Czechia still seeks to put itself on the map

Six months after the Czech government approved Czechia as the official geographical name for the Czech Republic we look at whether the short, snappy name for the country has caught on.

Photo: archive of Radio PraguePhoto: archive of Radio Prague The shorter, geographical version of the name Czech Republic, Czechia, was approved by the government in April this year and entered in the UN database of geographical names a few months later. The move, intended to end confusion abroad regarding the short version of the country’s name, evoked scant enthusiasm among the home public and received plenty of criticism in the media on the argument that it was unnecessary, that it should have come immediately after the break-up of Czechoslovakia in 1993 or that it should have been decided in a referendum.

The debate was recently reignited by an article in the British daily The Guardian which claimed that Czechia had failed to catch on, a sentiment later echoed by an article published in the Czech daily Lidové noviny.

I took to the streets of Prague to ask both locals and tourists how they like the new name Czechia and first caught up with a group of young Israeli tourists in Wenceslas Square:

"What do you call this country in English?"

“Czech.”

“Czech.”

"You call it Czech? Actually the government recently approved Czechia as the official short name for the country."

“Czechia?”

“That’s nice. We call it Czechia in Israel.”

“Czechia? It sounds very similar.”

Another tourist, a middle-aged teacher from Germany, told me she too was unaware of the debate surrounding the country’s geographical name:

“In German I say Tschechien. Czechia is not in our school books yet."

"Do you like the sound of Czechia?"

"It sounds like Czechien. I don’t mind it. It’s OK.”

And finally the opinion of a young Czech father:

“I don’t like it. I would stick with the former name. It is more dignified. And it sounds nicer. Czech Republic definitely leads. It simply is better.”

Kristina Larischová, photo: archive of Kristina LarischováKristina Larischová, photo: archive of Kristina Larischová The latter argument reflects the opinion of many Czechs, who misunderstood the decision taken by the government, thinking that the new name Czechia was conceived to replace the Czech Republic.

Kristina Larischová from the Foreign Ministry says that this is of course not the case. She says having two official names for a country, an official as well as a geographical, shorter version, is common in most countries around the world.

According to Ms Larischová, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs simply wanted to make the international public aware of the proper translation of the Czech word Česko. She also dismisses the most common argument against Czechia, which is that it sounds too much like Chechnya.

“This is a famous argument. But we know that there is simply a lack of geographical knowledge behind it. You have a lot of words starting with “ch” spelled like “k” and you simply have to learn the rule. This argument is not a good reason for not using the short alternative Czechia. There are many examples of countries which sound a bit similar, such as Malawi and Mali, Slovenia and Slovakia, and so on.”

Now, six months on, would you say that the name Czechia is catching on?

“The short name has been frequently used for many years in many other world languages, German, Russian, German, French, Arabic and so on. But what is the international language today? It is English. And I admit we can still see some deficit on that front.

“But frankly, I didn’t expect such a huge impact of the publication in the two UN country databases. We are very glad to see that the short name is being used more and more and step by step it has been spreading in the world.”

Can you give me some examples?

“There are many examples that show that Czechia has already been adopted. For instance the US State Department uses Czechia on its website. Other examples are the CIA World Factbook, or the British Permanent Committee on Geographical Names.

Photo: Vojtěch BergerPhoto: Vojtěch Berger “And the final example, and this is a very important one, the International Organisation for Standardisation, an independent non-governmental organisation which has published more than 20,000 international standards and it is instrumental in facilitating international trade.

“Just to sum it up, you can see the progress yourself: just type the name in Google and you will get a million of mentions. And the number has been rising.”

So does it make sense to enforce the use of the word?

“I would like to give you an example. Sport could play an important role in this issue, because our country is very visible in this field internationally. If our athletes showed up in jerseys with Czechia and the score displays said Czechia it would be very helpful.

“But the question is: should government officials give such instructions? We as the Foreign Ministry are perhaps not the right body to dictate this. Of course, we express our preference which is in line with that of experts on country branding. At the same time we can hardly force anybody.”

Finally, do you yourself use the word when talking about this country?

“If the question concerns me personally, I try to use it as frequently as possible. But talking about the ministry, our goal is to promote Czechia where it is right to do so, in print releases, marketing publications, and so on. So the context is important.

“If you have an international treaty or a legal document, you want to use the official name. But I can see your point. It is perfectly true that only if we ourselves use it, Czechia will catch on, and I am rather optimistic about it.”

Jiří Šitler, photo: archive of Czech Foreign MinistryJiří Šitler, photo: archive of Czech Foreign Ministry One of the diplomats who have been strongly in favour of using the word Czechia is Jiří Šitler, the Czech Ambassador to Sweden. Mr Šitler also highlights the need for a country to have two names, both political and geographical.

When asked why it has raised so much opposition in his home country, he says Czechs simply like to debate and doubt any decision that comes from the government:

“The only argument which I think is acceptable from my point of view is that some people don’t like the sound of it. It is very subjective, but it is perfectly legitimate. But if you look more carefully into it, you can see those people don’t mind the ending “ia” that people don’t like the whole word and its orthography, the “cz”. But we have this in the political name as well.

“But this is not going to change, this is something used in English since the 17th century. The first time the word was used in English was in a geographical treatise which described Bohemia and mentioned that the Czechs themselves call themselves Czechians. Since then these terms have been used in England as an alternative to Bohemia.”

According to Mr Šitler, however, the debate about the use of Czechia does not concern the general public in the Czech Republic as much as the international community:

“It is not of course about the general public in the Czech Republic. Czech people usually don’t use English that much. According to Euro Barometer only about 18 percent of Czech citizens have a sufficient knowledge of the English language. That of course doesn’t prevent the other 82 percent to have a very strong opinion about the English name of the country.

“The question is if it is going to be used internationally. So far it was recommended by the Permanent Committee on Geographical Names in the UK, it is used on the webpage of the US State Department, it was entered into various UN databases and it has started to be used by foreign missions in Prague so I think it has a big chance of becoming the commonly used geographical name of the Czech Republic.”

When asked if he uses the word Czechia himself, the Czech ambassador says that it comes quite naturally, since it is very similar to the word used in Swedish:

“Swedes actually use the word in English, so it sounds perfectly natural here. In Swedish, they call our country Tjeckien, they have been using this word since the 19th century already, and in English, they naturally use the short version of the name: Czechia.

“Actually the Swedish Embassy in Prague and the Swedish authorities had been using this short or geographical version of the name frequently even before our government’s decision, so I think many people here were surprised that it wasn’t an official version before.”

Michal Petrák, photo: Deník SportMichal Petrák, photo: Deník Sport As Ms Larischová from the Foreign Ministry pointed out, sporting events would be ideal for promoting and using the shorter variation of the country’s name. Indeed, the head of the Czech Olympic Committee Jiří Kejval signed a memorandum with Foreign Minister Zaorálek, pledging to promote the name Czechia at top sporting events. I asked sports journalist Michal Petrák what he thought about the use of Czechia:

“I think it is a good idea to use it, because the Czech Republic doesn’t feel natural. It is quite usual for other countries to use the shorter name instead of the political one. Another question is how to make the English-speaking public use it and I think there is no way to do this. It can’t be forced upon people. So I think it is a long-term project and a log-term run and we can’t expect results so soon after the official change.”

Have you noticed any change?

“Not really, I only noticed some articles in the English speaking press at the time when the Ministry of Foreign Affairs proposed this change. The press seemed amused, but I think that was not what the Czech Foreign Ministry expected. As I said, it has to happen naturally, and I can’t remember any situation when somebody actually used the new word for the Czech Republic in the English speaking countries.”

And you yourself, which word do you use when you talk about your country?

“I still stick with the Czech Republic because I am too used to it, and I think it is the same case with most of my colleagues. They are used to using the term the Czech Republic or the Tschechische Republik in German. It simply doesn’t roll off my tongue, to say Czechia all of a sudden. It has to come naturally I think.”

One person who seems unlikely to develop a taste for the word Czechia is Melvyn Clarke, a Czech-English translator based in Prague. Mr Clarke says he doesn’t really see any reason to create an artificial shorter name for the Czech Republic, arguing that people can chose from the existing versions, such as Bohemia or the Czech lands, according to what best suits their needs:

“I am afraid it sounds and looks too much like Chechnya for my liking. It is one of the reasons given by thirty Czech agencies, such as Czech Trade and Czech Invest, for not using it when the Czech government tried to promote it in the past. It just strikes me as a rather unfortunate choice for an official name.

“Czechs complain that it sounds artificial, eastern or Russian. It reminds them of the Nazi German Tschechei. My own theory is that the glaring dissonance between the guttural monosyllable “Czech” and the rather ethereal “ia” sound makes the word look like a cluge. Sometimes you just have to say that a bright purple suit looks silly without having to give scientific reasons or aesthetic justifications for it.

“And then there is the issue that can’t be ignored that, rightly or wrongly, some people here associate Czechia with rather unpopular politicians who have been promoting it. Obviously this doesn’t help. So if the name makes so many Czechs feel uncomfortable, can we really blame Anglophones for not picking it up and running with it?”