Understanding Spoken Czech: A Few Tips on How to Sound Like a Local

Photo: Greeblie, CC BY 2.0

Photo: Greeblie, CC BY 2.0

First things first – do not worry, you will be understood in Prague. While the older generation usually doesn’t know much English (they’ve been taught German or Russian in school instead), generally everyone under 30 or so do, and you might be surprised with how many locals are actually pretty fluent. That’s not the case with every Czech town or city, but in Prague, you probably won’t need to know any Czech to get around. Which, of course, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t learn some, because Czech is fun! Insanely hard, yes, but we guess you’re not here to win a grammar competition.

We won’t get much into basic phrases, directions and such, since those can be found anywhere on the internet. Everyone knows that the greatest thing about learning a language is getting to know the swear words. Well, we won’t cover those either, that would be a job for literally any local guy you’ll meet in a pub here. Still, there are some perks of Czech language that are not necessarily connected to describing various genitalia, neither are they to be found in a common dictionary. Not even a big one.

The rich world of parasitic words

Czech is extremely prone to parasitic words. Those are the words that will automatically come out of your mouth when you need to keep the conversation going. In English, you can say things like ‘well, like, whatever, man’ that might convey a meaning although they don’t actually describe anything; in Czech, however, there are complete strings of sentences that can sound just like that. Felix Holzmann, a famous Czech comedian, had a sketch that consisted entirely of parasitic words. It sounded like this:

A: „Yeah, so you’re also like, a bit, like that..“

B: „Yeah, a bit like that, or else, you know..“

A: „Yeah, yeah, you need to.. you know, you can’t just, like, or else, something, you know, one thing, another..“

B: „Yeah, yeah.. you know, you just sometimes need to, you know, right?“

A: „Oh yeah, right, yeah, you’re right there!“

(This is a direct translation, btw. It goes on for another seven minutes.)

There are quite a few common parasitic words in Czech, like ‘prostě’ (‘simply’) or ‘víš jak’ (‘you know’), but by far the most famous one is ‘vole’, a word that is totally unique to the language. Literally, it means ‘you ox’, and it was originally meant as an insult. When you called someone ‘vůl’ (‘an ox’), you just described them as stupid, not getting things, ignorant or just plain moronic. But for today’s young generation, it’s simply not an insult anymore; people call each other ‘oxen’ all the time, but almost never mean it to be offensive.

Photo: Normanack, CC BY 2.0

Photo: Normanack, CC BY 2.0

Among the young, the word ‘vole’ is completely meaningless now – it can even express a state of surprise, in the form of proclamation ‘Ty vole!’ (‘You ox!’). Lots and lots of people got so used to it that they will literally stick a ‘vole’ after every third or fourth word, no matter what they are saying. It is important, however, to remember that calling someone ‘vole’ (or just using the word publicly in any sense) is considered extremely informal, so unless one’s completely aware of who are they speaking to, they won’t say it. In schools, for example, calling teachers ‘vole’ is so rude that it can end up with the pupil being punished (verbally, of course, we’re no child-beating barbarians here). But whenever people of approximately the same age and social status meet, it’s ‘vole’ after ‘vole’ all day long.

In formal conversations, calling anyone ‘vole’ is wildly frowned upon. It’s not that the high-class people don’t know and use the word; they do, but they do so when they are with friends. It’s basically a bulletproof sign of belonging somewhere.

The butchery of common greetings

While Czech language has many insane rules (torn apart with even more insane exceptions), greetings are generally a safe bet: they’re straightforward, easy to translate, and used widely among various social groups. Here are the ones you’ll hear the most:

‘Dobrý den’ (‘Good morning’, ‘Good day’)

‘Na shledanou’ (‘Goodbye’, literally ‘See you’)

‘Prosím tě’ (‘Please’)

‘Děkuji’ (‘Thank you’)

Pretty simple, right? Now, let’s do some magic:

‘Brej.’

Everywhere around the world, people shorten things. That’s why greeting someone with a full ‘Dobrý den’ is considered very formal, to the point that telling it to a good friend will make you look like a smartass. Now, Prague dialect (or Bohemian dialect, for that matter) has a habit of changing the final -ý into -ej, which leaves us with ‘Dobrej den’, or, in a shortened form, ‘Dobrej’. Swallow the first syllable, and you’re left with ‘Brej’, which sounds kinda like some sort of cheese, but it’s actually telling someone hello.

‘Nazle.’

Same thing here – why torture yourself with pronouncing ‘Na shledanou’, when you can simply say ‘Nashle’? And because Czech language doesn’t pronounce ‘sh’ the way English do (it’s simply s + h, as in ‘asshat’), ‘Nazle’ is the only logical conclusion. Don’t be afraid to say ‘Nazle’ when leaving a shop, they’ll understand you perfectly.

‘Simtě’

You can already see how ‘Prosím tě’ evolved into this, can’t you?

‘Dík’

Unless you’re doing a business of any kind, you won’t hear ‘Děkuji’ much – it’s gonna be either ‘Dík’ or ‘Díky’. Don’t worry, it’s not that we wouldn’t want to thank you; we are just being lazy.

This list is of course not complete – Czech language is so rich and complex that even locals often have problems with nailing it perfectly. But with those tips, it’s less likely you’ll get confused with hearing words that are not listed in your dictionary. And if we ever get to write a sequel for this article, we promise a few swear words will be included!

(Well, maybe.)

Author: Dominik Zezula

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