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Banbury Cross

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Post details: Coat Czech

Coat Czech

In many aspects, languages are like clothes. They are the verbal fabric nations put on their cultures. And much like their textile counterparts they accentuate tastes and likings of the people that wear them. They reflect the collective experience of their speakers. Living in a foreign country affords you an outside view of your own mother tongue so you can appreciate its different cuts and folds. In that regard, dabbling in linguistics is like watching the red carpet parade of celebrity attires on Oscars' night. You get to marvel at what is concealed and what is revealed.

When I juxtapose Czech and English, what strikes me first is the presence of "blind spots" - words that exist in one language but don't have a counterpart in the other. One Czech word that I don't find in English is "pohoda" - a completely relaxed state of mind - a mood you'd associate with sipping Chardonnay on a warm summer evening. Although it gets sometimes translated as "coziness", "good times" or "well-being", none of these suitors have the bouquet of the original. On the liability side, Czech doesn't have an equivalent of the phrase "I am uncomfortable", which kind of shows that being squeezed between the Germans and Russians sets your pain threshold much lower than in the rest of the civilized world. We are the folks quite comfortable sharing the backseat of Volkswagen Beetle with 5 other people.

Czechs handle everyday situations with slightly different phrases. When someone knocks at the door, we say "Further!" instead of "Come in", you ask a lady for a dance with "May I beg?" and when you try to squeeze by someone, you should say "with (your) permission" rather than "excuse me". You can bid someone a farewell with "Have yourself" (Mej se), which must have something to do with the fact that we don't say "How are you?" but rather "How are you having yourself?"

In some situations, Czechs use common words in a way which seems rather uncommon. For instance, large quantities are often described as "clouds" (as in "I saw clouds of people there"), while extremely low temperatures are referred to as a "scythe" (as in "Don't go outside, it's a scythe there"). When you are clueless about something, you may say "I've got no steam on that" and when you want to dismiss something or when you want to express disbelief or mild surprise, one of your options is "mushrooms" or "mushrooms with vinegar":

"Our neighbor just won a lottery!"

Czechs are also fond of their orchards as exemplified by expressions: "to catch someone plucking plums" meaning "catch someone red handed" and "did you fall off the pear tree?", which usually implies a severe lack of acumen. The rustic roots of the language can also be detected in the phrase that rebukes someone for going on the first-name basis too soon: "Excuse me, but we haven't tended geese together!". And speaking of animals, some have pretty descriptive names in Czech: "nasalhorn" (rhino), "giant fish" (whale), multitrunk (octopus), lazywalk (sloth) etc. On the flora side my favorite name is "seven-beauties" (daisy).

Sayings are a chapter of its own, and rather quirky one at that. As an example - when someone's elevator doesn't quite reach the top floor, we say that "it's splashing onto his lighthouse". That doesn't make much sense considering that the Czech language evolved in a landlocked region, but then languages are not supposed to be logical theories. Similarly, for the stress of forced cohabitation (whether induced by marriage or army service) we use the expression "submarine illness", despite the fact that the Czech submarine fleet is about as massive as the Banjo Section of the London Symphony Orchestra.

In Czech, people don't "bark up the wrong tree", they "cry on the wrong grave" instead. If you are about to give up - "you throw your rifle into the rye", if you are restless - "all the devils are sewing with you" and when you manage to outsmart someone - "you've burned out their pond". We also don't advertise reluctance with a phrase "when the hell freezes over", but rather "when it rains and dries out" or "when the leaves fall off the oak tree".

When a girl impresses a boy, she "falls into his eye", upon which his "calves catch fire" and he "gets slammed into her". When the girl finally wins his heart, we say that "she has tied him up with a cooked noodle", especially if she's applied than noble means to achieve that goal. On the other hand, if she breaks up with him, she'd boast to her friends that "she gave him the cleats", as if to suggest that he might go and play with his soccer buddies now.

In many aspects, languages are like people. They are similar to each other in basic features, but different in details. Juggling two languages in one mind is like a linguistic X-ray. You get to see what is hidden under the skin.


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