The international lingua ceca


While English resounds in the offices of Prague’s hoity-toity, Czech is the international language in the halls of Radio Prague. Here you’ll find a Spaniard deep in discussion with a German and a Frenchman with an Englishman in Czech. Sometimes this occurs to the mingled delight and anguish of native listeners. Czechs are not yet accustomed to their language going global.

Just a decade ago there were seemingly very few foreigners who troubled themselves to learn more than a smattering of Czech, while today it’s quite normal to hear heavily accented but fluent Czech on the streets of the country’s larger cities.

After all, Czech can be a universal language too. Slavic languages bear such strong similarities to one another that any one can be a lingua franca for the others, rudimentarily at least. For example you can ask in Czech for bread and butter, wine and water, fish and beer anywhere between Belgrade and Vladivostok and get what you asked for (though the wine may be better and the beer will be worse).

I once explored the admittedly absurd theory that by speaking lilting Czech and replacing every “h” sound with a “g” sound, I could achieve Russian. At a basic level the theory was actually sound – the bread, butter and beer was brought - but it was prone to producing unexpected results. Such as the time I used my Czech to praise the wonderfully aromatic food set before me by a Russian waitress. “To strašně voní,” I said. She gave me a searching look as she tried to reconcile my obvious delight with the comment, “this smells really terrible. Spasiba!” Luckily I didn’t order a fresh salad, in Czech “čerstvý salát”, which doubtless would have begot a storm of laughter and a stale, in Russian “čerstvij”, salad.

A lovely example of the treachery of literal translation between Czech and Russian is in the well-known Czech film Kolja. Looking at the coupled Czech and Soviet flags, the little Russian boy says “naš krasnij” – “ours is red”, to which the Czech replies angrily “ne! Náš krásný!” – “no, ours is beautiful”.

There are some people who don’t know that Czech is a universal language; I have found Slovaks in New York and Poles at ease in Ireland, blithely discussing shocking topics in graphic detail; at which point it is always fun to ask them some pan-Slavic question in the lingua ceca, like, “podáte mi sůl?” – would you pass the salt?

And of course, sometimes you speak Czech too, since even the occasional English word comes from Czech. For instance every time you speak of robots, pistols or the mighty dollar, you are speaking Czech.