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Fun with the Czech language -- #projectBrno blog post, by me - Liam's write-only LJ
March 8th, 2016
02:55 am


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Fun with the Czech language -- #projectBrno blog post, by me
Tomorrow is my third Czech lesson. Yes, I have been procrastinating wildly, but I have at least started.

And my friend and housemate Otto, who has always been extremely supportive of me learning Čeština, has been helping me again with my homework tonight.

Lots of new words. Some I use often enough to stick. I can now make a few different simple conjugations of half a dozen verbs, ask very simple questions, parse a simple sentence with an unknown noun and invert it into a grammatical question while preserving gender. Really baby steps and not much to show for nearly two years here, but I'm making progress.

Alongside the myriad complexities -- I've never studied a language with such baroque grammar; I didn't know the Indo-European family even included languages with such complex grammar* -- there is also, even with my very meagre vocubulary, the problem of untranslatable words. I've just learned a new one and it's interesting.

The first came with the times of day.
Dobré ráno = good morning.
Dobrý den = good day.
Dobrý večer = good evening.
Dobrou noc = good night.

So far, so good, right? But no! Because ráno doesn't equate to "morning". No, it's early morning. Late morning is dopoledne. This threw me at first, until I remembered an obscure old word, "forenoon", which will sort of suffice for dopoledne. It's only approximate, though. Ráno starts after midnight and continues until after breakfast sometime, then the later part of the day up until noon is dopoledne. Morning and forenoon basically mean the same thing. My Czech-English dictionary doesn't even try; neither does Google Translate.

Untranslatable word. English just doesn't have a word for this conceptual distinction, as far as I am aware. They both map to our "morning" and that's it.

And sausages. This place was part of the Austo-Hungarian Empire. Germanic influence is everywhere. Result, they like sausages. Meta-result, lots of words for sausage. Mostly academic to me -- as a vegetarian, I don't really care -- but it's confusing.

One type is párky. Párky, as far as I can tell, are frankfurters.

(There are good soya ones, actually. Very good. I wasted a couple of packs before working out how to cook the buggers, though. They come in an inedible plastic skin. You therefore can't fry them -- the result is very nasty and went in the bin. Grilling, ditto. You can't microwave 'em -- they sort of squeeze out of the ends of their skins in a way best described by the phrase "distressingly biological".

I ended up chopping them into bits and putting them in baked beans. That was good but I was spitting out chewed-up lumps of plastic covering afterwards. I presume I also swallowed some. Does polyethylene film count as dietary fibre? Probably not.

I then saw the "real things" being done at a barbeque. You boil them. This works great but then they're a bugger to peel afterwards. The plastic shreds. Imagine a red-hot, well, all right, no, a hot pinkish cylindrical thing -- easy now -- covered in a film that peels off in the the same easy, convenient way as the film on top of a frozen TV dinner. In other words, in an infinited number of sticky shreds. Nightmare.

More recently, I got Otto to read the instructions. You peel the sods first. Then it's easy.)

Real párky are traditionally served in a rohlik, a white finger bun which is the single most flavourless foodstuff sold over here but nonetheless is a firm Czech favourite. I've seen kids buying a single rohlik as a treat. Baffling. They're also eaten with paté or spreadable cheese or honey; flip the bun over, spread it all over the flattish bottom, eat. But people also eat the things dry. On my Bosnian trip, several travellers took huge bags of rohliky to sustain them.

So, these are used in Czech hot dogs, but not split as you might expect. No, they pierce them on a spike, a spike that emits steam to heat the bun. Ketchup, mustard or worse still both are then squirted into the unfortunate rohlik's new orifice. Biological similes abound; I will forbear. Then the hot párek is shoved into the freshly-lubricated orifice, and we're right back to being distressingly biological again. I will gloss over the nibbling-the-protruding end bit but it can be a mightily distracting sight. Or a disturbing one, when the end gets bitten off.

But they are only one kind of sausage. Then there is the klobasa. Klobasy are apparently a big bigger than párky. I remember them because "Scrubs" taught me that "kielbasa" means Polish sausage. I think it's actually kiełbasa but it's Polish so all bets are off. Polish is even more complex than Czech. Yes, really. Utterly terrifying.

Then there is utopenec. These are pickled sausages. I had a soya one in a veggie restaurant in Prague and it was excellent. If there are other distinctions, they are unknown to me.

Salam seems to mean salami. Fair enough. Špekáček are somewhere between klobasa and salam: quite fat, served sliced. A trampská cigárá
-- tramp's cigar
-- is long and thin. A talian is made from offal and I'm not sure I want to know any more.

Czech sausages are a complicated business, and reading about them via Google Translate or indeed in English in general is difficult because all these terms translate to "sausage".

It's enough to make you go a bit Dr Johnson.

But this evening, I have learned two new words, and this time, I am at a bit of a loss.

The words themselves are relatively straightforward for Czech. They are květ (masculine) and květina (feminine. Don't ask.)

Put 'em into Google Translate. Go on. I dare you. I double-dare you.

Oh, all right, I did it for you. Květ is "bloom" or "blossom" (in the noun senses), in contrast to květina which means "flower" (again, the noun.)

Starter for ten: what is the difference, in English, between a blossom, a bloom and a flower? I have a sodding degree in Biology and I am damned if I know. I can explain drupes versus berries versus accessory fruit with engorged fleshy receptacles (strawberries to you). But flowers are flowers. The only significant distinction is flower/inflorescence/compound flower. Ah, would that it were so easy!

"Blossom" tends to refer to trees which produce a large number of small flowers in one seasonal burst, which are readily mass-denuded by wind.  Technically, botanically, only of trees which produce stone fruit -- drupes. Technically, apple trees do not blossom, they bloom.

Bloom? Well, a bloom is a flower. A flower is the sex organ of an angiosperm: calyx of sepals, petals, stamens with anthers, styles with stigmata, ovary, receptacle. You know what a flower is. Conifers and ferns don't have them. Most vascular plants do. A flower is a flower is a flower, in the same way that a sausage is a sausage is a sausage. It's the thing that brings pollen to ovule, causing fertilisation, yielding a seed or seeds, inside a fruit.

But not in Czech. A květ is, as far as I can tell, a flower borne on the woody stems of a tree or bush, whereas a květina is the flower of a small, herbaceous plant, a plant small enough that you could in principle give somebody one in a pot. But this wouldn't apply to, say, a small flowering Azalea, such as I have often given, because that's woody so it's a keř, a bush or shrub which could bear květy.

If it's woody, it bears kvety, but herbs are květiny. Or something like that.

I am a tad perplexed. This appears to be a distinction so subtle that even botanists don't make it. But to the long-suffering Otto, it is screamingly obvious which is which, but he can only explain in pictures, not in English.

I think I preferred the sausages.

* OK, yes, Finnish, Estonian, Hungarian, Sami. Dozens of cases; vast, cold and terrifying. But they're Finno-Ugric, in their own group, quite separate, distinct and as unrelated to the Indo-European family as Japanese.

Gives me a chance to include one of my favourite image memes, though...

Czech is, I kid you not, considerably more complex than Icelandic. It's like trying to cuddle the Alien queen into submission.

Still, it could be worse. It could be Polish. That's like trying to slip her some tongue while you do it.

Current Location: Brno-Žabovřesky
Current Mood: baffled
Current Music: BBC Radio 6
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(12 comments | Leave a comment)

[User Picture]
Date:March 8th, 2016 06:18 am (UTC)
All languages split up the world (nouns, adjectives, verbs) into different slices/boxes/whatever spatial metaphor you like. The further away the languages the more differences there likely are. English splits safety and security for example, while French and German don't (securite - can't be arsed with the accent - in French means safety and security, while sicherheit in German means safety and security). This caused some interesting conversations with French and German (and Danish, Italian, Spanish...) partners on EU security technology projects.
When I'm learning/embedding Japanese words with Anki I have the English main equivalent and then add in explanation or distinguisher.
One of the oddities in Japanese is the frequency of humble/equal-status/honorific versions. If I go into a restaurant the maitre d' will ask "nan-mei-sama": nan=what/mei=number of people/sama=honorific suffix. If there's three of us, I will answer "san-nin": san: three/nin: number of people. It's rude for them to ask nan-nin (how many people) and insufferably arrogant for me to answer "san-mei" or "san-mei-sama".

Edited at 2016-03-08 06:19 am (UTC)
[User Picture]
Date:March 9th, 2016 01:20 pm (UTC)
Japanese manners were one of the stumbling-blocks for me, yes. Get it wrong, as I did, and one causes real offence.

The ways in which Slavic counting is weird and difficult are orthogonal to the ways that Asian counting is. (I only know a little about it in Japanese, Chinese, Malay and Thai -- almost nothing, really.)

I can't help but feel that there must be some happy middle ground somewhere!
[User Picture]
Date:March 9th, 2016 03:17 pm (UTC)
If you want a language that was designed to strip out unnecessary complexity that would be Lojban. I've read (can't remember where) a very good critique of Esperanto which claimed that one of the (many) reasons it never caught on was a whole pile of unnecessary complexity from Eastern European languages that just aren't needed.
I also recommend having a look at Interlingua. I was fascinated to realise that (OK, I'm native English, have schoolboy French, Latin and Greek in my internal lexicon) I could read the Wikipedia article on Interlingua written in Interlingua without any trouble at all. It's only useful for Romance and Teutonic languages, but even so, it's an amazing feat.
[User Picture]
Date:March 10th, 2016 06:24 pm (UTC)
Ah, yes. I've seen both.

Esperanto is a classic case of inadequate research and unsubstantiated assumptions. Despite that, it works and it's by far the most popular of its kind. I know quite a few speakers and even of one married couple brought together by Esperanto -- with kids who, I think, are *native* Esperanto speakers.

I also agree regarding Interlingua. Fascinating.

My current area of interest in this field are pan-Slavic conlangs.

Slovio looks promising:


I've tried it on Czechs and Poles and they can just follow it, as we can with Interlingua.

Unfortunately, the chap behind it seems to be a bit of an unpleasant piece of work, so the cooperative Interslavic might be more promising:


[User Picture]
Date:March 9th, 2016 01:49 am (UTC)
I don't care about extra words. If you translate them all in your head as "sausage", what do you lose? You're not a professional translator.
But extra grammar .. That's much harder. I remember being utterly shocked when learning classic Greek tnat they had one more of everything than us ( tense, mood, etc) including number ( not just singular or plural but "middle" as well, which I still can't remeber how it was used..)
[User Picture]
Date:March 9th, 2016 01:29 pm (UTC)
Well, when asking about a veggie sausage, deep confusion is caused when using the wrong word. Czechs see them as different foods, so I'm unlikely to get "no, we don't have veggie $SAUSAGE_1 but we do have $SAUSAGE_2, would you like that?" I'll just get "no", I suspect.

Czech has just 3 tenses -- past, present, future -- but there's a system of "aspects" which indicate permanence, continuity or completion. Most Czechs are completely unaware of this -- they just use them. So my students complain that English has so many tenses (12 main ones, plus multiple aspects -- 88 basic forms with habituals and so on, plus nearly doubling that for passive forms). So, lots. But there are only about 10 usual suspects. Who needs a future perfect continuous?

Whereas, they say, Czech has 3.

I counter that there are at least 6-9 counting aspect, and they go "what's 'aspect'?"

There are also 4 words for "1" and 2 plurals for every noun, which is regularly denied to my face. I have to get them to count something -- beers, usually -- and then they go "oh, yes, so it does, I hadn't noticed!"

So I can well believe that other IE languages have undreamed-of complexities now.

I feel a bit like I'd strolled up a gentle hill and now find, as the mists clear, that it's a narrow ledge and I have to scale the north face of the Eiger in winter to get out. Stuff that I thought was simple is a very thin layer of cracked ice over deep cold waters...
[User Picture]
Date:March 10th, 2016 10:40 am (UTC)
Greek grammar *weeps* I never understood the difference between the middle and the active voices - they are both active in English. And that is one of the first things you learn :-/

ETA this was one of the problems of only learning a language by translating out of it into English (joint degree so we didn't spend that much time on it). It's much harder to learn and remember precise usage when you only have to come up with a persuasive English approximation.

Greek language: 1/10 of the marks... 1/2 of the work.

Edited at 2016-03-10 10:43 am (UTC)
[User Picture]
Date:March 10th, 2016 06:25 pm (UTC)
Ouch! That sounds really nasty.
[User Picture]
Date:March 10th, 2016 10:48 am (UTC)
The people I au-paired with in France were half-Czech so I got used to hearing the language spoken around me and did learn some basic words as the kids spoke it. I thought it had the same relationship to Polish as Spanish does to Italian, ie different but basically similar enough that you could make yourself understood. Is the grammar really that different?

You're doing well to stay vegan.
[User Picture]
Date:March 10th, 2016 06:29 pm (UTC)
It is, as ever, complicated.

To me as a foreigner, it's hard to tell written Slovak from Czech -- they look near-identical. Polish has different diacritics so it's easy to spot. Serbo-Croat again looks different.

However, I'm looking for roots and similarities and to me I can extract roughly the same amounts of meaning from all of them. I can't tell the spoken languages apart at all usually, except by keywords. All the Slavic languages sound much the same to me.

To the locals, the differences are what matters. Czechs and Slovaks can communicate fine: I compare it to standard RP in England and a broad Scots accent. With familiarity, no problem.

Poles and Czech/Slovak can barely communicate. They can read some of each other's languages as text, with a lot of guesswork, but speech doesn't work. It seems; this is a broad generalisation!

I can now extract /some/ meaning from Russian, both as speech and text. Not much but a bit. Czechs and Poles can't, unless they studied Russian.

It's odd. To me they seem very similar, but not to the actual speakers, who see them as wildly different.
[User Picture]
Date:March 10th, 2016 06:38 pm (UTC)
How interesting. The Czech handyman the family used to use (I say handyman but he came to the UK as a refugee after the Russian invasion and ended up at Cambridge studying astrophysics) had a best mate who was Polish. I wonder what language they spoke together.
[User Picture]
Date:March 10th, 2016 06:30 pm (UTC)
P.S. I'm only ovo-lacto-vegetarian, and that's not a biggie here. I'm considering going vegan, but it would be hard, yes.
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