Learning Czech – My Top Ten Terrors

It is a truth widely acknowledged that the Czech language is a bit tricky to learn. Naturally, ‘difficulty’ and ‘ease’ in second-language acquisition are inexact and unscientific concepts – a native Slovak speaker, for example, will have a far better time picking up Czech than someone like me, doomed to speak English, its very distant relative. However, there are things unique to Czech that daunt even its sister languages – so many that I’ve started to wonder about the objective difficulty of Czech.

I’ve been learning the language for around a year now, making slow, painful and often embarrassing progress, yet also, somewhat masochistically, loving the experience. The ascent to B1 level has been a long and uncertain climb – the jury’s out as to whether I’ve even reached that summit yet. The most serious complexities I have encountered, once appreciated and understood, are now at least stuck firmly in my mind, and serve both to augment my knowledge and to entertain my Czech friends, who, as natives, have of course never needed to consider these matters before.

It was the suggestion of one such friend to chose my Top Ten Terrors and collate them into this article. It is entirely personal; I have no doubt that other learners would produce a different list and ranking, but I hope at least I will make a good case for my selection – and that the finished piece will be able not only to educate and entertain, as I always hope to, but also to gently warn would-be Czechophiles about what they are getting into. Indeed, as the old adage advises us, you must Czech yourself, before you wreck yourself.

Here’s a nice photo of Charles Bridge and Prague Castle to relax you. Okay, so, ready? Then read on.

10 – 3½ Genders

Grammatical gender is a property of nouns; in languages that have the feature, every noun has a gender, which is determined by its meaning, the structure of its sounds or a mixture of the two. While English nouns do not have grammatical gender, French nouns can have one of two and German nouns one of three. So, how many genders does Czech grammar have? Well, if you ask me, three and a half.

The usual practice is to say that Czech has three genders: masculine, feminine and neuter. For a native English speaker, remembering the correct gender for each word is challenge enough, but Czech has taken it up a notch, by splitting its masculine nouns into two camps: animate versus inanimate things. Sorting things according to animacy (that is, whether a thing is alive and sentient) is not an unusual phenomenon in grammar; even English has it, in its animate pronoun who and inanimate what. Yet, in Czech, masculine animate and masculine inanimate do not constitute two fully-fledged genders, since the case endings (see below) for the two groups are sometimes the same – hence my very scientific description of three and a half genders. For example,

hrad

‘castle’

pes

‘dog’

are both masculine nouns. If we add adjectives and demonstratives to these words, while keeping them singular and in the nominative case, all endings will be the same.

ten velký hrad je nový

‘that big castle is new’

ten velký pes je nový

‘that big dog is new’

The shared endings on ten, velký and nový demonstrate to us that the words belong to the same gender. However, if we change the role of these two phrases in the sentence, and thereby change their case to the accusative, the canine animacy of pes leads to a disparity in endings.

znám ten velký, nový hrad

‘I know that big, new castle’

znám toho velkého, nového psa

‘I know that big, new dog’

This distinction among masculine nouns is a bit of an annoyance, and is easy to forget when speaking. It is, at least, regular and limited to things that are intuitively animate, namely people and other animals.

9 – If that be the case…

Like so many languages, Czech is a language with grammatical cases – that is, its nouns (and their adjectives) change their form according to their function in the sentence. Czech has seven cases, which are referred to either by number or with Latin names.

CaseNoun: žena ‘woman’Example sentence
First/Nominativeženažena je hezká
‘a woman is pretty’
Second/Genitiveženydopis od ženy
‘a letter from a woman’
Third/Dativeženědal jsi to ženě
‘you gave it to a woman’
Fourth/Accusativeženuvidím ženu
‘I see a woman’
Fifth/Vocativeženoženo!
‘woman!’
Sixth/Locativeženěmluvím o ženě
‘I’m talking about a woman’
Seventh/Instrumentalženoupracují se ženou
‘they work with a woman’

We have seven cases, so we need seven forms for one noun, žena (incidentally a word related to English queen and Greek γῠνή). Complicated though this be already, we would need to double this list to include all the forms of žena, since the noun also has seven plural forms – id est, ‘women’ in all cases. That totals at a possible fourteen forms for a single word.

Moreover, it pains me to add that other nouns do not follow the pattern above. Masculine, neuter and even other feminine nouns (such as kost ‘bone’ or duše ‘soul’) have their own sets of endings, to say nothing of the paradigms for adjectives, or nouns like Praha ‘Prague’ or bůh ‘god’, for which the root of the word, the first bit, changes too.

Number of cases across European languages

With all this to learn, why then do I place cases so low on this list? Firstly, I firmly believe that Czech cases are manageable and not to be feared. If you get the ending of a word wrong, you will still be understood; in my experience, impassable confusion over cases does not occur. There is also a lot of regularity across Czech nouns; before you realise it, the various processes behind the modern case endings will help you to gain an intuition about what at least feels right for a given word. I should also mention that all seven Czech cases are found in other languages, with similar functions and forms. Prior knowledge of German, Latin, Greek, Russian or other European languages of case will therefore have already acquainted you with the concepts necessary to use Czech nouns.

8 – It’s time to dual

If you are an English speaker, you may be blissfully unaware that it’s possible for a noun to be neither singular nor plural.

Grammatical number is another feature borne by nouns, adjectives and other associated words. In many languages, such as English and French, it is a binary feature; any French noun is either singular (homme, maison) or plural (hommes, maisons). However, a third possible value is the dual. In some languages, a word can have a grammatical number that means not one or several of that thing, but only two.  Just as adding -s to the end of cats tells us that there is more than one cat, these languages have the option to add dual endings to their nouns. We could also imagine an English ending that would convey the idea of a feline duo, something like -f, perhaps.

cat – 1 cat
catf – 2 cats
cats – 3+ cats

Fortunately for me, Czech does not have a productive dual number – but it did once, and its effects are still present in the language. For common things that come in pairs, the plural form of such words can be annoyingly irregular. For example, the plural forms of oko ‘eye’ and ucho ‘ear’ are not the expected oka and ucha, but rather oči and uši. This irregularity is simply because oči and uši were not originally plural words; instead, they were dual, with the necessary dual endings. (It is interesting that oka and ucha do exist, but now have a different, narrowed meaning – ucha refers to the handles of a jug, which are indeed ear-like, while oka are holes in tights and stockings.)

The past power of the dual also left Czech with four words for ‘hundred’. Given that ‘a hundred’ (singular) is sto, we should expect the regular plurals sta and set when combined with higher numbers. Since ‘three hundred’ and ‘five hundred’ are indeed tři sta and pět set, all seems well. However, thanks to the dual, there is a special form of ‘hundred’ used only in the phrase ‘two hundred’: stě, as in dvě stě.

Help.

7 – Words, words, words

At the risk of moaning, my seventh point concerns vocabulary in Czech – specifically, all of Czech vocabulary. Learning any language’s lexicon is a challenge, I know, but Czech vocabulary has been an altogether new struggle for me. I find it enormously difficult to remember new words; no matter what methods I employ, they seem to fly in one ear and straight out the other.

Of course, this is primarily due to my linguistic starting point. Czech and English are very different languages, and finding helpful cognates in the two is not common. However, I do believe there are other factors at play. To derive new words from existing roots, Czech has hitherto relied on an abundance of short prefixes (such as u-, o-, z- and za-), whose meaning and contribution to the resulting word are often unclear, leaving me unable to distinguish between two or more similar words.

It also seems to me that, for reasons of national pride, there has long been a reluctance to borrow words from other languages, preferring instead to calque them or create words anew (though not so much with English words today). While this is understandable, even commendable, many common words buck European trends and may therefore take longer to fix themselves in the memory – the words that come first to my mind are the prima facie puzzling počítač ‘computer’ and rajče ‘tomato’. The best example perhaps is the Czech system of months, which harkens back to a pre-Christian era, and which most other Slavic languages have since abandoned. While even Slovak has the familiar január, február, marec, a Czech learner has to conquer leden, únor, březen. It took me months.

6 – Common Czech, vole!

“Stop speaking like a book” was an early critique of my spoken Czech. It was a fair comment; the language you learn in textbooks is not really what is spoken in colloquial conversation, which is typically a vernacular referred to as Common Czech. The gulf between spoken and written (or formal spoken) Czech is significant, although, naturally, it is dependent on speaker and context – more of a fluid scale than strict diglossia. It is certainly enough to have caused me a great deal of confusion.

One of the features of Common Czech is the use of the diphthong /ɛɪ̯/, written ⟨ej⟩, in positions where Standard Czech uses the long vowel /iː/, written ⟨ý⟩ or ⟨í⟩. This is often the grammatical endings of words. For example, dobrý den ‘good day’ becomes dobrej den, while pět dobrých dnů ‘five good days’ would be pět dobrejch dnů. However, this difference can be found in any word position; it took me a while to realise that bejt is the Common Czech equivalent of být ‘to be’.

Defenestrace z voken Pražskýho hradu

Another feature is something called prothetic v-. In colloquial speech, Czech can add the consonant v- to the beginning of any word that begins with the vowel o-. This means that you’ll likely hear osm ‘eight’, okno ‘window’ and ono ‘it’ pronounced as vosm, vokno and vono. The v- means and contributes nothing – except confusion with similar words that always, necessarily begin with v-.

If your textbook or Duolingo has prepared you for zítra omyji osm velkých oken (‘tomorrow I will wash eight big windows’), and then you’re confronted with zejtra vomeju vosm velkejch voken, you’ll probably wonder where you went so wrong. Ty vole.

5 – A VEry STRESSful LANguage

Linguistic stress in a foreign language is complicated to understand and even more so to learn. English is no exception – stress can be placed in a variety of word positions, i.e. on the first syllable, the second, the penultimate, etc. Moreover, English, lacking endings to distinguish nouns from verbs, even uses stress to convey the difference; compare the noun record with the verb record.

In Czech, there is one simple, universal rule: stress is placed on the first syllable of the word. Regardless of length, category of word or purpose of the syllable, the stress will be there in pole position. For example, in the verb vidím ‘I see’, the stress is pronounced on vid-, but if you add the prefix ne- to make it negative, nevidím, the stress jumps back from vid- and onto ne-.

With a rule so easy, what do I have to complain about? Of course, I appreciate the simplicity and I know I mustn’t look a linguistic gift horse in the mouth. The problem is that the differences between Czech stress and stress in languages like English and Russian make it difficult to replicate. I frequently place the stress on the wrong syllable – which, though it may not seem serious, often results in complete confusion. I am wont to under-pronounce the first syllable, which renders it very unclear to the Czech ear. Consequently, my solution is to overemphasise the first syllable in speech, which renders me very odd.

4 – In Bohemia, but on Moravia?

A sure way to ignite a long and fruitless debate among Czechs is to ask them about two important prepositions – namely, how do you say in and to? It sounds simple enough; a textbook will teach you early on that in translates to v and to is do. Yet, there is an interloper, a mischief-maker in the midst: the preposition na.

I first learned na as meaning ‘on’ or ‘onto’; for example, na stole means ‘on the table’. As time went by, it became clear to me that it can also mean ‘to’ or ‘towards’. Okay, fine. Yet, importantly, it is not interchangeable with do. With some words, to say ‘to X’, you should use do; with others, na. For example, if you are going to Germany, you go do Německa, but to go to Slovakia is to head na Slovensko. Within Prague itself, I often find myself travelling na Prosek and na Florenc, but do Letňan and do Karlína. The confusion equally affects common nouns, as I can walk do kostela (‘to church’) yet na poštu (‘to the post office’).

I cannot for the life of me figure out what the criteria for using do and na are – and neither could the ten or so Czechs who I’ve asked. Some suggested elevation and upwards movement, and yet Florenc Station sits within the flat Karlín district. Two mooted island-status as a criterion; however, once again, you travel do Japonska and do Velké Británie, but na Kubu and na Maltu. I have begun to wonder if the choice of do or na in fact has nothing to do with meaning, but rather the phonology of the word, specifically its final sound.

Socha ve… Na Václavském náměstí?

Moreover, I soon realised that na can also mean ‘in’, with the same inexplicable restrictions on its distribution with the preposition v. If you are in a city, you are ve městě; if you are in a village or a central square, you are na vesnici or na náměstí. Likewise, while Prague is a city v Čechách ‘in Bohemia’, Brno is a city na Moravě ‘in Moravia’.

No resolution to this mystery is in sight, and I am resigned to rote learning. Please feel free to leave your theories in the comments below, but be warned: many others before ye have tried and failed.

3 – Hrrbl cnsnnt clstrs

Vowels, who needs them? Not Czech, apparently.

One massive impediment to fluency is Czech’s predilection for fiendish combinations of consonants. Many words have no vowels at all – or rather, one of the consonants is used like a vowel, in that it happily occupies the central position, the nucleus, of the syllable, where in English we usually prefer a vowel.

To take an example, vlk is Czech for ‘wolf’ (and is also related to the English word); in vlk, the approximant /l/ sits in the middle and functions as a syllabic consonant. The trill /r/ is another consonant that frequently functions as the nucleus of a syllable, as in the following famous, vowel-less Czech tongue twister:

strč prst skrz krk

‘stick a finger through the throat’

Moreover, some words are even just a single consonant, as in the prepositions s, v and z (‘with, in, from’).

Happily, most words do have a regular vowel present. Unhappily, that doesn’t preclude uncomfortable consonant clusters elsewhere in the word. In Czech, even the simplest conversations can leave you breathless and exhausted. Try it for yourself: if you want to buy someone a bouquet of pretty flowers, you’ll need to visit a květinářství. If things start to get serious, you may like to buy them some jewellery made of stříbro. Or how about a nice ice cream to relax? Well, good luck ordering a zmrzlina.

My eternal enemy is the number four, wherever it appears, since ‘four’ is čtyři and ‘forty’ is čtyřicet. One time in a restaurant in Cheb, my heart sank at the realisation that I would need to utter the dreaded phrase čtyři sta čtyřicet čtyři ‘four hundred and forty-four’. The waiter was confused, to say the least.

2 – Aspect

No funny title for this terror; aspect doesn’t deserve one.

If I were to say I play and I played in English, you’ll probably know that the difference between them is their time – i.e. when the playing happens. This feature of verbs we call tense. But what if I say I played and I was playing? The tense is the same, but there is nonetheless a difference in meaning. This is due to the feature of aspect, which tells us not when, but rather how or for how long the event takes place. Aspect is found across languages, including *he sighs* Czech.

Aspect in Czech verbs is, frankly, a mess. I could stomach such a bordel if it weren’t so crucial to learning a foreign language. After all, understanding the difference between I played and I was playing is very important if you want to speak English. For starters, there’s no difference in aspect for Czech verbs in the present tense. The present-tense verb jdu is equivalent to both I go and I am going in English. Aspect makes its presence properly known when you try to put verbs into the past or future tenses. The past tense of píšu ‘I write’ could be either psal jsem ‘I was writing’ or napsal jsem ‘I wrote’. The difference is one of completion: whether the writing was an ongoing activity, or a finished event. Likewise, in the future, napíšu means ‘I will write’, while budu psát means ‘I will be writing’.

Okay, so you just convey the completed aspect by adding na- to the verb, right? Well, no. If you add na- to verbs other than psát, it may end up meaning something completely different to ‘to write’. To avoid danger, you simply have to learn how each verb forms these two aspects in the future and past tenses.

Most often, it’s with a prefix, as we see with psát. However, there’s no predicting which prefix a verb might require. To say I was reading and I read in the past, you need the prefix pře– to create četl jsem and přečetl jsem. To say I was doing and I did, you instead add u-, giving you dělal jsem and udělal jsem.

Yet, sometimes, the verb itself changes a bit depending on the aspect you wish to convey. For example, I said is řekl jsem, but říkal jsem means I was saying. Sometimes, the shorter form of the verb is deceptively the perfective-meaning one, while the longer form is the present tense, such as dám ‘I will give’ and vám ‘I give’. Sometimes, it’s a totally different word. Imagine that you want to use a verb as banal as to take. To express the incomplete aspect of I was taking or I will be taking, you say bral jsem or budu brát. However, if you want to express a finished, ‘perfective’ action of taking, you do not add a prefix or slightly alter the word; instead, the verb changes completely, becoming vzal jsem ‘I took’ and vezmu ‘I will take’.

Confused? Welcome to the club.

1 – Ř

I mean, first place couldn’t go to anything else, could it?

The Czech letter ⟨ř⟩ represents a sound that is renowned for its difficulty and unique status among the world’s languages. It seems that no other language currently has this sound; Polish did once, but has since, sensibly in my opinion, gotten rid of it. I am proud to admit that I can now produce the sound with a level of accuracy high enough to impress the natives (one woman once screamed at me in shock), but the road to ř was long and uncertain. Far better non-native Czech speakers than me, such as my Slovak friends, are content to use an alternative sound in its stead – usually the fricative [ʒ], as in English measure.

Here to demonstrate is YouTuber Anthony Lauder.

In phonetic terminology, the sound is described as a ‘voiced alveolar fricative trill’, and transcribed by the symbol ⟨r̝⟩. I think both the name and the symbol are accurate, as they show the sound’s similarities with the more common alveolar trill [r], otherwise known as a ‘rolled R’. Indeed, it was out of the combination of [r] and the front vowel [i] that [r̝] first emerged in Czech, centuries ago, one example of the common process of palatalisation.

Understanding this, the mechanics of the sound, helped me enormously to acquire it. Ř is a trill, with the tongue vibrating as the air passes through, but it is also a fricative; the blade of the tongue, just behind the tip, simultaneously narrows the gap between itself and the roof of the mouth, which adds friction to the airflow and, consequently, to the trill. Safe to say, this is unfamiliar and uncomfortable for newcomers who attempt it. Czechs are aware of this, and are also proud of the sound, ever happy demonstrate their lingual prowess by repeating the tongue twister

tři sta třicet tři stříbrných stříkaček stříkalo přes tři sta třicet tři stříbrných střech

‘Three hundred and thirty three silver sprinklers sprinkled over three hundred and thirty three silver roofs’

Ř has to take gold in my top ten, because it is fiendish and a truly Czech challenge. It is, however, manageable, and the reward matches the risk. Being now able to say ř has granted me the power to ingratiate myself quickly into Bohemian company, indicating that I am someone who is indeed committed to Czech culture. It’s just the rest of the language that I now need to work on.

Konec

‘the end’

39 thoughts on “Learning Czech – My Top Ten Terrors

  1. It’s possible the “do” and “na” controversy has something to do with the words that “na” belongs to are dominantly of feminine gender. But maybe it just seems that way. In proper nouns gender is hard to guess, but for exmple Florenc and Letná are that imho. I’m sure somebody must have done some study in linguistics on it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Jdu vs. I go / I am going
      Jdu do práce (just now), chodím do práce (regularly), chodívám do práce (not now, not a single event, but also not regularly, otherwise I would say chodím)

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  2. Lovely reading!

    Ah, the case of Common Czech.
    In every language that I ever studied there are differences between standardized/textbook register and spoken/colloquial register(s)/dialects. I just cannot understand why students of Czech and Czech grammarians make such a big deal of it. Students of Czech are at least lucky – every textbook of Czech for foreigners I came across mentions the differences (even Duolingo has a skill for it). Never have I seen differences between standardized and spoken language explained in courses of English, German, Italian, French… I just had to pick them up on the fly. Good luck understanding with only school knowledge some Scottish speakers or Black Americans…
    It’s true that half of the country speak common Czech, so it’s worth learning, but it’s also true that half of the country don’t. And I cannot help but feel a slight scorn of Common Czech speakers for other dialects. While Common Czech speakers are perceived as cool, other Czech variant speakers are perceived as uneducated. Many times I, coming from Ostrava with a distinctive features in spoken language, have heard “But I cannot hear a bit of Ostravian in your speech at all!” Duh, I am an intelligent person, I can switch between the registers.

    There are two variants of tongue twister for Ř and you mixed them up: Your English translation is for “Tři sta třicet tři stříbrných křepelek letělo…”, whereas the one in Czech you present translates into “Three hundred and thirty three silver sprinklers sprinkled…”

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    1. Hi there! Thank you for all this – I can only agree. I have noticed that Common Czech (or Prague Czech) does enjoy a certain privileged status that Brnese and Ostravese lack. Thank you also for spotting that mistake – I’ve amended it now and have had words with my Czech language consultant. She wasn’t particularly bothered.

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      1. Thank U for such an entertaining “summary” of Czech language “terrors”, of which I experience approximately 70% of them daily! Regarding the tongue twister, I recall attempting to manage “Tři sta tři a třicet stříbrných křepelek letělo…”
        Maybe my Czech language teacher was being “kind” by giving me a break with the “a”. I also recall there was a “pře” in front of letělo – so maybe she wasn’t being so nice! 😉

        Liked by 1 person

    2. Never have I seen differences between standardized and spoken language explained in courses of English, German, Italian, French… I just had to pick them up on the fly.

      Maybe there is no one ‘common [language]’ for these languages but a multitude of accents? I don’t know how ‘monolithic’ colloquial Czech is, but in German, there are notable regional differences even without getting into actual dialects. The non-dialect local versions of standard German vary quite a bit, and both the distance to written German (or to the official standard language used in radio and TV news) and the ‘direction’ of the modifications differ. So there couldn’t really be a guide to colloquial German as such, it would have to be a guide to any of a dozen regional varieties.

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  3. There are two SIMPLE rules regarding the DO ‘into’ and NA ‘onto’ distinction which cover 95% of cases; the rest are exceptions that need to be memorized.
    Rule #1
    DO ‘into’ is used for VOLUMES or “3D” entities while NA is used for AREAS or “2D entities” (perceived in a lay, non-scientific way). And you have to remember that countries, states, towns, and villages are perceived as 3D (which they are) whereas islands or regions are perceived as areas (which they are, in a sense). Hence
    do hrnku ‘into a cup’ x na papír ‘onto a paper’
    do stolu ‘into a table’ x na stůl ‘onto a table’
    do města ‘into a town’ x na ostrov ‘onto an island’
    do Prahy ‘to Prague’, do USA ‘to USA’ x na Moravu ‘to Moravia’ , na Kubu ‘to Cuba’
    It’s “do Japonska” because that’s a country (consisting of four main islands – so it would be “na ostrov Hokaido”) and it’s “na Slovensko” ‘to Slovakia’ because Slovakia, just like Moravia, has been historically perceived as just a region of one country, Czechoslovakia, not an independent state.
    See “do Slovinska” ‘to Slovenia’ where we have no problem recognizing it as an independent state (a bit of prejudice present here, yes).
    Also, Holešovice, Letňany, or Karlín have been historically independent villages, even though they are part of Prague now, hence “Do Holešovic”, “do Karlína” – whereas Letná or Prosek are perceived as just quarters/parts of the city, i.e. “city areas”.
    A helpful piece of morphology here is that town and village names often end in a plural ending -ice – if you see that as a part of a name, it will be DO ….-IC.
    Sometimes, even Czechs are not sure if something is “village-like” or “quarter-like”, esp. when it comes to parts of Prague, cf. “Jedeme na Vinohrady” – but you can also see “Jedeme do Vinohrad”.
    Rule #2
    It’s NA when you talk about ABSTRACT events and institutions rather than about 3D buildings. Hence
    “Jdeme na koncert” ‘We are going to a concert.’,
    “Jdeme na návštěvu” ‘We are coming for a visit.’
    “Jdeme na večeři” ‘Going for the dinner.’ etc.
    This is where “na poštu” ‘to post office’ or “na úřad” ‘to office’ comes from – it is perceived as an abstract entity/institution rather than as a 3D building.
    Contrast this with “do kanceláře” ‘to an office’ – where you talk about an actual office space.
    BONUS
    You can even use NA versus DO with the same noun to distinguish meanings:
    Jdeme DO divadla ‘We are going to a theater’ – but you could go there to see an opera, for example “Jdeme DO divadla NA operu.”
    vs.
    Jdeme NA divadlo ‘We are going to a theater play’ – which could be played let’s say in a museum space, cf. “Jdeme NA divadlo DO muzea.”
    Similarly,
    “Jdeme do opery” – meaning “to an opera house”
    “Jdeme na operu” – meaning “to see an opera”.
    Hope this helps 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Thank you! — That was quite useful.
        But, yes. I think it would take a Czech to look at that construction and think of it as ‘simple.’
        “All you have to do is consider the dimensionality and abstractness of the noun that you are discussing. Except for the exceptions. Then it’s easy!”

        Liked by 2 people

      1. Well, they already clarified the case of pošta: it’s perceived as abstract (especially if you consider the long-standing rule of the post office as a venerable institution in Cisleithania, it makes sense).
        I’ve heard people use “do polikliniky” (though I will admit that “na polikliniku” is more common). I still feel the two rules are super helpful and cut through most rote learning.

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  4. Actually, Polish language still has the Ř sound, only they write it “rz”. E.g. George is Jiří in Czech, and Jerzy in Polish.

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    1. I’m told that the older pronunciation of ⟨rz⟩, which was the same sound as Czech ⟨ř⟩, can still be heard, but it’s rare. Today, ⟨rz⟩ today is pronounced like ⟨ż⟩ in standard Polish; both are fricatives and lack the trill quality of Czech ⟨ř⟩. https://youtu.be/d5-u7YSgNgQ

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  5. And you haven’t even mentioned přechodníky (adverbial participles I think is the correct translation), an area of the Czech language that even highly educated native speakers like university professors and PhDs rarely get right, and journalists so often absolutely massacre! That’s something that should perhaps stay hidden from beginners and only come forth and get used to scare advanced learners, if and when they get too self-confident. (Does it make me evil if I laugh and enjoy at how hard and difficult my language is for foreigners?)

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  6. Lovely post! The map is wonderful. We still have the remnants of duals in English (scissors, trousers) and even cases (e.g. whom). I have been told that Sanskrit also has the Ř sound – which would make sense given that Czech is an Indo-European language – and that it is also claimed by Sanskritists to be unique to that language 🙂 You are certainly doing incredibly well if you have only been studying Czech for one year? Impressive. Have you learned how to tell time in Czech yet? In my Czech class we nearly staged a revolt when we found out about THAT little complication. I have a feeling it may nudge into your Top Ten list. Best of luck with the lifelong challenge and joy that is the Czech language!

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    1. Thank you! I’m delighted you enjoyed it and I’m also grateful for the good wishes – the road ahead is still long!

      Telling the time is tricky, but I think I almost have it. The thing that still gives me grief is that Czechs uses adjectives for divisions of the hour, instead of numerals (compare the ‘two’ in dvě hodiny and půl druhé).

      I would add that scissors and trousers aren’t really dual – at least in terms of grammatical number, since they have regular plural endings. We call these words pluralia tantum (‘plural only’) and they’re very interesting. Alas, the dual died out in English a long time ago, though they are traces of it to be found in Middle English, specifically in personal pronouns.

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      1. Actually, if you think of it, půl druhé is perfectly logical: if it is dvě hodiny (two o’clock), it means the first hour (after midnight or noon) is finished and the second hour is also finished, the two whole hours are finished. On the other hand půl druhé, literally half of the second, means the first hour is finished and the second one is in its half.

        I myself would find more annoying čtvrt na dvě (1:15)—why not čtvrt druhé, quarter of the second?—and esspecially tři čtvrtě na dvě (1:45), that’s really illogical and makes no sense. Or, considering how you like number four, čtvrt na čtyři and tři čtvrtě na čtyři. 🙂

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    2. A revolt reminded me of an anecdote I’ve heard (I don’t know whether it is true or made up), of a Czech teacher who came to a class of foreigners for their first lesson of the Czech language. Wishing to lighten the mood and make a joke, he wrote on the board the word ‘scvrnkls’ (probably the longest Czech word without a consonant; it means ‘you finger-flicked smth down of smth’). Half of the class just ran away.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. No mention of ch? I´m a bit disappointed:-)) Good article anyway, Danny. And speaking of “strč prst skrz krk” – lot of people who try to speak Czech complain, but it is just a tongue twister, nothing else. Curiosity.

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  8. Having once learned Russian, I recognize quite a few of the things you describe and feel with you.

    If you are in a city, you are ve městě; if you are in a village or a central square, you are na vesnici or na náměstí.

    Funny, the same distinction exists in German: If you are in a city, you are in der Stadt; if you are in a village or a central square, you are auf dem Dorf or auf dem Platz.

    The ‘na náměstí’/’auf dem Platz’ bit does make some sense if you don’t look at being ‘within the limits’ of the square but ‘on the surface’ of the square. That would hold for ‘auf dem Acker’ (in the field) as well, but not for ‘na vesnici’/’auf dem Dorf’.

    In German, if you are in the street, you are auf der Straße (‘on the road’ if you will, and then there’s ‘on the way’ – auf dem Weg).

    Regarding the aspect, I fully agree with everything. Details differ between Czech and Russian, but it is complicated, absolutely not intuitive, involves a shitload of irregular forms, and is very easy to botch up…

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  9. I have some good news for you, Common Czech can save you from your eternal enemy: Number four is also pronounced “štyry”.
    The prefixes which form perfective aspect all have a specific (often directional) meaning that more or less corresponds to their prepositional twins. Many verbs can take any prefix but each of those perfective variants has different meaning. The prefix “pře-” means “to redo something,” “move over something” or “from one end to the other”. So “přečetl” literally means “he read it from the beginning to the end.” The prefix “na-” means “onto something” so “napsal” literally means “he wrote onto something”. “Přepsal” would mean “he wrote over something” (e.g. some existing text) or “he rewrote something,” depending on context. Using the prefixes will get easier once you learn what they specifically mean. But beware that some combinations of prefix and verb root have a completely different meaning than the simple combination of their base meanings would suggest (though you can usually find a connection to the simple combination through two or three layers of semantic abstraction).

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  10. Regarding the aspect, you realy need to stop thinking about the “psal jsem” and “napsal jsem” as two different versions of the same word. Thay are two different words. Look, each of them has thair own infinitive:
    psát – to write
    napsat – to write (something)
    They also have slightly different meaning. The difference is similar to difference between “to speak” and “to tell”. “To speak” is a continuous production of sounds with your mouth. “Psát” continuous production of letters on paper. “To tell” is to convey a comprehensive unit of information. “Napsat” is to produce a unit of text (a letter, a novel, a chapter, a sentence). You cannot have “napsat” in a sentence without saying what you wrote. You cannot have “to tell” in a sentence without saying what has been told.
    There are no neat pairs of verbs for continuous and finished action in Czech. Let go of the idea that there should be such pairs. There are just verbs that mean continuous activity and verbs that mean finished action/instantanious action or change of state. Aspect is a fixed property of a verb. If you want a different aspect you have to pick a different verb. Sometimes there is more than one to choose from. Look, there are some words derived from “psát”:
    psát – to write – continuous activity
    napsat – to write (something) – finished action
    dopsat – to finish writing (something already started) – finished action
    přepsat – to rewrite (something) – finished action
    psávat – to write regularily (like a letter every week) – continuous activity
    zapsat – to write down (a note) – finished action
    zapisovat – to take notes – continuous activity
    sepsat – to put together (some unit of text) – finished action
    There are no pairs. Just words derived from other words. The prefixes and suffixes might hint at the meaning of the derived word, but ultimately these are diferrent words each with their own established meaning. Stop trying to find pairs. Look at it as an ever growing tree of words.

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    1. While I can’t dispute anything you’ve written here (and thank you for it!), I must respectively disagree.

      You’re right – finding pairs of imperfective/perfective verbs may be artificial and doomed to failure. It’s not how the language and its verbs developed, although it’s possible the system of pairs is now in some way a productive part of the language. However, my article is not about the language per se – it’s about learning it.

      As a learner, I need to find these pairs if I am to successfully use Czech verbs. I need to identify which associated verb is the best fit for expressing a verb with the perfective aspect, if I’m ever going to convey a completed action in the past or future tenses. That’s why you both learn and are taught Czech verbs through the imperfect idea of aspect pairs. Yes, napsal and přečtel may have different origins and connotations, but if that’s how I translate English ‘I wrote’ and ‘I read’, that’s how I have to learn psát and číst.

      I hope that somewhat makes sense. Danny x

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      1. Sure, I may have exaggerated a bit the absence of pairs. I enjoyed the article very much and hoped to help a bit maybe. But if you say the pairs help you, it probably wasn’t as much help as I hoped.

        Liked by 1 person

    2. As a fellow non native speaker, I cannot stay silent.
      According the aspect – additional very far analogy, that works for me are the different prepositions in English, that are mostly used in a combination with verbs and can completely change the meaning of the word (for example looking for, looking to, looking at). Well not completely, but in a way similar to the Czech prefixes. It’s just, that Czech language changes the words and creates new words (and meanings) by the means of prefixes and endings, but English – by adding prepositions between the words. But this point of view, suggested by Markéta is very true for any slavic language actually. Sometimes you will have to detach from your native language to learn a new language in meanings even of thinking. Because different languages build and work differently.

      According the NA/DO…. I feel like you didn’t have very good teacher… There are rules. They are qute few, but they give you the first understanding. And of course there are exceptions from these rules. It is always “na” with a village – even when the village is already a part of a city. Also, it is always “na” úřad – any kind of – na poštu, na magistrát, na univerzitu, na ministerstvo etc. Do polikliniky is actually an exeption, probably. But in this case none would be accepted as mistake, because even Czechs wouldn’t be sure of the correct use. Most of the rest of the rules were mentioned here. Funny thing I remember, it is always “na” any kind of vineyard – I think this is the true reason for the correct “na Vinohrady”. And, of course after that will come the more complicated cases or the ones, where the dialect is different from the main rule. For example even Czechs are surprised, that locals say “na Mělníku” 🙂 But the rules should give you some understanding to start of and to start feeling how it works. These rules actually helped me a lot, since it was completely different from the languages I spoke.
      Additionally, as mentioned above – the abstract aspect of NA – for easier understanding I was learnt as NA “akce” – na koncert, na oslavu, na nakup, na pivo, na kafe, na pokec, na operu, na procházku, na výlet, na dovolenou, na výstavu, na degustaci, na prezentaci, na přednášku and so on 🙂 easier to remember, maybe.

      The stress is still a way of recognizing that I am not Czech. I just cannot understand how am I supposed to put a stress and also do several long vowels. Not possible for me, coming from Russian and Bulgarian, where I was learnt, that the stress is the longest vowel in the word.

      Good luck with the learning, great article!
      PS could I ask you a question as a native English speaker – how do you find h and ch? I feel like because they have 2 letters for 2 sounds, Czechs are very often mixing the pronunciation in other languages – especially English. And in my opinion wrongly pronounce the English h letter as the Czech h sound always. And are not accepting, that this letter can be both and more sounds in English.

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  11. I can imagine the confusion arising from placing a stress on a wrong syllable. To a Czech brain “stress” and “beginning of a word” are the same thing. When I was starting to learn English stress was such a difficult thing for me. I would inadvertently place the stress on the first syllable of every word and then overemphasize the syllable where the stress was supposed to be. Once the teacher said to me “You must pronounce the English sentence as if it was a single word” and I finally started making progress. I remember wondering “but how do they know where does each word end and start if they put stress in different places?”. So, you misplacing stresses is like deleting all spaces from written sentence and then placing them randomly around.

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    1. Me too. I remember how my roommate cracked up when I pronounced committee with the stress on the first syllable. It made it into “comedy” which is not a bad way to describe committees. 🙂

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  12. There’s a couple of parallels with the Celtic languages that I can think of.

    Firstly, the distinction between animate and non-animate masculine nouns. Welsh and Cornish have a system where feminine singular nouns become ‘mutated’ after the definite article, and also adjectives after them, if they start with certain letters. There are also other things that cause it such as certain prepositions.

    e.g. kath = ‘cat’ but ‘the cat’ is “an gath”.
    The adjective small is “byghan” but if you’re talking about a cat, it would be “kath vyghan”
    The interesting thing is in Cornish, this actually happens for masculine plural nouns, but only those referring to people. Pirate is “morlader”, but ‘the pirates’ is “an vorladron”. The word “margh” meaning ‘horse’ is also treated as human, and ‘the horses’ gets mutated as “an vergh”. Welsh doesn’t have this.

    These “mutations” are thought to have originated when Celtic had a whole series of endings of words according to gender and case, and these phonetically altered the next word. The final syllables of words somehow dropped off somewhere between Common Brythonic and the Old Welsh period but the mutations remained now understood grammatically.

    The dual also exists in Cornish, mostly just for parts of the body that come in pairs. ‘eye’ is “lagas”, and it can have a normal plural “lagasow” and a dual plural “dewlagas” to refer to a pair of eyes. This is extended somewhat for items of clothing or tools and equipment such as dewweder for a pair of spectacles.

    The other slightly odd feature is that numerals are followed by a singular noun, not a plural noun, at least for smaller quantities, for larger compound numbers it is a bit different, and the numeral is followed by “a” ‘of’ and a plural noun.

    so ‘ten green bottles’ is “deg botell gwrydh” but 999 bottles would more likely to be “naw kans, nownsek ha peswar ugens a votellow”

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  13. The “na/do” problem is sometimes a shibboleth. I.e. small town on the top of the hill is referred by locals like “jít / být na Lipnici.” “At / near Kladno” is “na Kladně” for natives.
    Maybe there is subtle difference if you are going somewhere (or where is usual) to stay longer or just visit it briefly – “do nemocnice / na polikliniku, do obchodu / na poštu.” You can “chodit pracovat do kanceláře” or just “odnést něco na kancelář.” Other example is to be sent “na tábor” (summer camp) or “do tábora” (concentration/labour camp).

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  14. Don’t use “Common Czech” outside Prague to avoid misunderstandings! 🙂
    Ostravak sedí v autobuse na dvou sedačkách. Přijde Pražák a říká:: “Posuň se až k voknu!” Ostravák nereaguje. Pražák to zopakuje a zas nic, tak se naštve a říká: “Posuň se až k voknu ty vole!” Ostravák se otočí a říká: “Tak už kvokni!”

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  15. Great article and helpful discussion. Many thanks!

    After 6 months I have three pet-peeves:

    1. Second position. I wonder if I’ll ever get used to it…

    This is a simple example is from an A1 textbook: A na jak dlouho SI váš kamarád chce ten dům pronajmout.
    For me this is a pain in the neck. And yes, I know this is a simple 2nd position example. Don’t get me started… 😉

    2. Aspect. You’re right, it doesn’t deserve a funny title.

    I enjoyed the (lengthy) discussion about aspect, because it shows why it’s difficult. psát – to write napsat – to write (something) is just one example (“pair”)… From experience I can tell that it gets really funny peculiar / frustrating when you ask Czech friends (not teachers) to explain the difference…

    3. Common Czech. You learn something and then your friend tells you she “never says that”.

    Thanks again!

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Thank you for this great article…you have expressed the same frustrations I have had but didnt know how to put into words. I am an American studying Czech in Prague for about two years now, and on the issue of Common Czech, we were told in class that as foreigners we should never use it because native Czechs don’t like it when foreigners use “their” obecné čeština. I’m curious to know if this is just this school’s attitude or if this is a widespread belief. The only parallel I can think of is if a foreigner in the US deep South spoke with a heavy southern accent…would the American feel possessive about their dialect? I don’t know…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s a really good issue to raise. When I was a kid vacationing in Slovakia, I longed to talk Slovak, as much as I was able. But I was shy, thinking they would take umbrage. I should have tried.

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