Saturday, April 09, 2011


We decline!

I’m back from Prague, and recovering from the trip. I talked about the Czech language after my 2007 visit, and mentioned the case endings. This trip’s given me something else to say about that.

After the IETF meeting, during the vacation part of my stay, I moved to a hotel called The Golden Tree. In Czech, golden tree is zlatý strom, and there were a few things around that said that. But that’s the nominative case. Hotel names are frequently (usually, it seems) rendered as U [something], where the word u is like the french chez, meaning at the place of. That throws it into the genitive case, so the proper name of the hotel is U Zlatého Stromu.

Czech has three genders (masculine, feminine, and neuter) and seven cases (nominative, genitive, dative, accusative, vocative, locative, and instrumental), so the combinations of endings as nouns are declined and adjectives are changed to match can be dizzying.

Unlike German (but like other Slavic languages, such as Russian), Czech declines proper nouns, including people’s names. And they decline everyone’s names, not just Czech ones, or ones that look like they might be Czech.

This trip included a visit to the Czech Museum of Music, which had an exhibit called Beatlemánie, about the Beatles. I had to see that, of course.

It was amusing to see the names declined. The most interesting was Sir Paul’s. He was Paul McCartney when it was nominative, of course. But when a display talks about The Solo Career of Paul McCartney, it becomes Sólová dráha Paula McCarneyho.

Paula McCartneyho ?



Filip Navara said...

Let me follow up a little.

If the hotel is named "U Zlatého Stromu" and you want to say "Let's meet at U Zlatého Stromu" in Czech then the actual sentence is "Potkáme se u Zlatého Stromu". The literal translatation would be "Potkáme se _u_U_ Zlatého Stromu". While there's no codified rule for this the colloquial speech dictates that the "u" ("at" / "next to") from the name is stripped in this case.

The declining of names was at one time very discussed topic in Czech Republic. While it is accepted practice to decline Czech names it is not clear how to deal with foreign names. Some prefer to decline them, while others despise it.

Filip Navara said...

Let me correct myself. The actual problem with foreign names is not just the declining. It is the fact that we use the "ová" and "ská" suffix for woman surnames. While it is natural for Czech names, like "Martina Sábíková", it is a bit unnatural for foreign names like "Yoko Onová" and yet people sometimes use it.

Barry Leiba said...

Thanks, Filip. I'm told the same is true in French: if you want to meet at a place called "Chez Paul", you don't say "chez Chez Paul".

And thanks also for leading us to that great pasta place! We went back there twice afterward.

The Ridger, FCD said...

Does Czech actually decline all the foreign names, or just the ones that can be fitted into the Czech paradigm? For instance, Russians could all the Beatles' names except the Ringo and (which may answer my question) McCartney. That's because they spell the latter to end in a vowel, not - as they could - a consonant (ий instead of plain и).

Only names that end in А or a consonant decline for men, and only those that end in A for women. That happens to be true for even Russian (or at least Slavic) names: all those Ukrainian -enko names aren't declined, and, for instance, the first name of Гарри Каспаров (Gary Kasparov) isn't declined.