Tales from Suburban Bohemia: Czech Language
This post originally appeared on Stumpy Moose on 8 September 2002, and was migrated to PraguePig.com on 6 October 2020.
“Do you speak Czech?”
I’ve lived in Prague for more than five years now, so people inevitably ask. The answer is complicated.
Working as a journalist, I’ve picked up a large and eclectic vocabulary. I could tell you, for instance, the Czech words for “midfielder” or “corner kick” but I have trouble stringing together even the most basic sentence. I’d even have difficulty telling you what time it was.
Why? There are no good reasons. Partly, it’s laziness and arrogance – the same reason expats all over the world never bother learning the local language.
Also, as Harry Pearson observes in his wonderful book, A Tall Man in a Low Land: “The British eschew foreign languages not because we are idle or scornful but because we are embarrassed.”
You need to be outgoing to learn a foreign language, and I am not.
I have, occasionally, made an effort. I’ve tried lessons a couple of times but with little success, and my copy of Czech in Three Months is gathering dust on the bookshelf.
In my defence, however, Czech is extremely difficult.
Even before you can start tackling the bewildering range of cases and declensions, pronunciation is a problem.
Correct pronunciation is very important in Czech, which puts me at a big disadvantage because I have a Rochdale accent.
In Czech, people roll their Rs. In Rochdale, we hardly even bother pronouncing our Rs. (Oddly, however, German pronunciation comes pretty naturally – I guess we’re guttural people.)
According to the Guinness Book of Records, the Czech language contains the most unpronounceable letter in the world. It’s a combination of a rolled R and the “zh” sound – a letter R with a hook above it. (Quite how Norris McWhirter measures these things, I really don’t know.)
It’s relatively easy to pronounce when it falls in the middle of words, such as Dvorak, but when it begins a word it’s almost impossible to say. There are even special classes to teach children how to make the sound.
Despite these obstacles, I know enough Czech to order in restaurants, make sense of news reports, and to swear at people. In general, however, I get by with English.
More and more Czechs speak English, but not knowing the local language can make the most ordinary situation highly stressful.
Earlier this summer, I visited our local Obi DIY superstore to buy some nails so I could repair our industrial-strength Communist-era sofa-bed. Simple enough, I thought.
It was an incredibly hot day, however, and I’d already been for a long walk. By the time I reached the store I was feeling so woozy that I barely had the energy to snigger at Obi’s beaver logo.
Inside, nails were nowhere to be found. I found hammers. I found screws. But no nails.
I didn’t know the word for nails, of course, and I was far too embarrassed to try miming a hammering motion to one of the gruff-looking shop assistants.
Feeling faint and dripping with sweat, I walked every inch of the store, hunting down the nails. For a while, I thought I was going to die, or at least faint, and had nightmarish visions of concerned bystanders, ambulance crews and hopeless confusion.
Finally, I found them. Joy…
Then I had to figure out exactly what kind of nail I needed. I recognized the word for upholstery (I have no idea why) and ruled those out, but the rest was a mystery.
In the end, I bought two types of nail (hrebik) and hoped for the best.
As soon as I get round to fixing the sofa-bed, I’ll let you know if I chose correctly.
If not, I’ll be going back to Obi, but with a Czech-English dictionary this time.
Jsem Anglican. Mluvim trochu Cesky.
I’ve been taking Czech lessons for a few years now and my Czech is much better than it was. Considering how long I’ve lived here, though, it’s still pretty poor, and I still have problems telling the time in Czech. (It’s hard!)
Also, re-reading this post, I remembered why I knew the Czech word for “upholstery”. Back when I wrote about Czech football, I liked to look up players’ names in the dictionary, and Sparta Praha had a goalkeeper called Tomas Caloun, whose name translates as “Thomas Upholstery”. So now you know.