ABC of Czech

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Today we'll take a break from the alphabet for a change and pay special attention at one very important little word - one you can't get by without.

Hello and welcome to a special edition of the ABC of Czech. Today we'll take a break from the alphabet for a change and pay special attention at one very important little word - one you can't get by without.

The word is "please", in Czech prosím, literally "I beg". But please is not the only meaning of prosím. For example, when you can't hear someone properly, the polite way to ask them to repeat what they've just said is prosím or "I beg your pardon". Prosím can also mean "here you are" if you hand something over to somebody. Some Czechs say prosím instead of hello when they answer the phone. Prosím is also the most standard reply to dìkuji which means "thank you". Very often the word does not stand alone but goes with a pronoun - with the meaning "I beg you". Now, Czech has two types of addressing people, something you might know from French, for example. To family members and people we know very well, we say prosím tì, while it is prosím vás if we address a stranger or someone older.

Don Sparling from the Department of English and American Studies at Masaryk University in Brno has been living in the Czech Republic for a long time and has a lot of experience with Czechs learning English and English speakers learning Czech. Here are a few other meanings of the word "prosím".

"The basic meaning is 'please' but Czechs use it in a lot of situations where we don't, so if you open a door to let someone through, you say "prosím". In English we would say something like 'after you' or nothing - just open the door and indicate that the person should go through. And whenever Czechs open a door and say 'please', I always want to say 'please what? Do you want something?'. Someone should speak to the Czech Airlines, because it's very noticeable there. When the stewardesses serve the meals and then they come through afterwards offering tea and coffee, they say 'Tea, please? Coffee, please?' An English person would say 'Coffee, sir? or 'Coffee, madam?' This phrase 'Tea, please? Coffee, please?' is what one says when one wants coffee or tea. So whenever these stewardesses come through and say to me 'Tea, please? Coffee, please?' I'm very tempted to say 'No, that's what I should be saying, not you."

Don Sparling on the meanings of "prosím" and the dangers of interference between languages. And that's it for today, I'm afraid. Next week we'll carry on with the alphabet. Until then na shledanou or goodbye.


See also Living Czech.