Prague, Czech Republic – After years of debate, Czech women might soon be able to decide whether or not they would like to keep the gendered version of their surname – with the -ová suffix – or drop it altogether.
As reported by the BBC yesterday, the lower house of the Czech Parliament voted earlier this week in favour of allowing women to choose non-gendered versions of their surnames.
Will Czech women be allowed to use non-gendered surnames?
The vote follows the recommendation, last year, of the house’s committee on public administration and regional development to liberalise the law on birth registers, names and surnames in order to let women have their say in the matter.
As in other Slavic countries, most Czech women’s surnames are formed by taking the surname of their father or husband, and adding the “-ová” suffix at the end. They can decide to circumvent this rule only in limited circumstances, including when their partner is a foreigner, if they have temporary residence in another country or possess another foreign nationality.
The feminine version of the surname is also used for well-known foreign women, like politicians or celebrities. Don’t be surprised, for instance, to read about Angela Merkelova’s latest state visit to the Czech Republic, or screen the best movies starring Audrey Hepburnova.
Pushed by Pirate MP Ondrej Profant and former Justice Minister Helena Valkova, the legislative amendment was passed by 91 votes in favour and 33 against, and will now head to the Senate for a vote. If passed, women will be allowed to choose between the masculine or feminine form of their surname in any circumstances.
A number of politicians, activists and feminist organisations have for years called to abandon this rule. Critics argue the mandatory use of “-ová” is discriminatory and retrograde, stripping women of the power to decide on a core aspect of their identity, and implies that a woman is a man’s “possession”, or subordinate.
Grammar and tradition
Weighing in on the debate, some Czech linguists however insist that dropping the “-ová” suffix could lead to confusion and would be incoherent from a grammatical point of view.
“Compared to English, the structure of the Czech sentence is different,” explained linguist Karel Oliva. We don’t distinguish such categories such as sentential subject or sentential object by the position in a sentence, but by case endings.”
“If we do not attach something like -ová or a similar suffix to Czech women’s names, we will be unable to express the case but also to express the gender.”
A 2019 STEM/MARK poll found that a majority of Czechs would prefer to keep things as they are (compared to 33% in favour of given women free choice on the matter), highlighting the need to respect traditional values and protect a core element of the Czech language.
Finding a middle ground?
Noting that the -ová suffix can be found in the oldest written sources of Czech language, linguist Karel Oliva argued it would be best to keep the current obligation for official documents and bureaucracy, but concedes that “everyone is free to choose which name [they want] to use in everyday life.”
Polls show that most Czechs are, at the same time, in favour of letting women with a surname of foreign origin decide on whether or not to use -ová at the end.
The STEM/MARK survey additionally found that a majority of women would (-ová or no -ová) prefer to keep their husband’s surname after marriage instead of using their maiden name – mostly for practical purposes and bureaucratic ease.