Is English threatening the Czech language?


Take a walk down most streets in the centre of Prague, and you'll notice one very curious thing. The universal, almost over-riding presence of the English language; be it on shop signs, advertising posters, restaurant menus, or indeed wherever one finds the written word. For an English speaker, a trip to Prague need never really feel like a trip to a foreign country at all. Feel like a meal? Look out for the signs that promise 'Classic Czech cuisine' or 'Fast Food'. Fancy a shopping trip? Just follow the signs to the 'sale'.

I'm standing on Na Prikope, which is probably the most Western shopping street in Prague. Opposite me a new branch of 'Clockhouse' stores seem to be going up, the builders are busy at work, and on the other side of me I've got a United Colours of Benetton store, and I've just noticed that in the window they've got a sign saying 'sale, saldi, soldes, reduziert, saldos and rabajas' which I presume is 'sale' in lots of different languages, but no Czech, so I'm just going to see if I can find some people to comment on this.

"It's nothing (to do) with me, because I'm not a potential customer of this shop..."

When you look opposite you, and you see in this shop 'sale', 'saldi', 'soldes', but no Czech, does it bother you?

"It is a tourist shop."

So you don't go to shops like this?

"No, I don't."

I decided to ask Paccino Simone, shop manager of the clothing chain's Na Prikope store why there was no Czech in the windows.

"It's simple to explain, because Benetton is the kind of store that has central a factory in Italy and in Italy they make the posters in many languages and here in Czech Republic Benetton is present only about ten years... and I think that now that the Czech Republic is in Europe, it's sure that we will be in Czech too, because it's true that here in Prague there are a lot of foreigners, but Czech customers are important too."

I wasn't quite convinced that ten years really qualified as a short time, but it was at least a promise to put Czech up in the windows.

But many of the more surreal examples are created by the Czechs themselves. 'Ceska Restaurant', instead of either 'Ceska Restaurace' or 'Czech Restaurant', is particularly common. Go into a shop to buy washing-up liquid and you might see a bottle of 'new Jar' not New Jar or 'novy Jar' or a brand of Czech shampoo called 'Kiss Classic', which proudly states it has a 'new receptura', or new formula, in complete English, both in fact phrases that make no sense in either Czech or English.

Na Prikope Street
I asked Ivana Bozdechova, Assistant professor of modern Czech language at the faculty of philosophy and arts at Charles University whether in this new age of open markets and globalisation, the Czech language might be seen as an old fashioned hindrance to a free market.

"I wouldn't go that far that this might be an effort to apologise or to feel that we were back(wards). But then again more attractive is to use (the) English language. Not only (is it) more effective, but maybe there is the feeling that we are more updated, simply something what is 'in'. In Czech, we adopt the phrase from English to be 'in', meaning to be more modern and to know what's going on. So that might also be a fashion."

But is this fashion threatening the very fabric of the Czech language? In something of a cultural phenomenon, new, more English sounding words are invented by the Czechs themselves everyday, even in place of existing Czech ones. 'Vedouci', becomes 'lidr', spelt differently, but unmistakably English. A 'vterina' - meaning second - becomes a 'sekunda', 'spravedlnost' becomes 'ju-sti-ce', a phonetic breakdown of the word justice, identity, formerly 'totoznost', becomes 'identita', the list is endless. It's all a godsend to those native English-speakers trying not to learn Czech or to foreign companies who get to save money on the printing of nation-specific packaging, but one wonders what the Czechs feel that they are getting from it. Professor Bozdechova explains

"There are some words, especially connected with political arrangements, with social life, with hierarchy, with professions which are still very closely connected in Czech mind(s) with Socialism. And even that you have similar structure, similar organisation, similar arrangement in political system, just to demonstrate and to express verbally that it's completely different than it was under Communism, so I think that choosing different words for different titles and positions implies that it has nothing to do with the previous regime."

Such practices might seem mildly amusing, until one looks beneath the surface. I met with a girl who I'll call Marketa, who works for an American company in Brno and who asked to remain anonymous. Marketa told me how her English speaking management makes their own lives easier by contributing to and insisting on the Anglicisation of the Czech language. Staff are encouraged to put nonsensical Czech endings on English words so for example the plural of office becomes "officy", instead of the proper "kancelare". She also told me that they no longer go for "schuzky", meaning meetings, but for "mitinky". So in this environment, a Czech worker might say "Jdu do oficu na ten mitink s bosem. Budeme talkovat o vecech, ktery nelikuje." How many English sounding words did you spot in that sentence?

But numerous shops and signs in the centre of Prague have already confined Czech to second place after English, creating a possible uneasy parallel with the strictly enforced signage requirements imposed under the Nazi occupation from 1939-1945, in which German was always printed dominantly above or to the left of Czech, in order to underline its superiority.

"We are in Prague. It should be something in English, don't you think so?"

RP: You think, in Prague things should be written in English?

"Not just in Prague. I think if we are part of EU, it should be all over.'

RP: Why?

"We should have some other language, not just Czech, not to be separated from the other countries."

Indeed, if there was a phrase that I heard over and over again with regards to the prevalence of English, it was "so that we are not isolated". One cannot escape the conclusion, that over forty years of Communist isolation, has invoked a feeling in many Czechs that isolation would be a far worse fate, than Anglicisation.

"We want to go with the flow, so simply to become part of modern world, we want to have the closest connections, to know what's going on."

I must confess, that before having spoken to ordinary people about this subject, I had expected to find strong feelings against what was going on, not just in shop windows, but with the Czech language as well, but instead, what I discovered was something else entirely. I asked some passers by, why they thought English had such prominence in the heart of their shopping district.

"I think it's for idiots"

RP: For idiots? What do you mean?

"For stupid people who think that if it's written in English, they've got some special wares."

"As far as I can say, I would prefer the pub instead of shops giving sale and 'sleva'."

"I don't care about it, because these sellers don't care about Czech people...For example when you go to the restaurant, there is a beer for sixty crowns. That's not for Czech people. That's not for normal Czech people like me."

And the truth of the matter is, such Czechs would rather you didn't know where they go for food and drinks in the centre of Prague. It certainly isn't in the Old Town square or on Na Prikope, and to broadcast the locations of these places here would be tantamount to committing a criminal act. For in these places, the beer is still cheap, and the signs are still all in Czech, and perhaps in an almost historical reflex action, in the centre of Prague, ordinary Czech culture has once again been forced into the nooks and crevices that lie far beyond the radar screens of your average tourist of foreign investor.

One will of course always find some Czechs envious of the tourists' purchasing power, and just as many eager to jump on the consumerist bandwagon, but most Czechs that I spoke to were full of something else, something that can easily be confused with apathy or even xenophobia, but which instead provides a strong clue to the Czech psyche itself: for the people of this country have over the centuries, witnessed both the promises and threats of Imperialism, Fascism, Communism, that something as benign as Anglicisation through tourism, or as transparent as Anglicisation through consumerism, doesn't really register as much of a threat.