Spell Czech: new online grammar launched to correct frequent language mistakes

Despairing students often say that Czech is a particularly difficult language to learn, and even Czechs themselves have problems with it. Last year, the Ústav pro jazyk český received over 9000 emails from Czechs unsure about their spelling and grammar. Now, the organisation has launched the first online Czech handbook to help users sort their s’s from their z’s. I met the head of the Ústav pro jazyk český, Karel Oliva, to ask him whether it was exasperation which drove him to publish a grammar online:

Karel Oliva
“Well, actually you are right, but the way you put it is a bit politically incorrect. Basically, the story is that the number of emails and phone-calls we receive is rising to such an extent that we cannot physically answer all of them, or we are having a great deal of trouble answering all of them. And the questions we receive are very often the same. So we decided to put the answers on the internet, and we hope that some people will look for the answers themselves.”

And what are the most frequently asked questions?

“Basically, it’s the usual suspects. So, punctuation and capital letters.”

You said that you are getting an ever-increasing number of emails, is that because Czechs are getting worse at grammar and spelling?

“Well, I would be a little bit more positive and optimistic, and I would see it in this way: people are more and more aware of the fact that it is necessary to use correct Czech. In a private conversation it doesn’t matter, but if you run a firm and you have some publicity materials and you have some orthographic mistakes on those leaflets, then your firm loses public image.”

This is the first very comprehensive internet grammar or style-guide of its type. Would you say the internet is actually a very good way of publishing a handbook like this?

“It is much better than a written book because we can update it every day. Because once something is printed on paper and then sold, it grows old every day you have it on your shelf. But on the internet you can update it. And if there are any errors - and there are errors, we are only human - you can correct them. We can not only update the things that are there, but we can add new things, because new words are coming into Czech every day. So using the current technology we have at our disposal, this seems to be the best way to present Czech orthography and the Czech language in general.”

Early feedback suggests that the handbook is maybe slightly complicated to use. Have you got plans to streamline or simplify the handbook?

“Actually there are no plans to make it simpler. If you are a physicist then there is this law of keeping matter, or keeping energy – and similarly there is this law of keeping complexity. You can’t make complex things simpler just by putting them on the internet. They are complex, and this is just how it is!”