The hills are alive with the sound of… Ř!

Нередко Прагу называют «стобашенной»

I have the feeling that your hearing is more acute when the temperature is -10 Celsius. Certainly Prague smells better, but it seems to sound better too. But then I always enjoyed the sounds of just about anything Czech at all, from the sound of Dvořák to the sound of ř.

When I was small I remember once asking my father about the beautiful music that he was pretending to conduct for a phantom orchestra, as is his way, and hearing for the first time the beautiful word “Divorzhak”. “Divorzhak”, it turned out, was from a similarly marvellous-sounding place called “Czechoslovakia” – such a handsome word, that Americans still use it today. I loved saying the word, which struck me as even more interesting than other known Slavic words of the day, like Chernobyl and Tito. Even better was learning that Divorzhak’s true name lied beneath the world’s most formidable phoneme, the “raised alveolar non-sonorant trill”, a.k.a. “ř”, the bane of every foreigner and native 4-year-old and unique to Czech alone. He was in fact Dvořák, from the even harder-to-pronounce town of Nelahozeves, which may take you ten years or more to read correctly.

Czechs simply have an intrinsic knack for putting a good name to a thing. Just take Masaryk, Znojmo, Řehoř, Vltava, pampeliška, and semtex. The Czech language can make anything sound good I think, especially when you don’t understand it. I used to fall asleep to a cassette I’d recorded from Czech Radio, pirate that I am, and along with the lulling sounds of Jaroslav Ježek, was that of a middle-aged woman, with a voice like a crystal harp. I drifted off to it each night for months, blissfully unaware that I was listening to the details of some heinous massacre in Yugoslavia.

Another pastime you can enjoy while you still have the luxury of listening to Czech without understanding a word of it is writing series of three- or four-word consonants and getting someone to tell you if they mean anything. It’s a triumphant feeling of discovery when you stumble on phonetic masterpieces like krk, vrt, prd, hrst and prs all by yourself.

It’s interesting then how the sounds of the Czech lands get stuck in song and immortalised, like Smetana’s river or the dum-da-dum-da-dum of a 19th century train ride that Dvořák turned into this Humoresque. Janáček, a genius who deserves a hundred times his mention outside the Czech Republic, took his art from his language to a large part, stitching dialects and phrases from turn-of-the-century Czech into his work. Who will write the next great symphony on the theme of the sounds of today’s Czech Republic, and what will they be?

21st century train rides? Doubtless the legendary declaration “Nákladové nádraží Žižkov, příští zastávka, Nákladové nádraží Žižkov” ("Žižkov Cargo Station, next stop, Žižkov Cargo Station", a favourite of Prague children), Vietnamese perhaps, the ice cream van, the announcement that the metro doors are closing, and still ř, ř and more ř.