How do you pronounce biopic, synod, and Breughel? - and why? Do our cake and archaic sound the same? Where does the stress go in stalagmite? What's odd about the word epergne? As a finale, the author writes a letter to his 16-year-old self.
AUTHORS: František Čermák & Michal Křen TITLE: A Frequency Dictionary of Czech SUBTITLE: Core Vocabulary for Learners SERIES TITLE: Routledge Frequency Dictionaries PUBLISHER: Routledge (Taylor and Francis) YEAR: 2010
Michael Grosvald, Department of Neurology, University of California at Irvine
This is the latest in the Routledge series of frequency-based learning dictionaries, which already includes similar titles for Spanish, German, Portuguese, French, American English and Mandarin Chinese, with another for Arabic on its way. The aim of these books is to help language students develop their vocabulary efficiently by enabling them to focus on the most frequently used words. The benefit of such an approach to vocabulary learning is made clear in the preface to the series, where it is noted that as much as 95 percent of a typical text in English consists of the four to five thousand most frequent words. Similarly, as much as 85 percent of spoken English consists of just one thousand common words (Nation, 1990). Therefore, learners of a language can in principle make rapid early progress in written and spoken communication by focusing selectively on a relatively small set of words, as long as they know which words to target.
The main body of this frequency dictionary is a list of the 5000 most common Czech words, as determined by statistical analysis of a 100-million-word corpus. As discussed in the book's introduction, this corpus was drawn from material representing both written and spoken sources. Although this material was much more heavily weighted toward written than spoken language sources, frequency values drawn from different source categories have been normalized and weighted to create generalized frequency rankings for the main word list that reflect a more even balance.
The introduction also discusses some of the particular challenges brought to this project by the Czech language itself. These include the fact that as is typical for Slavic languages, Czech is highly inflected, so that the procedure used to determine frequency has had to take into account the potentially numerous inflectional forms of a given word. In addition, there is a very substantial gap between the official and colloquial versions of the language, a situation that has been referred to elsewhere as ''semi-diglossia'' (Wilson, 2010). As a result, many highly frequent words are encountered exclusively or almost exclusively in only written- or only spoken-language contexts. In such cases, the word is included in the frequency-sorted list along with a notation, described in detail below, that informs the learner in which contexts the word is most likely to appear in normal usage.
Each word's entry in the main frequency-sorted list includes the word's ''rank order'' (a generalized frequency measure, according to which the entire set of words is listed from 1, most frequent, to 5000), the word's part of speech, its English translation(s) and an example of the word used in a Czech sentence, also translated into English. Where appropriate, one or more ''register codes'' are given, each with a plus or minus sign, indicating that a word was particularly likely or unlikely to occur within corpus sources belonging to one of four categories (spoken, fiction, non-fiction and newspapers). Also appearing in each word's entry is a second frequency-based measure called the ''overall normalized averaged reduced frequency.''
Following the main frequency-sorted list are an alphabetically sorted list of all 5000 words together with their frequency rankings and English glosses; and another arrangement of the same set of 5000 words, this time sorted into sub-lists by part of speech, with words in each such sub-list given in order of frequency. Also distributed throughout the book are 20 thematically organized, frequency-ranked word lists, each list containing the most common Czech words related to a particular topic such as family, professions, and verbs of motion.
As a language teacher and student, I have often found frequency-based dictionaries to be extremely useful, and I have no doubt that this work will prove similarly valuable for learners of Czech. As noted by the authors, the book is also likely to be helpful for educators, including teachers of Czech as well as individuals involved in curriculum design and materials development. The statistical information that is presented may also be of substantial interest to researchers.
This book is particularly welcome in light of the fact that Czech is spoken by relatively few people (12 million or so), which has meant that learners and teachers of the language have had access to educational resources which are far fewer in number than those available for more widely-spoken languages. In fact, it happens to be the case that while living in Prague and studying Czech, I searched in vain for exactly this kind of dictionary -- having made successful use of frequency-based dictionaries available for other European languages -- and was disappointed to find that none apparently existed for Czech. It is fortunate that this situation has now been remedied, and for learners who wish to accelerate the progress of their vocabulary development, this is probably the best single resource that can be recommended. It should, however, be noted that the dictionary is not intended as a first introduction to the language for beginners, who will need to acquaint themselves elsewhere with basic grammar and pronunciation (although with respect to the latter, Czech orthography generally agrees quite well with the standard International Phonetic Alphabet).
The layout of this dictionary follows the pattern established by earlier entries in this series, and is straightforward and for the most part, logical. Two potential weak points can be noted, though I believe they can be considered inconveniences rather than major flaws. First is the lack of an English-to-Czech glossary. Second, the dictionary does not include proper names, which for the authors' purposes are defined as those beginning with a capital letter -- unfortunately, this includes a fair number of names for nearby places and other items whose Czech names are likely to be unintuitive for many learners (e.g. Německo for ''Germany,'' Rakousko for ''Austria''). Interestingly, the adjectival forms corresponding to such names are not capitalized in Czech (e.g. německý for ''German'') and hence are eligible for inclusion in the word list. A similar situation holds for a number of other sets of words which in English are considered proper nouns but are not capitalized in Czech and therefore are included in the dictionary; these include the names of months (e.g. duben, ''April'') and days of the week (e.g. čtvrtek, ''Thursday''). Despite the absence of (capitalized) proper names, the dictionary appears to be quite complete otherwise; even interjections (e.g. fuj, ''yuck'') are included.
Overall, there is much more to praise here than to criticize. The issues I have mentioned above are quite minor when one takes into account the obvious effort and care that has gone into creating the main frequency-ranked word list along with the other tools this dictionary provides. The example sentences are clear and illustrative; learners will no doubt find it a helpful exercise to practice translating both the vocabulary words and their example sentences from Czech to English and vice versa. The part of speech index and the ''thematic vocabulary'' sections permit the learner to focus selectively on particular grammatical classes or other groups of words.
In my generally favorable review of a previous entry in this dictionary series (the one for Mandarin Chinese), I stated that despite a few weaknesses I had noted, my main reaction upon examining the dictionary was a sense of regret that it had not been available to me years earlier when I was first studying Chinese. My reaction to this Czech frequency dictionary is much the same. I would have greatly valued such a resource when first studying Czech, and believe that future learners will find it an extremely effective learning tool. I have no hesitation in giving this dictionary a strong positive recommendation.
Nation, I. S. P. (1990). Teaching and Learning Vocabulary. Boston: Heinle & Heinle.
Wilson, J. (2010). Moravians in Prague: A Sociolinguistic Study of Dialect Contact in the Czech Republic. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang AG.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
Michael Grosvald earned his doctorate in Linguistics in 2009 at the
University of California at Davis. His background includes over a decade as
a language instructor in Prague, Berlin, Taipei and the US; his interests
include the phonetics and phonology of signed and spoken languages, second
language acquisition, computational linguistics, psycholinguistics and the
neuroscience of language. He is currently working as a post-doctoral
scholar in the Department of Neurology at the University of California, Irvine.