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Being a Czech mate can cause women pain and suffix

Their society and the very language have an 'ova-reaction' to eliminating last names' feminine endings

June 26, 2009|Henry Chu

PRAGUE, CZECH REPUBLIC — Lucie Kundra is something of a feminist rebel -- not because she wouldn't take her husband's name when they got married last year, but because she did.

She adopted his surname exactly as it was, and in doing so defied centuries of tradition and the wishes of her own mother. That's because she refused to add the customary feminine suffix "ova" at the end, as the Czech language normally dictates; she answers to Lucie Kundra, not Lucie Kundrova.

The three letters were a step too far for the 27-year-old charity worker.

"I really didn't want 'ova' because [it means] you are owned by your husband," Kundra says. "Language is a huge part of culture and socialization, and if we want to change relations between women and men and promote equal opportunities, this is something we have to deal with."

Though still a small minority, more and more young Czech women are grappling with that question as women make further inroads in Czech society and inch closer to parity with men.

But it's a tough row to hoe when the entire structure of the Czech language is stacked against you, when deviating from the linguistic norm can not only raise eyebrows but even get you fired. Self-expression still has its limits here in a country that was under the thumb of Soviet totalitarianism until 20 years ago.

Linguistically speaking, the vast majority of Czech women spend their entire lives belonging to one man or another.

They're born with their dads' surnames, plus "ova" at the end; tennis champion Martina Navratilova, for example, is the stepdaughter of Miroslav Navratil. Then, after marriage, when a woman takes her spouse's last name, with the usual addition, she switches "allegiance" from father to husband.

But the sexism of the language only starts there. Czech is a complex, towering edifice built on declensions, changes made to a noun depending on which "case" it is, whether subject, object and so forth. It's like conjugating a verb correctly to match the subject. When speaking about a woman, all the declensions of her name are based on her having a feminine version of it to begin with.

So when the "ova" is missing, it becomes difficult to speak about her naturally.

"It violates the main principle of the Czech language," says Sarka Blazkova (husband's name: Blazek), who works at the state-funded Institute for the Czech Language.

Attaching a feminine ending to a woman's name is not peculiar to Czech, Blazkova points out. It's common in other Slavic tongues, including Russian, in which women add an "a" to their surnames.

Outside their own countries, the practice can lead to annoying mix-ups. Immigration officers sometimes fail to grasp that a man and woman are actually married because their names aren't exactly the same. One Czech couple, trying to check in to a hotel in Turkey, nearly had to sleep in separate rooms when the conservative proprietor refused at first to believe they were legally wed.

Inside the Czech Republic, the confusion goes the other way. People make Lucie Kundra repeat her name, or ask whether she's married to a foreigner. When she explains that she and her husband are both Czech, some interlocutors demand point-blank why she chose not to conform to accepted style.

That, and the initial displeasure of her mother, who had advised her against thumbing her nose at tradition (she's come around now), has been the only negative consequence thus far for Kundra.

Not so for Zuzana Kocumova, an Olympic cross-country skier who found out just what some segments of Czech society would and wouldn't tolerate.

As a sometime TV sports commentator, Kocumova refused to add "ova" to the names of foreign skiers. It wasn't out of feminist principles necessarily, but rather because she thought it ridiculous to "Czech-ify" the names of non-Czech women, as is standard procedure here. (The U.S. secretary of State is always referred to as Hillary Clintonova, the chancellor of Germany as Angela Merkelova and she of erratic pop-star behavior as Britney Spearsova.)

Being personally acquainted with foreign skiers made Kocumova all the more determined to refer to them by their names exactly as given.

"These are their names in the start lists and results lists everywhere," Kocumova said. "It was unnatural for me to use the Czech form. I couldn't do it."

During the FIS Nordic World Ski Championships in February, held near Prague, the Czech capital, some viewers wrote in to complain about Kocumova's refusal to append "ova" to female skiers' names during her commentary. She was unmoved, and kept doing it her way.

The television station fired her.

Steamed, Kocumova took her story to the press, prompting enough of an outcry over her dismissal that, barely a day later, the station took her back. In an English-language opinion piece, a Czech media website dubbed the TV station's treatment of Kocumova an "ova-reaction."

That was a sign that attitudes might be shifting a bit, at least with regard to the habit of forcing foreign women's names to fit the Czech mold.

Abandoning the convention for the names of Czech women, however, will require a far bigger shake-up of both language and mentality.

Nevertheless, some feminists dream of a day when women here will be able to identify themselves however they please, with gender-specific suffixes a relic of a less enlightened past.

Ova and out.

--

henry.chu@latimes.com

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