Navigating Czech name culture
Even after being here all this time, wrapping my head around Czech names and titles and the culture of using them is still a challenge. I find myself stumbling when I say good morning “Pane řediteli Karvánku” (Mr. Director Karvanek) to Anna’s school principal, or goodbye “Paní doktorko Čadkovo” (Mrs. Doctor Chadkova) to the children’s pediatrician. Saying all the titles followed by the last name is a mouthful. I’ve never been that good at remembering last names, although it wasn’t a skill I’d particularly needed until coming to the Czech Republic. After a recent name bumble, I realized I still didn’t have the Czech name game figured out. Besides the often complicated business of using titles correctly, there’s also the matter of the Czech names changing when they are spoken.
Where I come from, people often operate on a first-name basis. While a Czech might be surprised to hear me refer to my dentist as Dr. Mike, it’s not only possible, it’s sometimes preferred. Schoolchildren in the US nowadays more often call their teachers, Miss Susan or Mr. John over Miss Smith or Mr. Jones as I did as a child. Although the trend toward informality between students and teachers is also catching on in the Czech Republic, it’s not uncommon for a Czech child to still speak to his teacher in the formal “Mr. Teacher,” with or without the teacher’s last name. I’ve never met a Czech who’s complained about the system, it’s just a part of a linguistic culture that comes to them second-nature.
In contrast, the informality of the American culture is one of the things that Czech friends who’ve visited the US remark upon. While visiting, some Czechs are quick to Anglicize their own names for pronunciation ease. When my husband’s cousin introduced himself as George Black (Jiří Černý) at our wedding, he got a few quizzical stares, especially when his parents simultaneously introduced themselves as Jana and Jiří (not Jane and George). I had to admire his attempt to culturally blend in. Nonetheless, I recommended he stick to Jirka.
Translating names can be a feather-ruffling situation so regardless of which language I’m conversing in, I usually try to pronounce the name in its native form, an effort that draws smiles and giggles from my English classes. Butchering someone’s name isn’t a great way to make a first impression, but I’ve found that Czechs are used to people thinking that their language, including their names, is quite difficult to pronounce. Taking an English nickname seems to be a natural way for some Czechs to help us non-Czechs on our journey to survive here.
If I could stick with first names, I think I’d already have the Czech naming system under my belt. Beyond the many Jana’s, Petra’s and Tereza’s and the Petr’s, Martin’s and Pavel’s, I’ve also managed to pronounce the less-frequent Ludmila or Slavomir without blinking. When Oliver came home from his first day of preschool and told us his new friends were called Fanda, Lojzík and Dada, I did a double-take, but when I realized these names were nicknames for František, Alois, and David, it didn’t seem that strange.
When in doubt about the spelling or pronunciation of a Czech first name, I can always peruse a copy of the official Czech name calendar, which lists all the culture’s acceptable name possibilities. While it’s become more common for Czech parents to look beyond the calendar for a name for their child, getting a non-calendar name approved is still a bureaucratic procedure that costs over 40 USD. In We Will Name Her Coco, the Czech weekly Respekt reveals that the ultimate power to grant or refuse a name rests in a single individual, a strict linguist and legal expert named Miloslava Knappová who decides which name proposals are worthy to be presented to the Ministry for approval. Not surprisingly, the culture tends to name conservatively, sticking to well-established names, perhaps in part to avert a bureaucratic headache.
It’s the family names and the tradition of introducing yourself with your last name only that tends to leave me tongue-tied. I’ll never get used to sticking out my hand and saying simply, “Průcha” as is customary when greeting someone for the first time. Last names like Novák (Newman) or Svoboda (Freeman) are easy enough to rattle off, and I’ve lived here long enough to remember that Pan Novák’s wife is actually Paní Nováková. The Czech language has a host of colorful last names that come from animals like Jelínek (Deer) or Kohout (Cock), names from fruits like Hruška (Pear) and even names from characteristics like Tichý (Silent) or Hrubý (Coarse). I should be able to hold these unusual (for me) last names in my memory, but I think, perhaps having always focused on remembering only the first name, I simply forget. When planning a Halloween party for the neighborhood this past year, I had to ask my Slovak neighbor to translate the list she’d forwarded me detailing who would bring what. She’d included all the neighbors, but had used only their family names, so I had no idea which name belonged to whom.
I had an embarrassing moment the other day when I needed to write down the name of one of Oliver’s classmates’ parents so that I could give permission for her to pick him up and walk him to her daughter’s birthday party. Although I’d chatted with the mother regularly for months during drop-off and pick-up and we’d even had a phone conversation discussing the details of the party, I realized when the preschool teacher handed me the official form that I had absolutely no recollection of her name. Since we weren’t on an informal basis, I had no way of knowing the mother’s first name, and I kicked myself for not having remembered her last name when we’d shaken hands on the first day of school months back.
I put on my best friendly smile and said to the teacher who was waiting patiently for the completed form that I couldn’t exactly remember how to spell Fanda’s mother’s name and could she possibly help? She gave me a funny look, which I knew I deserved. The Czech language is phonetic, so spelling is a non-issue. What mother gives written permission for her son to leave school with a person whose name she can’t remember? I knew I should be ashamed, but I just stood and smiled. I figured their impression of me as a crazy American mother might actually work to my favor in this situation. After a moment, the teacher went to get Fanda’s file and returned saying “B-A-R-B-O-R-A B-E-N-D-O-V-Á” slowly, as she was speaking to someone from a different land. In fact, she was. Grateful, I copied the name down and made a mental resolution to get better with names.
The following day I had my first chance. When picking Oliver up from preschool, I began chatting casually with another mother from school, I expected to end our conversation with the typical formal goodbye, but instead she suggested we go inside to wait for our older children who were both in the first grade together. In between shushing the younger children who were running loudly through the school’s halls, we managed to continue chatting. Upon returning with a coffee for each of us from the school’s vending machine, she asked if I’d mind if we spoke informally. As she extended her hand and said her first name, Alena, I made myself look into her eyes and remember it. Now, I’m just hoping I have a chance to use it before I forget.