Renaming the world in Czech


Hi, and welcome to Sound Czech - which is going to sound Czecher than ever today because we’re going to talk about the Czechification of foreign place names, i.e. exonyms. We’ll start with Austria, because after hundreds of years of cohabitation Czechs have renamed just about everything in the country, beginning with the word Austria itself, Rakousko in Czech, as you can hear in this song by Šlapeto, “Kampak na nás bolševici”, where they sing about the “rakouský stat”, meaning the Austrian Empire.

Než-li rakouský stát krutý rozpadnul se na kousky,
Šmeral byl vždycky černožlutý přívrženec rakouský.
Když nic nekoukalo z Rakous do bolševismu se zakous.

Before the Austrian state fell into bits, Šmeral had always been a black-and-yellow Austrian devotee, but when nothing came of Austria he sunk his teeth into Bolshevism”. Another song about the various thumbs that Czechs have found themselves under over the centuries. Czechs have an intimate relationship with Austria of course not just because they are neighbours but because the Austrian monarchy ruled the “Czech lands” for nearly 400 years, and so the whole map of the country has been Czechified. Near the Czech-Austrian border is a town called Raabs an der Thaya, and historically it and its 11th century castle was called Ratgoz, which was Czechified as Rakousy. The country lying beyond the castle came to be referred to as Rakousy as well, giving rise to the modern Rakousko.

There are several ways that Austrian towns are renamed in Czech. In many cases they are simply made to sound Czech, like the Alpine town of Bludenz - Bludenec, in Czech, or Krems an der Donau which is Kremže in Czech and gave its name to spicy, kremžská mustard. They may have their meaning translated – the small, nearby town of Horn for example is “Rohy”, and Salzburg used to be called Solnohrad, meaning literally Salt Castle, just as it does in German. And then there are Austrian names taken from Old Slavonic that have retained their original names in Czech. The town or river of Zwettl for instance was named Světlá, meaning a clearing, by previous Slavic inhabitants, and it is still called that in Czech. Austria’s second city Graz was probably founded by Slavs – a grad or hrad is a fortress in Slavic languages, and today it is called Štýrský Hradec in Czech, Styrian Fortress.

It isn’t just Austria that Czechs have renamed of course. Germany is famously known as Německo because the people there can’t speak, they are němí, or mute. The German town of Aachen is called Cáchy, apparently a confused recitation of the phrase “zu Aachen”. Lots of other European cities have simply garbled names in Czech, like Kodaň (Copenhagen), Drážďany (Dresden), or Benátky (Venice).

Some other places elsewhere are translated literally as well, like Munich (Mnichov, or a place of monks), and some are translated badly (like the German town of Constance, which was named after a Roman emperor but is called Kostnice, or “ossurary” in Czech. The rules for all this are of course non-existent, and it’s recommended that you don’t try translating place names on your own. New Zealand in Czech for example is Nový Zéland, but if you try to book a flight to Nový (New) York for example you will be mercilessly laughed at, so beware.