A grammar of the Bohemian or Čech language/Introduction

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I have compiled this Grammar in the hope that a study of the Bohemian language and literature may induce Englishmen to feel sympathy with the struggles of a noble Slavonic people. Few countries of Europe have made greater efforts in the cause of religious and civil liberty; and the renaissance of Bohemia in the second decade of the present century must be reckoned as one of the most extraordinary phenomena which the world has ever witnessed. The enthusiasm of a few scholars gave rise to a great political movement. The national spirit was there: it only waited to be quickened.

The Bohemian or Čech[1] language belongs to the western branch of the great Slavonic family. These languages are now generally grouped by scholars in two classes: (1) the South-Eastern branch, including Old Slavonic (called also Old Bulgarian or Old Slovenish), Russian, Malorussian, White Russian, Serbian, and Slovenish; and (2) the Western branch, including Polish, with the interesting Kashubish dialect, spoken near Danzig; Bohemian or Čech, spoken in Bohemia and Moravia, with its cognate Slovak, spoken in Hungary; Upper and Lower Serbish, called incorrectly Wendish, spoken about Bautzen (in Saxony) and Kottbus (in Prussia); and the extinct Polabish, once spoken in what was afterwards the kingdom of Hanover. The Slavonic people called Čechs first made their appearance in the territory which they now occupy about 451 A.D. It had previously been settled by the Boii (hence the usual name of the country, as if home of the Boii), a Keltic tribe, and the Marcomanni, a Teutonic tribe.

If we include the Slovaks in Hungary (in the north-west corner, their capital being Pressburg), the Bohemian language is now spoken by more than seven millions[2]. The Slovakish dialect is to all intents and purposes identical with Bohemian, exhibiting a few peculiarities. Both Kollár and Schafarik were Slovaks, and the writings of Holly, Sladkovič, and Chalupka are perfectly familiar to their Bohemian brethren, although they used the Slovakish dialect.

It is much to be regretted that attempts should have been made to develop it as a literary language; the Slovaks are thereby only playing into the hands of their enemies.

It would be impossible in this Introduction to enumerate more than the most prominent of the Bohemian authors. In the early period we get the so-called Chronicle of Dalimil, which dates from the beginning of the fourteenth century. Of this an excellent edition has been published by Prof. Mourek, of Prague, from the MS. preserved in the Library of Trinity College, Cambridge (Kronika Dalimilova podle Rukopisu Cambridgeského. Prague, 1892). To the fourteenth century also belongs the Alexandreis, which is a free adaptation from the Latin. Jireček assigns it to a period as early as the thirteenth century. At the beginning of the fifteenth century a complete version of the Bible was in existence. Before, however, we leave the fourteenth century we must mention some satirical poetry, the most curious of which is perhaps ‘The Groom and the Scholar’ (Podkoní a Žák), which gives us a quaint picture of mediaeval manners. To this period also belong the poems of Smil Flaška. But the greatest literary figure is Thomas Štítný, who has left some interesting moral treatises in the vernacular, which show how well developed Bohemian prose was at this early period. The addresses of Štítný to his children were edited by Erben in 1852 (Knížky Šestery o obecných Věcech Křesťanských). He is supposed to have died about 1400.

Here may be mentioned a Bohemian version of the History of the Trojan War, composed by Guido of Colonna, from Dictys Cretensis and Dares Phrygius, which, to judge from the number of MSS. in existence, must have been very popular. It was printed at Pilsen in 1468, and was one of the first books which issued from the Bohemian Press. We now come to the great name of Hus, a man whose life is too well known to need a detailed account. I shall confine myself to his influence upon Bohemian literature. During the latter part of the fourteenth century and the beginning of the fifteenth the University of Prague was at the height of its splendour. The doctrines of Wickliffe were introduced into the country by the mysterious Englishman, Peter Payne, a man destined to make a great reputation in Bohemia, although not much is known about his life in his native country[3]. Hus was born in 1369, took the degree of M.A. in 1396, and was made rector of the University of Prague in 1402. All have read how he attended the Council of Constance and was there burnt in 1415. Hus wrote a great deal in Latin, but also in Bohemian. His works in the latter language were collected and edited by Erben in 1865–68. They are for the most part controversial. One of them is entitled, Dcerka aneb o poznání cesty pravé k spasení (The Daughter, or the Knowledge of the Right Way to Salvation)[4]. Hus corrected the Bohemian translation of the Bible, and may be said to have fixed the orthography of the language; in the present century a few modifications have been introduced, thus w is now always written v, au has become ou, and g has given place to j. It may be as well to mention these changes in case any students should refer to old Bohemian books[5]. The country was now for some time agitated by religious factions. We can only briefly allude to the famous captain, Jan Žižka, who fortified his camp in an original manner, which has been frequently imitated since.

About this time translations of the travels of Marco Polo, and of those which went under the name of Sir John Mandeville, made their appearance. Peter Chelčický deserves a brief mention. He was one of the leaders of the United Brethren, and, being a cobbler by trade, was nicknamed Kopyto, or the shoe-last. His works were written between 1430 and 1456. The most celebrated are his Postils and the Net of Truth. He was a great denouncer of war, somewhat anticipating the views of the Quakers and some of the recent Russian sects.

In the sixteenth century the country felt the full influence of the Renaissance, and many translations from the classics appeared. Especially to be mentioned are Adam Daniel Veleslavín and Hrubý z Jelení, or Gelenius as he was called, according to the prevalent fashion of latinizing names. To the sixteenth century also belongs the chronicler Václav Hájek, a very interesting writer, although somewhat inaccurate and fond of fables, as our own Holinshed was.

In spite, however, of the spirited attempts of the Bohemians to preserve their constitution and language, as shown by the enactment of the Statute of 1615, that no one could hold office in Bohemia who was unacquainted with Čech, their independence was crushed at the terrible battle of the White Mountain in 1620.

For two centuries Bohemia practically disappears from the literary history of Europe. Such books as were produced were almost exclusively the works of exiles, as those of the great pedagogue Komenský, called among us by his Latin name Comenius (1592–1670). Besides his Latin works he wrote many in the vernacular, and the loss of the MS. of his great Bohemian dictionary is especially to be regretted[6]. Towards the close of the eighteenth century and in the earlier part of the present, a revival of the national spirit took place; the Bohemian Museum at Prague was founded in 1818, and the efforts of such men as Dobrovský, Palacký, Schafarik, Jungmann, and Kollár placed the Bohemian language on a sure footing. Palacký told the world his country’s history, Schafarik traced the ancient abodes of the Slavonic race, Jungmann published a copious dictionary of the Bohemian language, and Kollár became the national poet. Their work has been continued till the present day, and Bohemia can now boast a goodly array of authors, including such names as Vrchlický, Svatopluk Čech, Sládek, Eliška Krásnohorská (the nom de guerre of Jindřiška Pech), Prof. Kalousek, the historian, and many others. The reader who wishes to know something of the earlier literature may be referred to the pages of Count Lützow’s book (Bohemia, an Historical Sketch[7]. London, 1896).

The plan of the present little work may be stated briefly as follows. The classification of the nouns and verbs is based, with only slight modifications, upon those given by Miklosich in his great Comparative Grammar (Vergleichende Grammatik der Slavischen Sprachen. Second Edition, Vienna, 1876). The language is thus brought into harmony with the principles which I have endeavoured to carry out in my Russian, Serbian, and Bulgarian grammars. As I have said on previous occasions, in order to understand these languages thoroughly we must always keep in mind the relations in which they stand to the oldest Slavonic known, i.e. the Palaeoslavonic, as it has come down in the translation of the Bible and other works. When we make a comparative study of the Slavonic languages, we feel how one explains the other and how apparent anomalies are removed. I have consulted many grammars of the language. The volumes of the monumental work of Gebauer which have appeared up to the present time (Historická Mluvnice Jazyka Českého) have been constantly used; much useful information has been furnished by the Bohemian Grammar of Joseph Masařik (Böhmische Schulgrammatik, Prag, 1878) and the handy little volume published in Hartleben’s series by K. Kunz, Die Kunst die Böhmische Sprache schnell zu erlernen, and also by the Bohemian Grammar of J. Fr. Vymazal, Brünn, 1881. To those acquainted with the German language there are abundant facilities for acquiring Bohemian, but in English the only available works are two dictionaries, the first by Prof. V. E. Mourek, of the University of Prague, of which the English-Bohemian part has appeared and a portion of the Bohemian-English, and an English-Bohemian and Bohemian-English Dictionary, published by Karel Jonaš, lately deceased, at Racine, in Wisconsin, U.S. For Bohemians desiring to learn English there are the Učebné Listy Jazyka Anglického pro Samouky (Handbook of the English language for self-instruction), by Dr. V. E. Mourek, and a convenient little Grammar by Prof. Sládek.

For those desirous of pursuing further studies in Bohemian literature the following books may be recommended:—

(1) Výbor z Literatury České (Selections from Bohemian literature), two large volumes of which have appeared, published at the expense of the Matice Česká or Bohemian Literary Society. In the second volume the extracts are continued to the end of the sixteenth century. Persons to whom the subject is unfamiliar will be surprised, on opening these volumes, at the riches of old Bohemian literature.

(2) Anthologie z Literatury České (Anthology of Bohemian literature), by Joseph Jireček, of which several editions have appeared. This excellent book gives selections from the earliest times to the present day.

A good summary of Bohemian history will be found in the Děje Království Českého (History of the Kingdom of Bohemia), by Prof. Tomek, to which Prof. Kalousek has added three excellent maps. It is a great pity that this work has not been translated into English. As yet we have been too content to learn about the Bohemians from people who are interested only in depreciating them, but the valuable work of Count Lützow previously alluded to will no doubt do much to dissipate the prejudices of ignorance. As I have not space on the present occasion to give a complete sketch of Bohemian literature, I am obliged to pass over many other valuable works.

I have also with reluctance been compelled to omit extracts from the older Bohemian literature, for fear of confusing the student with archaisms. It will be observed that many of the passages selected for translation are from the useful work of Prof. Tomek already alluded to—Děje Království Českého, Prague, 1891. The English may occasionally appear somewhat clumsy, but it was not considered advisable to depart too much from the Bohemian idiom.

  1. By its inhabitants Bohemia is called Čechy; as a name of the people I have elsewhere ventured to use the form Chekh, so as to preserve the pronunciation. The Polish form ordinarily used in England (Czech) leads to ambiguities.
  2. See article by the late Prof. Šembera in the Časopis Musea Království Českého. The exact number, according to him, is 7,581,187.
  3. See A Forgotten Great Englishman, by James Baker, London, 1894.
  4. See John Hus, by A. H. Wratislaw, London, 1882.
  5. The progress of Bohemian orthography is clearly given by Gebauer.
  6. See the excellent Life of Comenius by Prof. Kvačala, in German. (Leipzig, 1892.) Also Great Didactic of Comenius, by M. W. Keatinge, London, 1896.
  7. There is also an account by the present writer: Early Slavonic Literature, London, 1883. For those who can read Bohemian, see Tieftrunk, Historie Literatury České (several editions).