Saying “I love you” in Czech

How do Czechs feel about expressing endearment (& not just on Valentine's Day)

Prague’s cobblestone streets and the views of the castle from Charles Bridge are an ideal backdrop for a budding romance. I know from experience how easy it is to fall in love in the Czech Republic. However, once my head-over-heels romance settled into an enduring (but slightly less passionate) relationship, my husband and I were left to sort out the influence of our native cultures and our individual approaches to “love.”

I remember spending our first Valentine’s Day as a couple watching a ticking clock in our apartment. Radek and some friends were playing a day-long, team building scavenger hunt. I hadn’t been invited because I didn't speak Czech. But Radek had made reservations for us to try a new restaurant that night, and I was hoping for Valentine romance. When evening came and my Czech beau kept texting me that the game was running late, I began to wonder if I was getting not-too-subtle messages about the future of our relationship. Eventually, he arrived. We made it to the restaurant, and my night was salvaged.

From the night, I realized two things. One of my husband's best qualities is his loyalty; he wasn’t about to ruin his team’s chances of winning by cutting out early. Moreover, Valentine’s Day didn’t hold sentimental attachment for him. He regretted keeping me waiting as he hates being late, but the significance of the night was lost on him.

Here are a few of the things I've learned about how Czechs express endearment, and why, if your partner happens to be Czech, you may have a better chance of getting kissed on May Day than getting flowers for St. Valentine's.

How (and when) Czechs say “I love you”

In Czech, the phrase miluju tě (I love you) is most often used to describe two people in a romantic relationship. In general, it is not common to say miluju tě to a child. To express love and affection from a parent to a child (or from a child to a parent) Czechs usually say mám tě rád(a), which translates “I have pleasure from you” but means the same as “I love you.” You aren't likely to hear miluju tě or mám tě rád(a) spoken casually in Czech. Unless, perhaps, you're watching a dubbed version of an American romantic comedy.

Meanwhile, I grew up hearing (and saying) “I love you” in the most everyday situations. I called “love ya” over my shoulder as I hopped on the school bus every morning; my mom said it to me when she put me to bed each night; we both said it when I was older, away at university and our relationship consisted of back and forth telephone calls.

I can't say that it didn't bother me at first that my otherwise affectionate husband never uttered the three words I was used to hearing. But over time, I got used to it. Now on the special occasions when he does say “I love you,” (usually in English not in Czech), I know that his sentiment is genuine.

One Czech friend in her late-thirties told me that she had never heard her parents or grandparents say “mám tě ráda” aloud to her. After living abroad and experiencing different cultures, as an adult she now makes it a point to say it to her kids, usually when she kisses them good night. Although it still doesn't sound perfectly natural, she remarks that, for her children, saying it back to her seems quite normal. Another friend told me that she's heard the Czech version of “I love you” once or twice in her relationship with her partner, although she says it to her children regularly – after an argument or while putting them to sleep.

So, what do Czechs say instead of “I love you”

In the Czech language, nicknames or pet names can be used to express affection instead of saying straight out “I love you.” While some couples stick to more traditional Czech terms of endearment like miláčku (sweetheart), lásko (love), zlatíčko (little gold) or drahý (dear), there are also pet names like kočičko (kitten), kocourku (tabby cat), koťátko (kitten), princezno (princess) and broučku (little beetle). Many of the terms can be used interchangeably to express affection for children as well as adults.

Using zdrobněliny (diminutive forms of a person's formal name) is another common way to show that you have an affectionate relationship with the person. My friend's ten-year-old daughter Nela is called Nelinka (little Nela) by everyone close to her, including her parents, grandparents, school teacher and friends. Not realizing the significance of the -inka I mistakenly called her Nela once. Nelinka made a face. I asked her mother what I'd done wrong. Her mother explained that calling a child Nela doesn't sound as nice as it does when you use the diminutive. It works with male names as well. David becomes Davidek or Dada. My friend Kateřina's pet name is Kačenka (little duck). Once you're given a pet name within your family, it's likely to stick, no matter how old you are. My husband's eighty-six year-old grandmother still calls him Radeček.

Celebrating Valentine's Day in the Czech Republic

How does a population that isn't used to saying “I love you” celebrate St. Valentine's? Today, you can find Valentine's meal specials at Czech restaurants, heart-shaped baking tins at the supermarket and dozens of red, pink and white roses special-ordered for the occasion at local flower shops. Despite the recent commercial popularity of the holiday, I don't know many Czechs (except for those in new relationships and the current teenage generation) who celebrate the holiday Western-style.

When I asked Pavel, a married Czech in his mid-forties, how he and his wife celebrated Valentine's Day, he told me that the holiday didn't mean anything to him. He'd contemplated ordering his wife some flowers after he'd received an email from an online flower shop with a special Valentine's offer, but in the end, he decided it was a bad idea. “Then she'd wonder why she got the flowers. She'd be asking me what I had done wrong, what I was hiding from her. I get her flowers on her birthday and she knows it. Why would I want to make trouble?”

Even though Czech women pretend not to care about the newly popular holiday, another friend told me that she thinks most women would be pleased if their partners celebrated it. She referred me to a YouTube video from 2012 that has gotten over 8 million hits. In the video, Czech singer Barbora Poláková laments her boyfriend's lack of interest in Valentine's Day. Her guy isn't answering his phone; he didn't bring her chocolates or invite her to the movies. While he's out doing who knows what, Poláková sits in the kitchen with her girlfriend (who happens to also be her boyfriend's sister), drinking wine, smoking cigarettes and calling herself a kráva (cow) for caring about the guy at all. Meanwhile, her friend is making fun of her for expecting anything different.

In a particularly Czech twist, Poláková hopes that her boyfriend will at least remember her on May Day with a trip Petřín Hill and kisses under a cherry tree, even though he's forgotten St. Valentine's.

If you don't think your partner's vision of Valentine's Day will live up to your own expectations – relax. In less than three months, you'll find Prague awash with blooming fruit trees. Pack a picnic and head to Petřín Hill to celebrate the first of May (May Day), a national Czech holiday, and a day more Czechs associate with fertility and romance than St. Valentine's (at least for the time being).

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