When I was growing up in my country of origin, I always heard that Finnish was the most difficult language to learn. As I later learned, that was the generally-accepted truth in more than just my country. Fast forward a few years. A Finnish friend I made in New York argued that it’s not Finnish but, in fact, Czech, which gives its learners the worst headaches; most people just don’t know that the language exists. Of course, then there are tonal langages like Mandarin Chinese, which, I think, might be even worse to learn. However, it seems that Czech is pretty much up there when it comes to its difficulty.
But why? After all, it’s not like one would have to learn 3,000 different “basic” signs to be able to write it or five different tonal changes. Sure, there are ten to fourteen vovels, depending on who you ask (a, á, e, é, ě, i, í, y, ý, o, ó, u, ů, ú) but that’s not such a big deal. Czech is also the only language that has the “ř” sound, which was arguably a whole lot of fun trying to teach my English-speaking friends. (Most often, it worked to describe it as “G, H, R, and Z all said at once.”) Then there are two consonants that sometimes act as vowels (r, l). But other than that, it can’t be that bad, right?
While Finnish is able to string a whole lot of vovels together, Czech decided to go the opposite way. Anyone wants to try to pronounce “smrskls,” the longest vowel-free Czech word?
Speaking of long words; the longest Czech word that isn’t a name or a fairytale-generated nonsensical word (I’m looking at you, Mary Poppins’s “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”) is “nejneobhospodařovávatelnějšími.” Roughly, it means “among the farms/fields that are the hardest to cultivate.” There can be other, longer words, like “nejzdevětadevadesáteronásobitelnějšími” but that’s kinda touching the ‘nonsense’ border a bit too much with its “among the least possible to multiply by ninety-nine” so we’ll stick with “nejneobhospodařovávatelnějšími.”
What will really get many isn’t our refusal to use vowels or our famous “ř.” It’s probably our language genders (masculine, feminine, and neuter) that have to be learned by heart for every single word in combination with declension. You see, Czech has seven cases (nominative, genitive, dative, accusative, vocative, locative, and instrumental), and how you decline a word within these seven cases depends on the word’s gender. Oh, wait, and I forgot to tell you that there are six ways to decline masculine words, four ways to decline feminine ones, and four ways to decline neutral ones, too. Now, I’m not a math genius but that’s 98 possible ways to say one single noun.
When it comes to verbs, things can also get quite interesting. There’s the basic form from which all others are created. It is then changed to six different forms based on the grammatical person it binds with, and these six forms then change based on the tense and other factors like the imperfection aspect. This comes to some 86 forms the verb can take on, and I’m pretty sure I forgot some.
I think there might be no better way to simply showcase that craziness than by the following (slightly incomplete) graphic. Please note especially the last “…and the verbs…” According to it (and I must say it’s pretty accurate), you can say the verb “do” in 1,118 ways…
I won’t keep going. All in all, the language I learned as a kid is pretty interesting, and I feel sorry for anyone who tries to learn it. The amount of rules is ridiculous and even though the pronunciation portion of your learning journey will be pretty easy should you take on the challenge, all the grammatical persons, language genders, and other quirks will make up for it.
There are many videos that make fun of the weird ways pronunciation works in English. Many times, the authors of these fun skits say they feel sorry for anyone learning English. In response to that, I’d like to say that compared to all the rules of the Czech language, learning English pronunciation was a piece of cake.
If you do take on the challenge that is learning the Czech language, I wish you all the luck you can get.