Sunday, October 29, 2017

What's weird about Olomouc

I was curious about Olomouc, the former capital of Moravia in the eastern part of the Czech Republic, so I turned to Wikipedia. Or rather, to Wikipedie, the Czech version of the online encyclopedia.
From Wikimedia Commons.
The "SPQO" is just like Rome's "SPQR", except with
Olomouc in place of Rome.
It’s no surprise that most of the time, the Wikipedie entry about something Czech is more fleshed out than the Wikipedia entry.

In this case, that’s less true.

The English-language page has a nice historical essay on the city.

The Czech page doesn’t bother having an essay and instead gives a list of dates with sentence fragments identifying important events.

Perhaps it does this to leave room for the first section, which is about the city’s name.

After a few paragraphs about the contested origin of the city’s name, the section goes on:

A traditional problem is the grammatical gender of the name. Originally all names of this type (Boleslav, Dobřís, Litomyšl) were of masculine gender, which lasted at least until the 16th century, and longer for the most part. With most of these names a change from masculine to feminine happened gradually starting in the 17th century (sporadically already in the 16th) most of all in the dialect of the central part of Bohemia with the disappearance of the soft sign and the tendency toward the grammatical type of “obuv” [shoes], while in several peripheral dialects of Bohemia (but also, for example, in Dobříš) and in Moravia and Silesia the masculine gender persisted. R. Šrámek described the border between masculine and feminine gender for names such as Olomouc in the publication Local names in Moravia and Silesia II, by L. Hosák and R. Šrámek, Prague, 1980. In 1929, Ertl’s codification of names of Olomouc’s type claimed the feminine gender as the only correct one in the written language, and did so in the spirit of its thesis that whoever violates the unity of written Czech commits the greatest cultural sin against his descendants, and that the cultural level of various regions is best exhibited by the voluntary subordination of individual local particularities to the unity of written Czech. In written Czech Olomouc is feminine as a matter of principle and is declined following the model “píseň” [song] (similar to other place names ending with a soft consonant—Bystrc, Třeboň, Třebíč, Dobříš), but in the local area the masculine gender is often used with the declension following the model “stroj” [machine]; local inhabitants sometimes insist on the original masculine gender—also preserved in dialects—as correct, in opposition to written grammar. In the case of uncertainty, it is recommended to use circumlocutions such as “in the city of Olomouc,” in which Czech allows the use of the first case.
In 1930 the Olomouc city council turned to the Provincial Office in Brno to decide the question of the gender of the city’s name. They commissioned a linguistic analysis from Charles University professor Josef Zubatý, who proved that the correct gender is feminine. That was officially confirmed by the Ministry of the Interior that same year.
For someone coming from a language like English that doesn't have grammatical gender, the whole thing can seem a little arbitrary. "Tree" is masculine, "wood" is neuter, "exam" is feminine - OK, whatever.

But some of it's a little weird. "Boy" is masculine and "child" is neuter, fair enough (though the plural is feminine ...), but one of the words for "girl" is also neuter (as is also true in German).

So you figure, "Right, it's this kind of arbitrary feature that has nothing to do with the substance of things, it's just there."

But you also figure that they know what the hell they're doing with it - it is, after all, their language.

And then you find out that they can't even figure out which gender to use for the name of the second biggest city in Moravia, and that they have to get the government to decree which it is, and that they've got people running around saying that other people who use the wrong genders are betraying their descendants (actually that part sounds oddly like cultural conservatives in the U.S.), and you realize it's all a hoax.

This whole damn language has been set up just to bamboozle foreigners into trying to figure it out, but the dirty secret is that nobody actually speaks it.

They put on a good show in public, but then they go home and speak American to each other and laugh behind their hands at all the stupid foreigners trying to learn their "language."

At least, I think that's what's going on.

[Grammar note: As in most Slavic languages, the grammatical concept of case plays an important role in Czech. Therefore, nouns and adjectives change their endings depending on the part of speech they happen to be in a given sentence: subject, direct object, indirect object, various prepositional relationships, etc. The set of endings for a given noun is known as its "declension." And declension is determined in part by a word's grammatical gender.]

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