8:39am, 8.9.09, Žižkov

N.B.: Ok — the first couple posts were written, originally, in a notebook I’m carrying with me wherever I go. Due to the hectic schedule I’m on, I haven’t been able to post in a fashion even remotely describable as “live.” My solution has been to title the posts according to when and where I initially conceived of them. This post is, more or less, live. So the time reflects the clock’s display a few minutes ago when I popped the first word into this text box, and the place is actually a district within Prague. I live in Žižkov and that’s where I’m transmitting from right now: in my boxers, with headphones on, sipping from a small cup of hot espresso I made in an Italian press just minutes before sitting down. Yeah, so, that’s enough breaking the fourth wall for now. Back to the business at hand.

Back in my room that first night, I quickly looked up three things:

  • What kind of science Holub had practiced;
  • How to say “ashtray” in Czech;
  • How to say “forty-six” in Czech, as well.

The first answer is simple (to remember): immunology. The second is also relatively easy on the mind of an exhausted traveler: popelník (po-pel-nyeek). The third I struggled with a bit, repeating it over and over to myself as I tried to settle into sleep: čtyřicet šest (chti-rzhi-tset shest).

I’m still struggling with it now, grappling with a language that insists on its consonant clusters, and insists further that every single letter gets its due. In theory this makes sounding out a written word much easier in Czech than in English, with its silent members (e.g. eighth) slipped subversively in to foil and frustrate the efforts of the novice reader/speaker. Czech has laid out its own snares for the unaware, though. Even when they allow momentary vowel-like noises between their consonants, gurgles that leak out quickly and unexpectedly, like bubbles previously trapped between large boulders at the bottom of the sea, Czech words want as few syllables as possible. Look at my third example above. Take just the first part, čtyřicet, forty. My method, when I looked it up, was to break it into phonetic components, the way so many books have instructed: chuh-tear-zhuht-set. Wrong. Look again at the phonetic breakdown in the first instance. Only three syllables in that first word!!

I hinted in a previous post at the incredulous pride with which Czechs boast to foreign learners of their language as “the most difficult language to learn.” There is another phrase I keep coming across in my independent language study, a saying that underscores Czechs’ anti-bromides, my frustration as a learner, as well as some of the underlying tenets of Czech phonology: strč prst skrz krk. It should be pronounced, roughly, as stir-itch puh-rist sker-iz kuh-rik, and means “stick (your) finger through (your) throat.” In the interest of fair and balanced reporting of my travails, I will also mention, though, both as antidote to the pertinacious epithet above and the “tongue-twister” that follows, and also as self-reflexive encouragement (I can do it!), that many grammar books begin by telling readers that pronunciation, which seems at first to be a defensive bramble set up to deter foreign conquest, is perhaps the easiest aspect of learning Czech.

What’s my point? That my mouth, in addition to my mind, has a lot to chew on as I learn this new tongue. More often than not, to extend and complicate the metaphor, I find myself swallowing my own tongue while I work out a language with such a daunting reputation. I can pronounce things fairly readily on sight; phonetic gauntlet bested. The next, real challenges to fluency include the various (seven) cases, a lack of definite and indefinite articles, and the host of prefixes and suffixes that (I think) serve to steer the tense of a given sentence. I’m ready for the challenge, but first: can somebody help me dislodge these digits from my neck?

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