1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Czech

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CZECH (in Bohemian, Čech), a name which signifies an inhabitant of Čechy, the native designation of Bohemia. The Czechs belong to the Slavic race, and according to the usually accepted division they form, together with the Poles and the almost extinct Lusatians, the group of the Western Slavs. Speaking generally, it can be said that the Czechs inhabit a large part of Bohemia, a yet larger part of Moravia, parts of Silesia—both Austrian and Prussian—and extensive districts in northern Hungary. In the 19th century the Czechs of Hungary—much to their own detriment—developed a written language that differs slightly from that used in Bohemia, but as regards their race they are identical with the Bohemians and Moravians. Beyond the borders of this continuous territory there are many Czechs in Lower Austria. Vienna in particular has a large and increasing Czech population. There are also numerous Czechs in Russia, particularly Volhynia, in the United States—where a large number of newspapers and periodicals are published in the Czech language—and in London. Though the statistics are very uncertain and untrustworthy, it can be stated that the Czechs number about eight millions.

The period at which the Czechs settled in Bohemia is very uncertain; all theories, indeed, with regard to the advent of the Slavs in northern and eastern Europe are merely conjectural. It was formerly generally accepted as a fact that all Bohemia was originally inhabited by Celtic tribes, who were succeeded by the Germanic Marcomanni, and later by the Slavic Czechs. According to a very ancient tradition reproduced in the book of Cosmas, the earliest Bohemian chronicler, the Czechs arrived in Bohemia led by their eponymous chief Čechus, and first settled on the Řip Hill (Georgberg) near Roudnice. It is a strange proof of the intense obscurity of the earliest Bohemian history that Cosmas, writing at the beginning of the 12th century, is already unaware of the existence of pre-Slavic inhabitants of Bohemia. It is historically certain that the Czechs inhabited parts of Bohemia as early as the 6th century. In the absence of all historical evidence, modern Czech scholars have endeavoured by other means to throw some light on the earliest period of the Czechs. By craniological studies and a thorough examination of the fields where the dead were burnt (in Czech žárove pole), still found in some parts of Bohemia, they have arrived at the conclusion that parts of the country were inhabited by Czechs, or at least by Slavs, long before the Christian era, perhaps about the year 500 B.C.

It is certain that the Slavs at the time when they first appeared in history had a common language, known as the ancient Slavic (praslovanský) language. When in the course of time the Slavs occupied various countries, which were often widely apart, different dialects arose among them, many of which were influenced by the language of the neighbouring non-Slavic populations. Thus the Czech language from an early period absorbed many German words. It is probable that the development of the Czech language as an independent one, was very gradual. Existent documents, such as the hymn to St Wenceslas, which belongs to the second half of the 10th century, are written partly in old-Slavic, partly in Czech. When the Slavs first occupied Bohemia, they were probably divided into several tribes, of which the Czechs, who inhabited Prague and the country surrounding it, were the most powerful. It is probable that these smaller tribes were only gradually subdued by the Czechs and that some of them had previously to their absorption adopted special dialects. The Netolice, Lučane, Pšovane, Sedlčane appear to have been among the more important tribes who were forced to acknowledge the supremacy of the Czechs, and it may be conjectured that their language for a time differed slightly from that of their conquerors. The Czech language has, like all Slavic ones, a strong tendency to develop dialects; this was the case at the time of its first appearance as an independent language, and has to a certain extent continued up to the present day. The dialects of Moravia and the northern districts of Hungary still show variations from the generally accepted forms of the Czech language, though since the foundation of the Czech university of Prague this—at least among the educated classes—is no longer true to the same extent as it formerly was. The Czech language at the time of its formation naturally remained closest to those other Slav-speaking countries which were geographically its neighbours, the Poles and the Lusatians, and it may be said that this is still the case. The Czech language at the time when in the 12th and 13th centuries it first appears as a separate and distinct one, differed considerably from that of the present day. Ancient Czech had several diphthongs, such as: ia, ie, iu, uo and au, that are unknown to the present language. The letter “l” had a threefold sound, and besides the letters b, p, m, v, the softer forms b′, p′, m′, v′, were also in existence. The letter g (as in other Slavic languages) was often used where modern Czechs employ the letter h. Ancient Bohemian had three numbers, the singular, plural and dual; of the dual only scant vestiges remain in modern Czech.

Once it had obtained its independence, the Czech language developed rapidly, and the philosophical and theological writings of Thomas of Štitný (1331–1401) proved that it could already be used even for dealing with the most abstract subjects, though Štitný was blamed by the monks for not writing in Latin, as was then customary. The Czech language is greatly indebted also to John Hus, whose best and most original works were written in the language of his country. Hus showed great interest in the orthography and grammar of his language, and has devoted an interesting treatise entitled “Orthographia bohemica” to it. As already mentioned, the Czech language had sprung from diverse dialects, and Hus endeavoured to establish uniformity. To the Bohemian reformer is also due the system of so-called diacritic marks—such as č, ů, ý—which with some modifications are still in use.[1] The Latin characters which were in the earliest times, as again at the present day, used when writing Czech, are quite unable to reproduce some sounds peculiar to Slavic languages. This was remedied by the introduction of these marks, and Hus’s system of orthography became known as the diacritic one. The Bohemian reformer, zealous for the purity of the language of his country, often in his sermons inveighed quaintly and vehemently against those who defiled the Czech language by introducing numerous “Germanisms.” A century later the Czech language was largely indebted to the then recently founded community of the Bohemian (or as they were also often called, Moravian) brethren. A member of the community, Brother John Blakoslav, wrote in 1571 a Grammatika Česká, that still has considerable philological interest. It contains a full account of the construction of the Czech language, based on Latin grammar, with which the writer was thoroughly acquainted. Divines belonging to the same community also at the end of the 16th century published at Kralice in Moravia a complete Czech version of the Old and New Testaments. Together with the Labyrint Světa (Labyrinth of the World) of Komensky (Comenius), who was also a member of the brotherhood, it can be considered a model of the Czech language in the period immediately preceding its downfall.

The Czechs have always enthusiastically upheld the language of their country. In ancient Czech, indeed, the same word jazyk denotes both “nation” and “language.” As late as in 1608 a decree of the estates of Bohemia declared that Czech was the only official and recognized state-language, and that all who wished to acquire citizenship in the country should be obliged to acquire the knowledge of it. While all patriots thus supported the national language, it was greatly disliked by the absolutists who were opposed to the ancient free constitution of Bohemia, as well as by all who favoured the Church of Rome. The overthrow of Bohemian independence at the battle of the White Mountain (1620) was therefore shortly followed by the decline of the Czech language. All Czech writings which could be found were destroyed by the Austrian authorities as being tainted with heresy, while no new books written in Czech appeared, except occasional prayer-books and almanacs. For these scanty writings the German so-called “Schwabach” characters were used, and this custom only ceased in the middle of the 19th century. The Czech language, for some time entirely excluded from the schools, all but ceased to be written, and its revival at the beginning of the 19th century was almost a resurrection.

The first originator of the movement, Joseph Dobrovský or Doubravský (1753–1829) seems himself, at least at the beginning of his life, to have considered it impossible that Czech should again become a widely-spoken language, and one whose literature could successfully compete with that of larger countries. Yet it was the works of this “patriarch of Slavic philology” which first drew the public attention to the half-forgotten Czech language. Dobrovský’s work was afterwards continued by Kolar, Jungmann, Palacký, Šafařek, and many others, and Czech literature has, both as regards its value and its extension, reached a height that in the middle of the 19th century would have appeared incredible.

Though met by constant opposition on the part of the Austrian authorities, the Czechs have succeeded in re-establishing the use of their language in many of the lower and middle schools of Bohemia and Moravia, and the foundation of a Czech university at Prague (1882–1884) has of course contributed very largely to the ever-increasing expansion of the Czech language. The national language has at all times appeared to the Bohemians as the palladium of their nationality and independence, and the movement in favour of the revival of the Czech language necessarily became a political one, as soon as circumstances permitted. The friends of the national language at the beginning of the 19th century were generally known as the vlastenci (patriots), but when in 1848 representatives of many parts of Austria met at Vienna, the deputies of Bohemia—with the exception of the Germans—formed what was called the national or Czech party. Parliamentary government did not at that period long survive, and at the end of the year 1851 absolutism had been re-established. In 1860 a new attempt to establish constitutional government in Austria was made, and representatives of the Czech party appeared at the provincial diet of Prague and the central parliament at Vienna. The Czech party endeavoured to obtain the re-establishment of the ancient Bohemian constitution, but, allied as they were with a large part of the Bohemian nobility, it was their policy to maintain a somewhat conservative attitude. After having absented themselves for a considerable time from the parliament of Vienna, the legality of which they denied, the Czech deputies reappeared in Vienna in 1879, and, together with the representatives of the Bohemian nobility, formed there what was known as the Česky Klub.

While the Czechs for a time continued united at Vienna, a schism among them had some time previously occurred at Prague. Dissatisfied with the policy of the Czechs, a new party had been formed in Bohemia which affected more advanced views and became known as the “Young Czech” party. The more conservative Czechs were henceforth known as the “Old Czechs.” The “Young Czechs,” when the party first became independent in 1872, had thirty-five representatives in the diet of Prague, but at the elections of 1874 their number was reduced to seven. They continued, however, to gain in strength, and obtained for a long time a large majority in the diet, while the Old Czech party for a considerable period almost disappeared. In Vienna also the Old Czech party gradually lost ground. Its leader Dr Rieger, indeed, obtained for the Czechs certain concessions which, underrated at the time, have since proved by no means valueless. The decision of the Old Czech party to take part at a conference in Vienna under the presidency of Count Taafe—then Austrian prime-minister—which was to settle the national differences in Bohemia, caused its complete downfall. The proposals of the Vienna conference were rejected with indignation, and the Old Czechs, having become very unpopular, for a time ceased to contest the elections for the legislative assemblies of Prague and Vienna. The victorious Young Czechs, however, soon proved themselves very unskilful politicians. After very unsuccessfully assuming for a short time an attitude of intransigeant opposition, they soon became subservient to the government of Vienna to an extent which the Old Czechs had never ventured. Dr Kramář, in particular, as leader of the Young Czech party, supported the foreign policy of Austria even when its tendency was most hostile to the interests of Bohemia. The Vienna government has, in recent years, as regards internal affairs, also adopted a policy very unfavourable to the Czech race. Even the continuance of some of the concessions formerly obtained by the Old Czechs has become doubtful. At the elections to the diet of Prague which took place in March 1908, the Young Czechs lost many seats to the Old Czechs, while the Agrarians, Clericals and Radicals were also successful.

See J. Dobrovský, Geschichte der böhmischen Sprache (1818), and Lehrgebäude der böhmischen Sprache (1819); J. Blahoslav, Grammatika Česká, printed from MS. (1867); Lippert, Social-Geschichte Böhmens (1896); Gebauer, Slovník Staročesky (Dictionary of the ancient Czech language, 1903); I. Herzer, Böhmisch-deutsches Wörterbuch (Prague, 1901, &c.); Coufal and Zába, Slovník Česko-latinský a Latinsko-český (Prague, 1904, &c.), and Historicka Uluonice Jazyka českéha (Historical grammar of the Czech language, 1904); Morfill, Grammar of the Bohemian or Čech Language (1899); Bourlier, Les Tchèques (1897). (L.) 

  1. For the pronunciation of these see the footnote at the beginning of the article Bohemia.