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.