But it doesn't make sense! (Learning Czech)

Do you also hear this exclamation from your students of foreign language, or do you yourself express your desperation from time to time? It's funny how you don't worry about the irregularities in your own language until you have to teach it to somebody else... And how you despise them all when you yourself have to learn another language...

Fight for "beautiful Czech" begins... (again)

On Thursday, I decided to buy a newspaper (MF Dnes, 4. srpna 2011) - for a couple of reasons:
  1. To keep myself in the loop (or up to date - or "in" - or whatever - in short: zkrátka, abych byla v obraze); 
  2. Because there was an interesting headline on the front page: Abysme měli hezčí jazyk. Nová čeština (To have a more beautiful language. New Czech).
Hm, new Czech, I thought - looks like there are going to be some changes, let's see what they are. The title touched the issue of conditionals, but other issues that immediately come to mind are e.g. writing of i/y or and mně. All of these cause trouble even to native speakers, let alone foreigners. Are they finally going to disappear?

Once in a blue moon (approx. 20 years), a board of the wise comes together and agrees on changes to the codified version of Czech, which is then launched to the public in the form of Pravidla českého pravopisu (Rules of Czech spelling / grammar), and because the last occurrence of such an event was in 1993, we are approaching another turning point in the development of the amazing Czech language.

Last time, the fight was about "-ismus" vs. "-izmus" at the end of borrowed words, such as communism (komunismus / komunizmus), a length mark above "o" in e.g. milión milion, or writing s/z in other borrowed words, e.g. diskuse / diskuze.

This time, it seems that many new words originally from English could enter the realm of standard Czech, e.g. googlovat or mailovat. I must admit there were some words in the list in the newspaper that I'd not come across in Czech, e.g. homeworking or browsit, but I guess they're just not in my "area of expertise" - I mean, people I meet don't use them. (Still preferring práce z domova or surfovat / brouzdat.)

I might have been a defender of the codified version against its destroyers / spoilers / wreckers (prznitelé) once, but that was before:
  1. I started teaching it as a foreign language.
  2. I got more acquainted with some linguistics and sociology.
At some point, both these circumstances brought me to a realization that exceptions might be an anachronism of something that naturally tends to disappear and is only maintained by ferocious conservatives who are hanging on to traditions and fighting anything new. Languages develop, they change - some words appear, some vanish, some might reappear, some change their meaning...

And actually, I was happy to find out that the head of the Institute for the Czech Language agrees that the frequency of codification adjustments will have to increase, and that to keep up, the Internet handbook will become the main reference place. On the other hand, in his opinion, it might take tens or hundreds of years before such words as "fotit" or "foťák" figure alongside their long versions ("fotografovat", "fotoaparát") in the standard Czech, and the same for changes concerning i/y and mě/mně. :-(

"Mě" or "mně"?
Now, let's talk a little bit about the differences and changes. I have to share a story with you: After the successful completion of a course for teachers of Czech as a foreign language, I was sitting in a café with some of my colleagues, and as we were talking, I suddenly asked them: "What do you think, should the difference between and mně be eliminated? I mean, for example in pronouns (declensions of "já" = I: mně goes with the Dative and Locative, with the Genitive and Accusative)... It's pronounced the same way and it doesn't really cause much confusion anywhere. And even Czech natives make mistakes in it, so why not to get rid of it?"

My colleagues were dumbfounded. Some of them might have actually agreed with me, but the prevailing response was: Why? You can't! "Why not?" I asked. Because it's a rule!!! And you know what the funniest thing is? My loudest opponent was originally from Russia!

"Abysme", so what?
Anyway, the red word from the newspaper headline, abysme, means "to" or "in order to". It is one of the conditional forms in Czech, other being "bysme" (we would) or "kdybysme" (if we did something). In standard Czech (spisovná čeština), all* the persons go like this:

bych (chtěl/a)my bychom (chtěli)
ty bys (chtěl/a)vy byste (chtěli)
on by (chtěl)
ona by (chtěla)
ono by (chtělo)
oni by (cthěli)
*I'm simplifying a tad.

However, in spoken Czech, people tend to use the "bysme" form, as it's parallel to "jsme" and "jste" (forms of "být", widely used in the present and past tense).

What is spoken Czech?
The thing is that I say "spoken" (meaning commonly used when speaking), but here, we get into the web of the academic stratification of the Czech language, because there is hovorová čeština (spoken Czech), which is considered standard, and there is obecná čeština (colloquial Czech), considered non-standard. Obecná čeština is spoken in Prague and more or less everywhere in the "Czech" part of the Czech Republic, while in Moravia (and Silesia), people either speak "proper" (i.e. standard) Czech or their own local dialects.

Despite the small territory of the Czech Republic, language sometimes becomes what divides, not unites us. It's funny, but also annoying when you get picked on just because you speak differently - because you say: "To pivo je dobrý." or "Ten chlap je hezkej." instead of "dobré" and "hezký". And because you say "Přijdu dýl.", which actually doesn't make sense, because it literally means "I'll come longer.", as some people from Moravia are quick to point out, and you should say "Přijdu později.", i.e. "I'll come later." :-(

Obviously, I'm speaking from the position of somebody born and brought up in the "Czech" part of the Czech Republic who normally speaks colloquial Czech. Moravians, on the other hand, might get laughed at for being too formal, or speaking too properly... Or for using funny words, such as plachta (meaning prostěradlo - a bed sheet). By the way, after teaching Czech for foreigners for a couple of months, I started getting these surprised looks and gasps from my family and friends: "You're talking sooo... correctly!" and I was even asked by a person I met whether I was from Moravia!

As a matter of fact, people from Moravia are lucky. Standard Czech is the one that should be used on all official occasions - and it comes natural to them. On such ocassions, people from the (larger) Czech part of the Czech Republic have to constantly watch their tongues.

It's about power...

Language is about communication, it's about shared rituals and styles (Deborah Tannen), and when somebody points out something you've never thought about, it confuses you - and bothers if they don't stop. However, it's also about power: Whose language will be codified? Whose language will be "the proper one"? (The linguist John McWhorter helped me understand...)

We speak about "the Czech nation", "the Czech language", "Czech customs and traditions", "Czech culture"...
Foreigners come and they want to know all that. What is typical? they ask. And a teacher hesitates: What should I say? - Well, this is the way we do it at home, but it might be different there and there... You can read about "what's typical" - but what does that mean? That the author says it is? That it's the way somebody did it in the past? Or is it statistically proven to be widely spread?

And if I get back to Czech: there is no dictionary saying "this is colloquial" or "this is bookish", this is acceptable as standard and this is not. I asked a university professor about that: No, there is no single comprehensive dictionary that hesitant natives or learners of Czech could turn to. You have to rely on your (sixth) sense. If you use the above mentioned online handbook, you'll find just declensions of nouns or conjugations of verbs, but you will not find explanations of words or notes on their use.
To sum up: yes, learning Czech  a foreign language is difficult, but teaching it as well. And no, it doesn't always make sense - even though it sometimes could a little bit more (in the codified forms)..

PS: Czech radio broadcast on standard and non-standard Czech (in Czech):

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