Adventures in Czech language

by Dan

mcescherAnother installment in an ongoing series on oddities of Czech language.

Czech, like many languages, has a formal and informal tense for addressing people. (I only realized a few years ago that English used to have this, too, before we decided to upgrade everyone to ‘formal’ status. That’s what all the thee and thou business in the Bible is about: God addressing his creations informally.) But unlike (I think) most of these other languages, Czech has explicit rules about who may propose the switch to informal status between two people (women offer to men, older to younger). And there’s also a specific phrase that means, Hey, let’s start talking in the informal tense! which I always find to be a very meta and out-there construct.

Today, my wife told me that she had been reading a Czech kids story to our son about a teddy bear who is accidently left in the woods by humans and adopted by a real bear. The teddy bear at one point asks the real bear, “Will you take care of me?” When my wife told me this, I noticed she was using the informal tense (i.e., while paraphrasing what the teddy bear said to real bear). “Wait,” I asked, “didn’t the teddy bear use formal tense to address the real bear?” If ever there was a situation among animals that would seem to dictate use of formal tense, it would be teddy bear-addressing-real bear. “Oh, yeah,” my wife clarified, “there was actually a part where the big bear suggested to the little bear that they start to tykat.”

This seems like it would be a very cumbersome plot convention for all kids’ stories to have to observe- that somehow, the switch to informal tense has to be negotiated by any two creatures who encounter each other in the woods (as kids’ stories are basically full of situations where strangers encounter each other in the woods and then become close friends). Somebody could do a good satire of all classic stores in American tradition with an obligatory ‘shall we speak in informal tense?” scene added in. Little Red Riding Hood. Huck and Jim in Huckleberry Finn. Poe’s The Raven. I guess that would at least compel the bird to say something besides ‘nevermore’.

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