-Ová reaction? Commentator reprimanded for not using feminine suffix

Jiří Kraus, photo: Khalil Baalbaki

Britney Spearsová, Angela Merkelová, Venus Williamsová – this is how some of the world’s most famous women are referred to in Czech. The –ová suffix is widely used in Czech to denote it’s a woman you’re talking about. Czech women who wanted to ditch the -ová and use the masculine form of a surname were only allowed to do so as recently as 2004, and this is still very much the exception to the rule. A row erupted over whether the –ová form was outdated last week when a TV sports commentator refused to use it. In light of the uproar, I spoke to one of the –ova’s biggest defenders, linguist Jiří Kraus. He claims it is an important part of the Czech national identity:

“Yes, I think it is a typical mark of all inflected languages. For example, if you say ‘František’s dog’, then you add an –s to František. It’s a mark of normal English, I think. And Czech is a highly inflected language with many changes in the forms, so it is useful and regular to add –ová.”

But then there is a feminist lobby here in the Czech Republic which would say ‘I’m not Mr Novák’s’ – you were saying it was the same as adding a genitive –s on the end of an English word - saying ‘paní Nováková’ is like saying ‘Mr Novák’s wife’. Don’t you think that is quite old fashioned?

“If you are Mrs Nováková in Czech and you live in Canada - then it is quite normal that you are called Mrs Novák there. But you must get used to being called Mrs Nováková in standard Czech, in conversation. It is quite ordinary for people to say ‘Mrs Nováková’ here and you must get used to it – you might have neighbours, and lots of friends who will call you ‘Nováková’ and it is very difficult to say to all of them all the time ‘no, don’t call me Nováková, I’m Novák’.”

But what about with foreign names, Nováková or Novák is a Czech name, but for example, I’m Rosie Johnston, and I’ve seen Rosie Johnstonová written before. That is not my name, isn’t that a bit of a problem?

“Yes, but for example, if I talk about a foreign man in Czech - let’s say he is called Johnston - then I would say ‘řekni to panu Johnstonovi’. It is the same thing for males too – their names change. So everybody must get used to the fact that there are declensions in Czech and that there are many ways in which people’s names change in this language, as with in other inflected languages.”

Adding an –ová onto the end of a name, especially onto the end of a long foreign name, adds two syllables to that name. Doesn’t it make it rather difficult to say in many cases, and maybe sometimes even rather comic-sounding? Say you have someone called Mrs Antoniades and you make her Mrs Antoniadesová – isn’t that a bit of a mouthful?

“Yes, there are many examples in which we don’t add an –ová. But I think that these are really exceptions. For example, if you listen to the radio or the television and you hear a list of fifty or so female names, I think it is better to add an –ová to the end of these, but I believe that Sophia Loren, Greta Garbo and Brigitte Bardot and so on are exceptions; it is not only their name but their whole brand or mark.”