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.
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,
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.
|Case||Noun: žena ‘woman’||Example sentence|
|First/Nominative||žena||žena je hezká |
‘a woman is pretty’
|Second/Genitive||ženy||dopis od ženy|
‘a letter from a woman’
|Third/Dative||ženě||dal jsi to ženě|
‘you gave it to a woman’
‘I see a woman’
|Sixth/Locative||ženě||mluvím o ženě|
‘I’m talking about a woman’
|Seventh/Instrumental||ženou||pracují 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.
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.
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’.
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.
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 dávám ‘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.