Czechs borrow to widen vocabulary

Illustrative photo: Štěpánka Budková

How has the Czech language developed over the past four decades? What expressions do we borrow from other languages and which words have fallen into oblivion? These are just some of the question I asked Martin Prošek, the head of the Institute of the Czech language, which has just started to release a new monolingual dictionary of Czech. Its first chapter, containing words starting with the letter A, has just been published in electronic form.

Martin Prošek,  photo: archive of Institute of the Czech language
I first asked Mr Prošek why it took almost 40 years since the last such comprehensive monolingual dictionary was released:

“The reason why there has been such a long pause is that meanwhile lexicographers worked on different tasks. One of the tasks was a different dictionary published in 1971, which only has one volume.

“They also published an Academic Dictionary of Terms, and then they also worked on supporting works of the dictionary of phraseology. And later on, in quite recent years, they published two volumes of dictionary of newly borrowed words, which was mapping the new development in the lexis, so that’s why has there been such a long pause.”

To what extent has the Czech language developed in those four decades? I imagine it must have developed quite fast, with the Velvet Revolution and country opening up to the West…

“That’s right. If we consider the period you are talking about we can say that the Velvet Revolution came approximately in the middle of the period and the first half of the period was not so turbulent in terms of the development of language compared to the development in the second half of the period.

“So I definitely agree that the Velvet Revolution and being open up to the world was one of the main influences that left some imprint on the face of the language. So basically we can say that the most notable development in the language is that a lot of new loan words came into the language.”

I imagine that most of those loan words come from the English language. Is that right?

“That is right, but we must also mention that English definitely is not the only influence on Czech. There are also loan words from other languages. There are fore example some French terms, especially those connected with food, such as ‘bageta’, ‘croissant’ or ‘bujabéza’.

“There are also many terms from Asian languages denoting for example martial arts or some spiritual and religious movements. But of course the English language represents the biggest portion of the new lexis coming into the Czech language.”

“The Velvet Revolution and being open up to the world was one of the main influences that left some imprint on the face of the language.”

Which areas of the lexis have developed the fastest?

“Most of the words that came into the language are connected with technology, especially with information technology. There are also many words of this kind in business, in economics, for example. And surprisingly, for general public, there are not so many English words in the general language, for example on TV or on the radio. Most of the English words really belong to more specialised areas.”

You also decided to leave some of the words out in the new edition of the dictionary. How do you actually decide which words are going to stay and which words you are going to cross out?

“The main criterion we use for deciding is the frequency of the word. Nowadays we follow the frequency that we can trace according to the language corpora, which is basically a large set of texts with grammatical annotation with annotation telling us about the sources of the text, what kind of newspaper or source it’s been taken from, so frequency is the most prominent criterion nowadays.”

Would you say some of the words that you decided to leave out were words that young people nowadays wouldn’t actually understand?

“Not only for children. We basically leave out those words that simply disappeared or are simply disappearing from the language nowadays, for example babictví or bezdětek.

“There are also words that are no longer used because the thing they were connected with is non-existent, for example Austrofil, person who follows the policy of Austro-Hungarian Empire, so that kind of vocabulary is not included into the dictionary of modern Czech any longer.”

The new dictionary is set to have around 150,000 entries. How much is it compared to the previous edition released 40 years ago?

“The edition of 40 years ago contained about 192,000 entries, but we cannot compare these two directly because the previous edition also included some selection of words from the 19th century, which the new edition does not.

Illustrative photo: Štěpánka Budková
“It is basically centred around the modern language, which is defined as the language of approximately three generations, and the most distant moment in time taken into consideration is the year 1945.”

I imagine creating a dictionary must be quite a lengthy process. How long have you been working on it?

“It really is. We started working on this edition of the dictionary in 2012. We have developed software for making a dictionary. We have prepared a methodology of making the dictionary and the first set of entire has been published in recent days.”

Will this new dictionary be regarded as an official norm?

“It definitely will be. To be more precise, we don’t want to say that this is a norm which must be followed on every occasion and under any circumstances. In the Czech language environment there is no law saying that a certain dictionary or a certain language reference book must be used under any circumstance.

“Following language reference books is only compulsory for schools. Once you get outside school the fact that you actually respect language reference books such as dictionaries is a matter of social and cultural tradition. So we would definitely be very delighted if the language users respect the dictionary and we will strongly recommend using the dictionary.

“It will definitely be perceived as a norm through this cultural tradition I am talking about, but not because the Czech Language Institute is an official body that has the legal power to control someone’s language behaviour.”

The monolingual dictionary is just one of the tasks of the Institute of the Czech language. What else are you working on at the moment?

“There are several ongoing projects in the Institute. I would probably mention mainly those that have the greatest impact on the general public and among these I range projects that are concerned with compiling large sets of language data.

“There are several database built in the Czech Language Institute. There is a developing database for example of old Czech expressions, called Vokabulář webový. There are also dictionaries of place names developed in the institute.

“Most of the words that came into the language are connected with technology, especially information technology.”

“The listeners may also know the Internet Language Reference Book or Internetová jazyková příručka which is gradually being improved and new language units are being added according to different criteria.

“Our Moravian branch works on publishing large sets of data concerning the dialogues of Czech. There are also some old dictionaries being published in digital form. So I believe that if the language users browse our website they will find plenty of sources they can use for language education.”

Finally, when will this monolingual dictionary be complete?

“That depends on many factors. This is in fact the first dictionary of Czech that is published primarily in electronic form and the printed form is only in consideration. We are also thinking of ways how to incorporate gradual improvement and modifications to the dictionary.

“So in fact, this is a piloting project, checking the possibilities of internet publication, checking the possibilities of gradual improving the dictionary by constant dialogue between the dictionary makers and the users of the dictionary.

“So we estimate that the dictionary could be completed in about ten years but as I say, this is just an estimate.”