To the Czechs, she's "Clintonova"

PRAGUE — To Czechs, it's not Hillary Clinton who is U.S. Secretaty of State — it's Hillary Clintonova, or "wife of Clinton."

But that distinctive female name ending in some Slavic languages — "ova" — has come under increased scrutiny since the fall of communism here. The issue bubbled over last month during a world championship skiing competition.

Zuzana Kocumova was providing color commentary for viewers of the country's leading TV station, Czech Television. A 29-year-old city council member and school teacher, Kocumova was a competitive cross-country skier and has been a TV commentator for about seven years. But this time, she did not add "ova" to the names of foreign competitors.

“One day I came to work but my boss said it was finished — our cooperation,” Kocumova said. She was told that some viewers were upset that she referred to the female skiers by their official names. They were their names, she said, and "it's not normal to use our form with them.”

Otto Cerny, the Czech Television official who fired Kocumova, refused to comment about the incident, not responding to calls and a text message.

Independent experts and observers agree there a clash of rules and values are at play here. Jiri Kraus, a professor of language at Charles University, attributes the dispute to globalization and the country's ever-growing integration with the outside world.

“Now there is a strong feminist movement and a stronger influence of foreign languages and foreign traditions,” he said. “So it is sometimes very difficult to solve this problem.”

But the rules of Czech language are clear, he said: A woman's name should end in "ova."

“It's not a language problem but a legal and administrative problem,” Kraus said.

At first glance, the "ova" ending seems useful as a way of distinguishing whether someone is a man or a woman, particularly if they have a gender neutral name like Pat or Robin. For instance, Pat Jones would be readily recognized as a man while Pat Jonesova would easily be identified as a woman in the Czech language.

Clinton is expected to accompany U.S. President Barack Obama on his first state visit to Europe in two weeks, which includes a stop in the Czech capital. Rest assured that in print and broadcast media she will be referred to as "Clintonova."

Not only does that look pretty weird to just about everyone outside of the Slavic-speaking world, but it carries with it a possessive connotation.

Women's rights advocate Milus Kotisova admits the male ownership connotation of the "ova" ending has been lost in the modern language. Still, she thinks women should be called by their native surnames and that the Czechs should loosen up.

“It just shows that Czech society is a very rigid society,” she said. Plus, the “Czech language is a language of many exceptions.”

When a name becomes iconic enough, it is left alone. Kotisova pointed to Agatha Christie and Greta Garbo as two examples. These women rarely, if ever, are referred to as “Christiova” or “Garbova.”

She also noted that Czechs aren't alone when it comes to family names and rigid rules. She said that when a Czech friend of hers moved to Germany and had a baby, hospital officials there insisted on naming her newborn boy with her last name, "ova" ending and all.

Complaints about Kocumova's dropped "ova" ending were quickly drowned out by the backlash against her firing. Czech Television quickly re-hired her.

“I was surprised so many people were interested in this,” Kocumova said, explaining that there were hundreds, if not thousands, of emails and messages supporting her posted on the Internet.

She  said she would stick to her egalitarian approach.

“It's not just for celebrities,” Kocumova said. “There's no reason to use the 'ova' ending on foreign names.”

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