Under a proposal from the “Go-Czechia” group, people inside the country would still refer to it as Česko, and its full official name would remain “Czech Republic” in English and Česká republika in Czech. But just as the place officially known in English as “People’s Republic of China” goes by “China” in common international parlance, and just as “Republic of China” goes by “Taiwan,” so too (according to supporters of the plan) should English references to their country be to “Czechia.”
I received a lot of ill-humored mail from people in the Czech Republic after I said that I thought Czechia would sound strange in English. A representative note from a scholar who works as a translator from Czech to English and German began, “I have to strictly oppose your argumentation in the article ‘People of Czechia’ …”
I wrote back to several pro-Czechia correspondents, and have had an extended exchange with Petr Pavlinek, who originally was trained at Charles University in Prague and is now a professor in the geography and geology department at the University of Nebraska — Omaha. (Bonus info: in my role as in-law to an extended Czech-American family, I’m aware that Nebraska is one of the centers of Czech settlement here, along with Iowa, Texas, Minnesota, and of course greater Chicagoland, where all of my wife’s Czech grandparents began their American lives.) With Prof. Pavlinek’s permission I’m quoting the back and forth. It clarifies some issues, and also is just interesting.
Round 1. Professor Pavlinek begs to differ with my views:
Your article on Czechia is very subjective and uninformed. It is very disappointing. Please, learn basic facts first before writing.
The fact that Czechia sounds weird to you is not an argument against using it. Czechia is perfectly fine in terms of linguistics. No one is taking the Czech Republic away and it stays in place as the official political name of the country.
Arguing for using Cesko in English is the same as saying that we should not use Austria but Osterreich or Deutchland instead of Germany in English. This does not make sense. To write an article based on what your family thinks without knowing the basic facts is unprofessional to say the least.
You can find the basic information about Czechia here: http://www.go-czechia.com
You should write a new article to put this right.
I sent a note back saying: OK, thanks, I’ll quote people on your side of the argument [as is happening now].
Round 2. He wants to make sure I understand:
OK. Fair enough as long as you get your facts right. As I said, the basic facts are at www.go-czechia.com. This is NOT about renaming the country but about standardizing its short geographic name. The Czech Republic remains in place as the political name.
By the way, you need to know that in order for a geographic name to be registered with the United Nations it first needs to be standardized and approved nationally. Czechia was standardized by the committee of 55 geographers, historians, linguists and others in 1993. Bohemia was not standardized and will never be because it is wrong geographically as you know. It does not include [Silesia] and Moravia.
Czech has no chance either because it is an adjective, a member of the Czech nation, the language. Czechia is the only one that is correct. The Czechlands is incorrect since the Czech Republic is not composed from any lands. That would be the first question the UN committee for the standardization of geographic names would ask: what lands is your country composed of now?
Please, see attached about the UN rules and procedures. If you study all of this, you will get a better understanding of the subject.
Round 3. In another post in this series, I quoted part of the Go-Czechia manifesto that I found unconvincing. That part said, “The Dominican Republic and the Central African Republic are the only two countries in the entire world that do not have readily available short names.” I said, only two? What about New Zealand? Costa Rica? Sierra Leone? Etc.
Prof. Pavlinek was one of many to write back and say: The length of the name is not what they’re talking about! (Despite all the emphasis on coining a new “short English name.”) The complaint is that “Czech Republic” refers to a political entity rather than a geographic place. Sample:
This [my use of Costa Rica and New Zealand as counter-examples] is completely wrong. So for example. The political name of Costa Rica is the Republic of Costa Rica, Costa Rica is its geographic name (as is Czechia), Sierra Leone is the geographic name, its political name is the Republic of Sierra Leone, Trinidad and Tobago is the geographic name, its political name is the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago. I am sure you get it now.
New Zealand goes by only by its geographic name, the same is the case of Burkina Faso, Upper Volta (the geographic name) - its political name used to be the Republic of Upper Volta. Some countries do not have political names.
The number of words in the country name does not determine whether it is the political or geographic name. The political name included the nature of the political regime such as the Kingdom of Denmark, the Kingdom of Spain, the Czech Republic. Geographic names are then: Denmark, Spain and Czechia.
I hope you understand now. Should we expect a third article then?
Round 4. I noted to my correspondent that we were nearing a delicate and unfair reality of modern life. I have spent many decades wrestling with a range of languages, but the only one in which I dare undertake professional work is my own native language of English.
Thus I greatly respect the burden, challenge, and bravery of people doing professional work in their second, third, fifth, etc language, and I try always to make allowances for this uneven playing field. Still, when it comes to discussions of how things sound in English, a riposte that begins “I have to strictly oppose your argumentation ...” works with an extra handicap. (To spell it out for any non-native speakers reading along: That sentence sounds really odd and stilted in English.) So I suggested that since the audience for “Czechia” was the non-Czech-speaking, English-functional international community, perhaps the group should include some native English speakers in its deliberations?
In specific, I said, two parts of the argument raised problems for English-speakers. One is the heavy emphasis on a “short” name, when their complaint has nothing to do with the name’s length. (Ie, with what English speakers would understand from the word “short.”) Rather it is about names based on political organization — “republic” — instead of a geographic place.
But for me that leads to the second problem. In fact, there are two pretty famous examples of countries known by their political name: the United States, and the United Kingdom. In the American case, you can use “American” as an adjective, just as you can use “Czech.” But the uniforms at Olympic games, the name tags at international conferences, etc say “United States,” “US,” or “USA.” So too for the Brits. We know all the common geographic names: England, Britain, Great Britain. But none of them is officially equivalent to the United Kingdom. (England is just England; Britain brings in Wales; Great Britain is the whole island, including Scotland; and the UK is all of them plus Northern Ireland.)
It’s one thing to say: the Czech Republic should change its name, because that makes it part of an outlier category whose only other members are the D.R. and the C.A.R. But the category seems more impressive and mainstream if it also includes the U.S., the U.K., and previously the U.S.S.R.
In reply, with emphasis added at one point:
Yes, you are absolutely right that it is very difficult for non-native speakers to make their point clearly in English...
As for America, you are absolutely right that it is not an official short country name (it is not included in the UN’s database) and it is not used in any official events. But the truth is that it is used informally in everyday speech as the geographic name for the country, including presidents and presidential candidates (“America first,” for example now) however wrong it might be.
The implication is that America and Britain are used in the everyday speech and in the media for the United States and the United Kingdom (shortened political names). As such, I would argue that these two countries are very different cases from those of the Dominican Republic and the Central African Republic.
I am not trying to convince you. Not at all. I just want you to have your facts right in your article. In this case about the difference between geographic and political names and examples used. Then it is perfectly fine to argue against Czechia.
Now tell me one more thing: you recognize the difficulty for non-native speakers to understand the English language. How should then the Czechs who are not English speakers decide about how the word Cesko is properly translated into English? Isn’t it the same situation as if I asked you how America should be properly translated into Czech?
Also, in your arguments you need to consider that the geographic name Cesko (Česko) is commonly used in Czech. The whole issue with Czechia and the fuss about it is actually about the proper translation of Cesko into English. Many people translate it as Czech, Czecho etc. which is wrong for obvious reasons. There is a need for the grammatically correct translation of the Czech term Cesko into English.
Your article shows clearly that translations of Cesko into other languages, such as German etc. are commonly used. What would be your advice then for its translation into English? Sticking with the Czech Republic as the only option for translating Cesko into English is not going to help here and it is not correct. What is your suggestion?
What the government is doing now is making the translation of Cesko into English as Czechia official so that these wrong translations (Czech, Czecho) are not being used. I would be interested to hear your take on this because this is really what the whole argument is about.
Otherwise, I enjoyed reading your article.
To answer the two possibly rhetorical questions: if I were trying to re-brand “America” for a Czech audience, I’d mainly ask the Czechs for advice! And if they were asking me about how to present their country in English, I’d go back to my original post. Either just stick with Czech Republic (and soon I’ll quote another historian on a very interesting reason why), or go all in with Česko. We non-Czech speakers will get used to it more easily than Czechia, and we’ll admire the pride and panache.
Thanks to Prof. Pavlinek and others for their correspondence. There is a ton more, at least some of which I’ll quote in a follow up.