Encyclopedia of Romantic Nationalism in Europe

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Language interest : Czech

  • Language interestCzech
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  • Author:
    Nekula, MarekŘezníková, Lenka
  • Text:

    The reflection on, and use of, the Czech language in Bohemia and the other Bohemian Lands changed profoundly in the course of the long 19th century. In the first period of the national movement, Czech (alongside German) was a medium of practical communication, and German, in its standardized form, had a strong position in the centralizing institutions and reforms of the Habsburg monarchy and in the supra-regional (book) market. But Czech also remained one of the two provincial languages in the Bohemian Kingdom, whose aristocratic and scholarly elites could emphasize their own traditions of humanism and tolerance by supporting the Czech language. However, loyalty to the country of Bohemia and supporting Czech did not necessarily imply antagonism vis-à-vis German.

    In the second period, Czech national activists considered Czech to express the ethno-national character and the present-day as well as the historical cohesion of the nation itself. As such, language became the manifestation of national identity, and loyalty to the language and its language community gained primacy. As a result, the use of the Czech language in literary and intellectual contexts was vindicated and propagated in order to boost the cultural and social emancipation of the Czech community and raise it to the ranks of the other historical nations of Europe.

    In the third period, the Czech national movement became a mass movement led by politicians, and the language became part of their political agenda, which aimed to enforce it as the official language and the language of instruction. The commitment to the language and its linguistic community expanded to include loyalty to an (aspirational) autonomous, Czech-ruled state.  

    Initially, at the end of the 18th century, the dominant language in the Bohemian Lands was German. The Habsburg educational and administrative reforms of 1774 and 1781 promoted its usage, even replacing Latin as the language of instruction at universities. Apologias of the Czech language were unable to change the Habsburg maxim of “one state, one language”. In the Enlightenment, the case for Czech was made on the basis of its usefulness for efficient governance and patriotic-civic relations in Bohemia. In the Romantic period, the question of identity came to the fore.

    Scholarly interest in Czech was manifested in the first period above all by Josef Dobrovský. It increased considerably once, in 1793, a chair of the Czech language was established at Prague University. Franz Martin Pelzel (František Martin Pelcl) was the first holder of this chair, followed in 1801 by Jan Nejedlý (1776–1834). The emerging specialism of Czech philology, with its historicist orientation, stimulated editions of Old Czech texts documenting the antiquity of Czech written culture.

    However, interest in the language was not only driven by intellectual considerations, but also by practical (military, economic and pastoral-ecclesiastical) ones. As increasing literacy, the rise of an urban intelligentsia, and the expansion of the book market boosted Czech literary production, the deficiencies of the existing language culture and the lack of a generally accepted Czech standard became apparent. Interest in the Czech language shifted from apologetic texts, first to a documentary and then, in the second half of the 19th century, to a normative approach. Grammars, dictionaries and textbooks were produced, starting with Dobrovský’s Czech grammar (Ausführliches Lehrgebäude der böhmischen Sprache, 1809) and his 2-volume German-Czech dictionary (Deutsch-böhmisches Wörterbuch, 1804/1821).

    In his grammar, Dobrovský focused on the language as it had been used by the 16th-century humanists. This reversal to a “golden age” of Czech written culture should obviate the language decline (as he saw it) of the baroque period. Dobrovský’s authority ensured that this humanistic usage became normative. It provided the basis for the standardization of Czech by means of subsequent textbooks (e.g. those of by Jan Gebauer, 1838–1907); and it also explains an inter-dialect variety (obecná čeština), different from the standard and established in the second half of the 19th century, as massive influx from all corners of rural Bohemia into the urban centres (especially Prague) took place.

    Linguistic standardization is linked to territorial unification. Texts written in standard language arched over regions characterized by different regional and local dialects used in everyday communication. Thus, the circulation of standard texts facilitated the imagination of a linguistically-based community, and partially also the experience of a unified public sphere. Dobrovský territorialized Czech not only in Bohemia, but also in the other Bohemian Lands, such as Moravia and Silesia, and even in Upper Hungary (Slovakia), where the Protestant Church used the Czech of the late-16th-century Bible of Kralice. Dobrovský accordingly rejected the attempts of Anton Bernolák in the 1780s to create his own standard for Slovak. Later, in the tract Hlasové o potřebě jednoty spisovného jazyka pro Čechy, Moravany a Slováky (“Voices on the necessity of uniformity in the written language for Czechs, Moravians and Slovaks”, 1846), attributed to Ján Kollár and Pavol Jozef Šafárik, Czech was held up as the standard for Slovaks as well. In other writings, Kollár and Šafárik interpreted Czechoslavic as a “dialect” of the Slavic language and explicitly rejected the attempt of Ľudovít Štúr to devise an autonomous Slovak standard in the 1840s. However, Kollár’s attempt to create a common standard for Czech and Slovak dialects proved unsuccessful, whereas Štúr’s codification, further developed by Michal Miloslav Hodža and Martin Hattala, became the basis of the modern Slovak standard. Even so, Czechoslovakism persisted and continued to assert a single language for both Czechs and Slovaks.

    While Enlightenment Patriotism had followed territorial demarcations, the ethno-national movement of the Romantic period saw itself primarily as a linguistic task force. In Central Europe, language, now understood not as a state language but as a “national language”, was considered the decisive marker of the nation‘s collective ethnic identity, as well as an objective manifestation of its abiding existence “from the beginning to the present”. This applied both to Germans, who as yet were without a common nation state, and to the smaller nations without state sovereignty. In the Czech context, the importance of language was rendered visible by the “national baptism” of adopting an additional given name with Slavic overtones. Involving examples ranging from František Ladislav Čelakovský to Václav Bolemír Nebeský, the practice was very widespread. The adoption of Slavic names began in the Napoleonic wars, which brought Russian (and other Slavic) speakers to the Bohemian Lands, and ended in the neo-absolutist 1850s. These names, some of which were fresh coinages, replicated old Slavic compound names used for leaders and rulers, and in some cases even envisioned Czech rule over “Czech” lands. These names combined morphemes evoking “truth”, “beauty”, “duty”, or “virtue” in the first component with morphemes like –slav, –mir or –mil(a) in the second component. Masculine names could also include the element of battle (e.g. Josef Bojislav Pichl), Wácslav Wladivoj Tomek). The adoption of Slavic names went in tandem with scholarly interest in Slavic mythology and toponymy, which underpinned the antiquity and territorial rootedness of the Czech Slavs, as documented in the publications of Ján Kollár. It also correlates with reflections on Russian as a possible common standard for all Slavic nations (Josef Jungmann) and on Cyrillic as an alternative writing system for Czech (Václav Hanka).

    Around 1848 and from the 1860s (after the neo-absolutist period) onwards, the prominence of Czech as a standard language was promoted increasingly by the middle classes. Having benefited from the standardization of (language) education, they experienced upward mobility and enhanced social influence. Czech was formalized as the language of instruction in Czech grammar schools in the 1860s. In the 1870s, the Czech school system also became formally autonomous. The Czech-oriented middle classes were strongest and most successful in Bohemia. In Moravia, with its predominantly German-speaking cities and without a unifying Czech-speaking centre comparable to Prague, the linguistic situation was different. Local dialects and inter-dialects maintained a stronger presence alongside the (important) Czech standard, and in literature this evoked the notion of a folk spirit untainted by Germanization and fed into a regionalist and traditionalist taste. In the Romantic period, the literary canon was ethnographically shaped by the likes of Karel Jaromír Erben; the study of dialects was boosted in the 1860s following the work of Alois Vojtěch Šembera (1807–1882), who drew on materials gathered by the writer Božena Němcová (1820-1862) on her travels. However, the turn to dialect also reflected a turn toward greater literary realism and, later, naturalism, especially by authors of Moravian origin.

    Attempts to strengthen the cultural position and official status of the Czech language in the Bohemian Lands met with resistance from the Empire’s centralized, German-speaking state administration. Czech-German linguistic relations became increasingly antagonistic. One of the most important programmatic goals of Czech political representation was the promotion of Czech in education and administration and the removal of the requirement of German proficiency for upward social mobility. The enactment of language ordinances proved to be a matter of delicate political negotiation for both the provincial Landtag and the imperial Reichsrat. In 1880 the Stremayr language ordinances were passed, which introduced the equality of Czech and German as external official languages in dealings between citizens and state officials; the Badeni ordinance followed in 1897, establishing the equality of Czech and German as internal official languages within the Bohemian state administration. The latter in particular aroused great resistance in the German-speaking community, while its repeal triggered unrest on the Czech side in 1898-99, intensifying the severe political crises in Bohemia and the Habsburg Empire in general.

    The Czech-German language divide became increasingly politically sensitive in the second half of the century. An intra-Bohemian linguistic border was perceived, not as a simple cartographic line separating the German and Czech linguistic areas, but as a Czech-German ethno-national boundary. As in Belgium, colloquial language (Umgangssprache) had been a regular subject of the census (Volkszählung) since the late 1850s; from 1880, it became the decisive criterion for interpreting the ethnic structure of the population of the Bohemian kingdom and developed into a criterion in the municipalities and judicial districts for determining the language of instruction and administration.

    The public and political discourse around linguistic issues at the end of the century reflected the dominance of monoglossic language ideologies and the virulence of the language conflict. A nationally oriented language interest had developed from academic and practical towards political goals in the course of the century. At the same time, however, official institutions, such as the Královská česká společnost nauk (“Royal Bohemian society of sciences”), strove to maintain a neutral position and cultivated Czech-German bilingualism. Czech artistic Modernism, with its more international orientation, also eschewed monolingualism as an ideology, as the Manifest Česká moderna (Manifesto of Czech Modernism, 1895) or the multilingual editorial policy of the journal Moderní revue around 1897 show.

    Linguistic activism did, throughout the century, stimulate Czech purism, which sought to expunge the German lexical influence on Czech. Clumsy purist innovations by Jan Václav Pohl (1720–1790) and Maximilián Václav Šimek (1748–1798), which offended the patterns of Czech word formation, had been criticized by Dobrovský; in his footsteps, Josef Jungmann followed a different strategy. In his Slovník česko-německý (“Czech-German dictionary”, 5 vols, 1835-39), he reactivated obsolete forms and elevated dialect words. He and his followers around the journal Krok (1821-40), borrowed from other Slavic languages (especially Polish and Russian) to replace German loan words. Ethnically motivated anti-German Czech purism reached its peak in the second half of the century with the publication of the language guides Brus jazyka českého (“Improving the Czech language”, 1877, 1881, 1894). These were sponsored by the National Museum, which had become the central institution of the Czech national movement. This purism, which also focused on Czech grammar, was a compensatory reaction to the lack of formal language teaching in Czech secondary schools until the late 1850s, and to the instability of language norms. A similar anxiety also motivated the policy of the “good author” standards, as practised by the Svatobor (“Sacred Grove”) association of Czech writers (1862), further developed by Václav Ertl (1875–1929) and institutionalized in the Kancelář Slovníku jazyka českého (“Office of the Czech language dictionary”, since 1911). Even the prominent and widely respected Jan Gebauer ignored about 400 borrowings from Middle High German into Old Czech in his Slovník staročeský (“Dictionary of Old Czech”, 1903 ff.) and banned German loan words from the word lists which standardized the Czech lexicon and its orthography as of 1901. Such purism, perpetuated by the journal Naše řeč (“Our speech”, 1917), was only overcome in the late 1920s, when a new functionalist language theory was developed by a new generation of linguists around the Prague Linguistic Circle (established in 1926). Of course, this was only possible because, by then, a multifunctional Czech standard had been established and consolidated in all domains of its usage, and Czech had became the dominant state language in Czechoslovakia after 1918.

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    © the author and SPIN. Cite as follows (or as adapted to your stylesheet of choice): Nekula, Marek, Řezníková, Lenka, 2022. "Language interest : Czech", Encyclopedia of Romantic Nationalism in Europe, ed. Joep Leerssen (electronic version; Amsterdam: Study Platform on Interlocking Nationalisms, https://ernie.uva.nl/), article version, last changed 04-04-2022, consulted 05-12-2022.