František Čermák: a chronicler of modern-day Czech

František Čermák

Have you ever wondered what word people use most frequently? In Czech it’s dítě or child – at least as far as nouns go. One of the most common words in general are “voni”, “prostě”, “teda” or “bejt”. That you have never come across these expressions? That’s because they are used mostly in spoken – not written – Czech, which is practically a language of its own. The linguist František Čermák, together with colleagues, classified the words of spoken Czech and created a new Czech dictionary – Frekvenční slovník mluvené češtiny or the Frequency Dictionary of Spoken Czech.

From 1988 to 1995 Mr Čermák and his team collected samples of speech by nearly five hundred people and recorded some 800,000 words. They described and classified each and every one of them to record how often they are used. “Why would anyone need to know that?” you might wonder. František Čermák explains:

“This part of the language has never been covered by any dictionary because in Czech there is this sort of schism between the spoken and the written language. Basically what children at school are taught is the literary or standard language, which is in sharp contrast to what they have been taught at home. So basically there is a double existence of the language.”

However, unlike most of the other European languages, there is only one official version of Czech and that’s the literary or written Czech.

“In psychological terms people might be viewed as being slightly schizophrenic because they grow up with one language and at school they are taught another one and are told, that whatever they have been using in the first six years of their life is wrong, which I find detestable and difficult to accept. This was also one of the reasons why we tried to cover the differences.”

So what are the most apparent differences between spoken and written Czech? The spoken language is of course much simpler. When we speak, we usually drop old-fashioned and complicated words. Spoken Czech has a unified morphology, that is, a unified system of grammatical endings. Adjectives like dobrý or špatný - good or bad - are usually pronounced as “dobrej and špatnej”. The spoken language also has a different phonology. There is for example the prothetic “v”, such as in the word obraz, or painting, which is commonly pronounced as “vobraz”. But spoken Czech is mainly distinguished by the frequent use of certain word classes, as František Čermák explains:

“You have to imagine a typical situation for a spoken conversation which takes place somewhere so there has to be a defined place and time. This involves an enormously heightened use of demonstrative pronouns like “that”, “there”, “here” or “that”. So there is all the spatial and temporal setting which you usually don’t find in books.”

What is probably most striking is the extremely frequent use of the pronoun “I”. You would almost never see it in written Czech, where it’s considered to be improper.

“As you know of course, Czech grammar doesn’t require it. You don’t need to say “já píšu” as in English “I am writing”, where it is compulsory. You can say “píšu” and the “I” is implied by the ending of the verb. But in spoken language, usually for the sake of contrast, the “I” is very often pronounced. And “you” of course, so it’s basically a dialogue.”

Apart from pronouns, one of the most frequent word-classes in spoken Czech are particles, which are perhaps not that common in English. Spoken Czech, on the other hand, is full of words like “vždyť”, “no”, “aby”, “že jo”, that would be translated as “after all”, “well”, “right”. They allow people to express evaluation, positive or negative attitudes and all sorts of expectations or doubts.

As far as the most frequent nouns go, Czech is no different from other languages. People most often speak about things that are at the centre of their lives. The nouns used most frequently in common conversation are child, people, work, woman, man, school, thing, family, life, summer, man, parent, problem and, not surprisingly, money.

To get a really authentic picture of spoken Czech, the team headed by Mr Čermák had to gather a representative sample. The survey questioned women and men, people of various age and educational backgrounds. All of the samples were recorded in Prague:

“What we didn’t want to do was to record dialects. What we tried to do was to cover spoken language, which is not dialectal but is still common to all sorts of territories. We decided after some thinking that it is the capital that offers a sort of cross-section of all kinds of people from all regions because they come here and live here.”

Because people might be nervous when interviewed and their speech wouldn’t sound authentic, the academics cheated a little bit:

“We didn’t tell them that we wanted their language. We told them that we wanted their views on some broad sociological questions, so they concentrated on the content but not on the form of the language. What we got was more or less a true picture of how people talk here.”

Unlike in English, it is difficult to trace the social background of the speaker. But, judging by the word usage, experts could probably guess whether it’s a woman or a man:

“Women are usually a little bit less outspoken, that is, if you don’t come across a situation where people quarrel (and these are difficult to find actually, because you cannot ask people to quarrel for your sake). But women are usually a little bit more conservative in the use of certain types of expressions.”

The work on the frequency dictionary started at the end of the communist era and therefore it provides a unique record of the language and its changes in time. That, however, was not the main intention of its authors. But František Čermák hopes other academics will use it as starting point for further research of this kind:

“What we are hoping is that some academics will follow in our footsteps because as you know text books in any language are based on the literary language which in practice means that people who have passed a course in Czech are lost in a Prague pub when hearing and perhaps talking to people because the language used in the streets is quite different.”

So, if you want to speak the Czech that real Czechs do, wait for some more authentic textbooks or come to the Czech Republic and listen, because that’s the only way you can really learn the language.