Prague, Czech Republic – Czechs have many different ways of greeting each other and while this might confuse foreigners struggling with the excruciating difficulties of the language, native speakers too are not necessarily aware of the story behind their salutation phrases.
Hence this little practical guide to shed some light on the Czech Republic’s greetings habits.
Getting by in Prague: the most common Czech greetings
“Ahoj” is the most common expression to say “hi” or “hello” to friends and relatives. As many Czech greetings, you can also use it to say goodbye. While most scholars consider that “ahoy!” or “hoy!” were first used by Scottish or English sailors to draw attention to something and greet other ships, interpretations differ.
Some linguists and historians also claim it was used, on land, to drive cattle. Interestingly enough, Scottish inventor Alexander Graham Bell considered to use “ahoy-hoy” as the standard telephone greeting. Unfortunately, this didn’t really catch on.
The reason why this originally nautical term became the most popular way to say “hi” in landlocked Czech Republic remains, however, quite a mystery. Some claim it was imported in the Czech language in the 1920’s through popular adventure novels, while others believe it was first used by boyscouts and sportsmen in the 1930’s. Well, whatever it was, it worked.
Another highly popular and informal way to greet someone (or say goodbye) is “Čau”, pronounced more or less like “ciao”. In this case, the origin is easier to pinpoint: Italy.
What’s most interesting, though, is its etymological meaning: in Italian, “ciao” is derived from “schiavo”, which means “slave” or “servant”. This, in turn, was formed from “slavo” the word for… “Slavic”. During the Middle-Ages, many slaves in cities such as Venice or Genoa were of Slavic origin. So, whenever Czechs say “čau” to one another, one might argue they’re actually calling each other “Slavic slaves”…
Less widely-used than the first Czech greetings, “nazdar” is yet another way to say “hi”. Literally meaning “to the success”, the idiom dates back to the mid-19th century. At the height of the “Czech national awakening”, a group of patriots launched a nation-wide program to collect money to fund the construction of the first Czech-language theatre in Prague to counter the influence of German.
As any successful marketing operation, a catchy slogan was found: “Na zdar Národního Divadla!” (“To the success of the National Theatre!”). It quickly spread and became a way for people to salute each other in the streets. Although the theatre itself burned down a few weeks after its opening, another “crowd-funding” operation was launched and, in 1883, the National Theatre rose from its ashes. Today, it is one of Prague’s most iconic architectural landmarks and cultural institutions.
The more specific ones
If those three are not enough, you can opt for “Čus”, imported from the German word “tschüss”. Although slightly less widespread than the previous ones, it might still come in handy and is yet-another example of the Czech language’s diverse and multi-national roots.
If you’re talking to people you don’t know or find yourself in a more formal setting, you also have many options to pick from. Knowing which one to use will mostly depend on the time of day: “dobré ráno” (“good morning”), “dobrý den” (“good day”), “dobré odpoledne” (“good afternoon”) or “dobrý večer” (“good evening”). For early birds, you can also show off and use “dobré jitro” (“jitro” meaning early morning). For semi-formal meetings, “zdravím” (“I greet you”, derived from the verb (po)zdravit is also an option. You might hear it more with older people.
And finally, to part from someone, the expression you’ll hear the most is “nashle”, the informal and shorter version of the word for “goodbye”: “na shledanou” (literally “to the reuniting”).
If you’re addressing someone you intend to see again, you might also use “tak zatím” (literally “so, for now”), the Czech equivalent of “see you next time”. You could also use “měj se” (informal) or “mějte se” (formal), which stands for “take care of yourself”. Last but not least, for all the lazy bums out there, you can simply part from a close friend by saying “pa” or “papa”.
Whoever said that the Czech language was challenging?