Meryl Streepová, or Streep? Daily’s move sparks debate over surname endings

On moving to the Czech Republic, many foreigners are surprised to find famous women such as Hillary Clinton and Meryl Streep referred to in the Czech media as ‘Hillary Clintonová’ and ‘Meryl Streepová’. Now one Czech news outlet has sparked debate on the matter, after dropping this practice for foreign women’s surnames.

Deník N published an editorial on New Year’s Day announcing that it was no longer going to use the suffix ‘-ová’ for foreign women’s surnames – a decision that has divided its readership, with some welcoming it and others strongly criticising it.

Source: Deník N

Deník N’s editor-in-chief, Pavel Tomášek, says the decision was not an easy one to make and that the issue even divided the editorial team at the newspaper.

“Part of the team advocated for continuing to use the -ová suffix. But another part thought that it would be good to align ourselves with how the language is evolving and how society is evolving, how society views this issue.”

Pavel Tomášek | Photo: Twitter of Pavel Tomášek

Deník N said in their editorial that one of the main reasons for their decision was the strong influence of English on the Czech language, but that it was by no means the only one. They also cited the growing number of Czech women choosing not to take the suffix and the changing views on the matter in Czech society.

“Society is evolving – it is also connected with the fact that an ever-increasing number of Czech women are choosing not to use the suffix -ová. So actually we are already faced with the question and the problem of how to deal with the uninflected form when using female names in our texts.”

But many people disagree with the decision. Linguist Karel Oliva summarises the difficulties caused for Czech grammar by dropping the suffix:

“The problem is the construction of Czech sentences. The problem is that Czech is an inflectional language, so we need declension on nouns, which includes female surnames. And without -ová, inflection is impossible.

Karel Oliva | Photo: Annette Kraus,  Radio Prague International

“First of all, it will be a problem for communication, and second it will be a problem in general because it goes against the spirit of the language. We have a language which does not use position in the sentence for designating what is the subject and what is the object, like in English or French. We have a language where these functions are marked by endings. And if we deprive names of endings, then we have a problem.”

Oliva is of the opinion that the decision was primarily motivated by political considerations and with little respect for how Czech works:

“This is a wrong decision – this is obviously a decision which is not driven by linguistic considerations, but by considerations like political correctness or some weird kind of aesthetics. But obviously from a linguistic viewpoint, it is the wrong decision.”

Tomášek acknowledges that using the -ová suffix is a functional and useful tool in Czech, as it allows foreign women’s names to be declined and inflected like other Czech nouns. But, he says, the team has come up with some rules for how to formulate texts so that the change will barely be noticeable. And he says that the editorial team arrived at this decision after months, even years of debate, and that they thought about it very carefully, weighing all the pros and cons.

As Deník N themselves put it in their editorial, although they are not the first media publication to take this step, they are still in the minority, and most likely will be for some time yet. State media are still bound to use Czech grammar rules as stipulated by the Institute for the Czech Language.