Taking on a Czech surname wasn’t as simple as I’d first thought
Deciding whether or not to take your partner’s surname is a hot topic among my Y-generation contemporaries. I have as many friends who’ve kept their maiden names as I do friends who’ve taken their partners, and I even know a few PC pairs who’ve created their own new amalgamation of a last name. When my Czech-husband and I first agreed to marry and start our own family, it seemed logical to us that we have the same name. At the time we were living in America, and with the green card application process and international travel to consider, it made sense. However, taking on a Czech surname wasn’t as simple as I’d first thought.
Like many Slavic countries, the Czech linguistic tradition includes masculine and feminine versions of most traditional surnames. From an English speakers perspective this means that the males and females of the family have what appears to be different last names. In my case, according to Czech grammar, by taking on my married name from my husband, Radek Průcha, my name should be Emily Průchová. I decided not add the -ová on my last name. For starters, I wasn’t Czech, and it seemed odd to go to the trouble to change my name with the intention of matching Radek’s and then have our names still be different. I knew that my friends and family would have a hard time calling me “Průchová,” and it sounded too Czech to my ears, so we settled on Prucha (without the ů long u symbol since it wasn’t practical for American paperwork).
In order to make my new name legal by Czech standards, we had to apply through the Czech Embassy Matrika (State Registrar) for permission for me to have a masculine surname. Since I was a foreigner, the request was granted, although it did cost us about CZK 700 and several weeks waiting for the corrected paperwork. We lived in the States for two and a half years, and no one in America ever asked me where my –ova was. Although I am sure many people recognize the –ova surname as a Slavic one, I don’t think your average American realizes it is a feminine-only surname suffix. I know I never did before.
After I’d finally gotten used to American people calling me, “Mrs. Prucha,” we moved back to Prague, and I found myself answering to the name, “Paní Průchová. Although, I had my paperwork straight on our Czech marriage license and my long term permanent residence card from the Foreign Police, even the bureaucratic name-change process couldn’t change the way normal Czechs reacted when they saw my name.
In everyday Czech life, I am a woman; therefore, I must be Průchová. My doctor calls me “Pani Průchová,” even though she has my name written in front of her. When I made my last hair appointment by phone, the frustrated receptionist finally told me she’d just write down “paní,” or “Missus” in place of my last name. Thrown off by my lack of an –ova, she didn’t know how to write my last name, but she could tell from my voice that I was a woman.
Admittedly, my first name also adds to people’s confusion. Since y-endings on female first names aren’t common here, people who see the first name Emily combined with the masculine form of Průcha often think the y is a mistake, and I am actually a man. Particularly because the name Emil is a common Czech male name. Several sales clerks have refused my credit card because they thought it was my husband Emil’s. I have more than once run into trouble convincing clerks at the post office that packages the mail carrier has mistakenly labeled “Emil Prucha” are truly for me. And I have never been able to convince them that a package sent to “Mr. and Mrs. Radek Prucha” was mine as well.
I know I am not unique in my situation. The Czech authorities have long made alterations to officially recorded female surnames to coincide with the rules of Czech grammar. This typically means adding the suffix –ova or changing –y to –a. Until the year 2000, Czech officials were changing all women’s names in official registries according to the principles of the Czech language’s grammar requirements, without sensing, or at least without admitting, the discrimination if the woman happened not to be Czech. Even international movie stars were subject to this gramarization of their names: Drew Berrymorová, Diane Turnerová.
New rules, proposed in Czech Congress in 1999 would allow members of certain minorities living in the Czech Republic or conducting official affairs, such as a marriage or a birth here, to have the choice of keeping their surnames intact in registries. (See the Additional Information Report on Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities, under Article 25 in Czech Constitution, see Article 11).
Although the new rules about feminine surnames were supposed to be effective in 2000, it wasn’t until spring of 2004, that the law as it applied to all foreigners as well as all Czech women passed both houses of Czech Congress. I have one Czech-born Canadian raised friend who, prior to the 2004 law, actually had to go to the Matrika to “renounce” her Czech nationality in order to retain her non-grammatically correct surname in the official record. It didn’t change her day-to-day life a bit, but it still seemed like an extreme measure.
In recent years, perhaps due to the increasing number of foreigners living in the Czech Republic and mixed marriages of Czechs with other nationalities, it is increasingly common to find Czech women with foreign last names and no –ova as well as foreign women, like some of my friends, with Czech feminine surnames. While having the -ova suffix seemed ridiculous back in the US, it is interesting how the special measure we took to have it removed didn’t really carry over into usage in my practical life here.
Even my daughter Anna Lee has her own relationship with the –ova. Born in the US, she is simply Průcha. We had to apply for permission for this on her Czech documents. Last fall we arrived at her preschool and found her name “Anna Lee Průchová” printed in bold ink on the clock symbol above her cubby even though all her paperwork had been submitted as Průcha. On the first day, Radek attempted to explain this to the teacher, but she retorted, “Je holčička, ano?” (She’s a little girl, yes?) We agreed, and the –ova stayed. With all the other first-day issues, it seemed silly to waste time arguing about a little suffix.
Incidentally, during my incredibly fast labor with Oliver (20 minutes total), we spent a few precious minutes arguing with the delivering nurse on duty about our having listed Průcha not Průchová on the birth document’s female option, a argument which seemed especially ridiculous since we told the nurse we’d had amniocentius testing confirming that the baby was male.
Despite the occasional annoyance, overall, I think we made the right choice for our family. Everyone has the same last name, Prucha, with only the slight “ů” difference between countries. If we do move back to America, the children won’t have to explain why Anna has an –ova and Oliver doesn’t, and if Anna stays here and wants to be like everyone else, I imagine it’s much easier to get the –ova added back than it was to have it removed.