To go from being almost unknown to just plain confusing is a new twist in the Czech Republic’s foreign relations drive. Why settle for anything less than compounding the nation’s relative obscurity with an ill-bred pronunciation mystery, and then, throw in for kicks the uncanny ability to bring to mind war-torn Chechnya? The idea is brilliant! In one stroke, the Czech Republic has stripped itself of 23 years of haphazard branding and strode forward into the world’s press, perhaps even the front-page, with its unique, odd-ball identity crisis. Who are we… at least, who are we in English? This is a strange puzzle, but let’s begin.
Although it does have a fascinatingly awkward substantiation built on a few infrequent references in English newspaper articles or unread books from 1841 to 1925, the word Czechia hardly took off. It’s understandable why an English speaker has never heard of it, since the last 3 or 4 native English speakers to utter the word died in the 1920s. What is Czechia? It could be anything under the sun: a new wind instrument, a Star Trek character, a skin disease. “You have a bad case of Czechia. Here’s some ointment.”
The flip side of the coin (and this is phenomenal) is if no one has heard of it—it can be anything! A great, brand-new, shiny country. Plus, the fancy “-ia” suffix makes it a pseudo-cousin of Austria, Australia, Bavaria, California—places real, live English speakers have heard of—along with Croatia, Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia, and maybe Macedonia, Slovenia and Slovakia. Moldavia would be kind of a stretch. In any event, the platinum “-ia” card gives Czechia a meaning of territory… or a pathological condition, or genus of plants or animals. What could be wrong with that?
However, there’s another facet to this gem of a word. How do you pronounce it? If you exclude the word “Czar” and its offshoots, there isn’t another word in a modern English dictionary containing this mismatch, odd couple, C-Z combo—other than the very word “Czech” and its variants. How many English speakers are stumped trying to pronounce the word “Czech,” if they’ve never seen it or heard it before? More than a few. And, you can’t blame them.
If you want to make the “Ch” sound in English, we have a very good, widely popular digraph (a combination of two letters representing one sound) used for centuries—it’s Ch itself, not Cz. In fact, this nifty website on modern English phonics, Phonics on the Web, doesn’t give you another choice. The foreign imposter digraph Cz isn’t listed.
However, the game doesn’t stop there. As to the spelling of the last part of the word “Czech,” the Ch digraph comes from the Czech language and its spelling rules, not English! The Ch digraph in the Czech language isn’t the same as in English; it doesn’t represent the “Ch” sound you hear in the word “church”—and it doesn’t even make the replacement “K” sound that we’ve been told to pronounce. The Ch digraph was, by accident or not, carried over directly from the Czech spelling Čech into the English spelling of “Czech” despite the fact it stands for a slightly guttural, throat-clearing, gravely sound many hearty Scots make in pronouncing “Loch.” It’s affectionately known as a voiceless velar fricative. It is not K.
Since most English speakers can’t make a voiceless velar fricative, Czechs have settled for a K. “Just call me Chek.”
Therefore, what does the Czech Republic really want from its new rebranding Czechia? If they accept a K sound, surely they’d be satisfied with “Chekia.” So, why not spell it that way? The Czech Republic could be known as Chekia; it would make it easier to pronounce, straightforward and clear. Moreover, it could help avoid the evil specter of being mixed up with Chechnya.
But, all of this is moot. The Czech Republic is already Czechia, and vice versa; it’s a done deal. It’s just that we never knew it, not even most Czechs.
According to fact #1 on Go Czechia, the website of Czechia Civic Initiative, a movement promoting the use of Czechia:
The Terminological Committee of the Czech Office for Surveying, Mapping and Cadaster officially codified Czechia in 1993 in its publication “Names of States and their Territorial Parts”. Therefore, Czechia is the grammatically correct short name of the Czech Republic and the English translation of Česko (the short name of the country in Czech). Czechia is not well known and infrequently used because the Czech state and its institutions have not used it despite recommendations issued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Education in the 1990s. A short country name that is not used by the state itself and by its institutions cannot become well known and recognized abroad.
By their own admission, even the Czech Republic doesn’t use the term, so it’s kind of hard to expect others to. But, that will change. Soon we’ll find businessmen of all stripes, even hard-nosed manufacturers of CNC machine tools, horizontal boring mills, and cylindrical grinders in the Czech Republic, using it when travelling. “I’m from Czechia. No, not Chechnya, Czechia… hmm… I’m from Prague.”
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