The Re-Establishment of the Czech Literary Language

By Dr. Josef Baudiš

THIS movement cannot be called the "revival," because it would suggest that the Czech language was at that time half extinguished. This, however, was not the case. At the end of the 18th century the Czech language was spoken throughout the whole of the Czech-speaking territory of the present day. It was, however, only spoken, and it was not used for literary purposes. To re-establish it meant the adaption of the language

p. 155

to the requirements of that time, i.e. to evolve a language capable of expressing modern ideas, and the restoration of a vocabulary adequate to modern requirements. This could be done only by following the old patterns and using them for a new purpose. Czech would be built only on the old tradition of the 16th century. This was a philologist's task and it was accomplished by the great philologist, J. Dobrovský, the founder of Slavonic studies, whose profound learning was unsurpassed even many years after his death. A significant tribute was paid to his attainments by Prof. B. Delbrück, the distinguished German philologist, who did not hesitate to declare (as late as 1893) that nobody after Dobrovský had succeeded in penetrating the whole of Slavonic syntax. He showed the Czechs how to use their language so as to avoid vulgar or cumbrous constructions and forms. Moreover he showed the Czechs that they were members of the great Slavonic family and he warned them not to split into more dialects than could be helped.1)

But this alone was not sufficient. A positive proof was wanted that the Czech language was capable of being used in this way. This was a task for a stylist, and the Czechs were lucky enough to find such a man in J. Jungmann. His translations of Milton (1811), Goethe, Chateaubriand, etc., gave positive proof that the Czech language was capable of being used for literary purposes, and his works became a solid basis for further development. Jungmann's task was, however, a double one; besides being a writer, he had to be a

1) For this reason he disapproved of the Slovak movement to introduce a Slovak dialect as a new Slovak literary language.

p. 156

lexicographer, he had to find adequate words for the many ideas which were not current in everyday iife. And indeed he was a great lexicographer as well.

His Czech dictionary is a unique work, the product of long research, such as is usually carried out by learned academies and not by an individual.

In expressing new ideas, Jungmann proceeded in the following manner: — He first tried to find an old Czech word, and if no such word existed, or if it was impossible to re-introduce it, he either derived a new word from the old material, or he borrowed it from other Slavonic languages, adapting it, however, to the Czech phonological laws.

The new literary language was successfully cultivated by the poet, J. Kollár, an apostle of Herder's humanitarian teaching, and the founder of the idea of Slavonie spiritual reciprocity. His poems appealed greatly to the national feeling of the people. As early as the twenties of the l9th century, F. L. Čelakovský published his collection of Slavonic Songs and his Echoes of Slavonic Songs and of Czech Songs. The greatest of this school was K. J. Erben, whose ballads suecessfully reflect the Slavonic spirit, and whose folk-tales are real masterpieces of story-telling. The first man whose interests went far beyond the area of the Slavonic world was the first Czech Byronist, K. H. Mácha, but he was not appreciated during his life-time. Karel Havlíček, the great satiric poet and translator of Gogol, was considered as the ablest Austrian journalist in his time. Božena Němcová was a successful delineator of the Czech peasant. Šafařík's Slavonic Antiquities preceded Palacký's monumental Czech

p. 157

history, and so the re-establishment of the Czech literary language was achieved, the knowledge of national history was gained, and with it the chief medium for fostering the national consciousness. All this, however, could not have been accomplished had the language been half extinguished, and had there not been serious workers in all the branches of historical and philological learning. It is true that there were politicians, and very prominent ones too, but their work would have been doomed to failure had there not been real strength in the nation, love of the national language, history and past literature. The language being established, it became necessary to develop the new literature, and render it worthy of a place amongst the world literatures. This was possible only by widening the range of interests of the Czech writers, introducing new forms and accustoming the Czech mind to the international way of thinking. This tendency was started by V. Hálek and J. Neruda, who deliberately continued Mácha's traditions, introducing at the same time many other new elements. This movement was even more intensive in the following period, which is represented by the great names of J. Vrchlický, J. Zeyer, and Sv. Čech. In this period the assimilative process was completed, and the writers of this period succeeded in producing individual works ot art. The latest Czech literature can boast of such personages as A. Sova and O. Březina or P. Bezruč, whose works will reflect great credit on the Czechs, when they have become better known abroad. And, moreover, the average Czech intellectual is I fmiliar with all modern literary schools of eastern and western

p. 158

Europe. During this later period the scientific study ot the Czech language has made enormous progress. The Czechs can claim to possess a most elaborate scholarly Grammar of the Czech language, dealing with the earliest Czech, and tracing all the phases of its development up to recent times. The author, Jan Gebauer, was a native scholar, and the phonology and the accidence alone comprise two large volumes, the size of which exceeds by far the Grammatica Celtica of Zeuss, although it includes only Czech in its scope. The Czechs have achieved scholarly work in other branches ot learning as well. Professor Janko's work on Germanic final syllables is considered by German scholars as a most important contribution to this question. German extracts from this work, the complete edition of which was published in Czech, is often quoted by the Germans, and Professor Janko was offered a professorship in America which, however, he refused. Janko was the pupil of another prominent Czech seholar, the late Professor Mourek, to whose researches on Teutonic syntax great importance is attached by the Germans themselves. Professor Zubatý's papers are equally respected in Germany and France. There is a new historical school in Bohemia, and a new Czech history has been in course of publication since 1912.

It may be of interest to the Celts to know that some Celtic themes were introduced into Czech literature. At the time of the national revival Havlíček used the story of the Irish King Labhraidh Loingreach and the barber for an exceltent satire. The story is too well known to the readers of Keating to need quotation here. Havlíček uses the device of the king with asses'

p. 159

ears as a means to drop some hints which otherwise would not have been permited by the Austrian censors. And his moral is most quaint: "When the whole secret came out, the king did not hide his ears, and the people respected him (then), for they thought that the ears suited him quite well." Much later Julius Zeyer used some of the tales in P. W. Joyce's Old Celtic Romances, as well as the legend of St. Brendan. The legends he derived from Joyce's collection are the following ones: — Fate ot the Children of Lir, Fair Palace of the Quicken Trees, Chase of Slieve Cullin, all of which have been worked by Zeyer into the Story ot Diarmaid and Graine (Joyce's Pursuit of Dermat Grania) called by Zeyer, A Legend from Erin. The story ot Oissín in the Land ot Youth was rendered by Zeyer as Ossian's Return. The delightful story ot Mailduin's Voyage was re-told by Zeyer for the children. Zeyer's personality would appeal to Celtic readers. If his language were to be rendered into English, I do not know of any better model than the language used by Mr. Leahy in his Celtic Romances. Zeyer's predilection for bygone ages of romance was unique, and he studied many old epochs of the Western and Eastern World. His library contained many translations from Old Egyptian to Celtic. He read old French romances, and his knowledge of oriental literature was surprising even to such scholars as Professor Dvořák, the editor of Arabic poems, whose profound learning made him famous far beyond the borders of Bohemia. Zeyer showed remarkable skill in reviving the times of the misty past. Of course it was his idea of the past, but it would greatly appeal to the Celts, and when he

p. 160

has become accessible to the English reader I am sure that the Celts will be his most fervent admirers.

In addition, the Celts are known to the Czech literary public from translations of Fiona Macleod's works. Before the war I was asked by a Czech publisher to translate some ot the genuine old Celtic tales for the Czech public. The outbreak of the war prevented me from complying with his request, but I hope I shall be able to do so at some later date.



Published in: Transactions of the Celtic Congress, 1921, compiled by Rhys Phillips; Swansea 1923, pp. 154–160.