A Lesson In The Linguistic Sexism

Haresh Shah


My first encounter with ová came in early 1991, when we were putting together the first issue of the Czech edition of Playboy. I noticed on the proposed cover, Pamela Anderson having become Pamela Andersonová. First I thought it was a typo, so I brought it up to the attention of then editor-in-chief Jaroslav Matejka. No, apparently it wasn’t an error. That’s how the Czechs called their women and Anderson in its Czech version had to be Andersonová. Even after Jaroslav gave me an elaborate explanation on the Czech language and its grammar, it didn’t quite fit my logic. At that time I didn’t know any Czech at all, even so, I was not swayed. I did not want them to Czechify a person’s name. It would be like calling Paul Pavel and Michelle Michaela. I am particularly sensitive about this – perhaps all my life living in the West, I have had often to fend off people’s attempts at turning Haresh into Harry. The first issue came out with hers and dozens of other featured foreign females with their original names.

Fast forward several years. When in 1998, I arrived in Prague to live and work, I began to learn the language almost immediately. Now we are close to the year 2000. After having been consultant to the stable of Mona magazines for two years, when I came up with the concept for Serial and was appointed its editor-in-chief, one of the first things I began to do was to write the style for the magazine that would set down basic guidelines about what should be italicized, what must appear in bold, how we would credit the contributors, the tone of our articles and above all, that no foreign female names will be ovaized. We would never call them Leticia Calderónová or Natalia Oreirová. The management and my managing editor Alice (Mackeová ne Sedliská) were cool. They had no problem with that. But the first and the subsequent editors we hired, did. The first one argued with me to no end, citing the sacredness of the grammar, the tradition and such.  One of my young graphics, Štepan Urban even went as far as telling me, without ová how could you tell the difference between whether it was a male or a female we were talking about?

Whether or not I convinced anybody, I do not know. But after having given a serious thought to the subject, this is something I had set down as a rule, and once again I prevailed and was very comfortable with my decision. Especially, now also because I knew the basics of the language and was convinced more than ever that this was the right thing to do. The editors were somewhat pacified at the fact that our part time proof reader was a professor of languages at Charles University and once having discussed the matter with him, he too didn’t have any problem with it. What is more, a few months later when Mona came out with our sister publication Beau Monde, they too chose to drop ová. And a bit by bit, even the press releases from the network television began to arrive with the original foreign names. Now Alice heads four magazines and from their very beginning, they too have remained with the foreign names unaltered.

In the meantime, I began to learn Czech in earnest and as difficult as I found it to be, something about the language seemed quite familiar to me. The real problem was not the vocabulary or even the pronunciations with their ě-č-š-ř-ž-ý-á-í-é, the words devoid of vowels and the long compound words like in German. Did I say German? Bingo! Of course because the Czech being one of the Indo-Germanic languages, it stems from the ancient Sanskrit – also the root of the most modern Indian languages. In Czech, I ran across huge amount of similar sounding vocabulary with identical meanings. Then why was I having such a hard time with the Czech? Those damn seven cases and their declensions. That’s why. Sanskrit even has eight cases! And still. Because the modern Indian languages have done away with those complicated cases and long never-ending compound words as in Sanskrit have simplified the entire structure of the grammar. The Czechs have managed to and still cling to the ancient rules of Sanskrit. Perhaps subconsciously to keep the foreigners out? As would make sense in a xenophobic culture that often characterizes them? Or more likely, in the tradition of the converts who tend to adhere to the rigid covenants than do the ones born into it?

Ironically, I would run into Playboy’s Jaroslav Matejka at Mona. Now working for one of their magazines, Květy. When I casually mentioned our original tussle over ová, and how he now felt about not only Playboy, but other in-house titles such as my Serial, Beau Monde and Story also having dropped the suffix, he shrugged his shoulders and gave me his impish smile. Still not conceding.

Whatever! The real problem came two years later when Serial was discontinued by Mona and we went across the city to Prima Televize and re-launched the magazine which we called Tv Tip Serial, under the umbrella of their publishing division, Good Harvest spol. s.r.o.. Petr Kořinek had become the general director of the of three magazines that also contained Mlady svět, and Recepty na prima napadu. In order to streamline the operation and maximize the human resources, Petr asked us if we could share proof readers from Mlady svět. I had no problems with that.

When the Mlady svět ladies Jana and Andrea saw the elimination of ová in our pages, they were absolutely horrified.  They barged into our offices at a time when I wasn’t around and created an uproar about the desecration of the Czech language. Editors Alice and Gabriela Koulová tried to explain to them that this was our magazine’s style as set by me and that was that. This wasn’t enough for them. They persisted and insisted that their job was to see to it that the usage of the language was proper and correct and what we were doing was absolutely against the rules, and thus compromising their professionalism. At some point editors said these rules were set by the editor-in-chief Haresh Shah, and if they felt so strongly about it then they had to speak with me.

Huffing and puffing, they returned to our office that afternoon soon after I had arrived. Having already briefed-in, I was prepared for the showdown. Even so, I first listened to what they had to say and then told them, I understood their sentiments and appreciated their professionalism and their concern for the language, however, not adding on ová to the foreign names was well thought out and established style in Tv Tip Serial, and that was that. I was not open to any further discussion on the subject. They threatened they would not do it. My answer was, in that case they should talk with the Pan Ředitel and we would have to find someone else or go back to our regular proof reader. Petr obviously sided with us, but he respected editors of the other two magazines for keeping the tradition.

When nothing worked, Jana and Andrea went on a campaign to sabotage TVTS by adding ovás to the foreign names that were never there because all our contributors knew what our style was. Took us hours to remove them all before continuing with corrections. It became their personal mission to protect the purity of the language. When sabotaging didn’t work, they decided they did not want to appear in our masthead as the proof readers. With which we complied and eventually found someone else to work with us. Ironically, one of them was a student of the professor who did proof reading for us prior to them. When I mentioned this to them, their retort was: “he must be doing it for the money!” As if they were doing it for anything else!

A year and half after my brush with the two purists, when I came to my office and opened the most recent issue that had landed on my desk that morning, the ová had magically reappeared in many of the articles. Must be a contributor who just out of sheer habit had turned in the piece that way. But that shouldn’t have made a difference, because first the editor in charge should have caught it, and if she missed, it was our new proof reader’s job to eliminate them. I called the editor in charge, and instead of explaining, she went into the patriotic mode and began to argue with me about the Czech language. It was such a déjà vu. I didn’t know whether to scream and shout or just break down and cry. How would you like it if they changed your name from Novaková  to Novak when you arrive at a Western airport because it isn’t their tradition to add ová to a female name? I tried to put it into perspective. Obviously to no avail. But in my magazine, foreign female names were to remain sans ová, and that was that.

Other than young Štepan and Jaroslav, the most everyone who argued with me were women of all ages. The argument I often thought about and failed to make was the question that constantly nagged me. Why would any woman in the 21st century – Czech or otherwise, want to be “owned” by males of the species? The suffix ová means that you belong or are owned by the whoever’s name it’s added to. As a girl, she would belong and be owned by her father. As a grown up married woman, her ownership would be transferred to her husband. Shouldn’t they be instead marching down Václavské náměstí demanding for the yoke of ová to be removed from around their necks?  Or better yet, unilaterally tear it off with their bare hands!

One of my teachers, Olga Nádvorníková even jokes about the extent of sexism in the Czech language: If there were a group of a hundred women walking down the street and walking along with them were a single male dog, describing the crowd in plural would assume masculine form! Wow! The expression she has picked up and uses frequently from her short visit to the States, and then lets out a big laugh. So the Czech women seem to have not only accepted their fate, but also desperately cling to the status quo, with rare exceptions. One of them I recently came across on the web in an article published in LA Times dated June 26, 2009, by Henry Chu about Lucie Kundera, the Czech woman who though took her husband’s name but refused to add suffix ová: because [it means] you are owned by your husband.  Bravo! There maybe some more, but up until now, I haven’t heard even a small movement or a concern about it.

Some years ago when I was no longer living in Prague and am visiting the city, I meet with Jaroslav one evening at the riverfront pizzeria Fresco Vento. Now he is an editor at Mlada fronta’s weekly supplement E15. Actually I am doing for him Poznamká Hareshe Shaha, an opinion column and am also contributing an occasional travel piece. This is like almost twenty years later. As a part of our nostalgic conversation, ová comes up.

‘What do you think about it now?’

‘Well, I think then I was a bit rigid and naïve.’ He concedes as much. The same impish smile crosses his face.

© Haresh Shah

Illustration: Celia Rose Marks



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