Is Czech a hard language? Are Slavic languages hard?

by Jakub Marian

Tip: See my list of the Most Common Mistakes in English. It will teach you how to avoid mis­takes with com­mas, pre­pos­i­tions, ir­reg­u­lar verbs, and much more (PDF Version).

Let me start by saying: Yes, I do think that Czech is a very complicated language; it is difficult to grasp and even more difficult to master. Even among Slavic languages (from which I am acquainted, to some degree, with Czech, Slovak, Polish, and Russian), Czech is probably one of the hardest, but most Slavic languages are, in principle, similar.

However, this shouldn’t discourage you from learning it; it is actually not much harder to understand Czech passively than, say, German, and it is also not much harder to make yourself understood, but mastering the language (being able to speak it fluently without a large number of grammatical mistakes) is very hard because Czech grammar is very complex.

Throughout this article, I will use Czech as an example of characteristic features most Slavic languages share that make them hard to learn for speakers whose mother tongue is a non-Slavic language.

Declension

All North Slavic languages (languages forming a dialectal continuum spreading from Czech and Polish in the west to Russian in the east) use a complicated system of case endings for nouns. These endings define the grammatical function of the noun (which would be specified by a preposition in English). For example, in Czech, “a book” would be “kniha”, but “of a book” would be “knihy”, “to a book” would be “knize”, etc.

That wouldn’t be so bad if all nouns were declined the same way. Unfortunately, there are more than 16 different patterns (paradigms) for Czech declension, each having seven forms for the singular and seven forms for the plural (so you essentially have to remember 15 tables of 14 endings each; fortunately, there are some similarities among the patterns that make them easier to remember). These patterns are usually taught by giving an example word belonging to the given category; these are usually as follows:

MasculineFeminineNeuter
pán (mister)
muž (man)
hrad (castle)
les (forest)
stroj (machine)
předseda (chairman)
soudce (judge)
Jiří (George)
žena (woman)
růže (rose)
píseň (song)
kost (bone)
město (city)
moře (sea)
kuře (chicken)
stavení (cottage)

To illustrate the vastness of this system, let’s list all the main patterns for the masculines (when there are two possibilities, it means that both are acceptable but each one is usually preferred in a different situation):

NominativeGenitiveDativeAccusativeVocativeLocativeInstrumental
pánpánapánu
pánovi
pánapanepánu
pánovi
pánem
mužmužemuži
mužovi
mužemužimuži
mužovi
mužem
hradhraduhraduhradhradehraduhradem
leslesalesulesleselesulesem
strojstrojestrojistrojstrojistrojistrojem
předsedapředsedypředsedovipředsedupředsedopředsedovipředsedou
soudcesoudcesoudcisoudcesoudcesoudcisoudcem
JiříJiříhoJiřímuJiříhoJiříJiřímJiřím

The full declension table would contain about 4 times more rows (8 more for singular, 16 more for plural forms), and all of them must be remembered (except the vocative case for inanimate objects) if you want to be able to speak properly. In German, for comparison, the whole table (not just a part of it) would look like this:

NominativeGenitiveDativeAccusative
derdesdemden
dasdesdemdas
diederderdie
die (plural)derdendie

Once you remember that, you basically know how to decline any noun in the German language. Unfortunately, the corresponding table for Czech is about 15 times bigger than that.

One unfortunate property of declension of nouns in Czech is that it is usually not possible to see the correct pattern just by looking at a word; you have to remember it to be able to use the word properly. For example, although “-a” at the end of a word is often a good indicator that the word is declined as “žena”, it can also be declined as “předseda”, and the endings of the two are completely different.

But it’s not just nouns; adjectives, pronouns, and even numerals are declined too. There are 6 declension classes for adjectives (each having 7 cases in the singular and 7 cases in the plural), dozens of pronouns, each of which has to be learned separately (7 cases each, again), and various types of numerals, some of which are declined like adjectives, while others are declined similarly to pronouns.

Conjugation

Czech verbs are conjugated according to number and person. In English, the only verb conjugation table looks like this:

PersonSingularPlural
1sttaketake
2ndtaketake
3rdtakestake

You only have to remember to add an “s” in the third person singular (and not to change the verb at all for modal verbs), and that’s basically it (with the exception of “to be”). In Czech, such a table looks like this:

PersonSingularPlural
1stberubereme
2ndberešberete
3rdbereberou

It’s not that bad, just the endings are a little bit more varied. The bad part is that you have to learn 5 such tables (each having, on average, three subgroups with minor differences). Again, there are similarities between different patterns that make remembering them much easier, but the main problem is that you cannot tell the correct pattern just by looking at a verb (you have to remember into which of the 5 groups it belongs)

The good thing is that the Czech tense system is not very extensive, and once you master the 5 tables, you have basically mastered all regular verbs. You don’t have to learn separate endings for the imperfect, subjuctive, and other tenses found in Romance languages, for example.

Irregularity and stem changes

Even if you know the correct declension class of a noun, you will still sometimes fail when you try to decline it mechanically. Why? Because many nouns are irregular. For example, “dítě” (child) is declined according to the pattern “kuře” (chicken) in the singular, but in the plural as “kost” (bone) (I rather don’t ask why).

Thankfully, there are not that many irregularities of this type. However, there is a strong tendency in Czech to avoid certain groups of letters, which causes changes not just in noun endings, but also in the stem itself. For example, the dative of “moucha” (a fly) should be “mouchě”, according to the pattern “žena” → “ženě”, but it is in fact “mouše”, i.e. “ch” has changed to “š” (and “ě” has lost the caron). There are lots of such changes, e.g. k → c, r → ř, ch → š, h → z, g → z, ou → u, í → ě, á → a, ů → o, to name just some of the more common. You can think of these changes as rules (that have some exceptions) rather than irregularities, but they still add a lot of information to learn.

These stem changes are one of the reasons why I think Czech is among the hardest Slavic languages. In Russian, for example, there are only 6 cases instead of 7 (there’s no vocative in standard Russian), but this is not such a great advantage. However, the stem changes are very scarce in comparison to Czech, which makes it somewhat easier to learn to decline nouns.

As for verbsas in almost all other languages, there are a lot of verbs that have some sort of irregularity, but this is something one is usually able to learn quite fast. But there’s a scarier thing; in English, each tense/aspect combination is formed from the infinitive or the past participle using auxiliary verbs. Not dissimilarly, Czech also uses auxiliary verbs to form tenses, but each aspect has a separate word, and these are sometimes completely different. (If you are wondering what an aspect is, notice the difference between “he did” (imperfective aspect) and “he has done” (perfective aspect)).

Czech children are taught at school that there are two different aspects, the perfective and the imperfective, but the truth is, many verbs have 3 or 4 different aspects. For example:

EnglishCzech
he went (regularly)chodil
he has goneodešel
he was goingšel
he used to gochodíval

All of these words are separate verbs and can be used in the infinitive and other tenses in a way incomparable to English. For example, in the present: “chodí” = “he goes/walks”, “odejde” = “he will go/leave”, “jde” = “he is going”, “chodívá” = “he sometimes goes” (these were the same four verbs as above, just in the present tense). Oddly enough, the present tense of “odešel” expresses a future action, but the proper future tense of “go” in Czech is “půjde”, a new verb that only exists in the present tense (grammatically) although it expresses the future!

In English, you would learn just one verb and combine it with an auxiliary verb to get to the correct aspect. In Czech, you have to learn three or four different verbs to express the different aspects.

Is there even more?

There are other issues which make Czech somewhat unnecessarily complicated. For example, there are at least two diminutive forms for each noun (expressing different levels of smallness/cuteness). This wouldn’t be so bad, if there weren’t many different diminutive suffixes, e.g. -ka, -ko, -ek, -ík, -inka, -enka, -ečka, -ička, -ul-, -unka, -íček, -ínek. Unfortunately, you have to remember the correct suffixes for each noun.

Some nouns in Czech exist only in the plural form, even though they can express also the singular (like “clothes” in English). This can be very confusing sometimes because many of these also have a singular that has a different meaning. For example, if you say “boty” (“shoes”), it can either mean “a pair of shoes” or “shoes” (the plural of “shoe”). If you say “dvě boty” (two shoes), it means… “two shoes”. So how do you say “two pairs of shoes”? “Dvoje boty.” The word stays the same, but the numeral changes; there’s a whole new set of numerals you have to learn to be able to speak about these odd no-singular nouns.

But I believe that’s enough. Let’s not talk about conjunctions that contain a verb inside them that is conjugated in a tense that doesn’t even exist in Czech any more or how you can rearrange words in a sentence in virtually any possible order to express subtle differences in meaning.

No, you’ve read enough to know that learning Czech is hell. But it was Mark Twain who said: “Go to Heaven for the climate, Hell for the company.” And that’s true; Czechs are generally a friendly folk, and you will certainly make some great new friends if you learn Czech, and learning to understand it passively is not that hard. Sounding like a native may be very tough, though…

By the way, I have written several educational ebooks. If you get a copy, you can learn new things and support this website at the same time—why don’t you check them out?

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