Her mother-tongue clung to her mouth’s roof
in terror, dumbing her and he came with a name
that was none of her making.
—Liz Lochhead, “Dreaming Frankenstein”
Yesterday I wrote about the priceless confusions of English, today I’ll do the same for my mother tongue: Czech. It also has a huge potential for comic situations and so many things about it are just plain weird. Looking at it from a foreigner’s perspective as I imagine it, it must come across as staggeringly confusing. It’s a complex language on all levels, including the bloated grammar and devilish pronunciation.
To start with, how many letters in the alphabet does your language have? English has 26, Czech has 42. Yep. We think that the more, the better. We have twice the number of vowels because each vowel comes also in a variant with an accent (and the u vowel comes with two versions of accents, ú and ů). Cool, isn’t it? But wait, that’s not all! Some consonants come with accents too, when it comes to it. (My least favourite are ď, ň and ť because the poor things don’t have a keyboard key of their own and you have to press two keys to create them.) Oh, and also, ch is a letter of its own.
To make it more fun, we have decided that each noun will be either a he, a she or an it. I’m talking about grammatical gender. If you wish to use a noun, you need to know its gender so you could pick the correct ending. Have I mentioned yet that all nouns and verbs and some other words are assigned a plethora of different endings, based on how they’re used in a sentence? Czech is an excessively inflected language. (Inflected, not infected, but maybe infected with inflection?)
For example, the neutral word for cat in Czech is kočka. It refers to cats of any sex. The word itself, however, is feminine—for grammar purposes, this word is a girl. There’s another word for the tom cat (kocour), however, there is no special word for a pussy cat. We just use the basic neutral form. So when I want to say, My cat is a pussy cat, I’d say, Moje kočka je kočka, which sounds obviously like a tautology.
Here comes the real twist though. You know personal pronouns? It’s he, she, they and others. So, when talking about the female cat, we use the pronoun she (ona). Pretty straightforward. When talking about the male cat, we use the pronoun he (on). However, when talking about kittens (koťata), do you think that we use the pronoun they (oni)? Nope. We use the exact same word that we use to refer to females (ona). So, in Czech, when you have a bunch of kittens, they’re all female to our grammar.
Did it blow your mind?