Sunday, January 30, 2011

Telling Time

If you want to know what time it is over here then all you have to ask is Kolik je hodin?

The answer is not always so simple. The Czech case system has lots of rules when it comes to numbers, so the answer to "what time is it?", isn't an easy one.

The Czech word for hour or "o'clock" is hodina. It is 1 o'clock is Je jedna hodina.

Hodina is a feminine noun and the numbers 2, 3 and 4 require the nominative plural form. This changes hodina to hodiny. It is 2 o'clock is Jsou dvě hodiny. (Literally...they are 2 hours)

The numbers 5 and higher all require the plural genitive case so hodina becomes hodin. It is 5 o'clock is Je pět hodin. ( is five of hours)

Hang on now because that was the easy part. Things get trickier when it comes to quarter and half hours. In English, we think of the current hour. In Czech, you think of the upcoming hour.

In English, 5:15 is "a quarter past five". But in Czech it is čtvrt na šest (quarter towards six).

In English, 5:45 is "a quarter to six". But in Czech it is třičtvrtě na šest (three quarters towards six).

In American English, 5:30 is "five thirty" or "half past five".

In British English, it is "half five".

In Czech, it is půl šesté, (half six - half "towards" six). Another tricky point...when you use půl, the following number gets treated like an adjective so šest (6) becomes šesté (6-ish).

Numbers can be read off individually so you can say 5:25 as "pět dvacet pět". However, it gets real dang messy if you want to speak proper Czech.

The correct way to say 5:25 is za pět minut půl šesté (in five minutes half towards six).

10:35 can be said two different ways. Either půl jedenácté a pět minut (half towards 11 and 5 minutes) or za deset minut třičtvrtě na jedenáct (in 10 minutes, three quarters towards 11).

1:51 is třičtvrtě na dvě a šest minut (three quarters towards two and six minutes). It's like a secret code or something.

Czechs use the 24-hour clock. I've noticed that things get simpler after 13:00 (1 pm). People seem to just read the numbers off. I've never heard anyone say "half towards 18:00" for 5:30 pm. One would simply say "half towards 6".

I swear that calculus was easier to learn than telling time in Czech. It is rather humbling to get one's butt kicked by a clock. Sometimes I think it would be easier to just wear a digital watch so that I could just hold up my watch when I get asked what time it is. And as long as my watch is running, or if my mobile is handy, then I don't ever have to ask what time it is anyway.


  1. very interesting post, one little thing, though. i believe "Je pět hodin." should be literally translated as "it is five of hours" because it's the word hours that is in genitive...

  2. Thanks Kadrec!! I'll take all of the help I can get. =)

  3. "...when you use půl, the following number gets treated like an adjective so šest (6) becomes šesté (6-ish)."

    The adjectives like "šestý" are called "číslovky řadové" (= numeralia ordinalia, the ordinal numerals"), šestý means sixth.

    Je půl šesté (hodiny). = It is a half of the sixth (hour).

    "šesté (hodiny)" is genitive singular = of the sixth (hour).

    1:51 - I should say "za 9 minut dvě (hodiny)"

  4. Actually it may be simple enough if you use the digital form 6:30 six-thirty (šest-třicet), 6:11 six-eleven (šest-jedenáct), 6:54 six-fifty four (šest-padesát čtyři) and so on - you can´t say it wrong.