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Literary Contest: A Bohemian State of Mind As the Earth Stands Still

Czech Center New York is featuring a personal essay written by PhD student of Slavic Studies (Harvard University), Rachael Neidinger, as part of the literary contest: A Bohemian State of Mind As the Earth Stands Still. In her essay, the author contemplates her relationship to the Czech language and culture.

The aim of the contest was to encourage university students in the U.S. in their creative writing endeavors and to highlight new literary works that are being written under these “standstill” circumstances and that incorporate the author’s creative take on certain "Czech" aspects (be it the Czech mindset or through Czech literary or cultural allusions).

You can read the featured personal essay by Rachael Neidinger below.


For an American student learning the Czech language and studying its art, culture, and history, the Czech mindset is an elusive thing. Every time you think you have it pinned down, you find something that challenges your assumptions. For example, history shows one facet of the national character, literature shows another. Like learning the Czech grammar, there are certain rules and tendencies that you can study, and eventually master, but ultimately, the exceptions to almost every rule of declension for certain nouns, you will always find surprises. These surprises open new aspects of the language or metaphorically, the culture, and lead you to places you would never have anticipated when you set out to be able to read Bohumil Hrabal in the original. 

Every time you think you have it pinned down, you find something that challenges your assumptions. Each time you find something new, the picture of what the Czech mindset might be becomes more nuanced, richer, and more satisfying. It’s a lot like wandering the streets of Prague—once you take a wrong turn and find yourself somewhere completely unexpected, you can never go back to not knowing something new about the city and your personal map of the city gets more and more complete. Of course, you could look at a map of the city that someone else has created but that will never help you find yourself in the process of becoming acquainted with the city. 

Learning Czech grammar works in a similar way. You can look up the conjugation of verbs, you can study the etymology of a noun, you can memorize a list of prepositions that go with a certain case, but there will always be exceptions to these rules that fall outside of what you can make a neat grammatical rule for. It’s these exceptions, these opportunities to get metaphorically lost in the city of Czech grammar and vocabulary that are both the best and worst part of studying Czech—worst from the perspective of getting a good grade on a quiz but best because they are the surprise openings that lead you to the unexpected. For someone who set out to learn Czech in order to read literature in the original, Czech’s propensity for breaking (grammatical) rules is the standout feature of the language.  

At first, I let all the irregularities overwhelm me: I made increasingly elaborate color-coded tables for the irregular nouns and I would recite verb conjugations whenever I had a spare minute, frantic to get on top of the grammar in the belief that this would open the world of literature up to me. Every time I forgot the irregular declension for chicken, I felt discouraged and stressed out—what was happening? I never had such a difficult time retaining grammar before! I thought of myself as a good student of languages. Was it my study methods? Was I not spending enough time? Had I not made enough flashcards? Why now?  

Gradually though, and with a fair amount of chagrin on my part that I could not simply absorb Czech grammar into my head while I slept, I began to see that what I was doing wasn’t so much a straightforward process of learning and studying in order to gain a mastery of the language and culture, but I was developing a whole new perspective on everything. At the risk of hyperbole, Czech has taught me that things are not the way you think they should be and that is a good thing. 

This is how learning Czech is a lot like the age of the COVID-19 pandemic and the quarantine that we are experiencing—quarantine is something that an individual cannot overcome and make it so that everything is back to the normal we knew before. These things—quarantine, learning Czech—are things that are bigger than a single individual, more significant than one explicit goal. The secret, what these things can really teach us, is that discipline and organization are great tools, but the true lesson, and the better reward, is learning to be flexible and see these things as opportunities to have your own perspective challenged so that you can see something totally new. 

One of the best gifts of Czech is its expressive vocabulary and the way that a single word can capture a whole set of associations and meanings. There are plenty of untranslatable words in every language, and people who love words are always quick to start speculating about what it means that language has one word for a feeling that needs a complex explanation in another language. Philosophical explanations about what it means for a nation’s psyche to be able to express certain things succinctly are fine, but it is not the same as feeling another language’s words start to pop up into your own head while you experience your own world. 

Some examples of this new way of looking at the world is the multitude of ways of saying “baby” in Czech—each one with their own shade of meaning, ranging through all the possible emotions that you could have about a baby, from sweet and nurturing to derisive and irritated. English pales in comparison to these lexical choices. Another example is the Czech word “protivný.” Usually translated as just “annoying” in English, this word is so much richer. “Annoying” in English fails to capture the shades of revulsion and dismissal that this word holds in Czech. 

I am not sure I would have stopped to think about how my relationship to learning Czech if it had not been for the quarantine. Instead of going to the Czech Republic and spending time using my language abilities and getting lost both grammatically and physically, I am stuck inside with my dictionary and my own dedication to learning more and reading more Czech. This has given me the chance to realize what is really happening. Learning Czech teaches me about myself as much as it teaches me about another culture. Accepting my own limitations as a student and being shown the new ways of expressing thoughts in a new language makes my study of the language and the mindset of the people who speak it as a first language a lifelong endeavor. 

Both being a student of Czech and experiencing the quarantine of 2020 show the benefit of looking beyond your own expectations and realizing your place in a greater network of ideas. If you focus too closely on the small goals of mastery and being fluent and able to translate things off the top of your head, you will miss out on the ways that you can learn about yourself through learning about Czech. 


Rachael Neidinger is currently a PhD student in the Slavic Languages and Literatures Department of Harvard University. She is interested in Czech literature of the 20th century, particularly written by women. Her interest in Czech language and literature comes from a semester abroad in Prague.


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