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Prague, Day 2: You Don’t Say

September 8th, 2017 · No Comments · Prague, tourism, Travel

So, here we are in Prague, and we have no idea what anyone is saying.

The locals, in the Czech Republic, speak Czech. Fair enough.

It is a Slavic language spoken by about 10 million people, though it probably is closer to 6 million if 5 million speakers of Slovakian (mutually intelligible but not quite the same language) are subtracted out.

The major Slavic languages, in terms of  numbers of native speakers, would be Russian (about 150 million) and Polish (about 40 million). Czech, Slovak, Bulgarian, Slovenian, Serbian … quite a bit smaller.

Being innocent of any of the information floating about us (conversation, street signs, advertisements) is an unusual sensation, given that we understand (or can puzzle out) lots and lots of stuff from the Romance or Germanic languages of western and northern Europe. Especially French, German, Italian, Spanish …

Not knowing what is going on around us is no surprise. But to completely appreciate your helpless ignorance, it helps to be fully immersed in a language from an alien linguistic family.

Luckily, as is the case through so much of the world …

… English seems to be No. 2 for “most understood language” here. With German, the language of  Czech’s neighbor to the west, not far behind.

When dealing with Czechs involved in the tourist industry, we generally are OK, because they tend to understand more than a little English.

But we are struggling mightily with streets and maps and menus, which typically are posted in Czech only.

It seems almost a cruel joke (to non-Czechs) that the language is rendered in the Latin alphabet. As opposed to, say, Russian, which is based on the Cyrillic alphabet — which very few western natives can even guess at, and don’t bother to try.

To see Latin letters forming the language here, we look for words we might recognize — and find just about zero of them.

A couple of examples.

“What time is it?” is kolic je hodin; “Bon appetite” is dobru chut.

We are visiting Prague, the Czech capital. For a couple of decades now it has been a leading world tourist destination. Lots of history packed into a fairly small area, lots of sites worth seeing — and the world capital of beer consumption.

It would be handy, then, if the city posted signs in a language other than Czech — but it rarely does.

The onus is on us to learn at least the dozen words of polite discourse. Please, thank you, goodbye, good night, and so forth. Least we can do.

But when we are trying to get around the city, it would be very helpful to find a sign reading (beneath the main bit) “Charles Bridge” instead of only “Karluv most” … or “castle hill” instead of just “Hradcany”.

But, then, Prague is not far off from being overrun by tourists.

If I were a budget-conscious member of local government, I would be tempted to say: “Who needs signs in other languages? The tourists are already here.”

So, no disasters yet. We stare at signs, waiting for some sort of epiphany, but none is forthcoming — because Slavic languages share limited numbers of words with English.

Which helps me recall an event from the early 1990s, when I was driving from the south of Germany toward the newly democratized eastern part of the country, and the map seemed to indicate that the four of us could cut right through the northwestern end of what was then still Czechoslovakia, take a swing through Prague, then head north to return to Germany.

I was dissuaded by the argument that “none of us can talk to them and none of them can talk to us” — which probably was the case, 25 years back.



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