Central Europe Review: politics, society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 0, No 17
19 January 1999

Andrew Stroehlein C Z E C H   R E P U B L I C :
One Euro, Two Euro, Three Euro

Andrew Stroehlein

The establishment of the euro at the beginning of this year caused a minor panic in banks and financial houses around the world. Not on the markets themselves, mind you, where the euro enjoyed a strong start, but among the employees of those institutions. Bankers and computer experts worked furiously over a holiday weekend to prepare both man and machine for the new money. The Czech Republic was no exception; in fact, the Czech Republic has been saddled with one additional problem related to the euro which few other countries have had to face: what to call the new currency.

The Czech language is an overwhelmingly taxing mental strain for anyone not born into its mysteries. Even native Czechs make mistakes with its difficult grammar, and new words can throw the language into a spin. Thus it was that the Czech language was caught napping by the euro.

Czech has seven different cases, and nouns and adjectives must be declined according to a semi-precise system of grammar tables - semi-precise because there are more exceptions than rules in Czech. For example, a coffee on the table would be called kava, if I drink a coffee it becomes kavu and if I add cream to it, it would be kave. As subject of a sentence it is kava, as direct object kavu and as indirect object kave. With seven cases in both plural and singular, that makes 14 different nouns for coffee.

Every noun and adjective goes through such changes in every sentence. Every one, that is, except for the exceptions, those lucky words that get to keep their original form always (many foreign words for example).

Into this grammatical minefield walked the innocent euro.

Our editorial office hit upon this problem on the first working day of 1999. I was on the phone discussing the new cover of our magazine with our layout man. We wanted to put the cover price in euro as well as in US dollars and Czech crowns. So, I said the price would be in euro in what I thought would be good Czech: "v eurech." There was a murmur in the office.

The murmur became a buzz when I told our layout man what the yearly subscription price would be. "26 eur," I said.

That last declension didn't sound right somehow. It made sense grammatically. One euro is neuter, two eura would be the nominative case plural up to five euro and above, at which point the genitive case plural kicks in (for no reason anyone has ever been able to successfully explain to me, Czech essentially has two plurals for simple numbers: two to four, and above five).

But five eur? Eur is just too silly a sound in Czech. It couldn't be right.

When I got off the phone, I didn't even have to ask my colleagues the question that was troubling me. Everyone was already hotly discussing it: how will Czechs handle the euro - from a linguistic point of view, that is?

The conversation started out with the general agreement that the word "eur" simply would not do. That grammatical change of the word simply stuck in the throat. It looked like the word "euro" would have to be one of those magical, unchanging words so beloved of foreigners.

But another colleague piped in that in the singular, "euro" worked relatively well in most cases. It ended in "o" like many other neuter words. But could a word be declinable in singular and not in plural?

Different declensions were tried and tested: the office was full of "eu" noises as we went through the seven different cases and their plurals. The day's newspapers, full of euro stories, were no help as they declined the word in various ways. There was no standard as of yet, so the experts were called.

When your sink breaks down, you call a plumber. But when your language breaks down, who do you call? In the Czech Republic they actually have language plumbers: the Czech Department at the Academy of Sciences in Prague. They set the guidelines as to what is and what is not proper Czech. They decide what words are declined in which fashion. They fix the language's occasional leaks.

The telephone calls were made, but no one was in. The experts were obviously working overtime on this one.

Someone recommended calling a linguist who works with our magazine on a regular basis. "Well, it won't be the definitive answer, but it may do for a bit." Just a patch job by Uncle Fred until the professional plumber is free. Unfortunately, even Uncle Fred was out on call. The country was clearly in a state of linguistic emergency.

We would have to sleep through the night with our language broken - if we could sleep with the incessant dripping sound.

We were obviously not the only ones: the very next day, the newspapers were full of stories discussing the problem as we had the day before. How would this new word be declined? Weren't their two pronunciations for the unfamiliar "eu" sound at the beginning of the word? What would be an appropriate slang term for the new currency? Serious papers were asking these questions on their front pages.

This linguistic controversy, this burst water main in the center of the national discourse, will remain for some time. There will be argument. There will be public discussion. But eventually the Academy of Sciences will make a decision and, baring a schism in that august body, their decision will be final.

And, finally, the Czech Republic will be ready for the euro.

Andrew Stroehlein, 19 January 1999


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