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One of the specifics of the Czech phonetics is that everything is written "phonetically" and I wonder wheter one of the reasons for that could be that Czech simply uses less phonemes than English.

It may sound as a language-biased note but I've always felt like the phonemes are in their "perfect position in Czech". If you want to say the phoneme [a] in Czech, the more you open your moth in the vertical direction, better.

More interesting example is "t". The English "t" is more "noised" so that it sounds a bit like "th". You can hear a similar shift basically in all consonants.

So is there really a smaller gap between English phonemes? If so, how has this difference originated?

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    I think you've got it backwards, Czech is not that unique in being written phonetically, it's English that is somewhat unique in how non-phonetically it's written (at least among languages with similar writing systems). – svick Feb 28 '17 at 15:31
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    Definitely not everything is written phonetically in Czech! Do you write "gde", "mňesto" or "na řece je let"? – Vladimir F Feb 28 '17 at 18:36
  • @VladimirF Those ale all examples of application of certain rules. This is the reason I wrote "phonetically". – Probably Feb 28 '17 at 19:34
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    I would say that Czech is written mostly "mophonologically" if anything. – Eleshar Mar 1 '17 at 20:06
  • English has a mess with vowels. – Anixx Mar 3 '17 at 22:54
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The number of phonemes in Czech and English is a simple matter of counting, and both languages have about 40 phonemes ("about" since phonemic status is a hypothesis dependent on method of analysis, not an self-evident observation). The reason for the difference in the nature of the writing systems is historical-sodicl. English has been written for longer, and has undergone more extensive sound changes, compared to Czech.

What you describe about English pronunciation is a fact about pronunciation (not spelling) and specifically it is about the nature of the phonetic system. There is actually something "difficult" about English, which relates to timing of articulations and its interaction with prosody, one example being the rule of aspiration (which I take to be what you are referring to in talking about the noise of "t") – p, t, k are pronounced aspirated or unaspirated, depending on position in the stress foot; vowels reduce depending on position in the foot.

The biggest challenge of English is figuring out (undoing and producing) the myriad contextual variants. Compared to Spanish (sorry, no experience with Czech) or even Russian, English has a very complicated phonetics because a small set of phonemes is turned into quite a number of phonetic segments. Moreover, language teachers for German, Czech, Spanish and so on are aware of the phonetic relations in their language (such as how b, d, g are pronounced in Spanich, how ch varies according to the previous vowel in German), but there is relatively little awareness of the range of contextual variants in English. Not to mention the fact that English is almost a language family, and we often need subtitles for speakers of an "extreme" accent.

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  • The point about fewer sound changes is not cempletely true. Czech ortography tried to reflect sound changes by writing the word differently after a sound change, unlike English. Where that did not happen, it was fixed by spelling reforms in the 19th century and small ones in the 20th century. – Vladimir F Jul 23 '17 at 15:26
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This is native-speaker bias at work, Czech phonemes aren't actually especially easy to distinguish in general if you don't speak Czech natively.

Czech has an unusually rich array of palatal or historically palatalized sounds that are phonemically distinct and may be difficult for speakers of other languages to distinguish, such as the distinctions between all of /d/, /ɟ/, /j/, /ʒ/, /z/, /r̝/. Listening to the video you linked to, I as a native English speaker had a hard time hearing the difference between "eř" and "eš".

For a Japanese speaker, it would probably be difficult to hear the difference between Czech syllable pairs like "dý" vs. "dí", or "dí" vs. "ží" vs. ""zí".

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    You are onto something. The difficulty with English is in its rich vowel system that is based more on vowel timbre. While English has around the same number of vowel as Czech, in Czech there are just 5 vowel qualities (multiplied by 2 for vowel length) and 2-3 diphthongs. Also there is very little positional variance for vowels while in English it is heavily influenced by accent. On the other hand Czech has rich consonant system with very little positional restrictions (i.e. huge combinatorics - pronounce "k vstřícnému", I dare you, I double-dare you!) and lots of variety in morphonology. – Eleshar Mar 1 '17 at 20:14
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    However regarding the voice neutralisation, this is something pretty universal to many many languages. I would not say it has anything to do with the difficulty (whatever it may be) of distinguishing voiced/unvoiced (i.e. perceptive difficulty) but rather from the difficulty of coordinating glottis action during articulating obstruents (i.e. difficulty in production). – Eleshar Mar 1 '17 at 20:18
  • @Eleshar: good point about voicing neutralization being due to production more than perception. I will remove that part – brass tacks Mar 1 '17 at 21:01

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