Prague School Functionalism and the 1993 Rules of Czech Orthography

Neil Bermel, Sheffield University

In 1993 the orthographic commission working under the auspices of the Czech Language Institute, Czech Academy of Sciences, issued a revision of the Rules of Czech Orthography. The public reaction to the new Rules was generally negative, setting the stage for several years of often heated and highly personal arguments, discussions, and compromises that failed to satisfy many of the parties involved.

Much speculation has been advanced as to why these reforms came about in the first place, and how they managed to misread the public mood so completely. The less generous critics have seen language planning as the tool of an overweening state, and place the blame for the 1993 Rules on Communist-era thinking and goals. However, a more systematic look at the reforms themselves and the history of their development shows that they can ultimately be traced back to certain principles of Prague School Functionalism, and that it is the idiosyncrasies of this tradition that were the source of such considerable problems for orthographic reformers in the mid-1990s.

This paper is part of a larger study of the reform of the Rules, which also looks at the public reaction to them. In addition to outlining the basic facts of the reforms, it draws on a large number of clippings from the Czech daily and weekly press from 1990-1995. Articles in learned journals publicizing and discussing the 1993 reform (including those by S»dlachek, Hlavsa and Martincov∑, all on the orthographic commission) figure prominently in this treatment, as do works about language culture in general from the 1930s to the present. Among the latter are seminal early Prague School articles by Havr∑nek, Weingart, and Jakobson, and contemporary studies by Stary (Ve jm»nu funkce a intervence, 1995), Nebesk∑ (Jazyk, norma, spisovnost, 1996), Danesh (Positions and attitudes in language standardization, 1987), and Thomas (Linguistic Purism, 1991).