Džíny, hamburgry and komputry: is Czech under threat from English?

‘English is attacking Czech from all sides’ one newspaper columnist recently despaired, while others talk of Czech’s ‘battle for survival’ in a world in which ever more English is spoken. From terms like ‘setobox’, ‘vygooglovat’ and ‘mobil’ on the one hand to words like ‘sorry’, ‘byzy’ and ‘lůzr’ on the other, English does seem to be making an impact on today’s Czech. But are these English borrowings really a threat to the Czech language, or do they enrich it instead? I asked some Czechs for their opinion:

“I think that English has a big influence on the Czech language, because we use many English words. For example, I use ‘komputr’, and the Czech word is actually počítač, and if I speak with my granny, she doesn’t understand what I have said. So, I think that the influence is really big.”

And do you think that this is a bad thing, or actually a rather good thing for the Czech language?

“I think it’s bad, but I think I can’t do anything about it.”

“I think in some areas, English has a big influence on Czech, but in ordinary life, the influence is not so big.”

And do you find yourself, in ordinary life, using English words, when you speak Czech?

“Yes, we use common English words like ‘management’ and ‘metro’ – but it is not easy for me to tell you which, because the words are so common, I cannot recognise if they are English anymore.”

“I always can hear English words around me, and in the slang used on computer chat, English is very frequent. It’s natural, but I don’t think it will enrich our language, I think our language will die in time.”

“If there are no such Czech words then maybe English does have too much of an influence on Czech language.”

And do you find yourself using English words sometimes when you are speaking Czech?

“Well, I try to use Czech words if I can, if there are such words.”

But it’s not always possible, you say?

“Yeah, sure.”

“I think that right now, the English language doesn’t have such a big influence on the Czech language, but we have to use our own original words as well. That is better for us, I think.”

So, best to use Czech words when they are available?

“Yes, but if the English word is shorter – so for example, in an SMS, we sometimes use English words because they are shorter.”

But the borrowing of English words is nothing new. When Karel Gott sang this not-quite-English, not-quite-Czech nonsense song in the 1960s, terms like ‘kovboj’, ‘džiny’ and ‘džez’ were already in common usage.

Karel Oliva
And indeed English words in Czech date back even further. According to head of the Institute of the Czech Language (Ústav pro jazyk český) Karel Oliva the first English loan word comes in all probability from the 18th century. It is ‘fešák’, meaning something like ‘dandy’, taken from the word ‘fashion’ and referring to the well-dressed English gents who visited Prague at the time. According to Oliva, however, English words really started to take off in Czech in the 19th century:

“My conjecture is that the first loan words from English were words which concerned sports, just like ‘fotbal’, which is from the English ‘football’, but also, and very few people know this, the word ‘pádlo’, which is from the word ‘paddle’.”

But then can we talk about there being another golden age of anglicisms in Czech around about the time of Voskovec and Werich, around about the time of the First Republic, in the 1920s?

“Well, I would say that Voskovec and Werich mixed all of the languages that they knew up together, and to my mind, actually, Voskovec and Werich used most of their English loan words after their emigration – that is after the Second World war – because they spent the war in America. But it is definitely true that the first massive influx of English words came really with the so-called First Republic, with people connected in some way to Masaryk and mostly his [American] wife, Charlotte Masaryk. And actually, at that time, it was not a political, but rather a social phenomenon. People were kind of taking their stand and showing whether they supported the European, continental, let’s say French tradition – because by that time already the German language was not very popular here – or whether they wanted to support Anglo-Saxon culture, of Great Britain and the US.”

You say that back then maybe there was a social reason or social context to using anglicisms in Czech, would you say that’s the case now – that it is a social thing?

Illustrative photo: archive of Radio Prague
“Definitely. It’s mostly social. Actually, there are two very antagonistic positions, one is really speaking to show off and suggest ‘I’m just like the Americans’. And the other position is mocking those people who pretend to be like Americans. So, you have to distinguish, but definitely, it is a social stand.”

You are the head of the Ústav pro jazyk český, which I suppose, in terms of dictionaries, makes the final decision on which words get in and don’t get into the Czech language. Are you interested, as L’Academie Francaise in France is interested, in finding Czech equivalents and Czech-ifying these words, or is that not your mission?

“The Czech-ification of these words is the final aim, but it is not the final aim of ours, it is the final aim of the natural development. And what we do, actually, is that we follow this development, and as these words develop, we put them into the lexicon. So, it might be possible that in a Czech lexicon which was published some ten or 50 years ago, there would be a different spelling. So for example, there you should find still the English spelling of ‘skateboard’, whereas now obviously, we would write it just the Czech way.”

Is it a case of English borrowings being dividable into two categories, one being words like ‘pádlo’ which Czechs don’t even think come from English anymore, and the others that very clearly are still from English, and that if you’re going to use, it is because you want to show that you know English?

“Yes, yes definitely, even though this is also a matter of development, so 20 years ago it was different, and it will be different in 20 years. But currently of course, it is the situation that you mentioned. There are a lot of words that are felt to be native Czech words, no one thinks that they are loan words. And then there is of course a set of words which are felt to be anglicisms, and they are used as anglicisms, either, as I mentioned already, to show ‘I am just like the Americans’ and then on the opposite side of the spectrum that ‘I just want to mock the Americans and those who pretend to be like them’. But, it is the situation that you mentioned.”

As a linguist, are there some English borrowings that just drive you nuts, that are just completely wrong?

“I am sometimes puzzled why some words are borrowed from English, because we already have a good Czech word. My most ‘popular’, in inverted commas, example is the word ‘farmář’. Because all the time we had ‘sedláci’ or ‘zemědělci’ and so on. And now, even on TV news, on Czech Television, on our public broadcaster, we have ‘farmáři’ – and I wonder what the difference is. Because there is an important point: in all of these borrowings, if we have a Czech word and we borrow an English word, then generally these two words do not have exactly the same meanings, they are not full synonyms, they are near synonyms. So I am puzzled, what is the different between ‘farmář’ on the one hand, and ‘statkář’ or ‘zemědělec’ on the other? But I am not an expert in agriculture, so maybe there is some. I just don’t know it.”

So head of the Institute of the Czech Language, Karel Oliva, is not worried about Czech’s fate, he just wishes people would say ‘farmář’ less. Whether all these anglicisms entering the Czech language actually stick, or end up going the same way as now rather cringe-worthy expressions such as ‘vo co go’ (‘what’s going on’), will be seen in the years to come.

The episode featured today was first broadcast on July 9, 2009.