Učím se česky: easy-to-learn vocabulary

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: materMater 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 dareDát 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
  • Pistol
  • Howitzer
  • 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.


Učím se česky: getting started with Czech

Učím se česky: I am learning Czech.  Or rather, as the phrase would read when literally translated: I am teaching myself Czech.  Which is also true.  It turns out that there is no way to differentiate these two ideas in Czech; so whether you’re learning with someone else’s help or entirely on your own, the learning is the point. In a way, this makes sense: a teacher can push, prod, and suggest — but just like horse led to water, only the learner can do the drinking.  (Or should that be “thinking”?)

Even though I’m learning Czech, I have a native speaker on hand to proof-read these posts — so I promise they won’t include any blatantly misleading information!

So where does one start with a new language?  Pronunciation, basic vocabulary, common expressions, grammar?  They’re all important, of course. Not to mention that they all build on each other…

My introduction to Czech was very drawn-out, as I had to learn German first.  So I picked up a few words here and there and paid careful attention to the pronunciation, which didn’t interfere with my German studies.  Which means that, for quite some time, Czech sounded a lot like this:

Shhhptoschh TAK shshdilssstssh chtshdshchid TAK, TAK dshchidshhhptoschh TAK.

Tak is the Czech word for so, and they use it very frequently.  It’s pronounced roughly like the English word talk.* Come to think of it, it’s possible that English speakers also say so a lot; I’ve never noticed.

So in addition to tak, the above nonsensical excerpt demonstrates something else important about the Czech language: it has many so-called “soft” sounds, like ch and sh.  (Be careful, though: that ch sound is spelled č, and that sh sound is spelled šCh and sh themselves actually represent entirely different sounds in Czech.) There’s also a “soft” version of z (ž, pronounced like the j in the French phrase je ne sais quois and a soft r ), which doesn’t exist in any form in English.  Czech has furthermore a strong preference for the letters s and c, the latter of which is pronounced like ts in English. This all results in a language that sounds, to the untrained English-accustomed ear, like a confusing muddle of hushing noises which somehow roll pleasantly off the speaker’s tongue. It’s a language full of contrasts: hard and soft, staccato and legato in equal measures.

Czech, like many other Slavic languages, is what’s called a “highly inflected language.”  That means the nouns and adjectives can take different forms, depending on how they’re used in a sentence. English still has remnants of a similar system in our pronouns: for example in I vs. me and we vs. us.  The difference is that Czech has seven cases for each noun, each with its own concrete meaning or application.

*My native Czech speaker would like to point out that the Czech word tak is only very roughly pronounced like the English word talk.  Czech vowel sounds are much more precisely defined than English vowel sounds, so I’m sure he’s right.  Personally, I can hear the difference between the two words, but they both sound like variants of the same vowel sound to me.

Yes, languages have their own personality.

German can be a surprisingly optimistic language at times.  Yesterday, I picked up a pair of left-behind goggles at the swimming pool and brought them to the office, where I tried to explain that they had been lost.  “Ah!” the woman there replied, “die sind Fundsache.”  That is to say, in Germany left-behind items aren’t “lost” or even “lost and found” but simply “found things.”

In Context: Dative Articles and Adjectives

These are intended to be grammar examples only: they reflect possible, correctly declined phrases rather thanphrases that Germans are likely to use in everyday conversation.  The idea is that by changing only the key parts of a sentence, the grammatical meaning becomes easier to understand intuitively.  At least, I think it helps me…

Example phrase: Sie bringt ___________ einen Kuchen.

Singular, definite article:

  • der freundlichen Frau
  • dem freundlichen Mann
  • dem freundlichen Mädchen

Singular, indefinite article:

  • einer freundlichen Frau
  • einem freundlichen Mann
  • einem freundlichen Mädchen


Again, the adjectives forms match for all genders, so these can be used with any plural.  Also, the Dative plural noun always ends in “n,” even when the regular plural doesn’t.

Adjective sets:

  • keinen freundlichen
  • den freundlichen
  • freundlichen

Dative Plural Noun forms:

  • Frauen
  • Männern
  • Mädchen

In Context: Accusative Articles and Adjectives

These are intended to be grammar examples only: they reflect possible, correctly declined phrases rather than phrases that Germans are likely to use in everyday conversation.  The idea is that by changing only the key parts of a sentence, the grammatical meaning becomes easier to understand intuitively.  At least, I think it helps me…

Example phrase: Sie isst __________.

Singular, definite article

  • die große Torte
  • den großen Kuchen
  • das große Eis

Singular, indefinite article

  • eine große Torte
  • einen großen Kuchen
  • ein großes Eis

In plural, all adjective forms match all genders.

Accusative plural adjectives:

  • keine großen
  • die großen
  • große

Accusative plural nouns:

  • Torten
  • Kuchen
  • Eis

In Context: Nominative Articles and Adjectives

It helps me to understand German grammar if I have an example to work from.  These are intended to be grammar examples only: they reflect possible, correctly declined phrases rather than phrases that Germans are likely to use in everyday conversation.  The idea is that by changing only the key parts of a sentence, the grammatical meaning becomes easier to understand intuitively.  At least, I think it helps me…

Singular, definite article

Example phrase: __________ bringt mir ein Eis.

Possible subjects:

  • Die kleine Frau
  • Der kleine Mann
  • Das kleine Mädchen

Singular, indefinite article

Example phrase: __________ bringt mir ein Eis.

Possible subjects:

  • Eine kleine Frau
  • Ein kleiner Mann
  • Ein kleines Mädchen

Singular, no article

Example phrase: __________ schmekt mir gut.

Possible subjects:

  • Deutscher Eis
  • Deutscher Kuchen
  • Deutsche Torte


Example phrase: __________ bringen mir ein Eis.

Possible subjects:

  • Die kleinen Frauen
  • Keine kleinen Frauen
  • Kleine Frauen

Since all genders use the same form in plural, “Frauen” here could also be “Männer” or “Mädchen.”

In Situ: Adjective Endings

A few examples of real-life adjective declination from a recent trip to Ulm

Rauchfreier Bahnhof

(“Bahnhof” is masculine, nominative; there’s no article; therefore “rauchfrei” ends in “er.”)

Tee mit doppeltem Rum

(“Rum” is masculine, dative; there’s no article; therefore “doppelt” ends in “em.”)

Practice Reading: Climate Change

I found the attached article in our local German newspaper.  Although I wasn’t able to understand every nuance, I found it to be about the “right” reading level (for me, anyway).

The full article can be found on www.mein-wochenblatt.de on this page. (There are, of course, numerous other German-language articles in this newspaper — but the the rest seem to be at a somewhat higher reading level.)

Reading guide (aka words that I had to look up):

zuvor: beforehand

der Forscher: researcher

zunehmend: increasing

das Treibhaus: greenhouse

die Dürre: drought or arridity

die Fläche: flat or expanse

Die Deutsche Sprache

Since I’m living in Germany, I’m learning German.  I’ve been slowing gathering useful tidbits about the language — examples of real-life use of grammatical constructs, made-up examples that help me better understand what I’m talking about, and so on.  I’ve decided these might be useful for other people as well, so I’m going to start publishing them here.  I’ll probably avoid updating Facebook with each of these examples, because I expect to write short, frequent posts which are no interest to most of my friends…. If you’re among the exceptions, grab the RSS feed here: feed://peasandhoney.com/blog/category/deutsch/feed/ (or just check the category page: http://peasandhoney.com/blog/category/deutsch).

Photos from Ulm

The wonderful thing about living in Europe is that other, interesting cities are only a short train ride away.  Today we took a trip to Ulm, which turns out to be the most appealing example of the German tendency to blend modern and ancient styles.  The city center is compact and walkable; the cathedral is impressive, even for Europe.  We found an assortment of sidewalk cafes and pedestrian walkway along the Danube, shops and more cafes scattered around the city center.  There were, in fact, so many cafes that we had some difficulty finding a place to eat a full lunch — which we definitely needed after climbing 768 stairs to the top of the Cathedral spire.  Ultimately, we found a Spanish restaurant, which was about to close its kitchen but had a few limited — and it turned out, delicious — lunch options available.

More photos are here: http://paigemorrison.smugmug.com/Travel/Ulm