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Don't Call Me That

Politicians in the Czech Republic, writes Adam Taylor in The Washington Post, are trying to draw a line under long years of national debate by announcing a new official short-form name for their country, Czechia.

“It is not good if a country does not have clearly defined symbols or if it even does not clearly say what its name is,” foreign minister Lubomir Zaoralek said recently. Tell me about it. On a visit to London last week I found that many educated Britons refer to the state in which I live as Éire – and I suspect their main motivation in this is actually a (misguided) attempt to be as respectful as they can. (Article 4 of the Irish constitution states that “The name of the State is Éire, or, in the English language, Ireland.”) Mind you, the foregoing preamble, in its English language version, takes as its subject “We, the people of Éire” so there would appear to be some confusion. Perhaps the meaning is that the name of the state is Éire, and in the English language there is also the alternative of Ireland, so the name of the state is Éire, or, if you can’t hack that, it's Ireland. Are you still with me? At any rate I think most Irish people (down here) call their state (and also their country if they feel there to be no divergence between the two entities) Ireland ‑ or if further precision is felt to be needed, the Republic of Ireland.

Things aren’t that easy for the Czechs (if I may) either. Of course some English-speaking people still refer to that state, when they have occasion to do so, as Czechoslovakia, though that is an entity that has not existed since 1993. The inter-war state was known (long-form) as the Czechoslovak Republic, though in its final year, after it had been forced to cede territory by Hitler and his Hungarian allies, it became the Czecho-Slovak Republic (or Czecho-Slovakia). The last few years of the unified state after the collapse of communism and before the “Velvet Divorce” saw further wrangling when it became, first, the Czechoslovak Federative Republic (spelled without a hyphen in Czech and with one in Slovak) and then the Czech and Slovak Federative Republic.

The Czechoslovak Republic (1920-1938), was a multinational state which included Czechs (Bohemians, Moravians and Silesians), Germans, Slovaks, Rusyns (or Subcarpathian Ruthenians), small numbers of Poles, and Jews who classified themselves as such rather than as belonging to one of the other nationalities. The shorthand term “Czechs” first came to stand for Bohemians, Moravians and Silesians, those who lived in what were known as “the Czech lands”, and then became more loosely used, especially by foreigners, for all citizens of the state, even those, like Germans or Slovaks, who might have been to one degree or another unhappy about being so incorporated. The late publishing mogul Robert Maxwell (born Ján Ludvík Hyman Binyamin Hoch) was, for example, sometimes known, as a result of his adventurous accounting practices, as “the bouncing Czech”; but on a strict definition he was not a Czech at all, though he was born a Czechoslovak citizen. Perhaps the bouncing Subcarpathian Ruthenian didn’t have the same ring.

The now existing state, the Czech Republic, no longer incorporates those other (German, Slovak) ethnic elements and is known to many of its citizens as Česko, though this name has never been fully accepted by all. Some indeed find its sound harsh; former president Václav Havel apparently said it made his flesh creep, and it’s true: even in English it sounds a little like a diminutive or a demotic nickname – one can imagine it being bellowed at a distance of fifty yards along Dublin's Townsend Street: “Hey! Česko!”

Opponents of the change, which seems almost certain to go through, object that the country will be confused with Chechnya (yes, in the United States this is a possibility), or that people will not know how to pronounce the new name, or will be inclined to pronounce it Chetchia rather than Checkia. We are talking about Anglo-Saxon difficulties here of course: in German, or in Slav languages, or in Irish for that matter, the most obvious pronunciation for the letter combination “ch” is represented by the phonetic symbol [x], as in Irish or Scottish Gaelic loch or German (JS) Bach. But apparently the Czechs expect to hear English-language speakers pronounce the new name with a hard [k].

The Civic Initiative Czechia, founded to promote the use of the word, runs an English-language website, Go Czechia, which answers objections – objections framed by itself ‑ to the use of the word. It argues that the “transparency and relative simplicity of a short country name will facilitate its international acceptance”. Its arguments in defence of Chechia are indeed comprehensive and mostly persuasive. One of course wishes Chechia and all Chechians the best but still, I feel this is a change that could take some time to bed in.

18.4.2016