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Lazy Mouths and Other Sayings

I recently learned a new Czech saying: Líná huba holé neštěstí. It means, basically, "a lazy mouth is a sure misfortune."

My Czech-English dictionary offers "you get nothing if you don't ask" as an equivalent for the saying's meaning. This equivalent, though, is not quite satisfactory since it changes the metaphor and is also far too agentive. The mouth, a likely requirement for asking a question, is totally left out, and there is far too clear a reference to a specific action (asking a question) and to an actor (you, the asker). The Czech version has no verb, which means that no one is actually doing anything, it is just an observation. Even when clearly directed toward someone, the Czech saying does not imply that the person is lazy, only their mouth. Presumably someone is there and the things are happening, but you get the idea that they are not necessarily responsible for the things that are happening. Slavic languages seem to have a lot of these "non-agentive" formations.

This saying's "unCzechness" is also surprising. If you walk around Brno, or just about anywhere else in the Czech Republic, you'll sooner or later realize that people keep to themselves in public. Czechs are some of the quietest people in public that I've ever met. Sometimes this is carried to a fault. For example, the reigning silence on public transportation is so thick that it can be unnerving at times. Even something as simple as saying "Excuse me" when you are exiting the tram is often dismissed in favor of sliding behind or around the person; this usually results in pushing or shoving but is apparently regarded by many people as preferable to opening their mouth. It is most important to blend in—while the squeaky wheel may get the grease, Czechs would rather not be the squeaky wheel. Perhaps such wheels are annoying, or perhaps that saying would imply that they're making something else operate (god forbid that you might be a contributing member of society), which is against the Czech traditions of individualism and inadequacy.* If you were raised here by Czech parents, this ability to blend in, at least in public situations, would have been deeply socialized and ingrained. As one Czech writer and humorist put it, "This is done by persistent coaching from parents and teachers, which entails frequent repetition of a simple command: 'Don't you dare make an asshole of yourself or your family (group, club, town, nation, etc.)'."** So, whether they have lazy mouths or not, an initial Czech response in public situations is to keep one's mouth shut rather than to open it.

At various times I can be an incredible procrastinator, but I usually get over it in the long run. Part of my work is to interview people about music and, as you can certainly imagine, it's not very easy to do if your mouth is lazy. But perhaps my mouth will be more active in the future. I hope this saying works well as a new mantra because it could really help.

*Benjamin Kuras, Czechs and Balances (Prague: Baronet, 1996), pp. 18-20, discusses the Czech "Wisdom of Inadequacy," which is generally a good thing, but shouldn't be taken to extremes.
**Ibid., p. 20. The saying in my family, though not coming through any Czech heritage, was that it is better to keep one's mouth shut and have people believe you a fool than to open it and remove all doubt. The obvious way around all these impediments is, of course, to start a blog.

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Blogger P'tit-Loup said . . .

Well, I for one was less bored by your post today. I found it very interesting. I did not notice during my short stay v Praze that the Czech were so silent. Of course, I was with a group of rather loud americans! But I do recal observing folks deep in conversations most places I went. Would Praha be so different from Brno?    

8:03 AM, September 11, 2006

Blogger Julia said . . .

Prague public transportation is mostly quiet except for the tourists, but perhaps it is louder than Brno? All I know is that silence on trams seems to be contagious, and when I get on a tram I too fall silent! As soon as people step out of the shared and enclosed space though, they go back to chatting freely.    

8:19 AM, September 11, 2006

Blogger tuckova said . . .

I think maybe more like, "There's no such thing as a stupid question," or in that vein?

In a Japanese proverb book I had "the squeaky wheel gets the grease" was matched to "the nail that sticks up will be hammered down" which I thought summarized the differences between the two cultures pretty tidily.    

1:02 PM, September 11, 2006

Blogger morskyjezek said . . .

The nail saying is great! Apt here, in some cases.

I do think that Brno is quite different from Prague. It is a city, but statistics pretty conveniently sum up the difference: ca. 2 million people live in Prague, while only about 400,000 live in Brno. That is a huge difference. To put it in another way, about 20% of the population of the Czech Republic lives in Prague. Anyway, Brno has quite a different feel and is much less "international." It's difficult to make direct cultural comparisons.

A few months ago I was talking to a Czech that lives in Prague. She asked why I lived in Brno, and I answered, "why not? It is the second largest city in the country." She replied, "Or maybe it's the largest village."

It's not to say that people never talk, but public life is generally subdued. But the last few days I have bene paying more attention to how people behave in public, and I'm still struck by the general quietude almost everywhere except in downtown where there are the most people (they are often shopping, going to the pub, or being tourists).    

11:29 AM, September 13, 2006

Anonymous Prague Hotels said . . .

I absolutely agree with author.
I have been living in Prague for about 4 months , and during this time i just was researching Czech people.
Yeah, it is really true that they are very quiet and calm. They are very polite with tourists.
In public places, such as trams, buses, trolley buses, most of them usually read newspapers, books, journals, and it is true that you hear only tourists voices.    

4:17 PM, October 24, 2007

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