Monday, 16 May 2016 17:18

What's in a name?

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Photo: Roman Boed (Flickr); Licence: CC BY 2.0 

Native speakers of English, who also happen to know Czech are, I grant you, quite a rare breed, but they do exist.  As one of those linguistic oddities (and not even one who can be excused by family ties to the region), the news that the Czech Republic apparently now wishes to be known on the world stage as Czechia certainly struck a chord with me.

Of course, the name Czechia is nothing new. Ever since the Velvet Divorce, which saw post-communist Czechoslovakia split into the Czech and Slovak Republics, the term has been periodically bandied about as a snappier English-language alternative and its origins do in fact go back a lot further than that.  It’s also fair to say that the country’s current name can be a bit of a mouthful sometimes. However, for me at least, the lack of a short moniker has always been part of the Czech Republic’s charm. It lets those of us who travel there for more than just the occasional boozy weekend come up with our own pet names for the place (Czecho has long been a personal favourite of mine), not to mention all the fun that can be had with puns on the word Czech.  Or czuns as we used to call them when I was an undergraduate.

With that in mind, I thought I’d better find out more about the case being made for the change, so off it was to the jauntily-named Go Czechia website. Ultimately, the argument seems to boil down to two pretty unequivocal points: “People don’t always recognise our name abroad, so let’s give ourselves a new one and hope that’ll sort everything out” and “We’ve already made the decision, so you’ll just have to like it or lump it”.  

All of which got me wondering, for a start, whether nations usually have a say in how their place names are rendered in a foreign language?  Could the city of London, for example, decide that it was dissatisfied with the Czech approximation Londýn and demand a new one, perhaps grammatically female this time, if it’s not too much trouble?  Or could my compatriots insist that the abbreviation SK (taken from Spojené království, i.e. United Kingdom) be used in Czech every time that the UK is referred to by that short form in English?  Perhaps we could even the get the UN to help us stop the Czechs from talking about Anglie, when they actually mean all of Great Britain and very possibly Northern Ireland too? 

Perusing another website in favour of the change Czechia heart of Europe, I was also a little startled to discover that “The Czech Republic is simply nothing more than the name of the current state formation on the territory of CZECHIA” and not just because of the use of capitals. 

Are the Czechs unhappy with their republican set-up?  They can’t be planning to reinstate the monarchy, can they?  The Czech lands do, of course, have a long and chequered history (czun absolutely intended) of kings and other dynastic rulers – and I should know, I’ve read the Dalimil Chronicle.  But to be brutally honest, I really can’t see who from the current corridors of power might be chosen to walk in the heavy footsteps of the likes of Charles IV.  I do hope to goodness this isn’t all part of a plot to put a crown on Miloš Zeman.  I mean, quite besides the fact that the man is, to put it politely, something of a diplomatic liability, the European historical precedent for allowing presidents to ascend the throne is hardly inspiring.  Anyone care to remember King Zog of Albania? 

Facetiousness aside though, what really strikes me about this case of rebranding is the disregard for the views of the Czech people that it implies.  The term Česko, to which Czechia corresponds, is famously devisive.  I remember once being told by a Czech friend to avoid it altogether because of the controversy it courts.  Objections range from the way it sounds to the fact that the term seems to ignore the existence of Moravia and Czech Silesia, focusing only on the Bohemian component of the modern-day state, the area historically known as Čechy.  And as if things weren’t already complicated enough, the adjective český can signify both Czech and Bohemian, meaning that even the term Česká republika might be construed as a slight on non-Bohemian citizens. 

Nevertheless, the people behind Go Czechia dismiss as a myth the idea that the general public should be allowed to decide about the usage of the word, stating instead in bold letters “The decision about the name ‘Czechia’ has been made by those who are qualified by the law to make it.” 

Yikes.  So much for the power of the powerless.

Last modified on Friday, 27 May 2016 08:14
Frances Jackson

Frances Jackson is a former E&M editor and occasional contributor. Originally from the UK, she now lives in Munich, where she is pursuing a PhD in Czech poetry. Given the chance, Frances would probably spend all of her time in kitchen and is currently cooking her way around the world. She has also been known to dabble in literary translation.

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