linguistics and lexicography Love English

Agitate for a higher milk yield

© STOCKBYTEToday’s guest  authors are František Čermák and Věra Schmiedtová.  Professor Čermák is a former director of the Institute of the Czech National Corpus, Faculty of Philosophy at Charles University in Prague. He is a corpus linguist, general linguist and Czech linguist, with a particular interest in the lexicon and phraseology. Dr Schmiedtová is a corpus linguist and lexicographer, and is a researcher at the same Institute.


Politically isolated regimes with an aggressive ideology and a tight control over information tend to develop new imaginary values and goals which they try to influence people to pursue, as well as their own form of language. Such were the Communist regimes in many countries during the Cold War period, including in former Czechoslovakia. Almost fifty years of closed frontiers, limited possibilities to travel out, severe censorship and propaganda streaming from the radio, TV, newspapers, etc. had turned the public atmosphere into a space where people were afraid to speak openly. In response to the ever-present propaganda, people started to develop, in the private sphere, a counter-language, or rather, terminology standing opposite to what was in the official space around.

In order not to let this language fall into oblivion, two dictionary handbooks have been compiled in Czech covering the period of Communist rule, on the basis of a specially composed Totality corpus as well as manual excerpts and notes. The first of these dictionaries, the Dictionary of Communist Totality* (Slovník komunistické totality) comes with many statistics, comparing the official language and usage of the time with a contemporary corpus of today’s general language. The second dictionary, A Small Dictionary of Life and Institutions of the Communist Totality** (Malý slovník reálií komunistické totality) provides a unique coverage of the unofficial language and terms not to be found in newspapers but, rather, on the street.

The slogan in the title (agitovat za vyšší dojivost, or agitate for a higher milk yield) is a typical specimen of the party-inspired parlance of the period, making clear that even milk production had become a political topic which had to be stressed and promoted by Communist party agitation and canvassing, in an atmosphere of public resistance to their new Communist bosses. The slogan was a typical one among many (often seen on May-Day banners or even posted at the railway stations and elsewhere to keep reminding people of what they should do). In contrast, those, such as fight for fulfilment of the Party congress resolution (bojovat za splnění rezoluce sjezdu strany) were directly related to the Communist policy, admonishing everyone of what they were somehow supposed to do, even if they were not Party members. The underlying message was that what the Party does and says should be followed by everyone. Practical problems, if great, had also become slogans spreading through the country, such as struggle for each grain (boj o každé zrno) signalling that the grain harvest was in danger and it was necessary to fight to get it home.

A look at the most frequent adjectives in the corpus is revealing. These include Soviet, socialist, new, national and (of) production (sovětský, socialistický, nový, národní, výrobní), but all of them were politically misused to a high degree. For example, new did not mean, primarily, “new“, but “done or made in the spirit of Communist ideals”, with the implication that anything “old” (i.e. from before Communist times) was just bad. “New” implied oriented (sovětský) towards the Soviet Union as a paramount model and target to be followed in almost everything, or towards the ideology called socialism (while communism came into use only later) and the achievement (working, cf. výrobní) of the prescribed and planned goals.

In the meantime, many period words have stopped being used, and become obsolete or even forgotten now. These include: JZD (agriculture cooperative), dočasný pobyt (temporary stay, a euphemism for the Russian army occupying Czechoslovakia between 1968 and1991), dohnat a předehnat (catchup and overtake, i.e. overtake the Western states economically), estébák (secret police member), chartista (signatory of Charter 1977, a political protest document initialized by Vaclav Havel), and jolka (a Russian name for the Christmas tree, imposed on people because of the supposedly bad connotations of the traditional Czech name vánoční stromek). Of course, many words, having acquired new meanings or collocations during the Communist period, have now returned to normalcy. Examples include americký (American) which almost always had negative collocations (American aggressor, Barbarian, imperialist etc.), angažovat se (get involved politically, which at that time could only mean “involved in a pro-Communist way”) and branný (military, as in military education at school, etc.), now almost abandoned.

A typical phenomenon of the period was the general lack or even absence of many goods and commodities in shops, forcing people to search frantically in many places before a desired item was found, often by bribery or through a string of friends and contacts. This whole process was projected into the verb shánět (seek, hunt for), which is now almost forgotten, too, in this older usage.

*F. Čermák, V. Cvrček, V. Schmiedtová, Slovník komunistické totality [Dictionary of the Communist Totality], 2010.
**V. Schmiedtová, Malý slovník reálií komunistické totality [Small Dictionary of Life and Institutions of the Communist Totality], 2012.

A longer article on the two dictionaries can be found here.

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František Čermák and Věra Schmiedtová

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