I have a deep dark secret. Here it is: Czech names scare me.
I know how to speak Czech to a borderline respectable degree and I have been told that my pronunciation is decent; nevertheless, some Czech names, when I say them out loud, sound awful.
Vojtěch is the worst. I know several really nice Vojtas. Good guys. One of my favorite former students is named Vojtěch. Yet, I don’t think that I have ever called him by his name because I feel so uncomfortable saying it. Alžbeta and Anežka are just as bad on the female side.
None one of them have a “ř” and they don’t sound strange when Czechs say them. They just sound strange when I say them.
Oldřich? Břestislav? Forget it. I mostly avoided using those names because I didn’t feel comfortable saying them.
And don’t get me started about the nicknames. How are you supposed to know when to call someone by a diminutive? When does Zuzana become “Zuzi” or “Zuzka” or “Zuzanko”? It’s second nature to Czech people: they can meet someone and within half an hour they are comfortable using each other’s nicknames. I’ve been at the same table in a restaurant with Czechs who meet in front of me and talk to each other while I listen. At no point do either of them say: “Call me Luboš” or “I go by Terka”. Yet, I call the guy Lubomir and the woman Terezie while the other Czech person at the table is already onto the much more personal moniker. When did the conversation cross the magic line to informality?
How does Jan become Honza, Alexandra become Saša, and Josef become Pepa?
And, not for nothing, but some of these nicknames seem way too informal. It is hard for me to call an adult woman “Maruška”. Or how do you pronounce the shortened version of Františka? Is it more like “Fanny” or “Funny”? Either one is awkward.
Once I avoided voicing names for an entire school year. I knew the names; I just wouldn’t use them. I even developed defense mechanisms, like an unobtrusive pointing style, head nods, and regular patterns to elicit responses. By the end of the year, the studens had caught on and quizzed me: I named them all correctly — but voicing the names was like listening to a recording of my voice.
* * *
Names are important to me so I want to make sure to get them correctly. I believe that I am a different person because my first name is Bruno. It is an uncommon name both in the United States and the Czech Republic (unless you are a dog). My face, my presence, my conversation may have been forgotten or mistaken but people usually remembered that there had been some guy named Bruno at the party.
When I was younger, I actually went by Bruni. My mother, who is Czech, thought Bruno was too adult for kindergarten, so I went by the shortened version of the baby name she called me, Bruničku. (Of course, on the strangeness scale, Bruni is probably one of the few names weirder than Bruno.) All of my official school paperwork all the way through high school identified me as Bruni Zalubil.
But my birth certificate and my social security card had my official name: Bruno Zalubil. When I got to university, Bruno was the name that professors called out on the first day of class. I was shy so I didn’t bother to correct them and, just like that, I was Bruno. My high school friends accused me of adopting a new, exotic persona, but it really was by accident. Nevertheless, I loved it, and it did feel like a new, exotic persona. College was a new, adult world — suddenly I had an adult name.
When I moved to New York, people had heard that a guy named Bruno was going to take over running the racetrack websites. They had expected an Italian mobster-type or a bodybuilder. Instead, they got me. Nevertheless, they remembered the name.
* * *
My name and the name of this city are actually often mixed up by many English speakers. A lot of my friends, American colleagues, and international acquaintances voice this city more as Bruno than Brno. My theory is that the lack of a vowel feels strange so native English speakers add a softener between the hard consonants.
My wife’s company, which was often on the phone with people at their English headquarters, enjoyed the constant mispronunciation so much that they called their Employee of the Week Award “The Bruno”. It was a plastic statuette of a businessman similar to an Academy Award Oscar and it had “Bruno” printed on the base. (Maybe it was fate or just coincidence, but my wife won it when we had just started dating.)
I don’t live here because of this name similarity, but I don’t mind hearing crowds chanting what sounds like “Go Bruno” at sports events and I am obnoxious enough to sometimes use a dad joke to introduce myself: “I’m Brno from Bruno — I mean, Bruno from Brno.”
It’s a terribly lame line, but people remember it — and it deflates the pressure of perfect pronunciation. If only Czech names were so easy!