What do crayfish, reeds and Austria have in common?

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RakRak What do crayfish, reeds and Austria have in common? Well, to tell you the truth, nothing, but in the Czech Republic it is said that they have everything to do with each other. In today's programme we'll be deciphering fact from fiction.

The Czech word for Austria is Rakousko, and the Czech word for crayfish is rak. If you were born between 22 June and 22 July, you are also a Rak. And the Czech word for a reed, like you find in a swamp is rákos. Do you see the similarities between these words?

Rakousko - Austria
rak - crayfish (or crab in Old Slavic)
Rak - the star-sign Cancer
rákos - a reed

I caught up with John Dingley, a professor of Russian and Slavic linguistics at York University in Canada. He shares a few ideas about where the word Rakousko comes from.

"Karel Havlíček Borovský, the famous Czech writer, was of the opinion that this Rakousko came from the Slavic word rak - crab. Crabs he said, walk backwards just like Austrians. Another theory is Rakousko is derived from the Czech word rákos, which in English would be a reed. The Polish linguist Alexander Brukner said Rakousko came from the Austrian place name Retz, earlier Ruds."

RákosRákos Any of these ideas seem convincing. Professor Dingley has been sorting out these theories for over ten years, and he recently lectured on the topic in Germany.

"This idea of Brukner's got me to find the true etymology of Rakousko because Retz, Ruds is a castle, which forms a line of fortresses, which the Germanic tribes built to keep out the Slavs. And I thought, well, perhaps if it's not Retz, it may be another one of the fortresses along that line. Professor Walter Schteinhauzer at the University of Vienna really devoted a lot of time to this problem, and I believe he has the right answer. He shows that Rakousko derives from the place name in Austria, which today is Raabs: even today one would think this fortress would be difficult to conquer. This name Rakousko goes back to a family name "Ratgos." The documentary evidence is overwhelming. Schteinhauzer has a lot of citations showing how Ratgos goes to Rakousko, the first from the eleventh century, that this fort Ratgos, Rakousko, Raabs loomed large in the minds of the Slavs because they couldn't conquer them. Gradually the name spread not only to the fort but to the town, then it spread to the hinterlands, and then the Czechs came to use this name for the whole of Austria."

Professor Dingley also points that he began his research long before the days of internet, which made it a good deal more challenging. In this case you may be curious what inspired Professor Dingley to spend so much time putting together the dots.

"I was teaching in California. I had a knock on the door, a very beautiful young girl said my name is Alička, I am of Czech origin. She said, well, perhaps you can help me, I know the name for Austria in my language is Rakousko. I said, well, I am not a Bohemist but for you Alička, I will find out the answer. It took me a long time but put it like this, for such a beautiful young lady, I would have spent another ten years."

That may be a lesson for all of us - be careful what you agree to for a beautiful young man or woman. Thanks for joining us for this week's ABC of Czech. Until next time - remember crayfish - rak and Austria - Rakousko don't have anything in common and contrary to what Karel Havlíček Borovský says, Austrians walk forward like all the rest of us.