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Even If Wheelbarrows Were Falling from the Sky

I found one of those Czech expressions you don't hear everyday while paging through my dictionary this evening:* i kdyby trakaře padaly. Literally it means "not even if wheelbarrows were falling." My dictionary (Fronek 2000) translates this as "come hell or high water." I suppose this makes sense as one certainly doesn't expect to find a "fifty percent chance of wheelbarrow showers" in a run-of-the-mill weather report. The dictionary also reacts to the phrase with a small sniff of disdain by preceding it with the marking hov. That is, it's a hovorový výraz or "colloquial expression" not to be confused with spisovná čeština, the "written Czech" language. This spisovná language might be compared to "high" forms of English like the fabled Queen's English or Oxford English. These, however, apart from their existence as ideals, hold little real power over actual English usage.

In Czech, on the other hand, a central body of sanctioned experts decide what is "right" and "wrong." From the hallowed halls of the Ústav pro jazyk český Akademie věd České republiky (The Institute of Czech Language at the Czech Academy of Sciences), these comptrollers of language dispense their eminent decisions to the Czech-speaking mortals (mostly native speakers but I suppose even a few of us academics). Henceforward I shall refer to them - the Institute - endearingly as the UJC. You can email the UJC if you have a quick question, though they probably don't want to be bothered with mundane issues like the above hovorový výraz. They are concerned with more important things, such as whether the ambiguous consonants (b, f, l, m, p, s, v, z) should be followed by -i or -y. To explain why this is an issue - the sounds are virtually indistinguishable when a word is spoken - would require a rather more lengthy exposition on Czech grammar than you are likely to want to read or I to write. But it might explain why the plural of the aforementioned trakař ends in -e. The UJC, in essence, guards the Czech language. This guardianship is an almost holy duty as the language is often referred to as one of the most valuable items that a Czech inherits. The UJC webpage, for example, warns visitors to beware that imposter website of unsanctioned Czech grammar, www.pravidla.cz, "the contents of which the UJC cannot be answerable for." Those who can claim to speak Czech "fluently" as their mateřština ("mother tongue"), after all, are quite lucky as it is a notoriously difficult language; it is not for them, however, to decide whether they speak "correctly."

The existence of such high linguistic standards doesn't mean that people stop their everyday conversations in mid-flow to send SMSes to the UJC for clarification of grammatical minutiae. Everyone jabbers away in their own regional dialects most of the time, and most people are quite happy with this situation. Spisovná čeština, as its name implies, exists mostly in books, at academic conferences, in university classrooms, and in the rarefied air of the Czech Academy of Sciences. Outside these spaces the written language gasps for breath in the considerably less refined, yet infinitely more colorful and lively, atmosphere of spoken Czech. Except, however, in the classrooms where Czech is taught to foreigners. In these rooms, the written language is not just alive and well, but it is being spoken by everyone present. Well, that is to say that all present are "aspiring" toward it - that this is only an a "inspiration," an ideal that will never be reached even in our dying "expiration," is a completely different issue that is never revealed to the optimistic flock who gather in such classrooms. But as the saying goes, dum spiro, spero.

It's a bit difficult to comprehend all this as someone who comes from a language with no centralized control. It's strange to wonder if one might be descended upon by grammarians who will correct your every word - and believe me, there would be a lot for them to correct when I open my mouth in Czech. I sleep calmly at night knowing that, while my English will be judged by everyone who hears it, they can't throw the book at me when I break a rule. English speakers are not really expected to know how their language works anyway - we just use it. That doesn't stop perennial worrywort linguists or cultural critics - there's always someone - who echo Professor Higgins's lament, "Why Can't the English Teach Their Children How to Speak?"

But I also know that, in case wheelbarrows do start falling from the sky when I wake up tomorrow morning, I can always email the UJC to find out whether or not that -y at the end of padaly shouldn't really be an -i or whether my dictionary is correct and I am in error. Thanks goodness for the UJC. Sweet dreams.

Photo: Don't stick that tongue out too far, Miss Julie! (From a Czech Television production of Strindberg's Miss Julie)

* Well, what did you think graduate students do for fun?


Blogger amy7252 said . . .

Just when I thought the French had the corner on the anal-retentive language market ... thanks for the enlightenment!    

12:37 PM, January 14, 2006

Blogger OORANOS said . . .

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.    

2:02 PM, January 14, 2006

Blogger Karla said . . .

But... if we speak incorrect English, people will think we're illiterate or at least uneducated, whereas no one expects Czechs to speak literary Czech except, I suppose, at conferences (if then).    

3:59 PM, January 14, 2006

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