Thursday, March 29, 2007


On learning a few words of Czech

As I said here, when I arrived in Prague I arrived without the understanding of a single word in Czech. But, of course, one doesn't spend ten days somewhere without picking up a few words, some because they make the people around you happier (hello, goodbye, please, thank you, yes, no), some because they make it easier to deal with one's own tourism (open, closed, abbreviations for days of the week), and some, well, just because they happen (that's what most of this post is about).

First, a note on pronunciation. The Czech generally stress the first syllable of each word. That's particularly notable in longer words, where we're inclined to put the primary stress on the penultimate syllable. Each letter has one sound, which makes things mostly easier, and most of the consonants are said as in English, but for these:
CH is a guttural sound, as the hard “ch” in German and the Russian “x”.
C is pronounced “ts”, except in the ch combination.
H is always voiced, except in the ch combination. That can be strange to us in some places, as in hrad (castle).
J is pronounced like both the Czech and the English “y”.
R is rolled on the tongue, as in Spanish and Italian.
S is always voiced, never like “z”.
SH, in particular, is “s” followed by “h”, in separate syllables, not like the English “sh” (for the English “sh”, see below).

And then there are the diacritical marks. The acute accent is easy: it just lengthens vowel sounds without changing the sound itself. The vowels are pronounced “ah, ey, ee, oh, oo”, with the y also as “ee”. And so á, for example, is like “aa”, held a little longer. The ů is the same as ú. The haček (the symbol above the c, like an upside-down circumflex) has different effects:
Ě is “ye” (like the Russian “e”).
Č is like English “ch”, so that's easy.
Š is like English “sh”, also easy.
Ž is like the French “j”. We transliterate it as “zh”.
Ď is “dy”.
Ň is “ny”, like the Spanish “ñ”.
Ť is “ty”, and actually sounds a lot like “ch”.
Ř is the truly hard one. We can call it “rzh”, but it isn't, really. When English speakers say Dvořák, we generally say it as though it were written Dvoržák, putting the “r” and “zh” sounds in separate syllables, but that's not really right. The best way I can imitate the correct sound is to make the rolled “r” a little longer, and blow out while I'm saying it. I'm told that Czech children often need special training to make this sound. I'm not surprised, especially when it appears in certain combinations. Of course, the consonant combinations can be challenging in general: try ctvrtý (fourth).

On to the words. There are a few that are clear already — though, really, only a few. Restaurace is obvious, but be careful of the pronunciation: my sense, once I learned how the letters are pronounced, was to put the emphasis in the wrong place, “rest-ow-RA-tse”, but there's that stress on the first syllable thing, so “REST-ow-ra-tse”. Similarly, there are muzeum, pošta, and a few others.

“Beer” is not one of them; beer is pivo, an important word to know, indeed. Well, actually not so much: even those who don't do English very well can understand “beer”, and the Czech do not make it at all challenging to figure out where it's served. On the other hand, Randy found us a very nice tea house (čajovna; čaj, pronounced “chai”, is tea), so things other than pivo are to be had.

Which brings us to the question of endings. Czech, as other Slavic languages, has cases, so even though you know a word its form may change depending on its context. They also make related words by adding to or altering the root word in ways less obvious than what we do in English. To understand pivnice (beer hall), pivovar (brewery), and so on, look for the pivo root. The city is Praha, but the Prague Castle is not Praha Hrad, but Pražský Hrad, in the genitive case (the castle of Prague) [corrected in the comments by The Ridger]. In what follows, I won't guarantee that I've gotten all the endings right. I didn't write them all down nor photograph them, so this is all from memory.

As one starts building up a list of words that one gets from businesses or points of interest, one can understand other forms. There's the National Museum (Národní Muzeum) and the National Theatre (Národní Divadlo). We have the old town (Staré Město) and the new town (Nové Město). Knihy are books. It didn't take much thought to get that Národní Knihovna and Městské Knihovna are the National Library and the Town Library (or Municipal Library), respectively.

Hotels and restaurants mostly have interesting names. There's a word, u, which means “by (the)” or “at (the)”, and many hotels and restaurants use it in their names. Sometimes it's an obvious reference: U Hrada (By the Castle), U Karlova Mostu (By the Charles Bridge), U Orloje (By the Clock (the astronomical clock in the old town square)), U Staré Zahrada (At the Old Garden). Often, though, it's fanciful: U Zlatého Tygra (At the Golden Tiger), U Dvou Koček (At the Two Cats), and the hotel where I stayed, U Staré Paní (At the Old Lady). (I was musing that it'd be fun to open a Burmese restaurant there, and call it “U Thant”. But I digress.) These sorts of things soon added some common adjectives to my list, so apart from old (starý) and new (nový), there's small (malý), great (velký), black (černý), white (bílý), golden (zlatý). From there it's pretty clear on seeing a shop of starožitnosty, that they're antiques (old things). One can expand.

The days of the week are important in knowing when a place will be open (otevřeno) or closed (zavřeno), so I quickly learned Mon (Po), Fri (), Sat (So), and Sun (Ne). Tue, Wed, and Thu (Út, St, Čt) are less important for that, so they came later, as I looked at things like concert schedules (Classical concert Tue!). One would also need to know the days of the week to read parking signs, but I didn't have a car, and let me give a word of travel advice here: do not drive in old town Prague. Just don't. The streets are narrow, twisty, and unpredictable, the cars battle with the pedestrians, and, unlike in New York City, the cars lose.

Art Supplies sign in PragueFinally, there's a useful word, potřeby, the Polish form of which (potrzeby) will be familiar to anyone who wasted his youth reading “Mad” magazine. Because there's no clear translation and it's used in so many contexts, I couldn't quite get the meaning from seeing it, and had to ask a local. The best I could guess was “appliances”, but I'm told it means “things needed for a particular purpose” (the root word is potreba, need). There are kitchen potřeby and plumbing potřeby and woodworking potřeby and so on. We might say “wares” or “supplies” or “equipment”, but none of them are quite it for all cases (the sign in the photo is for art supplies). Nice word, if hard to pronounce correctly (the ř is a tough one, and I'm still practicing).

It's all an interesting exercise in puzzle solving, in a way. Maybe Americans should cut back on the Sudoku, and instead go visit another country and work on making sense of the local language.


The Ridger, FCD said...

You said "but Pražský Hrad, in the genitive case (the castle of Prague)" - that's close, but not quite. Pražský is a masculine attributive adjective made from Praha; the genitive of Praha would be Prahy.

But I agree with your premise: puzzling out a new language is fun.

Anonymous said...

It always makes me warm when English speaking people try to learn some Czech words:)

Monika ('K' indicates to Czech language:)