Karel Oliva - on the subtle difference between "mitink" and "schuzka"

Karel Oliva

Rob Cameron's guest on this week's One on One is Karel Oliva, head of the Institute of the Czech Language. Every time Czechs start using a new word, or every time an old word goes out fashion, the Institute keeps track of the changes. Of course it does a great deal more than that: monitoring changes in spelling, grammar, slang, all adding up to a constantly updated record of this Slavic language spoken by 10 million people in the Czech Republic and - with various degrees of fluency - by thousands of foreigners around the world.

Karel, someone once described a language as nothing more than a dialect with an army. Do you agree with that description, and if so, do you see yourself as a foot soldier in that army?

"Well, I have to say that this sounds a bit too militant to me. I think language is simply a means of communication, and that we have to fight with the language or fight for the language - that's not an idea I agree with."

Czech is of course notoriously difficult to learn, even for Czechs themselves. I'm surprised how often my Czech colleagues have to seek help to spell common words. Languages evolve, why is Czech still so difficult and un-user-friendly?

"Un-user-friendly! It's a very nice expression! You know, the language had a very difficult period of development in the 17th and 18th centuries, and even in the first half of the 19th century. Mainly the problem was that by that time, Czech had ceased to be the official language of the country - the official language by that time was German. In the period of the so-called National Revival, those people who tried to restore Czech as a literary language had some romantic and today we would probably say naive ideas of how to establish the literary language. So for the literary norm, they didn't choose the language spoken by 'the common people' - i.e. peasants, but the high, elevated language of the Bible - the Bible of Kralice, which was printed at the turn of the 17th century. So actually by the time this norm was reestablished, the true development of the language had advanced by 200 years. In this way, a gap opened between spoken or common Czech, and the literary standard. So with a kind of exaggeration, we might say that literary Czech is the first foreign language that our children learn at school."

Do you - as the head of the Institute of the Czech Language - ever make mistakes in Czech?

"Yes. Probably, yes. I mean, everyone does. I don't think I make mistakes - or I hope I don't make mistakes in writing. But definitely in 'informal formal' speech - that is if I am asked to speak using formal language on informal matters, then it's quite probable that I do make mistakes. Yes. Sorry! But I do."

There are many people who claim that Czech is under attack from all sides, especially from abroad. Should Czechs say "mitink" when they could say "schuzka"? Should Czechs say "manazer" instead of "vedouci" or "reditel"? Do you agree that foreign words have no place in Czech?

"Definitely it's true that there are many foreign words, loan words, that appear now as contrasted to the situation in the second half of the 20th century. But I don't think this is any kind of danger for the Czech language. First of all, this situation seems strange because there were [during the Communist era] forty years of terrible stagnation. This contrast has come about simply because there is much more contact with the Western world, with the technological world. New things arrive, and new names arrive with them. The second point is that I would say every educated Czech would agree that one of the most brilliant periods of the Czech language was the Czech language of the humanist period, of the 16th and early 17th century. If you really go into detail, if you look at Czech texts of that time, you will discover so many loan words from Latin, that you would say 'oh at that time it was much worse than today.'"

So Czech will survive "mitink" and "kompjuter" and "manazer".

"I can have a 'mitink' with you, but I cannot have a 'mitink' with my girlfriend...that will always be 'schuzka'. And 'manazer' and 'reditel' is something different, because there is a real timbre in the word 'manazer'. 'Manazer' is the one who really manages and who actually does something, while 'reditel' has a certain taste of the Communist era, someone who has been installed from above and might not even understand what he's doing..."

And you say that as the 'reditel' of the Institute of the Czech Language!

"Yes! This is not related to my person...no, I might even be that sort of person, but this is the linguistic truth about the words 'reditel' and 'manazer'. They are different."

Do we really need bodies such as the Institute of the Czech Language? There's no equivalent for the English language, and English seems to have done alright.

"Yes, but English is a language which is spoken by around one billion people, and Czech is in a different position. Basically the idea is that the Institute takes on the tasks which in Great Britain, the United States, Australia and Canada and a lot of other countries are simply taken care of by publishing houses. So one of the tasks of this Institute is to publish dictionaries of the Czech language. To compile a dictionary is an extremely lengthy, and because of that extremely costly task. Second, again, there are hundreds of universities and university departments of English all over the world, so there are a lot of people and a lot of institutions which deal in the scientific investigation of English in all its aspects. How many universities do we have in the Czech Republic? There are probably ten serious ones, maybe even less. So again, if we want to do some research on the Czech language, we cannot rely on less than ten universities. Research into language seems to be at a turning point now, in the sense that language will very soon become a very important means of communication not only among people but also in the information technologies, in communication with computers. For this kind of very practical application, we need good basic research. So this is again what the Institute of the Czech Language is for."