is a city in northeastern Greece. They are said to be of a Slavonic mother, probably a slave, and their father is not really known but he was probably the slave master.”

Thessaloniki | Photo: MWD,  Wikimedia Commons,  public domain

And it’s pretty certain that they were the ones that created Glagolitic script?

“Yes, in this respect, it is pretty certain that they were the ones who created the two alphabets.

“Or rather, Cyril and Methodius created the first one, Glagolitic, and it was Cyril who the created the Cyrilic alphabet on the basis of the first one.”

So, as we probably already knew, history is much more messy than the way it is taught to us in our history books. But at the very least, as you enjoy your free day today on 6th July, don't forget to spare a thought for Jan Hus and the háček and čárka.