New debate erupts over use of -ová suffix in Czech female surnames

Photo: Petr Šmerkl, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

Should Czech women be able to choose whether or not to use the ending -ová in their surname? A debate over the question has flared up again after the cabinet approved a draft law on birth registers, which denies women the possibility to do so. The Pirate Party calls it discriminatory and wants to reverse the decision in the Lower House.

Photo: Petr Šmerkl,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY-SA 3.0
Most Czech female surnames typically end with the suffix –ová, which serves to denote the grammatical gender. However, there has been a trend in recent years among Czech women to ditch the ending and use the masculine form of their surname.

The government last week approved a draft law on birth registers, names and surnames, which rejects the option. According to Deputy Prime Minister Jan Hamáček, the –ová ending is part of Czech grammar. Most linguists, including Karel Oliva, have welcomed the decision:

“Compared to English, the structure of the Czech sentence is different. We don’t distinguish categories such as sentential subject or sentential object by their position in a sentence, but by case endings.

“If we do not attach something like -ová or a similar suffix to Czech women’s names, we will be unable to express the case but also to express the gender.

“If we don’t add it, it will seem like the name has no case and that it is a masculine name. That obviously brings up some discrepancies in communication.”

Mr Oliva also points out that the use of the typical ending –ová was documented in the oldest written sources of the Czech language. He says that while women should have the freedom to use whatever form of surname they prefer, the official codification should respect Czech grammar:

“The law which is presently under discussion is a law about how these names should be entered into official documents. There is no law concerning the Czech language which in any way prescribes how the names should be used informally.

Karel Oliva | Photo: Annette Kraus,  Radio Prague International
“Everyone is free to choose which name she, in this case, wants to use in everyday life. As far as bureaucracy is concerned, I would say that the traditional approach should be taken.”

Those who are in favour of change argue that such a practice discriminates women, denying them the right to decide about something as important as their own name. Gender linguist Jana Valdrová:

“A woman can refuse the ending -ová only if she is a foreigner, has a foreign nationality, lives with a foreigner or has a temporary residence in a foreign country.

“Why does the state care about where I want to live? That makes the state act like Big Brother who spies on us and wants to know our plans.”

The draft law on birth registers, names and surnames is currently being debated by MPs in the Lower House. The Pirate Party is hoping to push through an amendment to the law that would give women their say in the matter.

Whether they succeed or not, the new law should come into effect as of July next year.