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I am so confused by the word order in Czech.


Is there any way to know in what order the sentence should be in?

fx Já na poslední auto necekám.

Is translated to:

I am not waiting for the last car.

But directly translated it would be:

I for the last car am not waiting. Right? So is there a thumb-rule i can use?

November 28, 2018


Sorted by top post


The rule of thumb is: the meaningful word comes the last. In this example: "I am not waiting" (for whatever). If it were the last car, what is important, I would say: "Nečekám na poslední auto."

November 29, 2018


for speakers of fixed-order languages, it may be really hard to get what "meaningful" and "important" means. it could be easier to consider something like I do not drink coffee.

when figuring out what the key piece of information is there, we need to appreciate what the speaker is really saying, maybe even picture the situation. first, we need to know english well enough to know that the speaker is talking about their custom, not their activity in progress.

but are they just listing beverages that they do not drink? then it would be the english-like translation Nepiju kávu.

if they are refusing an offer of coffee from someone, maybe with the coffee smell already in the air, "coffee" became the topic before the speaker even opened their mouth, and "kávu" needs to be demoted in the ordering. (the shift to the left for things closer to being the known topic than the key piece of information being communicated is very important for ever figuring this out to approach the native level.) the key, new piece of information is that the speaker does not drink it, so "nepiju" goes last. Kávu nepiju.

we would normally accept both of these versions plus a few variants with "já". of those, the most natural one for the rejection of beverage with the smell of coffee in the air, is Já kávu nepiju. although Kávu já nepiju. is also fine.

let's deal with some weird ones. Kávu nepiju já. is somehow presenting "já" as the key element. why? maybe there is a set of beverages being given at a meeting to a dozen people, and the beverage person remembers being told to include one hot chocolate for a guy that does not drink coffee. when they deliver the tray, they may ask the czech for "Who was against coffee?", and the response from the hot chocolate participant could be as given here. it is close to being an unacceptable translation, but if the sentence we are translating were pronounced I do not drink coffee., it would work. some of us would accept the translation.

it could be useful to consider a bad translation. Nepiju kávu já. feels downright moronic. i don't have a PhD in linguistics, but the issue seems to be that we presented "já" as key, but we also presented "kávu" as more key than "nepiju". there just does not seem to be a context where that would work, no question it could be a natural answer to, no sentence stress that makes it sound less deranged. we would likely reject that translation.

a note of caution, though. the ordering by importance to the message is just one thing impacting the czech word order. there is also the issue of words that like to or in some cases must be in the second slot in the sentence. let's call them clitics. short object pronouns are a good example.

let's replace "kávu" with "ji" in the hot chocolate drinker's response to "Who was against coffee?" now Kávu nepiju já. becomes Nepiju ji já. rather than Ji nepiju já. the takeaway here is that clitic behavior trumps messaging significance in ordering the czech sentence.

i guess after all this text it is clear why i wanted the simplest of examples :-)

November 29, 2018


The order of words in Czech sentences does have some rules and a native Czech speaker can give you a better guideline. On a positive note Czech word order is flexible so you can say the same sentence in many different ways. However it can also be not so good as you have to pay close attention to the words especially their endings so you know exactly what the sentence is saying.

November 28, 2018
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