In many countries, women take their husband’s last name. In Czechia, not only do they take their spouse’s name, but their new surname is also enhanced with a feminine suﬃx. Don’t take me wrong. Men can use their wives’ names in their masculine form too. However, this is much less common.
Though there has been a rather eager discussion around the feminine surname inflection in the country for the past few years, it has never really occurred to me to take part; until now. Both originally from Czechia, my husband and I got married in Gibraltar. Gibraltarians keep their surnames after marriage, but I was determined to change mine slightly. I was about to use both my maiden name and his surname in its unaltered, ‘masculine’ form.
After years of traveling around, we came back to our homeland a week after our wedding. One of the first things I did was to see my old friends at a bar. And as we were drinking and chit-chatting, an inevitable question was brought up: “Did you take his surname? And are you gonna inflect it?” they asked me with exaggeration.
As expected, I said what I said, but one of my good friends, who’s a lawyer, took me aback. He indicated that I could face diﬃculties at the registry oﬃce. What I assumed was my choice wasn’t, in fact, entirely up to me. And so I started to dig into the topic.
The most common inflection suﬃx, -ová, was first seen in documents such as obituaries and urbaria already in the fourteenth century. It was frequently derived from the husband’s or father’s occupation. For example, the wife of Sedlák (farmer) was called Sedláková (the farmer’s wife), whereas their daughter would be called Sedlákova. However, a specific regulation didn’t exist until the twentieth century.
According to Jana Valdrová, a Czech gender linguist, various forms of surnames and cultures used to coexist in the country up until the Second World War. After the Expulsion of Germans of former Czechoslovakia, foreign, uninflected forms of surnames stopped being used. From then on, most women would bear the suﬃx -ová.
The trend of disapproval of the obligatory inflection emerged with the new millennium. The cosmopolitan women who traveled or lived abroad would defend their surnames’ uninflected forms being shorter, and thus much more practical. Nonetheless, most importantly, they considered it their freedom of choice.
On the other hand, those women were often described as eccentric and feminist, in a negative sense of meaning, of course. Supposedly, they were only making themselves visible or even just trying to gain publicity.
There are indeed a couple of well-known Czech women who use the uninflected forms of their surnames. Those would be, for example, a sports shooter Kateřina Emmons, a politician Kateřina Jacques, or a TV presenter Emma Smetana, Jacques’ niece.
Yes, they are public figures, but they definitely didn’t become ones only because of their names. They got these names because they lived abroad or married a foreigner. And that is the heart of the matter.
According to the Czech legislation, which actually eased down the law in 2000, a woman can use the uninflected form of surname if she lives or plans to live abroad, if she has a foreign nationality, if she is a foreigner, or if she married a foreigner. There were attempts to repeal the obligatory inflection in 2013 and 2019 completely. Nevertheless, they were both rejected.
Lucky me, I live abroad. But what about other ladies? In this day and age, is it really necessary to inflect our names? Even though the issue is inherited from Czech grammar, language naturally evolves to serve its users. Why can’t surnames serve their bearers?
(sources: https://www.mvcr.cz/clanek/jmena-a-prijmeni-zenska-prijmeni.aspx, http:// www.valdrova.cz/2015/12/prechylovani-prijmeni/, https://www.novinky.cz/zena/styl/clanek/cesky- stale-casteji-prestavaji-sve-prijmeni-prechylovat-301265)