Oxford is one of the few British universities where Czech language and literature can be studied up to honours degree level (and beyond). No knowledge of Czech is required to be admitted to the course. The central focus of literary study is on Czech writers from the period of the late-eighteenth century up to the present day, but options are also available for study of mediaeval Czech literature and the history of the language. An introduction to reading Slovak is also provided, from later in the second year, as Czech and Slovak are linguistically very similar, and there is also scope to study Slovak authors in detail as a final-year option.
Most undergraduates coming up to read “Czech (with Slovak)” at Oxford are beginners, but we can also supply appropriate language and literature teaching for native (or semi-native) speakers. Most are studying another modern language (typically German or Russian, but also Spanish and French). It is also possible to study “Czech (with Slovak)” in one of the various Joint Schools (with History, English, etc.). It is NOT possible to study “Czech (with Slovak)” without a second subject at Oxford. The degree course normally lasts four years, including a year abroad, which may include studying at university (or teaching English) in the Czech Republic. Over the years undergraduates have spent time variously in Prague, Brno, Olomouc, Ostrava and other places.
Czech and Slovak, spoken mainly in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, are very closely related languages of the Slavonic group, and speakers of both can understand each other quite easily. Another close relative is Russian, though differences of vocabulary are considerable. Some knowledge of Latin, with its similar system of cases and declensions, can also help learners.
Beginners will receive about three hours of intensive Czech language classes per week, and more advanced students will be catered for as appropriate. All attend weekly lectures and seminars on Czech literature. These continue throughout the year. There will also be tutorials for essay work on Czech literature; these tutorials are usually held in Hilary and Trinity Terms.
Literature teaching, conducted mainly in small seminars and personal tutorials (in addition to the above), at first also involves (for beginners) a considerable degree of checking and reinforcing of basic linguistic understanding.
Due to the demands made on beginners by Czech – a highly inflected language with a large proportion of unfamiliar vocabulary from the English point of view – the Czech side of the course will inevitably involve a particularly heavy work load. It is essential that those admitted to read this subject demonstrate a high linguistic ability and are highly motivated.
The Slovak language is linguistically very close to Czech, but study of Slovak is normally only introduced later in the Honours course. Undergraduates are expected to acquire a reading knowledge of Slovak, which is tested via translation in Finals. There is also opportunity to study a range of Slovak authors.
In a small subject like Czech (typically with four to six undergraduates in the first year), and with a mixture of one-to-one and small-group teaching, there is good scope for flexibility. Native speakers can expect to receive more demanding work and be stretched from the very start, while those who struggle in any particular area can be given special attention. The Taylor Slavonic library has a very large and excellent Czech collection, catering for research needs as well as undergraduates.
For further details of the degree course in Czech (with Slovak) please go to the Course Handbooks. Prospective students (and parents) can also meet and talk with teaching staff directly at the ‘Russian and other Slavonic Languages’ or ‘Modern Languages’ open days.
The beginners’ textbook we use is: James Naughton, Colloquial Czech, 3rd edition (Routledge, 2011). We also recommend the following modern grammar of Czech: James Naughton, Czech: An Essential Grammar (Routledge, 2005).
For our study of twentieth-century Czech literature we recommend all students purchase: Robert Porter, An Introduction to Twentieth-Century Czech Fiction: Comedies of Defiance (Brighton: Sussex Academic Press, 2001). Other English-language studies of Czech literature can be found in the Course Handbooks and on the Czech & Slovak Literature in Translation page.
Beginners can choose from many different dictionaries, but Josef Fronek’s are popular for their clarity of presentation. The most recent editions are given below, but other editions can be used too:
- Josef Fronek, Anglicko-český a česko-anglický slovník (Prague: Leda, 2012). (English-Czech Czech-English Dictionary.)
- Josef Fronek, Velký česko-anglický slovník (Prague: Leda, 2013). (Large, Czech-English.)
- Josef Fronek, Velký anglicko-český slovník (Prague: Leda, 2016). (Large, English-Czech.)
Two older dictionaries from Ivan Poldauf are also particularly useful, among other things, for showing ‘aspectual pairs’ of verbs. The second dictionary below has a very wide range of Czech vocabulary for reading literature and is particularly helpful on this course. Unfortunately, these dictionaries are usually hard to find and expensive in the UK, but can often be picked up quite easily in the Czech Republic, or from second-hand booksellers sites such as ABE Books or Můj antikvariát:
- Ivan Poldauf, ed., Anglicko-český česko-anglický slovník (Prague: SPN, 1994, etc.)
- Ivan Poldauf, ed., Velký česko-anglický slovník, (Čelákovice: WD Publications / New York: Hippocrene Books, 2000, etc.)
Phrase-books etc. e.g. Berlitz, Collins, BBC, Rough Guide and Oxford Photo Dictionary may also come in useful.
- Milan Kundera, ‘Falešný autostop’ in Směšné lásky (Brno: Atlantis, 1991); translated as ‘The Hitchhiking Game’ in Laughable Loves (Faber & Faber, 2000).
- Jan Neruda, ‘Doktor Kazisvět’ in Povídky malostranské (any edition); translated as ‘Doctor Spoiler’ in Prague Tales (CEU Press, 1993), or ‘Doctor Vandal’ in Tales of the Little Quarter (Heinemann, 1957).
- Ota Pavel, ‘Zlatí úhoři’ in Zlatí úhoři (Československý spisovatel, 1988).
- Bohumil Hrabal, ‘Pábitelé’ in Automat svět (Mladá fronta, 1966); in Pábení: Sebrané spisy Bohumila Hrabala, sv. 4 (Pražská imaginace, 1993); translated as ‘Palaverers’ in The Death of Mr. Baltisberger (Northwestern UP, 2010, or Abacus Books, 1990).
- Karel Čapek, R.U.R. (any edition); translated in Four Plays: R.U.R., The Insect Play, The Makropulos Case, The White Plague, by Peter Majer & Cathy Porter (London: Methuen, 1999), or by Claudia Novack-Jones in Toward the Radical Center: a Karel Čapek Reader (Highland Park, 1990).
- Václav Havel, Vyrozumění (e.g. in volume Hry), trans. Vera Blackwell as The Memorandum (any edition).
- Karel Jaromír Erben, Kytice z pověstí národních (1853).
- Karel Hynek Mácha, Máj (1836). Generally considered to be the major work of Czech 19th-century Romanticism.
Translations and background reading:
Only a very brief selection of the titles is given here. For a more detailed bibliography please see the Anthologies and Individual Author entries on the Czech and Slovak Literature in Translation page.
Václav Havel, The Memorandum, Selected Plays; Ivan Klíma, e.g. My Golden Trades; Milan Kundera, Laughable Loves, The Joke; Karel Čapek, R.U.R., Three Novels: Hordubal, Meteor, An Ordinary Life, War with the Newts; Bohumil Hrabal, The Death of Mr Baltisberger, Closely Observed Trains; Jan Neruda, Prague Tales; Ota Pavel, How I Came To Know Fish; Josef Škvorecký, The Cowards; Jaroslav Hašek, The Good Soldier Švejk – and anything else you can find by these or other Czech authors.
J. Naughton, ed, Traveller’s Literary Companion to Eastern and Central Europe (Brighton: In Print Publishing, 1995), esp. chapters on Czech Republic and Slovakia; Jiří Holý, Writers under siege : Czech literature since 1945, Brighton: Sussex Academic Press, 2008.
Hugh Agnew, The Czechs and the Lands of the Bohemian Crown, Maria Dowling, Czechoslovakia; R. W. Seton-Watson, A History of the Czechs and Slovaks; Piotr Wandycz, The Price of Freedom: A History of East Central Europe; Lonnie R. Johnson, Central Europe: Enemies, Neighbors, Friends; Peter Demetz, Prague in Black and Gold; Derek Sayer, The Coasts of Bohemia; Erhard Gorys, Czech and Slovak Republics (includes a brief history); Time Out Guide: Prague; Lonely Planet, Blue Guide.
Oxford is one of the few British universities where Czech and Slovak language and literature can be studied up to honours degree level and beyond. It has one of the best library collections for this in the British Isles, with a large proportion of the material available on open shelves. For more information on graduate studies at Oxford please see the MSt in Slavonic Studies page and the Graduate Admissions page.
For more details on research and teaching in Czech please see the list of current staff.
Topics of doctoral research on Czech literature at Oxford have included:
- the novels of Daniela Hodrová
- the narrative poetry of Vladimír Holan
- essayistic writing (Hrabal and Havel)
- the fiction of Richard Weiner
- cinematic elements in Poetist fiction of the nineteen-twenties
For more information on coming to Oxford for research, please see the Graduate Admissions page.