Is the Czech language threatened by the Internet?


"Strc prst skrz krk"... Now that's a sentence that sooner or later just about anyone learning Czech is bound to stumble upon, or rather stumble over. It means something like "Stick your finger down your throat", and as is famous for the fact that it does not include a single vowel. Such are the wonders of the Czech language, and for ninety years this year the wellbeing of the language has been overseen by one of the nation's most respected institutions, the Institute for the Czech Language. To mark its birthday, the institute has organised an international conference and this week over a hundred scholars of the Czech language from around the world have gathered in Prague to indulge their passion for Czech and exchange views about the latest developments in the language. Discussion has not just covered traditional fields of linguistics. The impact of new information technology has figured prominently. Dr Vera Henzl from Stanford University in California has made a special study of Czech and the Internet. She spoke with Radio Prague's David Vaughan about the Internet and other aspects of the conference.

Vera Henzl: Internet information today is 80% in English, so whoever is using that medium is obviously influenced by the impact of international English.

Radio Prague: Do you see that as a threat to Czech?

VH: No, I don't think so. You know, I was using that comparison - the Norman invasion of 1066 - the French language just flooded the British Isles and English survived.

RP: But on the other hand, for example, the more people write through the Internet, you see Czechs writing to each other without using all the accents, the "carky" and "hacky" and so on. Do you think that they're on the way out, these things?

VH: Maybe it will lead to some modernization of these things. Actually if you look centuries back, old texts don't have capital letters, don't have commas or punctuation marks and people survived that, so maybe we are making a full cycle and getting back to short utterances, short sentences, which don't need any commas and complicated syntactic punctuation.

RP: And so you're confident about the future of the Czech language and the development of the Czech language.

VH: Czech has a long history of borrowings from German, from Latin, from French, from English before the Internet, so I think it will enrich the language.

RP: Another thing that fascinates me about this conference is that I was expecting it to be dry and academic, but I can see people talking here with passion about sometimes minute details of the Czech language and even subjects like politics have come into the discussion. It all seems to be mixed in there somehow.

VH: Any language study is a little different from the study of physical sciences or sociology even, because everyone is the owner, the master of language, so even the least educated, ignorant layman is entitled to have an opinion, and it may be good, or correct, or better. So that's the beauty of studying living language, because it's so dynamic.

RP: It's something that's relatively new in this country, isn't it, that respect for the spoken language, because there has always been a very strict division between spoken Czech and written Czech, hasn't there?

VH: Exactly, and I tried in my report to point to the fact that modernization or development over time should not be based on the written language.