Mysteries of Czech language

mcescher2Another probing look at the third-most spoken language in Texas (well, not anymore, but it used to be for much of the 20th century). Previous installments here and here.

Only one of the following statements is false:

In Czech…

  1. “No” means yes
  2. “Yes” means eat!, but only as an imperative
  3. “Host” means guest
  4. Pants are worn over one’s arms and shirts over one’s legs

Adventures in Czech language

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’.

In all fairness…

mcescherI didn’t mean to suggest in my last post that Czech is somehow any more insane than English. My fascination with aspects of Czech is the way that there’s often an underlying logic applied (as in the Island vs. Not Island example), but the logic turns out to be sort vague and applied in a half-assed manner. Many aspects of English, meanwhile, make no pretense towards logic whatsoever.

1. Our irregular spellings. Widely despised, mocked, railed against. Interestingly, it turns out that we have one man to blame for these. His name was William Caxton. In the early days of book printing in the late 15th century, England was lagging behind much of Europe in the field. Also, the English language was in flux with individual regions speaking their own highly individualized dialect. Caxton was the first prolific English printer; he also happened to hail from the part of England with all the awful ‘th’-y and ‘ough’-y spellings. Hence, he managed to codify the language, but in all the wrong ways.

2. Past-perfect-subjective-purple-monkey-dishwasher tense. Really, our past verb tenses are insane (‘would have had I known’, etc) and the part of the language that seem to inspire the most dread in foreign learners. (I used to work at an agency that had quasi-mandatory English lessons, and the ashen expressions of my Czech co-workers as they emerged from the teacher’s office after trying to learn past conditional led me to dub her ‘the dentist’ and her office ‘the dentist office’. That was fun.) Why not just have an international standardized, simplified version of English? When you consider how many conversations are happening every second in English among two non-native speakers, and how much time is wasted tripping and bumbling over these tenses, it really seems massively cruel and wasteful. And it seems to me that you could fully express yourself if you just used past perfect for everything. “I would have come earlier if I had known you were thinking about coming’ doesn’t express much more than ‘I would came earlier if I know that you thinked about coming’, which is basically the same sentence transposed into Czech grammar.

Nerd time: Czech language fun facts

mcescherHere’s a puzzling and quirky aspect of Czech, in case you haven’t yet gotten around to learning the language yourself. I imagine this becoming a kind of fun ongoing series in this blog.

Fun Fact #1: Island vs. Not Island

Generally, the preposition do is used when you’re going to a place (‘jedu do Ameriky’). But, if you’re going to an island, you use na instead (‘jedu na Hawaii’).

Now, if you go to England, that takes the do preposition (i.e. the non-island one). But New Zealand takes the na one (the island one). Even though they’re both islands and New Zealand is bigger. I asked about this and was told that it’s because England is considered more important. Hmm. Seems like kinda a weird subjective measure to base the language on, doesn’t it? If New Zealand somehow became more important on the global stage, would they award it the do preposition?