Czech 101: 5 essential phrases the textbooks won’t teach you

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Can it be true? Girl in Czechland is in fact Catwoman?

I used to have a dream.

In that dream I’m wearing a leather catsuit and have a small pearl handed pistol stuffed in my bra.  I’m a top class operative working for Her Majesty’s Secret Service – a sort of Girl Super Bond –  and as well as having numerous secret weapons, spy gadgets and super powers, I have the ability to switch effortlessly between at least six different Slavic languages without making a single linguistic slip.

Back here on Planet Earth, there are several reasons why this is not the case. I will never be employed as an intelligence operative. I find it difficult to remember my PIN number which would suggest memorising lengthy secret codes might be something of an issue.  I’d be unlikely to squeeze into a leather catsuit. And finally, I’d currently describe my level of linguistic competence in Czech as “rubbish”.

Let me correct myself.  To say that I suck at speaking Czech would be silly underbragging.

In truth, my Czech is quite good (which means I’m a wobbly intermediate or B1 level) but I wish it was much better. In other words, I wish I was kick-ass (almost as much as I wish I could pull off a leather catsuit) but that goal still seems far away. Sigh.

Still, for those of you who’ve valiantly decided to continue your own struggle with those four genders and seven cases, I’ve put together a little list of words and phrases I wish I’d known before I’d arrived here in Czechland but never came across in a textbook.  I’d genuinely like to hear any additional suggestions others out there may have for life-saving bits of Czech they wish they’d been taught before they got off the bus/boat/plane to make a new life here. And as always, I’d be grateful if my Czech readers could point out any glaring errors.

One of those very, very long escalators somewhere beneath the streets of Prague

1.  S dovolením – Excuse me/Mind your backs

Ever get grumpy because some people insist on standing on the wrong side of the escalator making it impossible for you to pass? You could try saying pardon  or promiňte but you’re much more likely to get folk to shift out of the way if you utter this phrase, which translates roughly as “Excuse me” or “Mind your backs please!”  Unless of course the offenders in question are foreign tourists…

2. Jen se dívam – I’m just looking

We all like to do aimless browsing around the shops. When a sales assistant approaches you and offers to be of assistance, use this phrase to let her know that all you want to do is have a quiet nosy around the shelves.

3. Zatím ne/nicNot for now/Nothing for now

You’re in a cafe having your spoilt and western tea/coffee/cake – or even all three! The waitress has done you the honour of letting you practice your Czech.  She comes and asks if you want anything else.  You don’t but you’d like to say ‘not for the moment’ in a polite fashion. This is the phrase I use.

4. Dohromady nebo zvlášt?Together or separately?

As I may have already mentioned, I did take a few Czech classes before I moved to Prague. I remember practising little dialogues where we ordered food in a restaurant but oddly I don’t remember learning this super important phrase.  As the chances are in a Czech cafe or restaurant, you’ll pay the waiter or waitress directly rather than leaving the money on the table, understanding these three words is essential.

5. Ano means yes – but so does no (or ‘naw naw naw’)

Why couldn’t one of the many Czech learning textbooks I collected over the years have mentioned the fact that ano is not the only way of saying yes? In fact, ano is a rather formal yes, while the much more common word expressing agreement, is rather confusingly no. It’s pronounced ‘nawww’ and usually repeated several times in short succession: ‘naw naw naw’ is a common refrain in Czech conversations I’ve noticed.

Saying no when you mean yes – or ano – has been one of the toughest Czech speaking challenges I’ve encountered. It feels weird – the linguistic equivalent of trying to pat your head and rub your belly in a circle at the same time.

Right, that’s enough for today. So, it’s na shledanou from me  - or should that be a more informal pa pa?

I’m going to bang out a catsuit on my new sewing machine from a couple of bashed up leather jackets.

Wish me luck.

56 Comments

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56 Responses to Czech 101: 5 essential phrases the textbooks won’t teach you

  1. Good post, GICL! You did miss a čárka above the “a” on “jen se dívám”, though :) My two crowns on the matter is the -ák suffix, used colloquially when referring to squares: Karlovo náměstí = Karlák; Vacláv náměstí = Vaclavák, Náměstí Míru = Mirák, etc. On I.P. Pavlova, you can play “Spot the true Pražan”: he’ll be the one calling it Pavlák, rather than Ipák.

    • #13

      Pražák, not Pražan! :)

    • girlinczechland

      Hello Pierre,

      Yes, you’re absolutely right: those local nicknames for the squares should definitely be on the list. Wish I’d thought of that!

      GIC

    • girlinczechland

      Hey Pierre,

      The colloquial names of the squares – yes, why didn’t I think of that one? And also the way that a tram is not “cislo osm” but “osmicka” (excuse the lack of accents).

      GIC

      • Ifa

        And 22 is “dvaadváca” :-)

      • Never heard of “dvaadváca”, I’d call it “dvaadvacítka”… most people would, I imagine. The former sounds waaay too informal.

        But the local words for public transport could be added to the list. In Brno, a tram is “šalina”. In Kladno, the public transport is called “mandelinka”. Any others?

  2. K.

    Ad 5, it’s even worse than this. The Czech “noooo” is not an informal equivalent of yes – the prolonged no (if I as a Czech understand the “naw” transcription correctly) more often means that the speaker is in the process of deciding whether to say yes or no and both could follow. Only in some specific situations it can also mean yes. A more common and much less tricky informal version of ano is “jo”.

    • #13

      Correct. And as I’m thinking of it, we say “no, no, no” in a situation where we feel the other side has finally got the point that we were making or in any other situation where we want to express happiness at the same time that we want to say yes. You could also say “jo, jo, jo” for that matter. But I really doubt that we say it most of the time. :) Usually, it should come single. :)

    • girlinczechland

      Hello K.

      Crikey! So it seems that I’ve been using no incorrectly all this time! Good job I wrote this post then!

      I’m not sure whether I find the news that no doesn’t exactly mean yes (but can sometimes) fascinating or infuriating… Ach jo!

      GIC

    • Z

      Yeah, and then we use “no jo, no.” It’s somethig as “Yeah.”
      (And I thing that “noooo” is used only in Prague, other people use simply “no”)

    • When used in conversation, usually while the other side is saying something and you just listen, “no” is a filler word by which you say you agree with what the other person is saying, or that you are listening to them. That’s one of the instances where it DOES mean “yes”.
      I’d say it means something like “well” (not as proverb) – you can use “well” both in agreement and disagreement, right? You can say “well, sure” or “well, let’s do that”, but also “well, I don’t think so”. Of course, it’s not a perfect translation and there are occasions when you’d use “well” and would not use “no”, and vice versa, but it’s the closest I can think of.

  3. Paul Oxenham

    If you think it is difficult saying excuse me in Prague, you should try Poland. I was in Wroclaw during the European Championships and if someone wants to get past you, they whistle!! I was on the tram when i first noticed it, and thought that someone had a dog with them! Horrible!!
    Learning Czech is one of those things that we will do for a lifetime. When i first came here I thought I would have it mastered in two or three years. It’s now over three years, and my two year old daughter speaks more Czech than I do! However, I am learning useful vocabulary such as ‘slintat’, ‘bobek’, ‘nocnik’ atd!!
    All we can do is keep trying. I live in the Krkonos mountains and I think my bad Czech is appreciated more than it would be in Prague. Like any city, the people are not so tolerant.
    Good luck with the catsuit!!!
    P.S. Language tip for today. Don’t mix up ‘odskocit’ and ‘obskocit’!!

    • I don’t know where this idea of Poles whistling has come from. Probably if it was done in Wroclaw during the football it was foreign fans doing it, because in twenty one years of living in this country I honestly haven’t had that or witnessed it one single time.

      • Paul Oxenham

        Hi Jerzy,
        Apologies. It wasn’t meant to upset. It was definitely young Polish guys who were whistling. It took me by surprise, but I saw it many times within a couple of days.

      • girlinczechland

        Hi Paul and Jerzy,

        I’ve sadly never been to Poland so can’t comment although perhaps if I turn up in my leather catsuit I might attract the odd whistle ;)

        GIC

    • girlinczechland

      Hello Paul,

      Life as an expat in the Krkonose must be fascinating – but chilly at times! Czechman is putting on the pressure regarding my ski skills (or lack of them) so we may end up somewhere near you this winter.

      I’m hoping that I can brush up my Czech before having children but that’s probably my inner perfectionist at work again.

      And do enlighten us all re odskocit and obskocit

      GIC

      • Nex

        To leave the place for short time, f.e. going to post office during lunchtime Vs.: moderate slang profanity – to have a sex with someone (who is probably single or at least not in relationship with the “lucky person”). It is often used to express macho way great success in seducing :) or just tell the other friends at pub about gossip, that not-present friend was seen with pretty secretary / someone´s wife etc. Formerly it is slang veterinar term for animal making puppies or lambs (etc.) in sudden move of (spring) emotions.

  4. Martin

    Amazing post as usual!

    I’d just dare to point out two typos: dívam => dívám, zvlášt => zvlášť.

  5. Paul Oxenham

    Also, where are the other two essential phrases? :o)))

  6. Andres

    My husband also has problems with ‘no.’ It’s because he understands it the same way you do. I will try to clarify.
    The colloquial equivalent of ‘ano’ is ‘jo’ (pronounces ‘yo’). ‘Jo’ means ‘ano,’ nothing more and nothing less.
    ‘No’ is tricky – it can mean ‘ano’ but it can also mean ‘so’ or ‘ok.’ It’s a form of expressing an agreement. For example “ok (so) I will have some of the cake – no ja si teda dam kousek toho dortu” [sorry for the lack of 'diakritika']. It can also be used in sentences such ‘no tak uz pojd,’ no, co to delas?,’ etc.
    In case of the ‘no, no, no, no,’ you are correct, in that case it means ‘yes.’ Regarding the ‘naaaw’ – it can mean ‘yes’ but also ‘well’ (weeeeellll) :).
    It just means so much more than just simple yes. If not sure, I would stick to saying ‘jo.’ ;)

    • Mori

      I would say “no” is more like “well” as an interjection, in the sense of not being decided yet: “What about having a coffee?” “Well, I am not sure, I would like to (whatever) first.” “No já nevím, počkej, než…” or even in the sense of emphasizing (“No ano” could be not-too-sure-yes, but also emphasized, enthusiastic yes – meaning something like “finally you have decided to ask this question, of course I agree!”)
      “No no no!” I would feel more as a warning than as an agreement. I can imagine a mother yelling this at her two-years-old kid. “No no no! To se nedělá!” “Hey, you cannot do that!”

      And I think learning any language is a life-long process. Definitely holds for me and English, so sorry for all my mistakes above.

    • girlinczechland

      Hello Andres, Paul and mmister,

      Re the hot topic of no – which doesn’t exactly mean yes but can sometimes – Jana has very kindly posted a link to a detailed explanation so all we foreigners can stop saying being confused about when to say no and perhaps replace it with jo! Happy days!

      GIC

  7. Excellent!! Plzen prosim…… The only phrase you REALLY need to know in Czech……….. :)

  8. BTW, your bum looks big in that catsuit….

  9. Lucie

    I guess, that explanation under No. 5. is not correct. Waiter asks “Dohromady nebo zvlášť” only when you are in restaurant/café with one or more people; He wants to know, if he should make out bill for each person (you pay only for what you had eaten separately = zvlášť), or one bill for all of you (you pay for all together= dohromady). Some restaurants provide that (waiter will count your bill directly at the table or he asks you to pay at cash desk at the bar) and some provide that not.

    • girlinczechland

      Hi Lucie,

      Perhaps I wasn’t super clear in the post – of course it’s true if you’re having coffee alone this phrase is completely unneccessary – but I think it’s still true that you’re more likely to pay the waiter directly here in the Czech Republic than you would be in England. I still think it’s a good one for foreigners to know :)

      GIC

      • The thing is: the question ONLY applies when there are more people sitting at the table. If you are alone, the waiter will not ask the question, but they will still expect you to pay them directly. That’s where your explanation is not clear.

  10. Ahoj!

    I’ve tried to sum up the uses of “no” on my website, because my students asked me about that. It is a bit misleading to say that Czech “no” means “yes”, because it cannot always be used instead of it. (As others have pointed out here.)

    About “dohromady nebo zvlášť?”, the phrase actually is in Lída Holá’s Czech Step by Step, for example, but I don’t know how widespread it is outside the Czech Republic…

    Another interesting phrase might be “v pohodě” or the term “pohoda” itself :-)

    • girlinczechland

      Ahoj Jana,

      Thanks a lot for sharing the link: my homework is to go and read it carefully…

      And pohoda is an excellent suggestion – Czechman always likes to say tady je česka pohoda when we’re on a trip together or wandering in the countryside around The Village.

      dohromady nebo zvlášť wasn’t in Communicative Czech which was the book I was using at the time but it’s good that Lida Hola has included it.

      GIC

    • Andrea

      Jana, this is great! I’m sending this to my husband :)

  11. Hi GIC,

    I do agree that “dohromady nebo zvlášť?” ought to be in any basic Czech textbook as it is something I am quite regularly asked when out eating & drinking with my wife. Saying, “To je moje manželka” usually answers the question!

  12. mrs.baez

    Hello,

    First of all, I really like your blog. I’m Czech, but my husband is a foreigner with almost no knowledge of czech language except for knowing the names of food and meals etc. and lots of dirty words that friends taught him. So I told him about your blog hoping it to be some sort of inspiration for him regarding learning Czech – no success there yet, but I think we are getting there :)

    I just wanted to say that Czech has three genders – masculine, feminine and neutral, not four. ;)

    • Mrs Baez – what about masculine inanimate?

      • girlinczechland

        You took the words right out of my mouth Ricky! Diky!
        GIC

      • That’s the trouble with Czechs and the Czech language – bohemistics (?) are kind of a self-absorbed field of study that forgets to look at the reality of the language from the outside, and we are taught certain things at school that are actually not true. :-) Just like this, being drilled about three genders and not realising there are more in practice… Sometimes, you foreigners who are learning Czech may know more about it than most Czechs. Just a warning. ;-)

    • girlinczechland

      Hello Mrs Baez,

      Alas in the language learning stakes it seems to be the female expats who’ve found themselves Czech sweethearts who tend to make the effort. When I was first taking Czech lessons in London the men who were there had clearly been ordered to attend by their frustrated (Czech) wives! More of that in another post perhaps…

      GIC

  13. It’s just so good! I haven’t known these phrases are so difficult and so often used by us…. It’s so enlightening to find it out from someone who lives here… More rticles like this, please… Veronika

  14. Matylka

    Someone wrote that the tram 22 is called “dvaadváca” – well, for someone maybe, but we call it “dvaadvacítka” or simply “dvacet dvojka”. I live all my life in Prague and never ever heard of “dvaadváca”. I think it’s too specific to use it in a normal speech – especially “dvaadváca” sounds very substandard, so if you e. g. ask a random person on the street “Kdy jede ta dvaadváca?” they would probably quietly dissapear thinking you want to lead a long conversation in a way as if you know each other for twenty years :)

    • girlinczechland

      Hello Matylka,

      Crikey, this Czech speaking business is rather complicated. I’ll stick to “dvacet dvojka” just to be on the safe side: I wouldn’t want to offend the locals by seeming overly familiar :)

      GIC

    • Krakatice

      I have also lived my whole life in Prague and, actually, I am familiar with “dvaadváca”. I would not ask a stranger that way, but talking to my friends I would easily suggest that “já pojedu dvaadvácou”. So it is not that widespread, but it definitely is used by some people:-)

  15. K.

    Chaplaincz: Czech children learn in schools that animate-inanimate is a separate category distinguished only for masculine gender, so most Czech people will be sure that our language has only three genders and will be surprised (I definitely was) if somebody tells them that Czech has four genders. But when learning Czech as a foreign language, I think it isn’t necessary to distinguish such details and the “fourth gender concept” may work fine.

    • I guess it depends on whether you look at it with meaning in mind, or with gramatic usage in mind. From the meaning point of view, Czech certainly has only three genders, and that’s the easier way to approach the subject when you’re teaching someone who’s spoken Czech all their lives (kids at schools). From the gramatic and usage point of view, it’s four distinctive categories, and in an environment where you compare various different languages (like when foreigners are learning Czech), it makes more sense.

      Seeing as I’m a Czech who’s learned at least the basics of seven languages (yes, sometimes just the very basics, and I forgot lots, but still), I kind of tend to see more merit to the comparative approach, and sometimes wish more of it made its way to the Czech lessons at primary schools…

  16. Honza D

    The only people who say “nawwwwww” are stupid teenagers, stupid people who want to sound like teenagers and the good citizens of our glorious capital.

  17. Jirka

    Very poetic, how Czechs say “fakt, jo?” meaning, “really, opravdu”, which sounds definitely like “fuck you”. Can cause BIG problems when having a discussion in Czech spiced with this phrase in the street in Britain or US.

  18. Verča

    Hi! Wow, I just randomly found your website and I must admit it’s really good! I like the way you write, you’re really funny! :)

    Few more things that are on my mind /not sure if anybody mentioned them before/:
    For example, using “JO”, pronounced “yo” and meaning the same thing as “ANO”. We often repeat it, but I guess we use “JO” nearly as much as we use “JOJO”. :)
    The next thing are Czech “nicknames”. Especially girls’ ones. My name’s Veronika, but people call me Verča. Jana is sometimes Janča. Iva – Ivča. Ema – Emča. Julie – Julča. Kamila – Kamča. However, you can’t just add -ča to every girl name. For example Tereza is called Terka. Marie – Maruška. I think that it’s sometimes hard for a foreigner to even understand that Marie and Maruška is one person! :D And it must take a long time to learn how to create Czech nicknames!

    • Krista

      O to zajímavější mi připadá problém měnění mužských jmen tak, aby končily na “-a”: Petr – Péťa, Ondřej – Ondra, Vojtěch – Vojta, Karel – Kája… tohle ještě jde, protože se to drží (plus mínus) stejného vzorce.
      Ovšem pak přijdou opravdu lahůdky: Jakub – Kuba, Jan – Honza (??? Asi přes němčinu – Johaness – Hans – Honza… jinak mě nenapadá jak to mohlo vzniknout), Antonín – Tonda, Alexandr – Saša (??? Netuším jak a proč…), Václav – Vašek
      A pak jména, které převedením na koncovku “-a” nemhou být zpětně identifikovány: Jarda – může být Jaromír i Jaroslav.
      Některá jména se zase krátí různými způsoby, ergo máte-li ve třídě dva Stanislavy, můžete jednomu říkat Stáňa a druhému Standa

      Nicméně i dívčí jména se dají mršit… dokud se zkracují podle začátku: Verča, Irča, Barča… tak to jde. Ale pak se občas vynoří nějaká “Nika”. Což může být Nikola, ale také Dominika nebo Veronika (setkala jsem se se všemi možnostmi). Nebo “Týna” – což je obvykle Kristýna, jenže se to vyslovuje stejně jako “Tina”, což už klidně může být Martina.
      A pak jako u chlapů přicházejí výjímky jako kráva: Saša (Alexandra), Kája (Karolína), Andulka či Ája (Anna ale občas i Andrea), již zmiňovaná Maruška, Manka, Mánička, Majulka (Marie), nepříliš častá Madla (Magdalena).

      Jak to tak po sobě čtu, co se týče jmen jsme my Češi fakt napřesdržku… (Girlinczechland, “napřesdržku” bys mohla shledat přinejmenším zajímavou frází…)

  19. Michvolka

    I wasn’t sure what the whole thinkg with “no, no, no” and “nooooo” means, which I understood after reading some comments in here. It’s actually quiet funny, I’ve never thought that it might sound like “no” to english speaking part of world. I’ll pay more attantion to it when I speak to someone next time.
    Anyway, there’s no way that it’s said only between stupid teenagers. Everyone uses it, even when they don’t think about it.
    Short “no” is alternative to “yes”, but I think it’s used as “yes, I’m listening you, please, continue” – some kind of word you just use without thinking to let your partner know that youre listening his story. Something like “aha” or “yeah…”. I’ts never used as “yes” in the formal way – “Would you like a coffe?” “No” – never, doesn’t work this way. Only can be used when you want to say something like “Yeah, doh!”

    On the other side “noooooo” is totaly different story, it has no meaning, there is no information comming from “noooo”. It’s just noice you do, when you think how to say something. Like “Well….”.

  20. Nex

    First, sorry for my strange use of “English”, please. :)

    You could translate czech “no, …” [noo] as “so, …” or “well, …” depending on the situation. Informal yes is always “jo” [yo], similar to internet-english”jop” . “No” in czech is here for making decision right after the question and for expressing doubts or give polite hint to asker, that you do not want to do something OR that something is bad idea for some reason…

    “When will you arrive?” “No, musím napřed do banky, takže tak v sedm?” “Hm, I have to go to the bank first, so I will be there about seven p.m.?” (The “?” is there as slang question for person_1, if it is ok with him/her, it is not gramatically correct question – the difference is the tone of voice only, since it is “oznamovací věta”. O:))

    “Will you come with us?” “No, ještě bych měl dojít nakoupit.” “Well, I should go to shop (= go to buy some food).” (-> I would like to, but food is priority.)

    “Do you like her?” “No, připadá mi trochu příkrá.” “Well, I think she is rather sharp.” (-> I really do not like this part of her character. So she is not very symphatic to me. On the other side, it is not so important, I do not know her and will not see her everyday (she is friend´s coworker for example), so I do not mind that unless she tries to befriend me. Than I would politely reject her.)

    “Would you mind to come to our birthday party?” “No, minule jsme se dost pohádali s tvojí máti.” “Uhm, I had bad argue with your mum last time.” (-> How did you manage to forget THAT?! She is gonna kill me on sight!)

    The trio of “no”s is there for happiness and relief that we finally were able to understand each other. “No, no, no! Tak jsem to přesně myslel! Konečně jsme se správně pochopili.” “Yeah, yeah, yeah! That is EXACTLY what did I mean! Finally we understand each other right.”

    Hope it is not much confusing and it helped a bit. You are welcome to ask me anything about czech via e-mail (if you dare), if you want to.

  21. Krista

    Ahoj, koukám že už to tady někteří řeší a mají pravdu. Jako češku by mě to nikdy nenapadlo řešit, ale slovo “no” má asi tak milion významů…
    “No” jako “Ano”: “Byla jsi v té bance?”, “No, a pak ještě v obchodě.”
    “No” jako /chci se vyhnout odpovědi/: “Umyla jsi nádobí?”, “Nooo….”
    “No” jako /buzeruju děti/: “No no! Nejdříve si snad umyješ ruce, ne?”
    “No” jako /konejším děti/: “No no no, přece to zas tolik nebolí, ne?”
    “No” jako /právě rozmyšlím jestli ano nebo ne/: “Máš čas dnes v 7?” “No, (musím ještě tohle tohle tohle), to by snad šlo.”

    A určitě se jich najde ještě spousta dalších… Rozpoznávání konkrétního “typu” je asi podle délky toho “ó” a podle počtu opakování.

    Mimochodem přepis “naw naw naw” mě rozsekal. :D

  22. I just found your blog and I’ve been reading it the whole evening! And this post inspired me to leave a comment, as I’m Polish and in Poland we also have “no” as an informal way of saying yes… I never thought how confusing it must be for the few poor English speakers who do try to learn Polish! Rather like the Bulgarian habit of shaking your head for “yes” and nodding for “no”. But anyway, your blog is a delightful read!!(…)!!!

    PS I also felt obliged to add something in defence of my nation:) halfway through the comments there was someone saying something about people in Poland whistling instead of saying “excuse me” if someone’s in their way… This may have been a one-time football championship macho thingy, I never ever heard people do that in the streets:)

    • girlinczechland

      Hello Kaja (or should that be Girl in Poland?),

      It’s lovely to receive messages like this. I’m really glad that even though you’re from a different Eastern/Central European nation that much of what you’ve read here has struck a chord with you. I haven’t visited Poland yet but I would really like to: this may be controversial but I’ve heard that the Poles are more hospitable than the Czechs… :)

      GIC

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