We are too small for the birds

Photo: Guido Gerding, CC BY 3.0 Unported
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Welcome to another edition of SoundCzech – Radio Prague’s Czech language series in which you can learn idioms through song lyrics. Today, we’ll be listening to a tune by Janek Ledecký called “na ptáky jsme krátký”. The phrase “na ptáky jsme krátký” is also the one to listen out for.

Photo: Guido Gerding, CC BY 3.0 Unported
“Na ptáky jsme krátký” literally means “we are too small for the birds”. It’s what you might say when faced with an insurmountable task, or when you are up against stronger opposition, who are clearly going to beat you. The English equivalent might be something like “we’re clearly not up to the task”, “we fall short of the mark”, or if you want to maintain the animal theme, “we’re small fry.”

The singer basically reiterates this in the next line of the chorus, when he sings “na ptáky jsme malý páky”. This sounds even weirder when translated literally into English. It comes out as something like “we are small levers for the birds”. But maybe it elucidates things a bit when you hear that the Czech idiom “mít páku” (to have a lever) actually means to have some leverage, or to have some clout. So, “na ptáky jsme malý páky” means “we don’t have enough clout to win”. But why does the singer lament that he “falls short” of being a bird? Well a) probably because it sounds nice, putting the word “páky” (meaning levers) beside the word “ptáky” (meaning birds). And b) the answer comes later in the song, when the singer sings about wanting to fly to the stars or “lítat ke hvězdám”. Obviously, he is not up to the task, while a bird, at least to some extent, is.

It’s maybe important to add that the sort of Czech you have been hearing in this song is not necessarily the Czech you might want to address the president in. For a start, these idioms are quite slangy, and secondly, the singer sings in a very colloquial Prague way. If he were singing in his best Czech, then you would hear “na ptáky jsme krátcí” instead of “na ptáky jsme krátký”. Similarly “na ptáky jsme malý páky” would sound more like “na ptáky jsme malé páky”. So, all in all, not a song to sing to visiting Czech dignitaries - even if you do have nightingale’s voice.