Understand the rich Slovak diacritics

a cheatsheet for lengtheners, softeners, hat sign and umlaut

Slovak vista

Slavic languages would be much more intelligible using common script, grammar and syntax. Each nation reinvented the wheel. I compliment the work of early Czech and Slovak linguists for having arrived at a consistent and sensible system enhancing the Latin script for their own purpose in a meaningful and systematic manner. I extend my thanks to the linguists who provided their keen feedback. Let us commence friends…

There are 4 types of diacritics in Slovak writing, lengtheners and softeners and two edge cases we can call a hat and an umlaut. These distinguishing marks are not for decoration.

Lengtheners or Slovak long accents are only ever right pointing (unlike in French è) and are used only with vowels á, é, í, ý, ó, ú including ŕ and ĺ that function as vowels in many words.

Pronunciation is simple, about 2 or 3 times the length of a short sound. Depending on enunciation and speed of delivery. The mark is also called an acute accent.

Y/ý is pronounced same as i/í. They are called a hard and soft ee respectively in Slovak. The hard Y confuses school children and many slovaks consider is a nuisance. It’s used for traditional reasons. This letter tortures everyone at school and causes children much distress in tests not to mention adults feeling like utter failures realising they got it wrong and already hit send. Back to diacritics.

The softeners are only ever used with consonants and are written as small hooks on top, although some look more like apostrophes with lowercase letters on computer font ď, ť, ň, ľ, Ď, Ť, Ň, Ľ, ž, š, č, dž. They are not apostrophes though and don't confuse the two. The apostrophe follows a letter, softener is a part of it.

These represent sounds either hardly used in English such as ď, ť, ň, ľ or sounds used a lot in English like č, š.

Slovak Ň sounds much like Spanish “ñ” in Mañana. Ď, Ť and Ľ are almost completely absent in English, but present in some local accents, and could be written as dh, th or lh.

Ď and ť are not really completely absent in English. Consider the words dune and tune. There are essentially three ways to pronounce these and I’m writing the first consonant in a Slovak way:

dune ďune džune
tune ťune čune

In general, the first is American English and the last is British English. The middle however is found in very posh RP (received pronunciation). If you listen to people like Old Etonians (bloody Tories cough cough) you will find such pronunciations. I believe they also do it with L and N.

Johan Petur Klüver Dam (editors notes yours truly)

Ž sounds a lot like french “J” in “J’adore”. Š and Č are used a lot in english as sh and ch, in shell or check. There is also dž, one of our digraphs, which is equivalent to English “J” in Juice, same pronunciation in Slovak is written as “džús”. While at it, we also have another fave Slovak word adopted from English early by great grandparents. It’s “Hemendex”.

Following that fun part comes the danger zone. Careful, Ř/ř is only found in Czech and never in Slovak, ů likewise only in Czech. Most Slovaks including me can’t say Czech ř properly at all. Ř is a killer sound and you WILL need help of a Czech elocutionist to master it if you don’t have Czech parents. It may just be me. I am a lost case with ř. They tried. Don’t let me put you off, but I’d rather the click sounds of Xhosa.

Slovak R is always hard, read it like a Scott would and you’re bang on.

Softener mark is also called a caron by typographers. Czechs call it a small hook.

And last but not least for that rare hat sign and umlaut used only with Ô/ô and ä. The marks on top of the letters are called circulflex and two overdots or diaeresis respectively.

Ô is only found in Slovak and it sounds a bit like english “W”, but is in fact a diphthong uo. Letter “w” is never used in Slovak and Czech and it is used a lot in writing Polish although for a hard V sound.

The umlaut that is much more common in German but is used in some Slovak words containing letter “ä”, such as “mäso” (meat). It should be pronounced as a very open e with your tongue slightly raised bit like eeh when expressing disgust but your tongue will stay behind your teeth, a very short sound does the job. In places, while pronounced as a simple middle e, it's indicating semantic differences as in mätie - metie (3rd person confuses vs. sweeps) and lexical peculiarities as in päť - piaty (five, fifth) or hovädo - hoviadko (large bovine, small bovine).

How do you type diacritics on your keyboard?

Press and hold the key on your keyboard, a small menu will pop up, hit the number representing the letter. Small caveat is it will not work on english keyboard for ŕ, ĺ and Czech Ř/ř and ů. All others are readily available.

For full functionality including autocomplete, add a keyboard layout in keyboard settings for Slovak or Czech. I recommend QWERTY or you will be confused by swapped letters Z and Y on traditional Slovak keyboards.

…And that’s the easy part of the Slovak language.

Almost the same sounds in a few alphabets:

    🇸🇰 ď,  ľ,  ň,  ô,   -,   ť,  ž
🇵🇱 dź, l, ń, ło, rz, ć, ż
🇨🇿 ď, l, ň, vo*, ř, ť, ž
🇷🇸 ђ, љ, њ, -, -, ћ, ж
🇷🇺 дь, ль, нь, -, pь*, ть, ж
🇭🇺 gy, l, ny, -, -, ty, zs

* not similar but often has the same role in words

cheatsheet contributed by Emil Sawicki

Thank you for reading,
F. Malina