This 5-year-old still needs a name Czech Republic: Despite a long Czech-list of possibilities, the country can't agree on a shorter tag, or even if it needs one.


May 22, 1998|By David Rocks | David Rocks,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

PRAGUE, Czech Republic -- A half-decade into its existence, the Czech Republic continues to ponder an issue any 5-year-old ought to have cleared up years ago: its own name.

Sure, the Czech Republic -- known in the local vernacular as Ceska Republika -- has a name, just as the Republique Francaise, Bundesrepublik Deutschland or Repubblica Italiana have names. But in informal parlance, one says "France," "Germany," "Italy" and . . . "the Czech Republic"?

It doesn't exactly roll off the tongue in casual conversation the way, say, "Czechoslovakia" used to. But no one here seems to agree on what the country's short name should be or, indeed, whether it needs one at all.

"Always using the long name just isn't pragmatic," says Rudolf Sramek, a professor of Czech language at Masaryk University in Brno.

Spreading out a map of Europe on a table, he notes that all but the tiniest countries -- Andorra, Monaco, San Marino and the Vatican -- are identified by name, except the Czech Republic. "Even abbreviated," he laments, "it couldn't fit. Even Liechtenstein is there, but we're not."

After the split of Czechoslovakia, the Slovaks had it easy -- at least in this one way. The region where Slovaks live had long been called Slovakia, and it was a natural name for their new country.

For Czechs, the question was more complex. As often as not, Czechs refer to their country as "the Czech lands" -- in the Czech language, "Cechy" -- because they can't seem to come up with anything better and saying "the Czech Republic" sounds too formal for everyday use.

One possible name would be Bohemia, the English term for the western portion of the country. Problem is, the word doesn't have that meaning in Czech. English-Czech dictionaries translate "Bohemian" simply as "Cech" (pronounced Czech), someone from the Czech lands.

And in the Czech language, a bohemian is a person who forgets to shave and spikes his morning coffee with cognac after staying out late pondering poetry and politics. The name Bohemia also ignores the Czech regions of Moravia and Silesia.

So how about a bow to the Moravians with, perhaps, "the Republic of Bohemia and Moravia"? This, it turns out, would stir up too many unpleasant memories.

"During World War II, the Germans referred to our country as 'the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia,' and they shortened it to 'Tschechei,' but both were always used pejoratively," says Libuse Cizmarova of the Czech Academy of Sciences' Institute for the Czech Language.

Some have proposed that the country's name be changed to Czechomoravia, a sort of nod to the Czechoslovak federation that foundered five years ago. But that, others fear, could lead to endless arguments over whether the name shouldn't perhaps be spelled "CzechoMoravia," or even "Czecho-Moravia." The Czechoslovak Federal Parliament spent weeks debating similar issues.

"Czechomoravia is a possibility, but it's still long," Cizmarova says, "and the Silesians might be offended."

Other variants have been proposed but haven't really taken hold: Czechovia, Czechistan and Czechlands, or, perhaps less seriously, Lagerlandia (honoring the fine quality of the country's beer), Vaclavia (in honor of the dissident-turned-playwright-turned-president, Vaclav Havel) or Vltavia (after the main river flowing through Prague).

Now, after five years of indecision on the matter, a group of academics, linguists and cartographers is launching an initiative make the country's official short name "Cesko," translated as "Czechia," "Tchequie" and "Tschechien" in English, French and German, respectively.

"It's shameful that this country has been around for five years and there's still no agreement on a short name," says Jiri Felix, a language professor at Charles University. "This is a question of international prestige for our country. Who says, 'I'm going on vacation to the Kingdom of Spain'? Or, 'I've just returned from the Italian Republic'?"

The group is sending the president, prime minister and other political leaders, as well as all the country's media outlets, an information packet laying out all the linguistic, historical and geographical reasons that the country should be called Czechia.

The name dates to the 14th century and appeared in a Czech dictionary in 1777, the packet says. Furthermore, Cesko was used early on in the federation with the Slovaks, when the country was officially called Cesko-Slovensko. And the name fits all of the grammatical norms of the Czech language.

Still, why bother? Just ask cartographer Pavel Bohac. "The name Czech Republic takes up the space of other important information on the map," he says, thumbing through an atlas. "Things in Europe are just too close together."

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