What's In a Name?

A whole lot of hassle if you plan to marry—and have kids with—a Czech guy

Elizabeth Zahradnicek-Haas

Written by Elizabeth Zahradnicek-Haas Published on 08.07.2013 10:32:15 (updated on 08.07.2013) Reading time: 5 minutes

Getting married means making choices, a lot of them. Church or courthouse? Chocolate or white? Flash mob or lip dub? What you’ll call yourself after the fact is typically the least worrisome of these decisions and, in the US, where I am from, one that’s made with very little fanfare. A woman either takes her husband’s name or doesn’t, hyphenates, or gives the groom her own last name.

The modern Czech woman may also choose to do all of the above. A Czech man can even take his wife’s last name. (Did you know that Tomáš Masaryk, the progressive president of the First Czechoslovak Republic took his American wife Charlotte Garrigue’s last name as his own—hence the “G” in T.G. Masaryk?) And if you are a foreign woman residing in this country who intends to marry a foreign man in this country, congrats, no one cares which surname you choose.

But for non-Czech women marrying Czech men, especially those who plan to live in the Czech Republic, naming requires a little more forethought. The looming question being whether or not to add the traditional –ová suffix to one’s married name—not a choice to be made lightly as not doing so means upsetting the gender-based system of the Czech language and basically ensuring that, for the rest of your life, looks of panic and bewilderment will precede the reading of your name.

Not only will you have to make this decision for yourself but, when you apply for your marriage license you will be asked right then and there to declare the intended surname of any future progeny. Care to bestow upon your hypothetical Czech-American daughter a masculine last name, as well as a lifetime of frequently being confronted by confusion and scorn at government offices? There’s a separate form for that.

When I became engaged to marry a Czech I grappled a bit with the notion of –ová. Those three letters, no matter what their grammatical implications, felt demeaning, suggestive of otherness. Besides, outside of the context of the Czech lands and language wouldn’t my beloved and I appear to have completely different names? I reasoned that if I was going to take his name it should be his name not some gender-inflected version of it.

Around the time we got married, I happened to have been studying with Denisa Šmejkalová, translator, linguist, instructor at Active Czech, and culturally sensitive individual who understood my misguided American pursuit of PC language. She broke down –ová for me, explaining that the key to its not being sexist—as is frequently argued—lies in the accent over the a; –ová merely indicates an adjective that expresses affiliation with a particular family, while –ova denotes possession.

Denisa further explained that –ová is simply the way that the Czech grammar system deals with feminine surnames and that it’s important for a variety of reasons from influencing the past tense to clarifying the subject in a language with flexible word order. Though this sensible explanation eased my mind about the possibility of becoming “paní Zahradníčková” I eventually opted to forgo the –ová, declension difficulties be damned.

I ended up hyphenating our surnames, a choice that was also not without complications. We discovered that, in the Czech manner, my maiden name “Haas” would follow my married name “Zahradníček”, suggesting to my non-Slavic-language-speaking Facebook friends that I had married a relative, while giving way to long, awkward pauses at the supermarket cash desk as I struggled to correctly sign my debit-card receipt.

There would be more naming—and life—surprises to come: A week after the wedding I found out that I was expecting. Because we’d hastily scribbled the default “Zahradníčková” on our marriage application, thinking “Kids? Yeah right!”, we were forced to revisit the ová question upon learning the baby’s sex. We’d now need to legally change her last name back to the masculine form unless we didn’t mind being a family of assorted surnames.

I minded. I recalled an acquaintance telling me how she’d been detained at US passport control when traveling with her small children because their names (she is not married to her Czech partner but their kids have his surname) didn’t match. When my husband suggested letting it be, I screeched, in one of the many Oscar-worthy performances of my pregnancy: “She’s not even born and already she’s losing everything that’s American about her!”

We didn’t just struggle with our unborn’s last name. We needed to give her a first name that sounded good in both English and Czech, could be pronounced by both sides of the family, and had some sort diminutive possibilities for her doting daddy. There was a middle name to consider, too. Would we give her one? Czechs don’t have them though we learn that we were allowed to give her two “first” names. 

Finally, the name needed to pass muster with the Institute of the Czech Languages. If you are a couple of foreigners becoming parents in the Czech Republic feel free to name your little miracle just that. Half-Czech couples, however, must adhere to a number of rules: No names based on fairy tale characters. Days of the week. Objects. And if your name cannot be found here get ready to pay a visit to the famed “name lady” from the Institute of the Czech Language and plead your case. 

The name we chose (two first names and a last name minus the –ová) is beautifully long and unwieldy and rather un-Czech, though not without its Czech features. “Beatrice” has already on a number of documents suffered unfortunate abbreviations (Beatr Zahradníček) or, for some inexplicable reason, been spelled to suit the Czech pronounciation (Beatris). Or perhaps explicably—when my husband called the matrika offices to inquire about the status of our daughter’s Czech birth certificate he was told, “There’s no boy listed here by that name.” When he repeated that she wasn’t a boy but a girl, the woman replied “Beatrice Zahradníček will always be a boy to me.”

Now one year old, our daughter goes by a number of aliases, both in English and Czech: Bea, Beatle, Bebe, Beanie, Beoša, Beošík, Betuška, Betulinka, Bítlsák, Bítule. We’ve simply come to accept that it isn’t what’s in a name that matters, but who.

For information in English on the Czech naming policy vist http://www.en.domavcr.cz/

Did you face similar challenges when choosing your married name? How did you name your children? Share your experiences here.

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