The Czech Republic –or Czechia – a dilemma that Czechs have been unable to resolve since the 1993 Czech-Slovak divorce left the country without a one-word name that would roll of the tongue easily and that the public could identify with. On a state visit to Israel this week, President Miloš Zeman revived a twenty-year-old debate on an informal English name for his country, publicly thanking his host, President Simon Perez, for using the informal name Czechia rather than the official Czech Republic. I discussed the proposal with the head of the Czech Language Institute of the Academy of Sciences, Karel Oliva.
“Well, I personally do find it acceptable. We have to go back into history to see that this name was actually coined back in the 17th century by Pavel Skála of Zhoře in his Latin work Respublica Bohema where he talked about the Czech state and wanted to express the idea that there is something which goes deeper or is more ample than just Bohemia, Moravia and Silesia. You can also find it on different inscriptions reading „Sanctus Wenceslaus Patron Czechiae“, so this name has been around for a couple of centuries already. On the other hand, while I feel it might be a good informal name, it is not me who should decide the matter. It is the English speakers themselves who should decide whether they would or would not like to use it. In any case I would like to stress that this is an informal name and the official name –which is the Czech Republic – should be maintained throughout.”
There is a Czech version of Czechia – which is Česko – but Czechs seem to have a problem identifying with it. I just saw a poll where 6,000 people consider it a good idea and 16,000 do not. Why is this?
“Well, there are historical reminiscences and I would say it is a question of generations. I would say that the young generation –people under 25 – do not have a problem with it. On the other hand we elderly people, so to say, we built up our aesthetical ideal of the Czech language in our youth and at that time no such name existed. So we live on historical reminiscences where the word Česko and basically its form Tschechei was used by the Nazis. This is attested by Goebbels’ diaries. So there is a reasonable and understandable negative aesthetical attitude to this name. On the other, hand I can say that apart from some small anecdotic problems, I am ready to accept it as a scholar. So I have this internal split – as a speaker of the Czech language I do not like it, but on the other hand my scientific self says “well, ok, its a good name, it is well-formed so there is no possible scientific or linguistic objection to it”. This is also attested by young people who use it and who are not burdened by the historic and personal legacy. So I would say that Česko in the Czech language could survive –though I stress again only as an informal name.”
Abroad the Czech Republic is sometimes confused with Chechnya –more often than we would like to see – would this shorter name not add to the confusion?
“That might be the case, but if we wanted to avoid this confusion we would have to invent a radically different name...there have been suggestions such as the Czech Lands as in the Netherlands, Bohemia, Great Bohemia or whatever ..so I would really just repeat that this is a decision for English speakers to make, what they want to call the Czech Republic informally. The confusion with Chechnya, well it is an unhappy coincidence, but on the other hand it is nothing which is particular to Czechia or Česko. People very often confuse Slovakia and Slovenia and I think we could find many more examples of this.”