Today we had a scavenger hunt/walk through Prague of sorts with our Czech buddies, and my new friend Hannah and I spent the whole four hours getting help with words and pronunciation. We were practicing on the metro, and whenever we mastered the word we were working on, someone would smile. Now this is a big deal in two ways. Yedna, because the Czechs are very quiet on public transportation, and apparently dislike anyone who is loud. The CIEE staff taught us this, and my host mother affirmed it when she told me, “Not only the Americans are loud. The Russians! Oh, the Russians! They just come on the tram and chat chat chat chat chat.” Dvě, the Czechs do not smile. They are very straight-faced, and are taken aback by greetings or smiles between strangers.
So…when Hannah and I mastered the difference between večer and včera, we knew it courtesy of a few women around us. They looked straight at us and smiled. One even said, “Dobřa,” which means good. I was telling Anna about this, and she made me practice again, which is great. I love practicing at home because I get 3-on-1 attention, as Anna, Emma, Filip, and sometimes even Jachym all want my pronunciation to be perfect. But then… she gave me a new challenge.
Its like a curse.
Okay actually, its not that bad, but it has my least favorite sound, ř, in it. I would explain it here phonetically, but that isn’t possible using English sounds, because the sound (and nothing like it) actually exists in English. As a matter of fact, a CIEE staff member told us today that the sound “ř” only exists in two languages in the world – Czech and a tiny African dialect. Seriously, people? I get that Czech is hard, but this is hardly fair.
Anyway, ř is most easily explained in steps. In Czech, the ˇ, called a haček, is added to, and changes the sounds of, many consonants (and ě). The Czech “r” is a slightly rolled r, much like that of Spanish. The Czech “z” is pronounced the same as in English, like the first sound in “zed.” Bear with me, here. This will make sense. The Czech “ž,” however, is more of a “zh” sound; imagine crossing “zoo” with “shoe,” and you’d get the “zh” sound at the start. Now, all you have to do (!) is combine “r” with “ž” to get “ř.” Start with a rolled r, but a very quick one, and add the zh sound. Neither of these sounds exist in English, and I’ve already met some Czechs who cannot properly pronounce it either.
Back to večeře. Anna was kind enough to give me a sentence to practice: Včera večer jsme byli na večeři. This translates into “Last night, we had dinner.” However, it has a tongue-twister like quality to it. The č sound isn’t particularly hard when isolated (its like the “ch” in “chair”), but it is hard when following a v. The two sounds run together in včera, but are distinct in večer and večeři.
Regardless, I’m working hard to learn the sounds, and to read them. I’m so ready for our official Czech classes to start on Monday, but I’ve got plans to learn a lot even before we get there. Also, if you came here from facebook looking for a bedtime story, my apologies. I was practicing and got fed up with the difficulties of these similarities, and wanted to share that with the world.
Here are today’s words:
- Včera – Yesterday.
- Večer – Night/Evening.
- Večeři – Dinner.
- Yedna/Yendu/Yeden – One.
- Dvě/Dva – Two.
- Dobře – Well/Good.
- Haček – Literally “little hook,” the v-shaped mark over many consonants and vowels in Czech that changes their sounds.