Monday, September 25, 2017

Relativization of gender inflection is an assault on Czech character of my country

In the German Parliamentary elections, CDU won with 32.8% (246 seats), close to the worst results since 1949, followed by SPD with 20.4% (worst result ever in FRG, 153 seats), and the moral winners, AfD with 13% (94 seats) that have beaten the expectations (as we expected) but not enough to make it to the #1 or #2 place. Would-be pro-business FDP (10.7%, 80 seats) trumped the leftists in Die Linke (9.1%, 69 seats) and the Greens (9.0%, 67 seats).
Czechia has won the global contest seeking the most unhealthy country in the world. Congratulations to ourselves! The interpretation by the leftists is upside down, of course. Recheck why the beer nation is actually the healthiest one.
The change from the previous elections is unambiguously in the anti-PC, anti-migration direction. Nevertheless, the actual outcome will be the Jamaica coalition (colors on the flag), CDU+FDP+Greens. Yes, the totally unhinged far left Green Party will probably get to the government led by a party that considered itself conservative just a decade ago. I agree with Mr Jan Skopeček of ODS that this practical victory for the Greens is the most terrifying outcome of the elections. Recall that e.g. the top German lawmaker Ms Ska Keller wanted to relocate whole Syrian villages to the post-communist Europe. I think she would be rightfully lynched if she said such a thing on a Czech rally.

But I want to discuss something seemingly less important, at least for most readers, namely the Czech language. The social democratic minister of foreign affairs Mr Lubomír Zaorálek wrote:

It means "The election victory of A. Merkel is a proof that satisfaction has prevailed in Germany. Congratulations to A. Merkel and I am looking forward to the next cooperation between DE and ČR".

Well, the substance is creepy. A social democratic minister is excited about the victory of a "Christian democrat". Something must be wrong with at least one of these labels, right? Also, a minister from a party that claims – at least in the Czech context – to oppose things like the migrant quotas is celebrating the victory of the main "mother" of this whole system and the recent wave of Islamization of Europe.

But what I couldn't overlook was Mr Zaorálek's language. First, "DE and ČR" is inconsistent notation. If he uses DE for Germany, he should be also using CZ for Czechia. Alternatively, if he uses ČR for Czechia, he should be using SRN (=FRG in Czech) for Germany. More, seriously, he congratulated "to A. Merkel".

According to the basic rules of Czech grammar, the correct form of the sentence is
Blahopřeji Angele Merkelové.
Czech is a highly inflectional language. It means that nouns, adjectives, and pronouns are inflected and the declension of these words plays a very important role in the transfer of the information and the prevention of misunderstandings. Approximately like Latin, the Czech declension recognizes 7 cases. In practice, some cases have the same form so each noun has approximately 4-5 distinct singular and 4-5 distinct plural forms, out of 7+7 that could be distinct a priori.

Also, Czech heavily conjugates verbs and the suffixes and endings carry the information about the gender, tense, and other characteristics of the verb.

Czech kids learn all these forms of all the words simultaneously and all the cases and forms are comparably important. Because there are hidden patterns and rules, the memory consumed by this knowledge is much smaller than 7+7 times the memory needed for one case. Nevertheless, that natural way to learn the language differs from the attitude of a foreigner who typically wants to learn the nominative only and "derive" all the other cases from this "dictionary form" of the noun. It's not shocking that this artificial way of learning leads to mistakes – and you can often identify a foreigner who has learned the language for years by wrong declension, among other things.

Let me show you the 7 singular cases for the declension of the male name Andreas Merkel and the female name Angela Merkel:
  1. (Subject) Andreas Merkel, Angela Merkelová
  2. (without) Andrease Merkela, Angely Merkelové
  3. (to) Andreasi Merkelovi, Angele Merkelové
  4. (object, I see) Andrease Merkela, Angelu Merkelovou
  5. (I call) Andreasi Merkele!, Angelo Merkelová!
  6. (about) Andreasi Merkelovi, Angele Merkelové
  7. (with, by) Andreasem Merkelem, Angelou Merkelovou
Lots of different endings, right? Even if you don't speak the language, you could figure out which cases among the 7 tend to have similar forms. The 3rd and 6th cases are exactly identical in very many cases, indeed. The 5th "calling" (vocative) case sometimes coincides with the basic 1st (nominative) case. Readers may want to know that the correct form of my name to call me is "Luboši Motle". ;-) And so on.

This declension isn't just a method to add some work and terrorize children. The point is that the endings basically replace some prepositions; and they sometimes allow us to order the words in a sentence in many ways – well, sometimes all the orderings are possible and no misunderstandings are created. Examples. "Zaorálek has congratulated to Merkel" may be translated as any of the following (po- in "poblahopřál" basically plays the same role as "has" in the English sentence):
Zaorálek poblahopřál Merkelové.
Merkelové poblahopřál Zaorálek
Zaorálek Merkelové poblahopřál.
Merkelové Zaorálek poblahopřál.
The remaining two permutations with "poblahopřál" at the beginning are also possible but less usual so I omitted them (those orderings could be more natural in the corresponding question, "Has he congratulated Merkel?" but Czech stores most of the information that "the sentence is a question" to the intonation reflecting the question mark in the written form, not to the ordering of words). So Czech speakers generally have the freedom to order the words arbitrarily. They may also omit "to" before "Merkel". No misunderstandings are created and all these sentences differ from the opposite sentence, "Merkel has congratulated to Zaorálek", which are permutations of
Merkelová poblahopřála Zaorálkovi.
The endings carry the information about the cases, i.e. about which of the two people is the subject and which of them is the object.

I don't want you to learn any of these words but I would like you to understand a more general point. The Czech language has complicated declension but it is not useless terrorizing of the speakers. Instead, it's just another, equally good – and arguably better – scheme of rules to store the information in the words, their endings or suffixes (or prefixes, especially in the case of verbs), and their ordering. When you allow the prepositions to be omitted, misunderstandings could be created so the words have to differ in some different ways. Declension is the answer. Similarly, when you allow to reorder the words, misunderstandings could arise: Who is the subject? Who is the object? With the declension, you avoid the misunderstandings. So the declension is really necessary for the sentence to keep all the information about the precise role of all the verbs.

Do you get my general point? Your language may achieve a certain modification of a sentence by a preposition. Another language can achieve the same thing by a suffix or ending. Or by a different ordering of the words. Or in some other way. There are many ways how the information may be encrypted differently. In other words, the translation from one language to another isn't just a mechanical translation of every word, one word after another.

Days ago, we were told about a man who fell from a bridge. It turned out that a famous man fell from a famous bridge. Actor Jan Tříska died today in the morning after he fell from the Charles Bridge in Prague. We're told it was an accident. In this TV commercial for Budvar (U.S.: Czechvar), Tříska says: To stay in a country where the tyrant forces its people to play in a farce? I will better abandon the roof above my head and will face the hostile elements. I say "No". I say "farewell". Let the Devil take the tyrant whom he serves. I will no longer bring logs to him. – "No" makes us who we are. Budweiser Budvar. – Tříska emigrated to Canada in 1977 and then to the U.S. You may know him from Andersonville, The People Vs Larry Flint and other films.

When I wrote the 7 forms of Andreas Merkel and Angela Merkel, you must have noticed that even Merkel has different forms in the masculine and feminine names – that's the main topic of this blog post. Even in the basic, nominative case, Angela Merkel has to be translated as "Angela Merkelová". Almost all Czech female surnames are derived from the male counterparts (i.e. from the names of the fathers or husbands) by adding "-ová". Sometimes, the last letter of the male surname is omitted before "-ová" is added. But at most with this rare exception, this addition of "-ová" works for over 95% of the Czech surnames. In particular, every single female classmate of mine at the basic schools and high school that I attended – and it's roughly 100 women – had these "-ová" names.

"-ová" is linguistically an adjective in the feminine form. It appears outside names, too. For example, "sulfur, acid, sulfur acid" are translated as "síra, kyselina, kyselina sírová". The ending "-ová" is what turns the noun, sulfur, to the adjective based on sulfur. Helpfully enough, English can't even recognize the noun sulfur and the adjective sulfur by their forms but the Czech language and most other European languages do recognize nouns and adjectives.

(Not every acid based on sulfur is "sírová". Nicely enough, Czech intellectuals invented a cute terminology for the adjectives that remembers the oxidation numbers. So the compounds with an element having the oxidation numbers 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8 have the endings -ná, -natá, -itá, -ičitá, -ičná/-ečná, -ová, -istá, -ičelá. These are rather modern – but already over a century old – inventions of the language. As you can see, the ending -ová only corresponds to the oxidation number 6. If Angela Merkel's oxidation number were different, she could also be Merkelná, Merkelnatá, Merkelitá, Merkeličitá, Merkelečná, Merkelistá, Merkeličelá. For each of these endings, there exist 7 forms for the singular cases, 7 forms for the plural cases, and all these things are tripled because the forms are different for masculine, feminine, and neuter gender. I have chosen the feminine endings – and an acid which is feminine – to match it with Ms Merkel but kids are normally memorizing the masculine endings and those are used for masculine oxides. It's a lot of forms – well, 8 x 7 x 2 x 3 = 336 a priori different endings of all these adjectives LOL but most of the modifications of the endings follow a rather small number of paradigms and universal rules so it's not really terribly hard for a Czech kid to internalize all these things – except for the assignment of the oxidations numbers – well before the basic school.)

OK, so the Czech language uses the basic form "Merkelová" for the surname of a woman who got it from a man named "Merkel". In rare cases, the surname may be an adjective like "Zelený" (an economics professor in the U.S., meaning "Green"). His wife is "Zelená" and these two forms are comparable – the feminine form isn't derived from the male form. There may also be exceptions in which the gender inflection is completely avoided and people including me may be OK with it, I will discuss it momentarily.

But it makes sense to distinguish the male and female surnames because for centuries, we have done so and we have gotten used to getting the extra information just from the surname. We learn about the sex of the person! So when "Clinton comes to Prague", you don't really know whether it was Bill or Hillary in English. Well, if you speak Czech, you always know it. Either "Clinton přijel do Prahy" (Bill) or "Clintonová přijela do Prahy" (Hillary). There's just no way to mask the gender. This is rather useful because people just want to know very quickly which of them came. The inflection helps to communicate some basic information quickly and the information about the sex of the person is something that the listener is usually interested in from the beginning.

(Well, of course, some politically correct orthodoxy could want to attack this very basic assumption – that it's good for the language to effectively transfer such information. You shouldn't be interested in the people's gender, PC people say! I will discuss related political aspects of the debate later.)

The need for gender inflection is a basic rule of the Czech grammar. Every linguist and every language editor in every professional newspaper or book publishing company (and TV sports commentators such as famous Mr Robert Záruba who just argued about it) agrees it's absolutely needed, at least for all the names that could have been widespread Czech names for a century. Merkel is undoubtedly one of such names. It's an absolutely normal word whose declension follows the "pán" ("Sir") paradigm. After all, we've had lots of such German names in Czechia for centuries so the Czech language has converged to stable ways to deal with them – they were here from the beginning. (There are 7 citizens of Czechia named Merkel and 1 citizen named Merkelová. The asymmetry suggests that some of the people named Merkel without -ová are female, after all. Shame on them.) So all such names are "Bohemized" when it comes to declension, gender inflection etc.

When someone says "blahopřeji A. Merkel" instead of the correct "A. Merkelové", he is crippling both the rules of the gender inflection as well as the declension of nouns and adjectives. While doing so, it becomes at least somewhat confusing which person is the subject and which person is the object; whether the congratulated person is male or female, and so on. It sounds wrong, it sounds inconsistent with what the Czech speakers normally do in all analogous cases that really don't differ by anything important from the linguistic viewpoint.

So the gender inflection isn't just a rule of grammar – some informal rule invented by a language institute of the Academy of Sciences whose opinions may be ignored. Some of these rules are actual laws. If you are female and you would like to change your surname to a name that avoids the gender inflection, you have to go through some additional non-trivial paperwork because it's simply not the default algorithm how surnames are determined. This extra paperwork is right; it's really needed to uphold another, more basic laws in Czechia – the law saying that Czech is the official language of the country!

I said that in practice, the gender inflection of names applies to almost all names of actual Czech women. Women who are not Czech don't have the Czech form of the surname written in their ID, of course – unless they already have a Czech passport or something like that. But for these foreign women, it's even more important that their surnames are inflected. Why is it important? One reason is the "information flow" discussed above – without the correct declension and inflection, some information isn't conveyed, something becomes ambiguous about all the sentences. But there is also a consequence for the women themselves. Foreign women should better want their surnames to be inflected because women whose surnames are not inflected are simply not fully integrated to the Czech environment.

Imagine you're a British woman. Your surname is... some random name... let's say you are Ms Marilyn Maxwell. You come to Czechia and learn the Czech language really well. You also find it OK to marry a Czech man and do other things. Is it OK for yourself to be "paní Maxwell"? Well, it's not terribly good. It sounds funny, it fails to create smooth Czech sentences. On top of that, many listeners immediately assume that you may be some transsexual or something of the sort. Most women aren't and they don't even want to deal with speculations whether they are transsexual etc. So they simply want to adopt the standard rules of the language of the society where they want to live. Your name should obviously be "paní Marilyn Maxwellová". You may change the first name as well and become e.g. "Madlenka Maxwellová", too. You may marry Mr Korbel and become "Madlenka Korbelová" (the maiden name of Madeleine Albright). Clearly, you're getting integrated, Ms Maxwell! ;-)

This process becomes particularly important for the children of the folks who came from abroad. They often speak Czech perfectly and they see no reason to make their belonging to Czechia look relative. So of course they want to obey the basic rules of the language. You may have some Greek parents – then you are Ms Papadopoulosová. This form of the name makes it clear that you have some Greek origin (no need to hide that), that you are female, and that you have made at least the basic steps to be integrated.

Now, there are all these good reasons why the gender inflection exists, why it's a rule, and why it's demanded by many people like myself. You can't really separate it from the body of all the other rules of the language. If you began to abandon these features of the language, the language would start to fall apart. It would be getting incomprehensible, ambiguous, misleading, and increasingly unusable. I obviously don't want it because the Czech language is a beautiful and highly sophisticated and efficient language.

Needless to say, there are people who don't give a damn about all these important things and who place an insane ideology about all these matters – traditions, comprehensibility and clarity of the language, its high rate of the transferring of the information, and so on. Radical feminists are examples of these extremists. They decide that the derivative character of the female surnames is a proof of some "discrimination" – so why don't we cancel it altogether?

The derivative character of female surnames is a tradition that has been followed for very many centuries – and that obviously doesn't imply any real suppression of women in their everyday lives. Even in English where the form of the surnames is the same, it's almost always women who change the surname according to their spouses. A name they got from one man, their father or previous husband, is replaced by the name from another man, the husband or new husband. So when it comes to the surnames, the role of the men and women aren't the same. Women do play a derivative role – in the key thing, namely the beef of the surname – even if the endings are the same. If feminists want to fight against the sexually unequal role of sexes in the surnames, why don't they start with the elephant in the room – namely with the fact that it's almost always men who change their wives' surnames, and not the other way around?

There are some women who want to look interesting so they claim that their surname doesn't contain -ová. A TV host self-named "Emma Smetana" is a famous example. Her correct name should be "Emma Smetanová", of course. "Smetana" means "cream" (a milk product) and it's the surname of the national composer, Mr Bedřich Smetana (My Country, The Moldau, Bartered Bride...). His wife's name should be "Smetanová". No doubts about it. Ms Emma "Smetana" claims that she has spent some years outside Czechia so she became cooler and she may use the "Cosmopolitan" methods to create surnames.

But this argument is just plain rubbish. As I have emphasized, the Czech language applies and has very good reasons to apply the gender inflection on foreign names – and especially foreign names – as well. So even if she were Spanish and her surname would accidentally be written as Smetana, with no relationships to the actual Czech word or name, she would be called Emma Smetanová on Czech TV (or Smetanaová, if Smetana were really recognized to be a foreign name unrelated to the "cream"). To do anything else is simply wrong. Not to call a foreign Ms Smetana "paní Smetanová" means to speak in broken Czech. And TV stations should simply reduce the broken Czech. Whether the rule is an official law or an informal expectation of decent citizens, TV stations should simply not work hard on the bastardization of the official language in the country.

I obviously don't want every individual to be punished for every mistake in his Czech grammar he or she displays on TV screens. But what I do want to be effectively banned and fought against is exactly a widespread movement that tries to do such things increasingly frequently. It's wrong to self-confidently use non-Czech forms of surnames on TVs for very similar reasons why it's wrong to kneel for the anthem: they simply harm their country, its official language, its symbols, or its basic dignity, laws, or other fundamental pillars. It's important for the bosses to be presidential, to say that the people doing such things are sons of a b*tch, and to disinvite them from the White House. ;-)

So many people are of course annoyed by a Ms Emma "Smetana" who wants to be interesting in this weird way. Note that the Czech grammar really breaks down here. The original word "smetana" ("cream") is feminine, following the "žena" ("woman") paradigm. The composer Smetana is masculine and he gets a new declension scheme following the "předseda" ("chairman") paradigm. But what are you supposed to do with "Smetana" in "Emma Smetana"? She is obviously female and the word behind the surname is also feminine. So the declension can't follow the "chairman" paradigm. So should you inflect the word just like "smetana", the actual cream? "Dal jsem jogurt Emmě Smetaně" (I gave a yogurt to Ms Cream) just sounds incredibly funny and stupid because the form "Smetaně" implicitly conveys the information that the recipient/object is simply not a human being we're talking about. That's how the Czech language works.

Needless to say, they realize that which is why they prefer not to decline the name at all. So it's "Smetana" in all cases. But to avoid declination of a totally Czech-sounding word such as "Smetana" is insanely unnatural in the Czech language, too. The usage of the nominative case for other cases is the stereotypical description of the broken Czech of native Americans or other foreigners. Crazy.

There have been some controversies about the gender deflection. Emma "Smetana" has ignited some of those by herself. In 2009, a former skier named Ms Zuzana Kocumová was hired as a commentator on TV. She refused to inflect the female skiers' names – it sounded "weird" to her – and some rumors said that it was the reason why she was fired from the TV team. The boss, Mr Ota Černý, said that it wasn't the reason and nobody knows for sure. But it's unquestionable that lots of TV viewers were angry about her usage of the Czech language and they wanted her to be removed from the TV screens. (Nothing terribly bad happened to her, she was allowed to comment on men's races soon where the problem didn't arise.)

So all the surnames that seem to smoothly follow some Czech paradigms should be inflected. That surely includes Clinton, Merkel, and almost all other women from the West – especially all the names ending with a consonant that sound like an "unknown object" in Czech. It may be tougher for the East Asian names. But I actually think that even in a majority of those cases, the gender inflection is the superior way of dealing with the challenge. For example, "paní Wuová", or "Ms Wu", was a female physicist who has gotten a Nobel prize. I don't see anything wrong with the inflection of the Chinese name. More importantly in Czechia, the Vietnamese may ask whether their surnames should be inflected. My typical answer to Ms Nguyenová would be Yes, too. As I already mentioned, it's better to apply the rule of adding "-ová" really mechanically and strictly upon names that sound exotic, instead of omitting some final vowels of the male surname – because these lost vowels could be very hard to be reconstructed (e.g. from "paní Wová" for "Ms Wu").

Another argument of the anti-inflection activists is that some women are so famous and independent that their names must be used in the original form. Marilyn Monroe or Edith Piaf are often mentioned as examples. Concerning Marilyn Monroe, well, I could have used the English name myself. But that was because of my sloppy speech. I interpret Czech sentences with "Marilyn Monroe" as examples of sentences that are half-Czech, half-English. One is really speaking in both languages and switching in between them. If you ask me what the TV news hosts should actually say, well, I surely think that they should talk about "Marilyn Monroeová". I think that this is the form I have used in my translation of Brian Greene's books (where her/Einstein's hybrid picture appears) and there were no hints of a disagreement with my language editor. I don't see a good reason why she should be given an exception. The ending -oe isn't terribly Czech-like for a surname but names like "Monroeová" have been pronounced and written many times and there's really nothing wrong about them. The standardized Czech endings survive and the Czech declension keeps its ability to communicate the vital information.

Edith Piaf is a slightly different case. There have been books with Edith Piafová as well and I instinctively tend to say that it's the same like Angela Merkelová and "-ová" should be added. However, if you actually know some extra facts about her, you will learn that Piaf isn't a real surname. Her name (in Czech) was Édith Giovanna Gassionová. Piaf is a nickname meaning "a sparrow". So she had this birdy nickname which happens to be a masculine word in Czech – "vrabec" is "sparrow". Most people don't know what "Piaf" even means, let alone that it was a nickname, so it makes things complicated. To avoid confusions and unjustified reactions, you could spend a minute by explaining these things but you usually don't want to do that. So at least, there are some good reasons to say that Edith Piaf is a complicated case where exceptions are justifiable.

No exceptions are justifiable for Angela Merkelová.

I mentioned radical feminists as some of those who have waged this jihad about this basic feature of the Czech grammar. But it's not just feminism that is driving these things. When Mr Zaorálek writes "blahopřeji A. Merkel", the choice to avoid the gender inflection (aside from the legitimate, annoying 140-character limit on Twitter) also implicitly says something else, namely
Look, Ms Merkel: I am ready to abandon the rules of the Czech language and spit on these rules, they're ludicrous rules, just in order to make you recognize your surname more easily in my tweet – and for you not to be annoyed by the terrifying idea that the Czechs may still use a language that differs from the German language and from its rules. Can you see how nice and obedient minister of an adjacent country I am? And how eager I am to bring Czechia into the "hard core of the EU", i.e. to effectively turn it into a German Bundesland?
Well, that's another reason why I have a problem with this particular bastardization of the rules of my mother tongue. The message he is sending is just wrong. He should be a minister of an independent country that has its own language and the language has its own rules. There's nothing wrong with our language and its rules and they need to be upheld if we don't want many other things to fall apart, too.

The relativization of the rules of Czech is a part of the efforts to suppress the traditions on the Czech territory, our national identity, and to make it easier for us to get "dissolved" in Europe or the world and for our territory to be taken by foreigners. And I simply have a big problem with all these things and the rather transparent motivations behind them. That's why I think it's right to be a "language Nazi" in these particular disagreements and if things get worse, I think that we should build "language concentration camps", too. ;-)

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