The study of Czech – with closely related Slovak – is a gateway to the rich culture and turbulent history of Central Europe and an ideal introduction to the Slavonic languages. The Czechs and their magnificent capital city, Prague, have found themselves at the centre of Europe’s most dramatic episodes, from the Holy Roman Empire, the Reformation, the Habsburgs and the Thirty Years War to Nazism and the Cold War.
Czech with Slovak is a distinctive version of the traditional modern languages degree, enabling you to discover the languages and cultures of smaller European nations that have not built empires, but instead created, negotiated and preserved their identities and culture within and alongside them. You will emerge with a rare, valuable version of an essential and well-understood skill-set, prized in careers as varied as business, finance, law, diplomacy, international aid and development, the armed forces, security services, interpreting, publishing, journalism and teaching.
Oxford is the leading centre in the UK for the study of Czech and Slovak language and literature to honours degree level and beyond. At Oxford, you can learn Czech from scratch, while acquiring an excellent reading knowledge of Slovak. In literature classes, we explore Czech-language literature from its beginnings in the late thirteenth century to the present day and Slovak literature from the 1840s to the present, in a wide range of historical and cultural contexts. You can also study the history of the Czech language.
You can study Czech (with Slovak) at Oxford in combination with French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Russian or Spanish; please note that you can only be a beginner in one of your languages of study. You can also study Czech (with Slovak) with Classics, English, History and Philosophy. It is not possible to study Czech (with Slovak) at Oxford without a second subject. The course normally lasts four years, with the third year spent abroad, at least half of it normally in a Czech- or Slovak-speaking environment.
For ambitious linguists, Czech is a fascinating language to learn. It is highly inflected — among non-Slavonic languages you may know, it is structurally most similar to Latin, Greek and German, which has been quite influential in its development — and has a relatively high proportion of vocabulary unfamiliar to English speakers. At the same time, it is an Indo-European language that works very similarly to English and other European languages you may have learned, and our students normally achieve a very high level of fluency and competence. While knowledge of Czech and Slovak will make learning other Slavonic languages (like Russian and Polish) much easier, graduates of Czech have also found the intellectual training valuable in tackling unrelated but similarly complex Middle Eastern or Asian languages.
Typically four to six undergraduates come to study Czech (with Slovak) each year. All teaching therefore takes place in small, informal groups, which ensures plenty of flexibility and individual support. In language classes, you are constantly involved and stretched, and we can easily identify and give special attention to aspects that you are finding difficult. The broad framework of the literature papers allows considerable scope for personal choice regarding both the texts studied and the cultural, historical and socio-political contexts in which they are explored.
Most undergraduates who study Czech at Oxford are complete beginners, but we also provide appropriately tailored language teaching for native speakers or those with existing knowledge of Czech or Slovak. You receive three hours of intensive Czech language classes per week. First Year classes focus on understanding and using Czech grammar in context and developing writing and translating skills. Like all beginner languages, it will mean a heavy workload, but you will be well supported and have a constant sense of progress and achievement, probably quite different from your experience of slower-paced language-learning at school. In language examinations, where relevant, students may write in either Czech or Slovak.
In First Year, you will also have two weekly hours of literature classes throughout the year. These are closely tied to your language learning and develop your ability to read in Czech, building your range of vocabulary and introducing you to a variety of styles and registers while exploring some of the most interesting Czech writers and works. Alongside these classes you will also attend a weekly lecture-style class that places Czech literature in the broader context of Czech history from the Middle Ages to the late twentieth century.
The Year Abroad
You will normally spend at least half of the year abroad in a Czech- or Slovak-speaking setting. Unlike some universities, Oxford does not require students to study or to spend time in a specific placement; instead, we allow you to plan your year abroad independently, with advice and support. Students of Czech (with Slovak) typically study and/or work, but also find time to travel widely within the Czech Republic, Slovakia and beyond. We currently have Erasmus+ exchanges with Masaryk University, Brno, and the University of Ostrava. In addition, each year you are invited to apply for Czech government grants to study for one month at a university summer school, in a variety of locations throughout the Czech Republic.
For further details of the degree course in Czech (with Slovak) please go to the Course Handbooks. Prospective students (and their parents or companions) can also meet and talk with teaching staff directly at the ‘Russian and other Slavonic Languages’ or ‘Modern Languages’ open days.
The primary language textbook we use throughout the degree in Czech is:
- James Naughton, Colloquial Czech (Routledge, 2010).
Please ensure that you obtain the MOST RECENT (3rd) edition.
For reference purposes throughout your studies in Czech, we also recommend you acquire:
- James Naughton, Czech: An Essential Grammar (Routledge, 2005)
The best single-volume English-Czech/Czech-English dictionary currently available is:
- Josef Fronek, Anglicko-český a česko-anglický slovník (Prague: Leda, 2012).
The best readily available large English-Czech and Czech-English pair of volumes are currently:
- Josef Fronek, Velký česko-anglický slovník (Praha: Leda, 2013).
- Josef Fronek, Velký anglicko-český slovník (Praha: Leda, 2016).
It may be cheapest to buy these dictionaries direct from the publisher, Leda.
Throughout your studies, you will find that it is normally cheaper and often only possible to buy Czech-language books, including e-books, direct from the Czech Republic. For new books, the most widely used on-line bookshops are Kosmas, Academia and Dům knihy.
For second-hand books, MůjAntikvariát will search second-hand bookshops throughout the country. Unfortunately, many of these do not currently accept on-line payments or post to international destinations, so this option may prove most useful when you are based in the Czech Republic.
First Year Prescribed Texts
- Karel Hynek Mácha: Máj (1836)
Available with a translation at: https://czech.mml.ox.ac.uk/karel-hynek-macha-maj-1836
- Karel Hlaváček: Mstivá kantiléna (1898)
- Karel Čapek: R.U.R. (1921)
Available at: https://web2.mlp.cz/koweb/00/03/34/75/81/rur.pdf
There are many translations available, of which the best is perhaps Rossum’s Universal Robots, translated by David Short, with a foreword by Arthur Miller (Hesperus, 2011). Other good translations include R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), translated by Claudia Novack-Jones, with a foreword by Ivan Klíma (Penguin, 2004) and Four Plays: R.U.R., The Insect Play, The Makropulos Case, The White Plague, translated by Peter Majer & Cathy Porter (Methuen, 1999).
- Josef Topol: Slavík k večeři (1967)
- Jan Neruda: ‘Doktor Kazisvět’ (1876)
Translated by Michael Henry Heim as ‘Doctor Spoiler’ in Prague Tales (Central European University Press, 1993), or by Edith Pargeter as ‘Doctor Vandal’ in Tales of the Little Quarter (Heinemann, 1957).
- Růžena Jesenská: ‘Mimo svět’ (1909)
Translated by Kathleen Hayes as ‘A World Apart’ in A World Apart and Other Stories: Czech Women Writers at the Fin de Siècle (Karolinum, 2001).
- Alena Vostrá: ‘Elegie’ (1963)
Translated by Nancy Hawker as ‘Elegy’ in Povídky: Short Stories by Czech Women (Portobello, 2006).
- Jan Balabán: ‘Kluk’ (2004)
Translated by Charles S. Kraszewski as ‘Boy’ in Jan Balabán, Maybe We’re Leaving (Glagoslav, 2018).
Learn More about the Czechs and Slovaks
The following books (listed alphabetically) will help develop your understanding of the history of the Czechs, Slovaks and Bohemia and Slovakia in their various incarnations:
- Agnew, Hugh, The Czechs and the Lands of the Bohemian Crown (Hoover Institution Press, 2004).
- Demetz, Peter, Prague in Black and Gold: The History of a City (Penguin, 1998).
- Heimann, Mary, Czechoslovakia: The State that Failed (Yale University Press, 2011).
- Pánek, Jaroslav et al. (eds), A History of the Czech Lands (Karolinum Press, 2011).
- Seton-Watson, R. W., A History of the Czechs and Slovaks (Hutchinson, 1943).
- Teich, M. et al. (eds), Slovakia in History (Cambridge University Press, 2011).
At no other time have so many living Czech creative writers had works available in English translation. Of these, the best known or most interesting include Daniela Hodrová, Petra Hůlová, Milan Kundera, Jáchym Topol and Tomáš Zmeškal. At the same time, the range of writers from earlier periods available in English is also expanding: from the Communist period Ladislav Fuks, Václav Havel, Bohumil Hrabal, Josef Jedlička, Arnošt Lustig, Josef Škvorecký, Ludvík Vaculík, from the earlier twentieth century Karel Čapek, Jaroslav Durych, Jaroslav Hašek, Vítězslav Nezval, Ivan Olbracht, Vladislav Vančura, and from the nineteenth century Karel Jaromír Erben, Jiří Karásek, Božena Němcová, Jan Neruda… In addition to the anthologies of women’s writing referenced above, you may also enjoy:
- And My Head Exploded: Tales of Desire, Delirium and Decadence from Fin-de-Siècle Prague, selected and translated by Geoffrey Chew (Jantar, 2018).
Slovak literature has only really opened up to English-speaking readers in the past decade; it is quite different in style, themes and humour from Czech literature and very much worth discovering. Two excellent recent anthologies are:
- Into the Spotlight: New Writing from Slovakia, edited and translated by Magdalena Mullek and Julia Sherwood (Slavica, 2017)
- The Dedalus Book of Slovak Literature, edited by Peter Karpinský (Dedalus, 2015)
Contemporary writers now available in English translation include Balla, Jana Beňová, Ivana Dobrakovová, Mária Ferenčuhová, Mila Haugová, Jana Juráňová, Daniela Kapitáňová, Uršuľa Kovalyk, Peter Krištúfek, Peter Pišťanek and Pavel Vilikovský.
Czech cinema has enjoyed an outstanding international reputation since at least the 1960s. Two Czech-language films have won the Best Foreign Film Oscar: Ostře sledované vlaky (Closely observed trains, Jiří Menzel, based on a Hrabal short novel, 1966) and Kolja (Jan Svěrák, 1996). The first Czechoslovak film to win the Oscar for Best Foreign Film was in fact Slovak: Obchod na korze (The Shop on the High Street, Ján Kádár, Elmar Klos, 1965).
Other recommended Czech-language films from the post-Communist period include Petr Zelenka’s Knoflikáři (Buttoners, 1997) and Ztraceni v Mnichově (Lost in Munich, 2015), Pelišky (Cosy Dens, Jan Hřebejk, 1999), Otesánek (Little Otik, Jan Švankmajer, leading Czech animator, 2000), Štěstí (Something Like Happiness, Bohdan Sláma, 2005), Katka (Helena Třeštíková, leading Czech documentarist, 2010), Alois Nebel (based on Rudiš/Jaromír 99 graphic novels, Tomáš Luňák, 2011), Rodina je základ státu (Long Live the Family!, Robert Sedláček, 2011), Hořící keř (Burning Bush, Agnieszka Holland, 2013) and Cesta ven (The Way Out, Petr Václav, 2014).
Other recommended films from the 1960s ‘new wave’ include Menzel’s Skřivánci na nití (Larks on a String, 1969) and Postřižiny (Cutting It Short, 1981) (both based on Hrabal stories), Miloš Forman’s Lásky jedné plavovlásky (A Blonde in Love, 1965) and Hoří, má panenko (The Firemen’s Ball, 1967), Sedmikrásky (Daisies, Věra Chytilová, 1966), Marketa Lazarová (František Vláčil, based on a Vančura novel, 1967), Všichni dobří rodáci (All My Good Countrymen, Vojtěch Jasný, 1968), Spalovač mrtvol (The Cremator, Juraj Herz, based on a Fuks novel, 1969) and Ucho (The Ear, Karel Kachyňa, 1970).
Oxford is an excellent location for postgraduate study in Czech and Slovak. It has specialists in literature, linguistics and cultural history, and one of the best library collections for these subjects in the British Isles, with a large proportion of the material available on open shelves. It also has one of the UK’s liveliest interconnected communities of emerging and established scholars researching Central Europe from linguistic, cultural, historiographical or social-science perspectives.
Czech and Slovak topics are a central part of the options available in our MSt in Slavonic Studies. For more information on taught graduate studies at Oxford please see the M.St. in Slavonic Studies and M.Phil. in Modern Languages pages.
D.Phil. (Doctoral) Research
We welcome enquiries from prospective research students on any topic relating to Czech and/or Slovak literature or linguistics in a broad range of cultural, historical, socio-political and comparative contexts. In addition to the funding opportunities open to all students of modern languages and Slavonic Studies, students accepted for D.Phil. study in Czech and/or Slovak are also eligible for the Rawnsley Graduate Studentship, awarded by St Hugh’s College, which is specifically for Czech, Slovak or Polish nationals studying Czech, Slovak, Polish or English Language or Literature or for anyone studying Czech, Slovak or Polish Language or Literature.
For more information on coming to Oxford for research, please see the Graduate Admissions page.