Body Czech

NOTE: This has been transcribed from the backs of Staropramen coasters.

Watching Czechs Bowl —
Body English is more than just an expression, apparently. Body Czech is much more reserved. While the ball is rolling down the lane, the czechs have three options: watch blankfaced, turn away, or practice their follow-through (and that only among the bowlers who had been taking lessons earlier). All other reactions are saved until after the ball hits the pins.

Among those I bowled with in the US, the ballet of the bowler, subtly influencing the course of the ball, is a big part of the game. The gyrations, the hand gestures, the instructions shouted down the lane, all those things mattered.

It says something about both groups — the Americans think they can change things they have no control over and the Czechs don’t try. In the case of bowling, the Czechs can probably take the philosophical high ground, what with physics and all, but I lean the American way myself. We’re the dreamers, the poets of bowling.

Golf and bowling may be the only recreational activities with such a gap between action and result, that period that allows the actor to perform. Indeed, it is that stretch between performance and result that makes the games worthwhile.


I’m starting to get it.

It’s wasn’t War and Peace or even My Dinner With Andre, but I just had a real honest-to-god conversation in Czech. I cheated, but that doesn’t matter.

Here is the full text, translated to English for your convenience:

W: Here’s your beer
J: Thanks
W: No Prob. So, you writing a novel over here or something?
J: Yes
W: Really? You’re writing a novel?
J: Yes
W: A novel?
J: Yes
W: You’re a writer?
J: Yes
W: No shit?
J: Yes

Skeptics among you may note that I only used two different words in this conversation. But he used several, and each repetition was different, and I picked up enough of the words to know what he was asking me, and say “Ano” with confidence. Some of the repetition on his part is easily explained as a natural assumption that I didn’t know what he was saying. Finally, “No shit?” was actually “Fact?”, but I took the liberty of some cultural adjustment.


Where am I?

Let’s say for a moment that you’re going to the bank. In czech you would say Jdu do banky. – “I’m going to the bank.” No problem. Of course, if you’re gong to the post office you would say Jdu na poštu.

D’oh! How you say “to” depends upon where you’re going. Banks and post offices strike me as being pretty similar, but in the czech tongue they are very different. Not only does the preposition change, banky and poštu are themselves different cases of the nouns. The first is the accusative form of banka while the second is the genetive form of pošta.

How you say “post office” and “bank” changes again once you get there. Jsem v bance translates to “I am at the bank”, while you would tell me you’re at the post office by saying Jsem na poštÄ›. In the case of the post office, na now translates to “at”. At least once you get there you can use the locative form for the name of the place no matter where you are. Remember, the rules apply to names as well: Jsem v Pizza Hutu.

And what if you’re going nowhere? Well, in czech, you’re not going nowhere: Nejdu nikam. Once you start negating you don’t stop until you run out of words. The idea that a double negative implies a positive strikes czechs as rather odd. All that negating leads to sentences like Nikdy nic nikde nikomu neříkej a nijak se nezabývej žadným problémem – which would translate literally to “Don’t never not say nothing to no one and in no way don’t bother with no problem.” (I got that sentence from a book. Don’t ask me why it uses nijak instead of žádný. I know you were going to.)

Then again, if you’re already nowhere it’s Nejsem nikde. There are different kinds of nowhere here, depending on whether it’s a destination or a location.


Czech is not for Muddled Ramblings

Here’s something that is taking some getting used to for me: In Czech, often a word late in the sentence affects all the words that come before. That may not be a bad thing at all. I remarked on this today to Iveta, my teacher, and concluded, “Maybe that makes people shut up more.” She thought that was funny, but also probably true. Perhaps some of the famous Czech reserve is simply because they have to know what they are going to say before they open their mouths.


An interesting little pronoun

Consider these three sentences:

I have my pen.
I have his pen.
He has his pen.

In Czech they become:

Mám své pero.
Mám jeho pero.
Má své pero.

Did you catch it? In the first sentence “my” translates to “své”. In the third sentence “své” means “his”. But “his” is “jeho” in the second sentence. To complete the cycle, “He has my pen.” becomes Má mé pero.

There is a special pronoun, svúj, that takes over when the possessive pronoun refers to the subject of the sentence, no matter who or what the subject of the sentence is. So in “I have my pen” svúj takes over for the usual múj (and then is converted to the proper form, following the same pattern as múj). Same thing in “He has his pen,” since the “his” refers to the same thing as the “he”.

I’m not sure it improves communication at all, whether it reduces ambiguity in the language. I think it does. When you say “Mary has her pen.” you know right away whether the “her” refers to Mary or to some other woman. I’m liking the svúj.


Learning the local dialect

You ride the trams for any amount of time and you start to hear it, the subtle and not-so-subtle messages broadcast by the pilots of the trams. And while I rarely see the drivers, I am starting to recognize different bell styles.

Some drivers will give a little courtesy ‘tang! when a driver they know goes past in the other direction. It is the lightest touch on the bell but it is still distinct. Most drivers will give a pl’tang! as they approach the stern of a passing tram; people often cross right behind a tram and drivers coming the other way don’t want to catch anyone by surprise.

When trams have been stopped, either at a tram stop or at an intersection, many of them will give a kr’tang! as they start moving (the trams roll their bells the same way the czechs roll their r’s).

Then, of course, there is a driver on tram 7, mentioned in a previous episode and identified correctly as Johnny B. Goode by p7K, who carries on an ongoing conversation with the world at large with his bell. I’ll give this to old Johnny: No one will ever say they didn’t hear him coming.

This afternoon as I was tromping up the street, I learned some new words in Bell. Oh, I’ve heard my share of swearing in that language, believe me. Tram 7 Johnny is turning the air blue with his bell as we rumble down the road. Today I watched as a car cut in front of a tram to make a left turn and stopped on the tracks, unable to complete the maneuver. Czechs may be bad drivers, but generally they respect the trams.

The tram stopped abruptly, the car sitting dead across the tracks. Krrrrrang! said the Tram. I understood perfectly. “I would have T-Boned you,” the driver said, “ramming the coupler sticking out of the front of my tram right into your kidneys, but there would have been too much paperwork.”

There was traffic coming the other way, and the car was stuck there, as the tram inched forward. Krrrrrangggggg! KRRRRRRRRRRAAAAAAAANNNNNGGGGG! The language was getting choice now, not something I can put in a family blog, but more or less it translated to “The paperwork is becoming less and less important.” Finally the car completed its turn and sped off, the way drivers will do after they’ve been stupid, which is all the time here. kr’tang! said the tram and moved along its way.


Electricity sucks

Perhaps that’s not fair. Perhaps it’s a distrust of electrical appliances and not electricity itself, but many places I go it is not enough to turn off the appliance. The device must be unplugged as well. I think at the root of this is a need to make sure the machine is not stealing your electricity even while it’s turned off. There are times, of course, where such a suspicion is well-founded. Anything you can turn on with a remote control is never truly off. But here it goes deeper. No czech would ever admit this, but they really don’t trust the stuff.

OK, I have to qualify that. The latest generation is different. Fully indoctrinated into Western culture, they see the benefits of change but have not inherited their parents’ skepticism. The Czechs did not experience Blitzkrieg the way the Poles did, but there is a new blitz on and the old, impervious, skeptical czech nature that I love so much will not survive. They will buy their blenders and their cars, go to their office jobs, and become just like the rest of us.

The Media blitz is erasing the Czech identity more effectively than the Nazis ever could.



Around the Anděl Metro station is a shopping Mecca to rival any. The square there is always filled with people, but last week it was nuts. There was a long row of little portable shops doing a rousing business selling Easter crap. Prominent among the crap shops were people selling switches woven from tree branches and decorated with ribbons. The tradition, it seems, is that on the Monday holiday overtime the boys are supposed to whack the girls with sticks, and in return the girls give the boys eggs.

Yes, it strikes me as a little one-sided as well. Iveta explained that if the boys didn’t whack the girls, the girls would get “bugs”, which I translate as cooties.

The following day, today, girls are able to get revenge by dousing the boys with water.

Apparently in the not-too-far-distant past, there was a greater deterrent to the whacking of a girl with a stick. Back in the day, a stick whack would be followed by having dinner with the girl’s parents. Do not strike whimsically, for you will have a father asking you your intentions. Now there’s something to stay your hand.


Should be good for a giggle if you know czech, because I sure don’t.


Sedím v stůl pro dva. Dva sklenicy potí se na jejich ubrouseky, sklenicy maji rozdíln?½ ½ tvar. Jeden, to sklenice s rt??~?
?nku na obruba, odpo?~D?~Mivuje <elegantly> naho?~E?~D?e dluh?~C½, p?~E¯vabn?~C½ stonek. Alcoholov?~C¡ kv?~D?~@?tina s ?~E¡t?~C­hlou zelenou sl?~C¡mu pro <pistil>. Je mazan?
~C½ v?~D?~@?c, <conjugate skr?~C½t se> tv?~C©ho tmav?~C©ho ?~Cº?~D?~Mele vzadu sladký<-ness>, v?~E¯n?~D?~@?, a barva.

What the above is supposed to say:

I am sitting at a table for two. Two glasses are sweating onto their napkins, glasses of different shape. One, the one with lipstick on its rim, sits elegantly at the top of a long, graceful stem, an alcoholic flower with a slender green straw for a pistil. It is a cunning thing, hiding its dark purpose behind sweetness, perfume, and color.

Note: in moving from one database to another, the character encodings in this little episode did not fare so well. It’s just not worth fixing, I’m afraid.


Learning Czech

So I have very pleasant czech friend who is giving me lessons. Much of what we discuss is based on a textbook, but she’s now bringing in extra exercises to force me to speak in complete sentences. I’m getting better, if I have a long time to compose my sentences.

As an exercise for myself I started translating the first part of The Fish, which I’ll share as a blog entry when I get a few more sentences done. I think that story will translate well into czech, if the book by Ivan Klima is any indication. Quiet, introverted, and not terribly optimistic.

One thing I noticed yesterday is that even after several lessons I still don’t know how to say “I am going to the store.” I can say Kde je obchod? (“Where is the store?”) and I can say Jdu na procházku (“I am going for a walk.”). But I haven’t learned “to” yet. Why not? How can this important little pice of language be pushed back so far?

The answer lies in the nouns. Whereas learning czech on the street is about getting enough words that you can string together and be understood, the textbook has to defer “I am going to…” until you can say it correctly. That means using the genitive form of the noun, and I haven’t got there yet.

The translation of The Fish should be hilarious to czech speakers, if they can make sense of it at all. My little dictionary tends to the formal and sometimes even obsolete side of things, so it should have an old-fashioned feel to it. I’m sure some of the expressions will not translate either. In the end it will probably be more like Mock Czech than an actual language. It’s a damn slow process, since the rather floral language in the story is not well-reflected in my lessons. I have to look up each work, then look the translation in czech to make sure it translates back with something resembling the same meaning. I love it when the Czech word given as a translation doesn’t even appear in the other half of the dictionary. Finally I take a shot at conjugation and pluralization, take a whack at the preposition, and move on.

My plan is to keep on it though, and get feedback from my teacher. We’ll see what happens, anyway. I’ll post the first few sentences later today.


Pan Ptáček

We have a similar way of solving problems, Otakar Ptáček and I. We try to outwait trouble, to roll with things until they either become intolerable or go away. That may not be ideal for a landlord—there’s no hot water in the kitchen—but neither of us are really the jump-on-it-and-solve-the-problem sorts. Perhaps if we could speak to each other it would be easier. Last time we spoke I surprised him by saying “super”. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I knew that word long before I came to the czech republic (but I did roll the r on that occasion better than I usually do). Even if I had the heart, I would not have had the ability to explain anything of the sort.

Mr. Little Bird was born here in the Czech Republic in 1925. I know this because his date of birth is listed on my lease. His is the only birthday reminder programmed into my phone as of yet.

He was a teenager when the Germans invaded. Did he rally in the center of Prague while the Czech government’s frantic pleas to the rest of the world were ignored? Did he take up arms? Was he conscripted into the German army? Honestly, I have no idea what happened to czech boys of military age during those times. He must have ended up fighting for someone, or in a prison that defies imagination. Or, possibly, both. How did he feel when he was nearly twenty years old, when the Russians came and freed their slavic brethren, opening the concentration camps and nursing the survivors back to health on sausage and vodka?

How did he feel when the communist government started building its own concentration camps, less brutal than the nazi versions but still horrible? What compromises did he make living in a society whose foundation was suspicion?

Where was he in ’68? When the czechs did their dress rehearsal for the peaceful reform of their government only to see russian tanks sweep through their country? He was probably too old by then to be throwing rocks at tanks, but what did he say as he drank with his friends? Was he still remembering being liberated in his youth, saying that kids these days just didn’t appreciate all that the Russians had done for them, or was he quietly looking forward to a new government, or was he just ordering another round?

Like other Czechs, he’s rolled with it, outlasting the problem. Fascists, communists, capitalists all come and go, but the czech character remains. They’re a fatalistic bunch; they take their injustice stoically and in their hearts they don’t really believe in progress. Change they know, and even embrace—the way a mafia boss will embrace a rival. Change will happen around them, but not to them.

And here is my landlord, pulling up the stairs slowly, explaining with his hands that he has a bad heart. Čekám, I say, my use of czech lost to him as he labors up the stairs with his daily ration of beer, but he smiles gratefully for my patience. He’s got a winning smile and an open face; in the end everything is something of a joke to him. A quiet, introverted, joke that only he gets. I laugh too. I don’t know the joke, but I know it’s a good one. Pan Ptáček has seen enough to know what’s funny and what’s not.


Conjugating nouns

I’m writing this partly to get things straight in my own head. I may well be wrong on some of the subtleties.

In Czech, nouns have different forms depending on how they are used in a sentence. The rules are different depending on the gender of the noun, and (if the noun is masculine) whether the thing named by the noun is animate or inanimate. These rules apply to people’s names as well — they’re nouns, after all.

For instance, If I were to say “My friend Brian Votaw is over there,” I would use the nominative form of the noun: “Můj kamarád Brian Votaw je tam.” No biggie. (Of course for females it’s not so simple. The last name would have -ova appended to it: Barbara Seegerova. Naturally sometimes you don’t just stick letters on the end; that would be too simple. Čapek becomes Čapkova, for instance, and if the root family name ends in ?~C½ you just switch it to an á. But I digress.)

Since Brian is (usually) animate and (biologically) male, to say “I know Brian,” I would use the accusative singular: Znám Briana. It doesn’t matter whether Anna is animate or not, she’s female and that’s enough to turn “I’m waiting for my friend Anna” into Čekám na mou kamarádku Annu. Note that the czech word for the pronoun “my” (which was múj for Brian above because he was male and that was the nominative form) switched from the feminine (or moje, take your pick) to mou, and kamarádka (The feminine form of kamarád) became kamarádku.

I’m reasonably sure “I’m looking forward to seeing Amy” becomes Těší­m se Amy because Amy ends in y. However, I usually type it Amz, because the y and z are switched on the keyboard when I’m in Czech mode.

This episode only deals with two of the seven forms for each noun. Five more to go! Wahoo!

I hope reading this helps you as much as writing it helped me. Things are a lot clearer now, don’t you think?


Cultural Icon

This is (obviously) a logo for a Czech sausage company. And of course it makes perfect sense, when one is selling sausages, to depict a man (or perhaps Liza Minelli) enjoying a link or two. Still, I have a Beavis and Butt-Head giggle-snort reaction whenever I see this. In the US they would have “updated their image” long since, but here in good ‘ol Eastern Europe there was no image updating until the ’90’s. By then this symbol had become quite hip.

The logo is available in three different styles (two with the androgynous sausage eater) in several different image formats in a press kit on their Web site. Unfortunately, I don’t have a vector image program and when I resized the png I lost some of Liza’s lovely long eyelashes.


Why Czech will never be the language of the world

One day I was out on my own and wrote down all the phrases that I had wished I could have been able to say that day. On that list I had asked why sometimes ‘water’ was ‘voda’, as in dobra voda meaning ‘good water’, and why sometimes it was vodu as in jednou vodu, meaning ‘one water’ when asking for another water.

Mariana went through my questions and answered all but that one. When I asked her the next day why it wasn’t jednou voda she looked at me and said, “Because voda is the infinitive.” I blinked a couple of times and said “Infinitive of a noun?”

Yes indeed. There are seven forms of each noun, although form 2 and form 4 are usually the same, and the difference between them is apparently meaningless in English. I’m used to the idea of masculine and feminine nouns, but conjugating nouns? In Czech, and presumably Slovak and maybe others, nouns are either masculine, feminine, or neutral. There are seven standard patterns for conjugating masculine nouns, four for feminine, and four for neutral. As far as I know there is no way to tell by looking at a noun what gender or pattern to use. You just have to know.

I’m guessing that when a Czech parodies a foreigner, they always use the infinitive form of the noun. I bet it’s friggin’ hilarious.