The Rant: What’s in a (Slavic) name?

It’s the unforgiving moment that reporters strive to avoid. Our most agonizing task — one that led us to paper, not the podium — is having to speak publicly about pieces we’ve written. For arts reporters, this task becomes even more onerous when a piece includes Hungarians, Czechs and Slovaks. Because in Washington, when you’re flaunting your vast knowledge of Bedřich Smetana or Zoltán Kodály, you’re likely to end up in a room filled with foreign service officers who will openly judge you for ignoring the — are those umlauts? — in Voříšek’s name.

I’ll confess here, head in hands: There are words that I type that I will never learn to pronounce. Mea culpa. Ne haragudj! Oprostite! (Full disclosure: I can pronounce only one of those apologies.)

I often worry that I will butcher the names of famous Eastern European composers. But in my defense, it’s not all my fault. Why does every composer born east of Vienna have a name that’s impossible to pronounce? And why, even when Anglophilic Eastern European immigrants dropped their decorative letter dashes, did they decide to keep tongue-twisting consonant clusters in every single word?

I’ve had a love-hate relationship with Slavic languages, in particular, since I was a child. I grew up knowing that my grandmother was a proud descendent of Antonín Dvořák, but learned quickly (in Suzuki Violin class of all places) that no one would ever believe her since she didn’t share the famous spelling.

“You’re not related. Your grandma spells the ‘zhahk’ out.”

“Doesn’t matter! They changed it on the boat.”


“Because you Americans can’t pronounce anything!”

I’d later learn that we Americans can pronounce stuff, provided that the words are French, Spanish, Italian or of another language we’re expected to butcher before graduating high school. By default, we also know the ugly languages of the classical repertoire — German, English, Russian — since we’ve traditionally respected and feared these cultures for their military might and terrible cuisine.

But we still trample on the languages of Eastern Europe, ignoring the tiny countries and their phlegm-filled syllables, often because we sound funny speaking them.

In America’s defense, these languages aren’t dainty. Even their English names sound like deadly ailments or unnecessary bodily organs. Stretch before you run, Zoltan, or you’ll pull your Lower Sorbian! There’s a Lechitic strain of bird flu going around. You’d better wash your hands.

But I can’t help but blame my foremothers for assimilating a bit too quickly. From Dvoraks, they became Dvorshocks, then the more English Dershocks, which Google tells me is not even a real surname. I wish my grandmother’s family had kept her funny, famous Czech name, suffering quietly as children called out to Mrs. Dvor-AKKK. But the composers themselves set bad examples. That Pole Fryderyk went by Frédéric François when he moved to Paris, back when names determined success and sometimes survival. Now, names reveal little more than the ignorance of others, like me, who will forever visit YouTube before interviews to conceal an incomplete knowledge of the classical repertoire.

Przepraszam, Monsieur Chopin and all of Eastern Europe. At least, now you know I’m trying.

Got a rant?

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Katherine Boyle reports on arts, museums and culture for the Style section.



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