The Czechoslovak Review/Volume 3/Bohemians or Chehs

4149365The Bohemian Review, volume 3, no. 1 — Bohemians or Chehs1919Jaroslav Victor Nigrin

Bohemians or Chehs

By Jaroslav Victor Nigrin.

The question of how to spell the word Czechs and Czechoslovaks is often discussed among the Bohemians of this country. Mr. Nigrin, teacher of the Bohemian language in the Harrison Technical High School of Chicago, proposes the spelling Chehs. The editor will be glad to publish other views on this subject in the next issue.

In some of the Bohemian papers there appeared recently a discussion of the question, whether or not it is advisable to discard to name “Bohemian” and adopt for the nation and its language the name “Czechs”. The name “Bohemian”, as the readers of the Bohemian Review well know, is used in the English and French languages to designate not only that people of Slavic race, inhabiting the central part of Europe, known as the kingdom of Bohemia, but also the wandering tribe of Gypsies. Since, moreover ,the name is used also in speaking of the gay, careless and unconventional artists, it is an equivocal term which has been a great handicap in our efforts to make our people and our aims better known to the American public. The word Bohemian has only a very circumstantial connection with our people. It was used originally to denote a Celtic tribe known as the Boii who inhabited Bohemia before the Czechs, and it was fastened on the new Slavic inhabitants by German historians (see H. Jireček: Antiquae Bohemiae Tepographia Historica, Prague, 1893). The name Czechs is undoubtedly a Slavic name which was used from the earliest times to denote exclusively our people. Popular tradition says that Čech, a legendary leader, brought his people some time in the fifth century to a new land and that the people took his name for their own. Later scientific researches (see Novotny, České Dějiny, Vol. I, part 1, page 235) connect the word Čech with “člověk”, that is man; čech meant according to this interpretation a member of the tribe. There is, therefore, hardly any objection to dropping the name “Bohemia” and “Bohemians” and using instead the more proper and exact term Čech. The old appellation has no other claim for its perpetuation than mere custom. The adoption of the name Čech into the England language would no longer be looked upon as a radical novelty; the French long ago found it advantageous to drop the words Bohème and Bohèmian in speaking of the Čech people and to use the name Tchèque instead. Similar steps in English would obviate a great deal of confusion and save much embarrassment to American citizens of Čech origin.

Time was never more propitious for such a change than the present, for just now the Čechs are entering upon a new and glorious phase of their history. Driven against their wish and conscience into the war to fight for their masters, the Germans, the long abused Čechs revolted, surrendered to the Russians in the east and to the Serbians and the Italians in the south, and supported by Čechs and Slovaks from America they formed legions to break the tyranny and subjection in which they were held. Fired by the desire to create a free Čechia they performed deeds of glory and valor which forever will make memorable the name Čecho-Slovak. Thus fighting on the side of justice and humanity they have introduced to the entire world an almost forgotten, but now nobly rejuvenated nation. Shall we continue the obscure old name for this brave people? It certainly would not be just. The Čechs and the Slovaks are sister nations; the difference in language is that of two dialects only. They are one in history, tradition and suffering; they wish to become one in a happy future forming an independent Čecho-Slovak state. The retention of the name Bohemian for one-half of this state would only add to the considerable confusion. Let us therefore give up that old name Bohemian and adopt the new name Čechs which was reborn through the heroism of its sons who won for it the laurels and the admiration of united democracies. The Čecho-Slovak state which is being formed in the heart of Europe will be a permanent monument to the new realization of the immortal American ideal of “liberty and justice for all.”

How shall we spell the name Čech in English? Let us make a careful choice so as not to perpetuate some new mistake. The pronunciation of the letter č (the so-called palatalized c) equals in sound to the English ch in words like church, cherr. This sound is at present spelled in English cz (Czechs), Such spelling is an awkward anomaly and whoever originated it was an ignorant. Spelling of the sound ch by cz does not show the sound in English at all. There is no word in English with the combination cz (the word czar is Russian and is now preferably spelled tsar, because ts shows better the native sound. The spelling cz is also un-Bohemian, for it never occurs in the Čech language. The spelling cz is the Polish way of spelling the English sound ch, as in church or the Bohemian č. It is obvious that the English spelling of a Bohemian word in a Polish way, which to the average American is an uncomprehensible way, is an incongruity which must be given up. The proper spelling of foreign names is either to follow the original foreign spelling, which in this case would be difficult on account of the native hook accent, or else to imitate in a common English way the native pronunciation.

Therefore I submit the following proposal: Should it be decided to adopt for the Bohemian designation of the Bohemian people the word Čech, in compound Čecho-Slovak, let us spell the word in an English way which would best approximate the native pronunciation; and that would be Cheh. The final ch in the Bohemian Čech has a softer sound than the English h (as in hold), but that sound would approach it quite well. The name of the people would be Chehs, the land Chehia, the language Chehian; in compound Cheho-Slovaks, Cheho-Slovakia and Cheho-Slovakian. Such change would be logical and for the Bohemian people a blessing. The change would be an easy one to make. The English name for the heroic people of King Peter was spelled until recently Servs, Servians. It was an ugly nickname; what all did it suggest to the average person. Since the war the name has been spelled properly Serbs, Serbians, and we have learned to love and respect this heroic nation of poets. The same will happen with the Chehs.

This work was published before January 1, 1929, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.

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