Why you should care
Because sometimes life is pain. And we need words for that.
If you break up with your girlfriend, you might be heartbroken. If your house is foreclosed on, you might be inconsolable. The divorce of your parents? Could leave you devastated. The death of 36 members of your community in a warehouse fire? The word for your feeling state could be shattered.
Here’s where the Czech language might come in handy, something we don’t find ourselves saying all that often. Czech, you see, has a word for all of the above.
Lítost: a word for almost every kind of deep sadness.
This short word — LEE-toast — expresses oceans of emotion. Sadness, from fleeting to bone-piercing. Woe, rue and regret. Sympathy for and empathy with. A heavy feeling. Anguish. Closely related to the German word leid, lítost is used in a syntactical structure that doesn’t exist in English, with a reflexive pronoun in dative case. “In Czech, this syntax is used to make whatever is being said more personal or more internalized,” says Mary Lou Walker, a Czech teacher in Baltimore who was in an advanced-conversation Czech class with my grandfather for several years. “With lítost and similar words, the feelings can be those of the speaker or they can be those of the listener, but it is a reciprocal kind of thing, as in, ‘I feel sad that you feel sad,’ ” she says, adding, “Sometimes it is more like, ‘I feel sad that you feel sad because of something I did or neglected to do.’ ”
You might use lítost, says Walker, in phrases like this: To my great sorrow, I must inform you that something bad happened; speechless with deep pain; an unearthly feeling of sorrow or pain; sorry that I can’t be there with you; I wish I hadn’t done that hurtful thing; shame in the face of one’s own or another’s sins and showing readiness to atone; quiet, deep sadness about a death; a feeling of crying on the inside to be homesick or have other great longing for something lost.
That last bit, about homesickness and something lost, is a clue into why lítost is also so very Czech.
At 30,450 square miles, the Czech Republic is roughly the size of Maine. But it’s got enough history to fill seven seasons of Game of Thrones. And enough heartbreak. The country is “like a beautiful garden at the center of a major intersection,” says Jan Zicha, a civil engineer specializing in high-speed rails and rapid transit in Maryland who moved from Czechoslovakia to the United States in 1971 and has an encyclopedic knowledge of Czech history. (“There’s a castle on every hill,” he says. “Children ask questions.”) Directly in the center of Europe, it has been in a centuries-long tug-of-war between East and West. And more often than not trampled in the struggle.
Take Růžový Palouček — the Rose Meadow. Legend has it that this lovely bit of national border is where the Protestant nobility bid farewell to their native country after the failed Bohemian Revolt in 1620, which would leave the country in the hands of the Austrian Habsburgs for some three centuries. “I wasn’t there with those emigrants in the 17th century,” says Iva Zicha, a Czech-language teacher (and Jan’s wife) who emigrated in 1996, “but I can tell you, when I had to leave my beautiful country, the lítost in my heart was sometimes quite painful.”
After 1620, Germanization began, and the Czech language declined in schools, government and literature, sometimes by force. Jesuit Antonín Koniáš (1691–1760) is every librarian’s worst nightmare. Working from his Index of Prohibited or Dangerous and Suspicious Books, he boasted of burning 30,000 books over 30 years, according to Derek Sayer’s The Coasts of Bohemia: A Czech History. Apparently, all Czech books between 1414 and 1635 contained heresies.
Another source of national lítost was the Thirty Years War, a conflict with devastating consequences for all of Europe, but especially for Czechs. “There were so many deaths,” laments Jan Zicha. At least a third of the population was lost, although Zicha says the number was much higher, particularly in Bohemia: “It was as if one city were left of an entire country.” And the new Czechs weren’t quite the same as the ones who’d emigrated or died in the war. Jan Zicha describes a badly oppressed people who were subservient for the sake of survival and who “developed a mentality that they weren’t good enough.”
That said, the Czech language lives on today, thanks not only to a 19th-century cultural movement known as the Czech National Revival, but also to the ongoing efforts of educated priests over hundreds of years. “It’s amazing that the country’s kept its language and preserved its culture,” says Jan Zicha. “It could have been just another German province.”
In a world awash in lítost, that’s cause for a little joy.