Consistent usage of “ová” ending best possible approach, says Czech language institute chief Karel Oliva

Karel Oliva, photo: Alžběta Švarcová

Just like society in general, Czech has changed markedly since the Velvet Revolution, says Karel Oliva, director of the Institute of the Czech Language. There is now greater informality in Czech – and a divisive trend of women with foreign husbands not using the traditional “ová” surname ending.

Karel Oliva,  photo: Alžběta Švarcová
I recently discussed these subjects and more with Oliva, who comes from a family of linguists. But my first question: Given his background and area of expertise, does he wince when he hears bad Czech?

“Basically it depends what bad Czech is. I really feel uncomfortable when I hear it on public radio or television, mainly if it comes from the speakers.

“But on the street or when shopping or in the pub, for me it’s natural to use non-literary Czech. Because literary Czech is reserved, so to speak, for extra, official occasions.”

But surely some of the non-literary Czech is also bad non-literary Czech?

“Yes, but this is too fine-grained a distinction.”

What particular mistakes really bother you?

“Let’s take two examples: the plural of the neutral gender, things like ‘hezké města stály’ instead of ‘hezká města stála’; and then of course what I find unacceptable is ‘bysme’ [instead of ‘bychom’], or ‘bysem’ [instead of ‘bych’] even.

“I see it as a natural development of language that these forms catch on. But they are not the norm so they should not be used on official occasions.”

Do you ever speak up and tell people that they’re making a mistake?

“I do this more or less not in spoken Czech but in written Czech. I really have the bad habit, for example, of correcting menus in restaurants.

“If there are errors I tell them or even take out my pen and correct them on the menu, which doesn’t meet with much acceptance on the other side, I have to admit. But on my side I see it as my duty [laughs].”

Of course in Czech there’s the formal and the informal. How do you feel when you hear for example a commercial radio station and the DJ or the presenter is addressing a listener, who they clearly don’t know, informally, saying ‘ahoj’, ‘jak se máš?’ and so on? What’s your reaction to that?

Photo: archive of Radio Prague
“Well ‘ahoj’ and ‘jak se máš?’ doesn’t bother me at all. I’m more bothered by non-standard forms like ‘červenej’ instead of ‘červený’, or things like that.

“Actually there is one more point which I would like to add to my list of, so to speak, ‘favourite’ errors and this is the form of the third person plural of the verbs ‘vědět’, to know, and ‘jíst’, to eat.

“Even on official occasions these are pronounced as ‘ví’ and ‘jí’, but it should be ‘vědí’ and ‘jedí’!”

I think I make that mistake, but I won’t make it any more. I was reading an interview with you in which you said that after 1989 Czech became more informal. Was that because of the influence of the West?

“Probably, I would say, though I don’t have any real sociological study on that.

“But it’s not that only the language is changing – the whole social setting is changing to more informal. And this is the reason why one part of this setting, language, is changing as well.”

Apart from the growing informality, what other changes have occurred in Czech since 1989?

“Of course there is an influx of very many new words which we in the smaller part invent ourselves and in the much greater part take from other languages.

“But again this is should not be seen separately, from the viewpoint of language alone. The story is again a much vaster social setting – that we take on board new things, new processes, new I don’t know what, and because we want to talk about them we also need new words.

“So the most natural thing is to take over foreign words and to Czechise them, so to speak, to some extent, and then to use them.”

The last reform of Czech was in 1993 and people say it wasn’t a success.[The use of ‘s’ and ‘z’ in foreign words was changed, some long vowels were replaced by regular ones and there were some changes in the use of capitals]. Where did it go wrong?

“It went wrong mainly in that it did not have much social acceptance. I would say that there might be two reasons for that.

“One is that society still values literary Czech quite a lot. We should make a clear distinction between how people value Czech on one hand and whether they are fully able to use it on the other.

Photo: archive of Radio Prague
“Many people are simply unable to use it fluently. But on the other hand they are very critical about other people who don’t use it. Which is very funny, but it’s really like that.

“The other point is that the reform had some features of social or in this case language engineering. The authors simply thought, Well, we are so clever that we are able to foretell in which language the Czech language will develop and we will make some changes, so to speak, ahead of their time.

“Of course this is a nonsense…”

They were trying to be prescriptive.

“No, not prescriptive. No, no, no. The point is not in prescription. The point is that they tried to guess what would happen after, I don’t know, five or 10 years. Of course, they did not manage to guess it properly.

“The typical example is the writing of words ending in ‘-ismus’ [-ism], which they allowed to also be written with a ‘z’, so ‘izmus’. But it did not catch on at all…

“This reform was sketched, the first steps were taken, before 1989 and people still think that the reform was not acceptable because in very many aspects it recalls the bad Czech of communist secretaries and communist leaders.

“So for very many people the reform wasn’t acceptable because it reminded them of former times.”

I’d like to speak also about Prague Czech… is Prague Czech inferior to Moravian Czech?

“No. A similar question would be, I don’t know, whether English in Edinburgh is inferior to London English.

“It’s simply a different dialect or interdialect…”

But isn’t Moravian Czech more formal and more correct?

“No. It’s a misconception that Moravian Czech is more related to literary Czech than Prague Czech.

“In Moravia you don’t find the deviations from literary Czech which you find in Prague, but you find different deviations.

“For example, the form of the verb ‘to be’. In Prague I would say ‘já jsem v Praze’, but in Brno I would say ‘já jsu v Brně’. There are other deviations [laughs].”

I was reading an interview with you recently about whether women’s surnames should be declined if they have foreign names because they’ve married foreigners – for example the names of Karolína Peake, the politician, or Eliška Kaplicky are not declined. Am I right in thinking that you’re for a traditional approach in this matter?

Photo: Radio Prague International
“I am not a traditionalist. But I try to be a person who takes things practically.

“The story is that if we don’t have the female ending we have no reasonable way to inflect words. And inflection is a very substantial part of building up a Czech sentence.

“Basically the problem comes from a clash between world culture and Czech national culture. It’s a clash of cultures and because of this it has no good solution.

“My favourite example of what might happen if you don’t do that but you want to remain clear is the newspaper title: ‘V kremlu se setkali Putin a Hillary’. Which means ‘Putin and Hillary met in the Kremlin’.

“You can’t really say ‘V kremlu se setkali Putin a Clinton’, or ‘Putin and Clinton met in the Kremlin’, because that would be interpreted as if it were Bill Clinton, not Hillary Clinton.

“On the other hand if you don’t want to use Clintonová because you dislike the ‘ová’ ending, then what do you do? The result in the end is that it looks like Putin invited some, you know, commercial woman. It’s really very much demeaning to the woman.

“If so, then why not ‘Vladimir met Hillary at the Kremlin’? But not ‘Putin and Hillary’. That’s totally demeaning to the woman.

“It’s a really difficult task which cannot be solved easily. To me, it seems that in such a situation the addition of the ‘ová’ is not a good solution. But it’s the proverbial best among all miserable solutions.”

But shouldn’t there be some exceptions, like Marilyn Monroe?

“Yes, of course. Very often it’s a matter of usage. Marilyn Monroeová sounds very funny, even to me, because since my childhood I’m used to Marilyn Monroe. Sure.”