Today I am going to cheat a bit and just post something from my YouTube “Recommended” pile.
Last time when talking about history, I mentioned the overlong prelude to World War 2 as it has played out in Central Europe. Lets now look a bit closer at what has happened afterward. And, again, this is a de-facto merging of Slavic Saturday and Behind the Iron Curtain series.
Today lets look at one of the most prominent Czech artists to date, although outside of the Czech Republic he is probably not that well known – if he is known at all – Vlasta Burian. (You might remember that I have already written about an artist with the same surname, but to my best knowledge that is pure coincidence, they are not closely related.)
Vlasta Burian was one of the most prominent comedians in Czechoslovakia between the wars. Born in a cobbler’s family, he started out in lower-middle class at the time and he indulged in classic sport activities of that class at that time – like tennis and football (soccer). He was a very devout and good athlete, he could be professional – but in his free time, he also did stand-up comedy for the amusement of his friends, to initial dismay of his parents. And this has gradually become his main occupation and through making stand-up comedy routines in pubs he became a professional comedian and actor who starred in movies and who even owned and run his own theater before and during WW2. And he lived in a villa.
But fame is fickle friend. Despite being known patriot for his whole life, he managed to live through most of World War 2 without being overtly persecuted. I say most – Nazis have tried to rope him into making propaganda for them, but after one public routine in radio (which he intentionally botched) he took to feigning illness whenever he was approached by them again. So in 1944 Nazis got finally fed up with him snubbing their attempts to make him their stooge. He was arrested and his theater was closed.
Reasonable expectation after this would be that after the war ended in the spring of 1945, he would be fully vindicated of any wrongdoing. But that was not the case. He has managed to become moderately wealthy, and that was a big no-no after the war when the Communist Party took the reins through a coup. That he has managed it truly through his own works (and was giving to charitable causes throughout) was irrelevant to the new regime. That he was just deftly snubbing Nazis the whole World War 2 was also not enough – he was not resisting enough (in his position, probably anything short of charging at a tank with bare breast and bare hands would be considered “not enough”, after all, Czech pilots who fought against Nazis in RAF were persecuted for fighting against Nazis on the “wrong” front).
So charges were made-up, a kangaroo court was called (multiple courts, actually) and in the end, he barely escaped with his life. All his possessions were confiscated for the good of the people (how convenient) and he was barred from acting – he was only allowed to do menial works. The short imprisonment and subsequent ban from acting and public appearances have seriously undermined his health, both physical and mental.
Like many artists, he suffered from depression. Sports and comedy were probably part of his self-medication. When denied the things he loved, he aged in mere five years noticeably more than he should. When the acting ban was finally lifted after five years, it was too late. He was no longer the springy, energy exuding person he used to be and his acting has suffered. It was still good enough to make a living, but nowhere near as good as it used to be. His health deteriorated quickly and in 1962 he died of pneumonia. His wife followed him in mere nine weeks, grief took her.
His popularity was such that after his death, a movie about him bearing his nickname “Král Komiků” i. e. “The King of the Comedians” was made. And in the following decades his movies were still screened at local cinemas and they are still occasionally aired on Czech TV to this day. Many can also be found on the internet. Unfortunately, unless you understand Czech you won’t be able to enjoy them. Dubbing is out of the question, a lot of Burian’s comedy was in his voice, so you would need really a top-notch dubber. Subtitles would not help too much either, because another significant part was wordplays.
In 1994, five years after the fall of the Iron Curtain, he was posthumously vindicated in court. Historians extensively examined the historical sources and they found a total lack of any evidence of his collaboration with Nazis whatsoever, in any form. Despite this, for Vlasta Burian the long string of injustices and indignities was still not over. In the year 2002 his grave was adorned with his bronze bust, but it was stolen shortly afterward and probably sold as scrap metal.
Today his grave is adorned with a statue of his hands, which were after his face his most prominent feature. May he finally rest in peace.
I have planned a bit about another famous Czech artist, but I got no time, so today let’s have a bit of fun with language again.
Some Slavic languages allow for a syllable being constructed without a vowel, especially Czech and Slovak, where the “r” and “l” consonants can be syllable constructing instead of a vowel. So for example the Czech name for Giant Mountains, Krkonoše, consists of four syllables – Kr-ko-no-še.
I have met native English and German speakers who had extreme trouble with this and they instinctively inserted an “e” before the syllable constructing consonant, so instead of “srdce” (heart), they pronounced “serce”, which is a nonsense word but one eventually gets what the struggling foreigner means in a sentence, as one generally does on such occasions if one is not a deliberately obtuse asshole and actively tries to understand instead of being pedantic.
I do not remember if I tried to tease anyone except one of my colleagues at work to say one of the czech tongue twisters – “strč prst skrz krk” (stick a finger through the throat) which consists of four monosyllabic words without a single
Have fun pronouncing those, I know you will try.
Today just something lighter, and a reaction to our recent visit from the Grammar and Spelling Police. I would like to touch up on spelling in slavic languages. I have already mentioned the overabundance of cases and genders, so now let’s go on to the spelling.
The one problem that slavic languages have with latin alphabet is that it just does not contain enough letters to cover all the consonants in the language, a problem that multiple people tried to solve in history.
First cases involved inventing a whole new script – the Glagolitic script by Saint Cyril and Saint Methodius, who invented the alphabet specifically so they can better preach Christianity to Slavs. It did not hold, at least not in whole – a part of this script was later used together with Greek alphabet in the creation of Cyrillic script, still in use by many Slavic nations, mainly the biggest one – Russians.
But some slavic nations have adopted latin alphabet for their writing in middle ages and during their history multiple attempts were made to solve the conundrum of not enough letters. Like using digraphs. This type of orthography is still used a lot for example in Polish, whilst modern Czech has only one digraph, ch. Because in fifteenth century came along Jan Hus and in addition to sparking religious war he also invented diacritics (allegedly, there is some dispute). By adding two simple symbols – ˇ and ´ – he solved the problem once and for all, at least for Czechs.
Since then, spelling in Czech is fairly primitive, as well as in many other Slavic languages, whether with their version of modified Latin script (sometimes made after the Czech model) or Cyrillic. Something like a “Spelling bee” is impossible in any meaningful way, because every word is spelled “as it sounds”. Literally. In Czech, children can learn to read by saying the short names of each letter in a word in succession. When done quickly enough, the word naturally emerges. Learning to write spoken word after that is fairly intuitive.
There are complications, of course. Loan words can be one, although usually Czech language either just takes a word and transliterates it into the closest approximation to its original sound achievable (manager = manažer) or does not bother with that at all and the word is just pronounced in the czech fashion, its original sound be damned (buffet =bufet – in modern Czech the “t” is not silent and the “u” is pronounced differently from the French original). Second complication, and a source of major headache to even Czechs, is that I and Y are the same sound in certain situations. So whilst nobody makes a mistake reading a word, it is fairly common to make mistakes when writing.
And punctuation is probably a mess in every language. Well, I never intended to be proof reader…
After Slavs established themselves in Bohemia and Moravia, they prospered. Eventually their rulers became Dukes, Kings and some later on even Roman emperors. Czechs were important players on the European political landscape of that time, having significant military power and strategic position at the center of the continent, where they could trade with many neighbours with ease whilst also being shielded from attacks by mountains, especially in the west.
I have already mentioned those mountains in comments before. Their history is fascinating and it is an example of how far-reaching and unpredictable the outcome of a reasonable political decision with initially good results can be.
Czechs have primarily settled along riverbeds and in lowlands, they did not feel at all comfortable settling in forests and mountains. This was a serious drawback to ambitious rulers of Přemyslid dynasty, who recognized the importance of settling in said mountains and get their natural resources – the wood on the surface and metal ores underneath – to use. They wanted to expand their influence, and for that they needed money – but for whatever reasons, Czechs were either unwilling or unable or both to oblige and get to work felling trees and mine ores on big scale. Or maybe there was not enough of them to do that.
Thus Přemysl II. Otakar and his successor Václav II. have invited German settlers to help (do not ask me about the details and legalities, I do not know them). And the plan succeeded – German settlers have successfully managed to settle on the unoccupied land. They subdued the inhospitable mountains and tapped into the riches underneath them. The economy thrived for the centuries to follow and one of the reminders of this success is the word “dollar” which is derived from the name of silver coinage mined in Jáchymov in 1520 by these German settlers in Bohemia.
Initially there was relatively little friction between the Germans and Czechs under the rule of Czech kings. The Germans and Czechs had no real conflicts of interests and both nationalities happily intermingled at the borders. But this has begun to change at the time of Hussite Revolution. Whilst Czechs got overwhelmingly critical of Catholic church, Germans remained overwhelmingly loyal. This has increased the friction and it never got better after that – if anything, the Thirty Years War has made matters worse. Forced catolicisation and germanization have followed and it is probably in these times when the sentiment of Germans being Czech’s sworn enemies has started.
It is no wonder that when Czechs got the upper hand after WWI, after several hundreds of years of being persecuted by Germans, they responded by cutting down some of the privileges the Germans used to have. To which the Germans did not respond kindly, because like in all privileged classes every individual thinks that they themselves are not privileged, they deserve it all. So of course this has bred even more resentment and when you throw Great Depression into the mix, which has indeed hit ethnic Germans harder than Czechs, you get Nazis. Hitler has played heavily the “Germans are persecuted in Czechoslovakia” card in order to gain access to Czech factories to make weapons and to use Czechs as cheap slave labor – and eventually he succeeded. His main lackey in achieving this goal was Konrád Henlein, who despite being of mixed ancestry himself has become as rabid Nazi supremacist as they go.
WWII sealed the hate between Czechs and Germans for good. Ethnic Germans in Bohemia overwhelmingly embraced Nazism and as a result, after the WWII they were expelled from the land. An argument can be made – and is being made – that this was unjust, but whilst the expulsion has led to many personal injustices and very nasty results and atrocities, in some cases even mass murders, I fear that without the expulsion there would be even more atrocities – mass murders and pogroms – because right after the war the resentment was too deep and the memory of Nazi atrocities too fresh. To illustrate the sentiment at the time, I want to relate this story from another person with mixed ancestry like me, whose German grandfather allegedly commented after the war: “Czechs are behaving like beasts!” to which his Czech wife allegedly responded “And? They learned that from you!”.
As a result, today Germans are again just a tiny minority in Bohemia. And Czechs still largely dislike and distrust Germans.
To me this long chain of events shows how a decision in 13 century has shaped politics in 20. century. Would Přemysl II. Otakar invite the Germans had he known what will come of it? Hard to say. But it makes me wonder what the repercussions of today’s political games will be a few hundred years from now.
Lets talk about easter and easter eggs and associated traditions.
Most readers of this blog grew up with germanic traditions regarding this holiday. Which are completely different from what I grew up with, so when I first heard about easter bunny, I had to look up what it is. Not that easter bunnies from chocolate were unknown to us, but they did not have any special meaning and for long I assumed that they are bunny-shaped just for the cutesies. About the only thing that is common between germanic and slavic easter traditions are the painted eggs, but they are used differently.
The symbols of easter here are willow twigs, coloured eggs and a lamb. Willow twigs decorated with ribbons and painted eggshells are used for decorations and lamb is usually baked from dough, or recetnly made from chocolate etc. The willow twigs and coloured eggs are carryover from pagan times, symbolizing rebirth of the year, although christians staunchly deny this and insist on easter being purely christian holiday etc. etc. It is not. It was appropriated by christians by blending christian and pagan traditions together, just as Christmas, as a way to make converting pagans easier. There is nothing in the bible about coloured eggs and willow twigs.
The lamb however is probably later addition and it does symbolize christ and other stupidities from the bible in all their goryness. Only the cutting of its throat and smearing of the blood over door hinges or tresholds before baking it was replaced by making it from dough. Much less gory and cheaper to do, especially in big populations that diverged from raising sheep to cattle centuries ago.
So far, so good. Nothing particularly egregious about these traditions. But there is more to it, and as much as I loathe christian superstitions and traditions for their immense stupidity, one of the carry-overs from pagan times I hate even more.
Those willow twigs and coloured eggs do not serve only as a decoration. On Monday, hardboiled eggs are given by women and girls as gifts to men and boys who are supposed to go from house to house (so-called koleda) and sing traditional songs and recite poems in exchange for the eggs. And they beat the women.
Yup. You read that correctly. In CZ and SL the men go from house to house with clubs (called pomlázka) woven from usually 8 to 9 long slender and supple willow twigs, decorated with ribbons, and they are supposed to beat the women with them, depending on region either shoulders, legs, ankles or simply their derrière. Some take it symbolically only, some take it literally and bruises can be raised, although it is expected to stop short of actually causing an injury. The beating of women with young willow twigs should magically transfer the youthfulness and freshness from the twigs to the women, or some such incredibly stupid shit. Thus the name of the club – po (prefix that can mean “to make”) mlázka (derived from “mladý” = young). Today nobody believes the magic, it is just “fun” and “tradition”. In this case, “tradition” really just means “an incredibly stupid thing that has been done for a very long time”.
In some regions today women are not completely defenseless – they can douse the men with cold water in return. But this is later appropriation in these regions, because originally it is the men who douse the women, in some regions instead of, in some regions in addition to, the beating, and there are regions where it is practiced as such still.
As a child I loved easter for the painted eggs. I loved the creative work involved with it and it was something to look forward to. But I loathed pomlázka from early on, de facto from as far back as I can remember. I did not like going about begging and beating people. I did not see how it is supposed to be good to spend a few joyful days with my sister and my mother painting eggs, and on monday beat them with a club whilst reciting some verses that have lost their meaning. Well, strictly speaking as a boy I was supposed to skip the painting and do only the begging and beating. Fuck that. Beating anyone with anything is just wrong, even symbolically, and creativity does not have gender.
I see no reason in preserving the tradition, it has no cultural value anymore and it produces nothing of value. Well, the women produce the beautifuly painted eggs, but the men are not expected to do anything worthwhile whatsoever. And in some regions even the eggs are already being skipped and exchanged for shots of booze, so the men instead of coming home with a basket of painted eggs come home drunk as a skunk. I would love for this tradition to die already. I will miss the eggs, but I think they are not worth preserving if the ritual beating is to remain too.
It won’t happen any time soon. What I find the saddest thing about this is that in loathing this despicable tradition I am the exception, not the rule. In fact, AFAIK I do not know a single other person sharing my view.
Edit: Due to my illness I have slightly lost track of time and I thougth it is saturday already. I have decided to leave it as it is.
The Brexit fiasco reminded me of a few events in recent history of Slavic nations, events that happened shortly after the fall of the Iron Curtain – the breakups of former federate states from the eastern bloc. I am going to talk a bit about two of them, one of them is very typical and one of them is very atypical.
The first one I want to mention is the breakup of former Yugoslavia. I am no expert on this (I am no expert on anything), but from the outside it has followed up a fairly typical pattern. First multiple nations with historical tensions and grievances against each other were held together in one state where they were all supposedly equal, but in reality some were more equal than others. There was a lot of religious and national diversity, but it was separated not integrated diversity and so the tensions and grievances remained and bubbled under the surface. When the grip of communist regimes over their countries started to falter, nationalism and religious fanaticism started to rise their ugly heads in all of them, which quickly escalated into armed conflicts and full-blown wars, in Yugoslavia with genocide included. It is unlikely the wounds of this recent conflict will heal in foreseeable future as those ancient grievances got exacerbated and embedded in the minds of new generations. Even I know personally people who got displaced from their home country by this conflict, despite having had the luxury of not even being close to a military conflict my whole life.
The second breakup I want to mention is one that I have lived through – the breakup of former Czechoslovakia into two separate states, Czechia and Slovakia. This one was very atypical. It started differently – after the WWI when nation states were being formed, Czechs and Slovaks have voluntarily decided to form together one state, Czechoslovakia. An attempt was made to officialy blend them into one “Czechoslovak” nation, but this never took really hold – it was clear the two nations have their own distinct languages and cultures, and they retained them.
It was not all roses. Slovakia was significantly less developed both culturally (lower literacy) and economically than Czechia from the onset, and thus it was more rural and poorer. Unfortunately it remained poorer throughout the whole time the two nations shared one state (which was several generations with short disruption during WWII), because Czechs were a majority and power was concentrated in Prague. This has led to development of understandable resentment and nationalist tendencies among Slovaks, who wanted to take the reigns of their land into their own hands. And so they did. But not through revolution, or armed conflict, but through purely peaceful political means. Elected leaders of the two countries got together, discussed things, agreed on a separation, some money was exchanged, some treaties were signed, not too enthusiastically hard customs border was added and that was it. Most inconvenienced were people who lived along the border, who sometimes had to traverse the border on a commute to-from work, but nobody got actually hurt.
From what I know from history this is pretty rare, and my personal opinion about reasons for why this happened thus are:
1) One important factor here is the voluntary nature of the union in the first place.
2) Lack of historical conflict between the two nations. There was no past history of conflicts between the two nations anyone could remember, none whatsoever. Within the Austro-Hungarian Empire under Habsburgs, Czechs main grievance was against Germans (to which I will return in future musings) and Slovaks against Hungarians.
3) There was no religious fanaticism or even strong dividing religious identity involved. Technically both nations were predominantly catholic, but Czechs attitude towards religion could best be described as “meh” for almost a hundred years by that time, and Slovaks, whilst being more religious than Czechs, were no wannabe-crusaders either.
4) The party that initiated the dissolution – Slovaks – did not hold the economic majority. So Czechs had no economical incentive to hold onto the Slovak state. Quite the opposite, it was felt that it would be Slovaks who lose, so if the want to go, they should be left to do so..
I am not sure what conclusions can be drawn from this, or if any can be drawn at all, but I think both cases are worth remembering.
My oral graduation exam in highschool* was not looked forward to by my Czech language and literature teacher. All the others (Biology, Chemistry, German language) have expected me to do reasonably well or even excel, but he had some reservations. I already had a 1 for my essay writing, but the oral exam was essentially going to be about history of Czech literature, and I had great dislike towards learning that history.
The reasons for this were multiple. Firstly history was taught as a sequence of dates and names to memorize, and I have always had very, very poor memory for numbers and names, despite having excellent memory in general. It is extremely difficult for me to remember birth dates, even of the closest people I know. Secondly I was never convinced by the argument that learning history is important in order to avoid repeating mistakes, because I saw very early on that the whole of history actualy consists of repeating said mistakes by people who knew about them. And thirdly I did not go on well with that teacher on personal level.
So my knowledge of Czech literary history and theory was very, very sketchy. I have honestly tried my best to memorize all the dull and unpalatable shit that I was supposed to know for the exam, but it just did not hold. About the only thing I had a really detailed knowledge about was Karel Čapek, because I liked his books and I have read everything he wrote that I could get my hands on. The teacher knew this and later on I learned that he actually expressly said that he is apprehensive of my exam because “Čapek is all (Charly) knows”.
I was lucky during my exam. I have drawn a question where the main component was some poetry shit I knew nearly nothing about, and secondary question was something vaguely connected to Karel Čapek. I took my chance when preparing my notes and during talking I managed to drift to Čapeks works just after a few sentences and I stayed there talking in minute detail for the whole 15 minutes the exam took. The teacher, relieved, has let me. The observing teacher (an independent assessor from another school) did not intervene either, for whatever reason. And so I got lucky and passed.
Actually, to say that I liked Čapek is an understatement, I admired him greatly. Čapek is in my opinion unsurpassed in Czech literature. Very progressive for his time, and, above all, a fervent pacifist. In today’s world he would probably be left of Bernie Sanders, but he would not be radical leftist in a real sense of the word “radical” not how it is viewed in Anglophone world today, where anyone arguing that not everything should be privatized is labeled as radical leftie. He might even be accused of centrism by true radicals.
Čapek was very outspoken critic of Nazi Germany and its policies, so much so that his personal safety was threatened by local Nazi sympathisers. Allegedly some friends recommended to him to carry a weapon for self-defense after he received death threats, but his commitment to pacifism was such that all he could manage to do was to carry a small starter pistol and when confronted about it he replied “I know that I won’t hurt anyone this way”. Many of his works center around criticizing authoritarian regimes, social injustices and war horrors, and there is absolutely no uncertainty about where he stood on social issues.
But he did not like Marx and communism. And neither do I. And to this day I think his essay “Why I am not a communist” bears weight. Some parts are of course not well aged after nearly a hundred years (the casual sexism f.e.), some parts can be seen as predictive of the massive social and scientific failure that was Russia under Stalin. If we are to learn from the mistakes of the past, I would everyone recommend to go, read that essay and think about it.
*the closest translation I can get to anglophone equivalents)
Czechs and Polish languages are reasonably similar. Not mutually intelligible, but similar enough that we can somewhat understand each other when spoken very, very slowly (which can be hard, especially for Poles). Our histories are also reasonably similar – both our nations wandered in from east and south, displaced local Germanic and Celtic nations, both established their foot on the ground by fighting and subjugating smaller slavic tribes and selling them to slavery to richer tribes to the south and west. Both eventually became big kingdoms of significant clout and with great ambitions.
But whilst the Lands of the Bohemian Crown were torn from within with Hussite wars and subsequently came as a whole under Habsburg rule, the Poland-Lithuanian commonwealth was not only torn from within by squabbles between its different religious and national groups (like Orthodox Cossacks vs. Catholic Poles), but the part of commonwealth inhabited by Poles was itself totally plundered by Swedes and in few centuries torn from outside and divided between Austria, Prussia and Russia. This difference in historical development has, to my mind, played a significant role in one of the most significant cultural differences between our nations today.
I was blissfully unaware of this difference until my twenties when I decided that a literate and educated person should have at least passing knowledge of the writings of Henryk Sienkiewicz. I have already read one of his books as a child – In Desert and Wilderness – but that is more or less just an adventure book, nothing special (with extra helpings of racism, which flew over my head at that time). I have decided to start with Quo Vadis, because that is his most prominent book internationally and has brought him in the end the Nobel Prize in Literature.
And thus my attempt at reading his works started … and immediately ended. After I have read Quo Vadis I was left with a huge “What The Actual Fuck Did I Just Read?!?” feeling and I could not bring myself to pick up that book or any other of Sienkiewicz’s works ever again. I was appalled, I was totally disgusted and repelled. The writing is excellent, I have no reason to not believe that it is historically well researched, the story is captivating but…
The whole book reeked to me of christian, specifically catholic, propaganda. And this is the difference that I was talking about.
The Czech nation has undergone internal religious divide around Jan Hus, a significant portion of it has challenged the authority of the Holy Roman Church, was beaten into submission and had Catholicism forced it. But it retained some religious diversity and freedom throughout – and ever since then there always were Catholic Czechs as well as Protestant Czechs living with each other in no insignificant numbers. When national revival came, Czechs did identify mostly around shared language and religion has always played second fiddle (even though Catholics were seen as “no true Czechs” by some, that point of view never really became mainstream) and that fiddle became more and more insignificant with each generation ever since.
Polish nation was beaten up from outside and divided into different empires, each with different ruling religion – Orthodoxy in Russian Empire, Protestantism in Prussia and a teensy bit in the predominantly catholic Austria-Hungaria. And although they were not persecuted due to their religion per se in their respective parts throughout this whole time, language as well as religion remained at the core of Polish identity for most, because the non-polish invaders were also mostly non-catholics.
And thus, through a complicated historical route we arrive at present situation. Czechs are one of the world’s leaders in “Not Giving A Fuck” about religion, and Poles are still predominantly actively observant catholics. Czech Republic has freedom of religion, freedom from religion and freedom to say just about anything about any religion you like, as long as you are not engaging in hate speech. Republic of Poland has still has anti-blasphemy laws on books and you can get into trouble for making a mildly amusing parody video making fun or being critical of the Pope.
Last time we were talking about grammatical cases, and whilst Slavic languages are not lacking in those, they fall far behind the Finno-Ugric ones in this gregard. But what Slavic languages lack in cases, they more than make up in genders.
Lets talk a bit about gender then.
Czech language does not have a distinction between the words “sex” and “gender” the way English does. Our ID’s have a category “pohlaví” which means “sex” in the biological sense and is therefore sex assigned at birth. For trans people it is their chosen sex assigned after transition, but sex assigned at birth before transition (the legislative process has a lot to be desired, but since I am not trans, I leave the discussion about how to improve it to trans people).
This property of my native language has caused me some trouble in understanding articles written in English, because I have seen words “sex” and “gender” as synonyms and it took me awhile to understand that this is not the case.
However what helped me finally in understanding is the fact that the only way Czech language has gender in it, it is very, very obviously a social construct, specifically a linguistic one. It translates as “rod” and means grammatical gender (in one context).
Czech has four genders, or three with one of them being split into two distinct categories, depending on the specific linguist’s opinion. I was taught in school that there are four:
masculine animate – refers to humans and some animals
masculine inanimate – refers to some inanimate objects and some plants
feminine – refers to humans, some animals, some inanimate objects and some plants
neuter – refers to some animals, some inanimate objects and some plants
The gender of a noun defines not only how the noun itself inflects depending on the case, it also defines conjugaton and declension of verbs and adjectives. For example a sentence “black bear climbed a tree”, can be “černý medvěd vylezl na strom” for a male bear or “černá medvědice vylezla na strom” for a female one (word order in the CZ is identical to the EN version, only difference is “a” which does not translate – “na” means “on”). Each of the four genders has multiple groups defining said declensions and conjugations and learning it all is a nightmare for Czechs and literally impossible for any but the most dedicated foreigner.
Czech is also very strongly gendered with regard to people and there is no universal gender neutral way to refer to a person. The language is built around gender binary, even simplest sentences like “I woke up.” are mostly gendered – “Probudil jsem se” for masculine and “Probudila jsem se” for feminine. There are some simple phrases (mostly present tense) that can be expressed in gender neutral way, but to be honest I cannot imagine a whole story being written in a gender neutral way in Czech language. It might be possible, but likely not in a way that will seem natural and not forced, and definitively not easy to do.
This feature of our language has one unfortunate consequence – Czech transphobes, sexists and gender-essentialists (which includes unfortunately both most prominent czech sexologists) have much easier job defending status quo. Language very strongly influences how we think and because everyone is since childhood forced to choose from the binary for every single statement they make about what they have done or plan to do, everyone thinks that this linguistic binary reflects accurately the reality. And people who think that because we have only x words categorizing something that there are only x neatly distinct categories of said something are unfortunately everywhere.
On the other hand understanding that gender is a social construct and not something set in stone was made easy for me when I learned German, where the genders of different words do not allign with Czech at all and a thing that is masculine in Czech can easily be feminine or neuter in German. There is no logic or sense to it – why is “hrnec” (pot) masculine, but “konev” (kettle) feminine? Why is “klacek” (stick, staff) masculine, but “hůl” (cane, staff) feminine? Etc. And there are languages that lack grammatical genders altogether.
To me this illustrates that languages are but very poor and imperfect tools for communicating about the infinitely rich reality surrounding us. They are not perfect or complete descriptions of said reality and argumentum ad dictionarium is a very silly logical fallacy.
Lets put Christ back in Christmas, shall we? Christ is the reason for the season, after all! That’s why it’s called Christmas!
Whenever I hear this nonsense from American Christians, I am reminded how shallow and uninformed their view of the world is. They actually really think that English language is prescriptive of how reality works and that Christians invented solstice celebrations.
So lets today just briefly look at the Czech term Vánoce. It is not actually slavic word in origin. It comes from German word “Weihnachten”, which probably just means “holy nights”. We borrowed quite a few words from our neighbors over the centuries. The original Slavic word was possibly “god” or “gody”, which has nothing whatsoever to do with any deity, it is a word for a celebration, holiday and/or feast.
Like I mentioned, there are no written records from old Slavic cultures, but something can be ascertained from what others wrote about them, especially christians before and when they started converting Slavic pagans to Christianity around 800 A.D. From this it seems that on the night of solstice Slavs celebrated the death and rebirth of a god Dažbog (Daž – give, bog – god), who was the sun-god. The celebrations consisted of having a huge bonfire lasting from sunset to dawn and feasting (without meat foods) around it. The feasting has lasted for a few days, cookies ornated with crosses and swastikas were a part of it, as well as going around singing carols and receiving/giving gifts. Note that these were de-facto celebrations of a new year – old man Dažbog has died on the evening, and he was re-born in the morning to grow (spring), gain strength (summer) age (fall) and die again next solstice. Whilst Dažbog was alive, world was safe. But during the night he was dead the chaos and evil could enter the world – thus the bonfires to keep his strength in the world and people safe from chaos through the night.
I won’t go into details, because I do not know them – I am not an expert, just a guy who read something about these things now and then throughout his life. And even experts must rely a lot on extrapolations from linguistic and still living traditions. There might be mistakes in what I wrote and it by no mean is comprehensive. Whole books are written about it. However one thing is sure – these traditions were old, predated christianity (at least here) and many of them never died.
Similar traditions at this time of year were also held by Germanic (hence christmas trees) and Celtic (mistletoes) pagans.
Christian missionaries were fully aware that trying to eradicate such traditions is akin to pissing against a hurricane, so they co-opted them. Instead of re-birth of the sun-god, it was told Baby Jesus was born. You can keep your crosses and your feasts, but instead of holding a wake at a bonfire, go to a mass at midnight etc. etc. at bleeding nauseam.
Christ was never the “reason for the season”. The sun was.
In the spirit of the season I would like to mention one Czech tradition today. This week, Thursday December 6. was Saint Nicholas day. Name of the saint is in Czech “Mikuláš” and the evening before Saint Nicolas day Mikuláš travels through the country with an angel and a devil to reward children accordingly. Good children get sweets, bad children get coal etcetera. Santa Claus is nothing else than a poorly written spinoff.
The trio is usually either paid actors or volunteers who go from door-to-door for arranged visits to children, there are also visits to Kindergarten and to lower classes in School. Children are sometimes expected to recite a rhyme to Mikuláš to prove they are good, some children opt to being tongue-tied or hiding behind their mother.
I remember, as a pre-school child, being absolutely terrified by the whole trio. My parents never taught me that devils are real or anything such, nevertheless I still to this day remember how I was supposed to say a rhyme to Mikuláš but not being able to get anything out of me but a bawling scream of horror. I do not remember being confronted with the trio for the rest of my childhood afterwards.
Two of my friends have two beautiful, intelligent and lively sons, three and four years. When they were preparing them for Mikuláš’s visit at the kindergarten, they explained to them carefully and patiently that the visitors will be only actors, ordinary people dressed up and pretending. They also explicitly forbade the teacher to tell them otherwise and to scare the children. Even so, both boys were clearly afraid of the devil and in awe with Mikuláš and the angel and the experience was something for them to talk about afterwards.
Children’s power of make-believe at this age is so strong that lying to them is not necessary for them to enjoy (or being terrified by) the holiday at all.
Slavic people are today mostly seen as “white” to the point that a Polish game developer was in USA criticised for making the computer game Witcher 3 without any people of color that could be recognized as such in modern world. Similarly a few years later a Czech developer was criticised for the same thing in a game Kingdom Come: Deliverance, deliberately set in medieval Bohemia and made as historically accurate as possible.
Whilst I understand all the arguments for the importance of diversity in representation, I think all these critiques were misguided, because they were targeted at the wrong target – they criticised products of one culture from the perspective of another culture with entirely different roots.
Slavs are indeed white when you look at the color of their skin, and by Gob do we have an awful lot of white supremacists and neo-nazis today. However a white nationalist or even a neo-nazi Slav makes about as much sense as white nationalist or neo-nazi (or Trump loving) Jew. After all, Jews have white skin too. And after all, how many Jew-hating Arabs and Arab-hating Jews know that both Jews and Arabs are in fact semitic tribes? I would venture a guess that many do not, or they do but don’t care. People are perfectly capable of being misguided, misinformed, bigoted and downright willfully ignorant and hold contradictory ideas in one head, so there is that.
Historically Slavs migrated in the Europe from east and north, displacing come celtic and germanic populations. As a result they lived mostly in the woodlands and mountains of north, central and East Europe and they were comparatively poor. They had no written language that we know of, so very little is in fact known about their culture or religion. Some knowledge can be derived from linguistics, some from written reports by neighbouring nations, some from archeology, but Slavs established themselves in Europe during the dark ages and knowledge is therefore scarce.
However it is sometimes alleged that their own name for themselves – Slovan (originating from the word sloviť=to speak) might have been the origin of the word sclavus (Lat), and later on Sklave (Ger) and slave (En) . Because these poor people were popular sources of cheap slave labor for neighbouring Germanic and Italic tribes through the early history of Europe way over to the Ottoman Empire in Middle East later on.
And even apart from slavery, a lot of the time right from Ancient Rome and the Middle Ages until very recently most Slavic nations were second-class citizens in countries led by people of other nationalities. Only Russians have managed to be oppressors and not oppressed in this period, and ironically they mostly oppressed and sometimes even tried to exterminate other Slavs. Both Czechs and Poles did not have any independency right until the end of WW1, after which they had few short decades to get the taste of self-determination before being swept into the bloody cauldron of WW2.
Under the Third Reich the Slavs were seen as barely people. They were not targeted for outright extermination like Jews and Roma, but the intent was to put them back into their proper place – slavery (that is why I think that a neo-nazi Slav is an ignoramus and a completely daft person – if nazis got their way, he would think scrubbing floors with his own toothbrush is a posh job).
After the WW2 all slavic nations ended up being wrapped behind the Iron Curtain under the not-so subtle hegemony of USSR. This time at least it was not overtly attempted to obliterate local cultures and languages (not here anyway). But whilst the Russian rule did try and manage to instill some sense of Pan-Slavic belonging, they also managed to instill some anti russian sentiments along the way (in Poland on top of the hundreds of years long grudge Poles held against Russians from the time of the Russian Empire). And the sense of always being second class, not being allowed anything truly ours, pervaded.
In this sense, sprouting of some nationalism after the fall of the Iron Curtain was perhaps inevitable, what with the nations trying to finally re-assert themselves for good. I do think white nationalists are going about the business the wrong way, proclaiming your superiority over others is not the right thing to do and it is also demonstrably false. But I also think that Polish game developers who make a PC game packed with people who bear the typical facial features of contemporary Poles, with architecture and ornaments of medieval Slavic kingdoms and based on Slavic mythology, or Czech game developers making a game set in a very distinct and specific area of medieval Kingdom of Bohemia with focus on historical accuracy are doing nothing wrong and are indeed going about it the right way. And even though these works of art have managed to succeed on an international stage, their creators were in no way obliged to fall in step with USA culture and reflect USA racial make-up.
Those who criticised these two games for a lack of representation of POC have failed to realize that they were essentially trying to bully others into giving their own culture away and let the USA to appropriate said culture the way USA likes it. In fact, they should take these games as an opportunity to learn that “white people” are not a monolith and that outside of USA there is a lot more that defines your ancestry and your culture than the color of your skin. This way said critics were – probably unwittingly – perpetuating the USA collonialism ad absurdum, by requiring everyone everywhere to reflect contemporary social ills of USA.
We do not need nor want to do that, thank you very much. We have our own social ills to deal with.