Who are you?

In Czech, “to teach” is učit “to learn” is učit se which, although it doesn’t seem like the czechs think of it this way, translates as “to teach myself”. Likewise, půjčit means “to lend” while půjčit si means “to borrow”. There is a very appealing symmetry there. Apparently “lend”, “borrow”, and “return” in English forms an inscrutable quagmire for the native czech.

When the verb is accompanied by se, it is an indication that the action of the verb is being reflected back onto the speaker. Si, on the other hand, indicates that the action is being applied to another object.

When you get to washing, this becomes interesting. You can say, míju – “I wash” – but that applies strictly to the general act of self-cleaning. When you are washing your hands, Míješ si ruce you are washing some external object. Your hands are not you. Built into the language is a separation of the parts and the whole. You could name any part: heart, brain, foot, and that part is not you. It’s not even part of you. It is something separate, an object you interact with the same way you would with a stone.

And there you have, built into the Czech language, a distinction between the whole and the parts.

9 thoughts on “Who are you?

  1. An interesting little entry on Czech you have. The first time I read about this term ucit se, I believe, was reading one of Mario Pei’s many books. Thanks for the reminder of that reflexive use, and for the reflection on washing.

    Language is fascinating.

  2. Language is interesting, not the least is english. It is interesting to me, how interchangeable these two phrases are: “Would you like to eat some lunch?”; “Would you like to have some lunch?” But what is even more interesting is that an Indian colleague used the phrase: “Would you like to take some lunch?” He explained that in India, they most often took food rather than ate it or any other verb. And though it made my ears stumble, I completely understood him.

  3. In my last czech lesson, I was pondering two verbs: brat (to take) and vzit si (to take). (Hey! There’s that si thing again!) One of those translates perhaps more as “to be taking”, but that’s another episode.

    Anyway, I was studying the two ways to say “to take” and I thought about all the different ways we use the verb. I made a list for Iveta, to see if in Czech they used other things where we use “take”.

    Unfortunately, that list is a third of the way around the globe from me right now, but here are a few I can remember. In czech, most of these use other verbs:

    To take vitamins. (similar in czech)
    To take a trip
    To take over
    To take a beating
    To take something on (couldn’t even explain to her what it meant)
    To take a bath
    To take a nap

    And so forth. Perhaps I’ll write an episode around this as well, with literal translations of the way the czechs say them.

  4. Incidentally, the Czechs generally neither take, have, or eat their lunch. In the morning, snidají – they eat breakfast (“they” is implied by the verb form); at noon obědvujou – they eat lunch; and in the evening večeří – they have dinner (perhaps “they dine” would be a more accurate translation).

    “Breakfast”, “lunch”, and “dinner” become verbs themselves, so eat, take, and have are unnecessary.

    Not sure I conjugated those exactly right, but you get the point.

  5. And then there are differences within versions of English.

    Americans make a decision while Brits take a decision.

    Perhaps Americans make their decisions out of abundant natural resources (yes, the replanted little trees do grow into big trees) while the Brits take their decisions from an assortment that has existed for centuries.

  6. Jer, your second comment is a little confusing, but I think what you are saying is that instead of eating breakfast the Czechs simply breakfast as a verb. Fascinating. And that is not entirely unknown in English – I’ve heard people say, “Shall we lunch?” before. However, it seems a sort of yesteryear phrase; I can more hear Dickens saying shallwelunch, than I can one of us.

    Us modern types also have “do” lunch, which I didn’t bring up earlier.

    Bob, very interesting. I didn’t know that, and I wonder if the british english is the source for my colleague’s “taking” lunch. A natural progression for the Americans making a decision is to “make lunch” i.e. toss one’s cookies.

  7. oh, and let us bow our heads in remembrance of “luncheon.” It has been shortened but I don’t lament – it is an awkward word. Let us luncheon soon, though!

  8. Jesse,

    You are old school.

    You say you don’t lament the shortening, but we know you miss “luncheon” as much as you miss “pantaloons”.

  9. Probably the East Indian usage of “take” for lunch does come from the British — so much of East Indian usage does.

    I have thought of another colloquialism for your list: to take it (like a man).

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