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What’s in a Name? (Prague History Lesson)

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Studying abroad is about more than just personal development and building experience. Very often, reasons include a particular investment in understanding a location, culture, or historic relationship. Other times, the program or location offers opportunities that are not as easily accessible through institutions at home. In the case of Prague, many of our students cite both reasons. This is no surprise when one teaches writers, because often historic relationships, culture, and the physical particulars of location are bound together in our work.

What About Prague?

Generally, it s believed that the city gets its name, as many do, from its physical location. The Czech name, Praha, is derived from the Slavic word práh. The meaning is something like “ford,” or in other contexts “river rapids,” and it is generally accepted that this is a reference to the city’s origin at the crossing point for the Vltava river. This means that its original naming was conducted in the same spirit as U.S. cities like Grand Rapids, Cedar Rapids, or Chagrin Falls. It also means that there are other, similarly named locations that derive their identities from the same etymological turn, such as the Praga district in Warsaw, Poland.

Alternative Theories

The word práh also exists in the Czech language, where it means threshold. Alongside the commonly accepted etymology, there exists an explanation that ties this meaning to princess Libuše, the legendary ancestor of the Czech people as a whole, who was said to have ordered the city “to be built where a man hews a threshold of his house.” Other theories tie the name Praha to the term “na prazě,” which refers the the shale upon which the castle and the surrounding city was built.

Wrap-Up

While there may never be a cut-and-dried answer to the origin of Prague’s name, the more familiar English version is easily traced back to French modifications to the original name as it became a common term in that language, and other common names or references to it have also called it “the heart of Europe” and “the mther of cities.” See you there!

Studies in Prague: Franz Kafka

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Chances are, if you’re looking into the PSP, you already know a bit about Kafka’s career and history as a writer. One of the reasons we use his quote on the front page of our site is to highlight the fact that so much of the mood and matter of his writing is entrenched in the time and place that gave birth to it, the city of Prague. In 1883 Prague was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, and as a result of social and economic pressures, his family encouraged their children to become proficient in High German, the language Kafka would later choose to write in.

Kafka’s personality was such that he constantly feared being found repulsive, as well as being considered a sexual failure. When these social fears and anxieties are combined with his cultural location as a middle-class, educated Jewish worker in a cosmopolitan city that was, nevertheless, prone to the prejudices and pressures of the age, it is easy to understand how the surreal and alienating elements in his more famous stories came to be. It’s also easy to understand how their application to byzantine bureaucracies and the inscrutable judgment of power came from a member of a minority population in a city that was being ruled by an outside power.

The influence of the focal lenses of culture, history, and social attitudes is clear at every point in Kafka’s work, making him an ideal writer to study if you are working to understand how literature interacts with the other elements of culture in its time. For writers, he also provides a unique example of the ways identity can be brought to bear in the craft, and by growing closer to the history that shaped his experience, students have the opportunity to find new layers of depth and richness when they return to their study of the words themselves.