Reporter's Notebook

The Czechia Chronicles
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Readers in Bohemia, Moravia, Silesia, and points beyond debate James Fallows’s post on whether “Czechia”  would be a good new name for the land now called the Czech Republic.

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Colors and patterns of the Czech Republic flag as rendered with favorite Czech foods, from vepřo knedlo zelo site. Image by Vojta Herout.

We may be nearing the home stretch here, but I didn’t want to get there without mentioning the case for the (apparently) unloved current name for the homeland of the Czechs: the Czech Republic. Side note: I have yet to hear from a native English-speaker who thinks that “Czechia” is a great idea. This matters because the whole point of Czechia is to give the country a new “short English name.”

Andrea Orzoff, of the history department at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, writes about the actual merits of “Czech Republic,” as opposed to mainly pointing out (as I have done) the defects of its proposed replacement, “Czechia.” She writes:

There's a better, more historically grounded reason to keep "Czech Republic" than euphony. Czechoslovakia came into existence because its leaders promised to craft a democracy at home and foster democratic internationalism through the League of Nations.

They kept that promise, however imperfectly. Czechoslovakia maintained an adherence to democracy through 1938, and again from 1945 to 1948.

The banner from the home page of the organization promoting use of “Czechia”

In the previous posts collected in this Thread, I argued that the country officially known as the Czech Republic should resist the idea of changing its “short English name” to Czechia.

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:

You should write a new article to put this right.

Screenshot of Google ngram tracking, of the uses in English of the terms Czech Republic, Bohemia, and the suggested new name Czechia. For interactive version go here. Czechia does have the virtue of freshness, since practically no English-speakers have heard or seen it before.

Before I disappeared into article-writing land, I put up an item arguing that today’s Czech Republic, homeland of all of my wife’s forebears back when it was Bohemia within the Austro-Hungarian empire, should avoid the mistake of changing the English version of its name to “Czechia.” Instead I suggested: either stick with Czech Republic, go retro with Bohemia, or embrace the country’s own name for itself, Česko.

Little did I know that a whole website exists to advance the name Czechia, and to address “The myths and facts about the short English name of the Czech Republic.” Give it a look (I resisted saying check it out) and see if you are convinced. One of the less ironclad parts of the argument:

Myth No. 8: There are other countries that exclusively use political names without any problems. Examples include the Dominican Republic or the Central African Republic.
Fact: Although that is true, the vast majority of countries use short geographic names. 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.   

The only two countries? Umm, New Zealand? Costa Rica? Sierre Leone? Burkina Faso, the one-time Upper Volta? Trinidad and Tobago? You get the idea.

A surprisingly rich stream of responses has arrived while I’ve been away, in three main categories: linguistic, historical, and flat-out angry (from boosters of the “Czechia” cause). I’ll start off with the linguistic.

Reader Andreas Stolcke, whose first language was German and who now does language-related computer work at Berkeley, goes into the details. The illustrations he has provided are Google ngram charts, showing the frequency of certain words in books over the years:

Two observations (and associated questions):

1) As a native speaker of German, I was surprised to read about the rebranding proposal because German speakers have adopted the proposal a long time ago!

Tschechien  is the popular way to refer to the neighbors on the other side of the Bohemian Forest. Personally, the term actually seems foreign to me and I like the sound of Tschechische Republik  better, but  this Google ngram frequency plot [below] proves I’m in the minority.  Maybe the Czechs had German branding consultants in this matter?


1b) BTW, the corresponding plot for the English terms shows that there is no contest. [That’s the one shown at the top of this post.]

1c) Analogous to German, how many have other languages/countries effectively already adopted the Czechia  proposal, i.e., have a commonly used term for the country of the Czechs that is a word with a root cognate to "Czech"  and a simple suffix that means "land of" ?

This is not Czechia                                      (Wikipedia)

My two sons are each 50% Czech by background. So through the laws of algebraic equivalence, obviously this means that I myself represent one full Czech person. When you add in Deb, my all-Czech wife, in turn it’s obvious that our household constitutes two Czech votes. And then when you include the two halves from our sons, that makes three of us.

OK, just kidding on the imaginative math, plus warming up for creative delegate-counting at the GOP convention this summer. But I can honestly claim to be a native speaker of English. And in that role, I entreat authorities in my homeland-by-marriage of the Czech Republic: please, don’t change the English version of your name to “Czechia,” as apparently you’re planning to do.

What’s wrong with this new name? The minor issue — again, drawing on my authority as an English-speaker, since we’re the intended audience — is that it’s weird. No one in the English-speaking world has seen or heard it before.