Unless you already know another Slavic language, much of the Czech vocabulary will seem at best unfamiliar and at worst incomprehensible. Fortunately, Czech is an Indo-European language, and a rare handful of the most basic everyday vocabulary words can be traced back to common roots with many other Indo-European languages. Also, like many other European languages, Czech has absorbed a number of “international” words, largely from Greek, Latin, German, and — in recent years — English.
These words should take you places without making your head hurt. Hopefully.
The “old” words: Indo-European roots
- Sestra: sister. Here, the similarities with the English word are obvious.
- Bratr: brother. Again, the words sound rather similar.
- Matka, maminka, mami: mother, mommy, mom. If matka doesn’t sound so obviously related to mother, think back to the Latin word for mother: mater. Mater itself also shows up in English words and phrases such as maternal and alma mater.
- Otec, tatínek, táta: father, daddy, dada. This one’s a bit less obvious, but take a look at those last two words, tata and dada. It turns out that the t in Czech is pronounced slightly differently than the t in English. It sounds a bit like the letter d.
- Voda: water. Not only are these words themselves somewhat similar, but voda is also relatively easy to remember when you know that it’s a common word in many Slavic languages, and that the diminutive form of the Russian word for water is vodka. Once upon a time on the Internet, I found a wonderful resource for Indo-European etymology which detailed exactly how voda, water, Wasser (German), and even aqua (latin/Italian?) and agua (Spanish) were related. Unfortunately, I can’t find that site anymore.
- Dát: to give. Dát is very similar to the Latin verb dare, which means the same thing. Donate and dedicate in English are derived from different forms of dare. Dát is also an extremely useful verb for getting around in the Czech Republic, as the phrase dám si ___, which literally means “I give myself ___”, is one of the standard polite ways to order food or drink. I’ve found that it works just as well if you simply point to what you want when you don’t have the vocabulary to finish your sentence. A gift in Czech is dar or dárek.
- Moc: power, might. Moc is related to the English word might. It’s not a particularly useful word in everyday conversation on its own, but it just happens to be a very common route word in Czech. The very useful verb moct (to be able) is closely related to moc, as is pomoct (to help).
The “new” words: recent and not-so-recent imports
- Muzeum: museum
- Centrum: center
- Auto: automobile
- Automat: anything automatic; a vending machine
- Restaurace: restaurant
- Informace: information
- Turista: tourist; hiker
- Víkend: weekend
- Sendvič: sandwich
- Garáž: garage
- Svetr: sweater
- Rádio: radio
- Televize: television
The other direction: Czech has also exported a handful of words to English
- Robot: coined by Czech science fiction author Karel Čapek in 1929
- Pilsner: the classic beer style is named after the Czech town of Plzeň, where it got its start.
Most of these words are not particularly useful when travelling around the Czech Republic, but it interesting to note that Czech contributions to world culture are related to warfare, science fiction, and beer. Mmmmmmm. Beer.