Startseite / Archive / 2013 / African Studies in the Czech Republic: Comments on J. Záhořík‘s paper



The paper African Studies in the Czech Republic - from the early Czech-African contacts until the 21st century published in this journal by Jan Záhořík (2006), will greatly disconcert any scholar at least partly acquainted with this field of study, as it disrespects the methodological criteria essential for a scholarly paper. Data and references are often incomplete [1], not objective and sometimes incorrect. This is displayed by:

  • the non-correlation of references quoted in the paper with items given in the attached list of references [2];

  • the frequent absence of any correlation between particular references or reference labels given in the text and the list of references [3];

  • spelling mistakes in titles and author’s names going so far as to “hybridize” the names of two scholars, D. A. Olderogge and I. I. Potěkhin, into one fictive personality.

Although this type of presentation of a non-negligible part of Czech research heritage to the international public has thus suffered considerably in its quality, these types of errors could perhaps be partially excused by the author's youth and lack of experience.


However, certain important aspects of Záhořík’s conclusions simply disrespect facts, and such a procedure is not excusable in any research survey.

Referring to the pre-1989 period of African Studies and their roots in the Czech Republic, the author purports to find the academic beginnings of Czech African Studies in the work of three Czech classical Semitists active in the early 2Oth century at the Philosophical Faculty of Charles University. The division of the history of Czech African Studies within the pre- and post-1989 periods proposed by Záhořík is, however, only partly acceptable, as several features transcend this dividing line: thus the very foundations of African Studies laid by Skalička and Růžička, though dated in the oppressive years of 194Os and 195Os, have their roots in the free spirit of the 193Os. Furthermore, the author refers to various historical attempts at African Studies in this area since the 16th century, the Czech Kingdom, existing for 300 years under Habsburg rule, and the Czechoslovak Republic, born in 1918, should be referred to as the predecessors of the Czech Republic.

Without underestimating the importance of Semitic studies as one of the most ancient philological schools in Europe, and the role of Afro-Asiatic macro-family populations in modern African Studies since Greenberg's time, one should not forget that these very classical Semitic and Arabic studies all over the world paid only marginal attention to Africa south of the Sahara, so they can scarcely be credited with inaugurating African Studies. But this could be a matter for discussion.


Turning further, the author writes that

"When we talk about African Studies in the Czech Republic, we have to distinguish two periods: The pre- and the post-1989 period, as each has brought different approaches ... After WW II there was a slow rise in African studies within the former Czechoslovakia. During the 1950s, African studies were constituted as a complex discipline consisting of history, anthropology, sociology, linguistics and politics of the people living in sub/Saharan Africa. The theoretical background of the African Studies was influenced at the beginning by the Soviet school of African studies, represented by Professor Daull Potechin Olderogge by the Western theoretical framework called the British school of Social Anthropology, and further by the Vienna School of Historical Ethnology. The Prague Linguistic Circle also played a decisive role."

Záhořík’s paper is thus mixing facts and their relative chronology. The PLC had to cease its legal existence in the 1950s, its influence surviving – often heavily attacked by the ruling ideologists – in theoretical research postulates. Thus, the PLC ideas and methods had a decisive role in creating Czech African studies prior to the 1950s, but not thereafter.


Having spent most of my life in Prague, studying and working here in the given field, I propose a different picture.


The "beginnings" of Czech African studies as a research field oriented towards the sub-Saharan parts of Africa are certainly to be associated with the activities of the Prague team of academic nature operating since the 193Os, international in its free spirit and open membership, known as the Prague Linguistic Circle. One of its younger members, Vladimír Skalička (1946) prepared the first research papers on Bantu and on certain languages of West Africa, published later in the research review Archív orientální Skalička devoted most of his own further research to general linguistics but, under his guidance, several of the real founders of Czech African research studies were directed towards the African field. This was notably the case of Růžička , who turned from his romantic dreams about Africa towards Bantu linguistics [4], and his research on class systems, in particular on locatives, is generally accepted as an important part of the international Bantu linguistic tradition. Therefore, if anybody is to be considered the founder of modern scholarly Czech African studies, it should be Růžička under Skalička's [5] linguistic tutorship.


The institutional establishing of Czech African Studies came about (probably inspired by Skalička), with the re-organizing of the Oriental Institute in Prague [6] by Jaroslav Průšek in the 1950s. A Department of the Near East and Africa was created in this Institute. For over a decade, the great Czech democratic scholar and specialist of Iranian studies, Prof. Otokar Klíma, headed the new department. Růžička became its first research fellow in African studies. From 1960 on, he was joined by a handful of us, young PhD students (Svetozár Pantůček, Vladimír Klíma, Milan Kalous, Otakar Hulec, Zbyněk Malý and others), cooperating with various colleagues in the Ethnographic Institute (L. Holý, Olga Skalníková, etc)., in the Náprstek Museum , etc. During the 1960s, we enjoyed a relatively liberal atmosphere at the Oriental Institute which slowly grew throughout pre-1968 and early 1968 Czechoslovakia, and we established firm links with such traditional centres of African studies as SOAS in London (my teacher in Hausa, F. W. Parsons was allowed a month’s research stay in Prague under an agreement between SOAS and the Oriental Institute), the CNRS , ELOV and UNESCO in Paris, the growing Institut für Ägyptologie und Afrikanistik (today: Institut für Afrikawissenschaften ) in Vienna, etc. [7] Having temporarily the opportunity to stay in Africa, most of us took indirect advantage of this to establish friendly professional links with colleagues in Western Europe. An embryo of real scholarly African studies was thus formed in the Oriental Institute in Prague, later yielding respectable research and gaining international recognition.

As for the role of Russian African studies referred to by Záhořík: communicating and cooperating with them at a research level was unproblematic, especially with the Leningrad (now again Petrograd) school, which was at the time headed by the wise and serious Prof. D. A. Olderogge [8], who visited Prague in the early 1960s, and shared with us reliable indirect influence from classical German African studies.


In the early 1960s, this 'embryo' of African studies at the Oriental Institute in Prague was approached by Karel Petráček  [9] with an invitation to join him and other scholars in founding and running a M.A. program to teach African Studies at the Philological Faculty of Charles University. The first dozen (or so) of our students of this program provided us with a second generation of Czechoslovak specialists in various Africanist disciplines dealing with the languages, literatures, history and sociocultural anthropology of sub-Saharan Africa (Josef Kandert, Petr Skalník, Magdalena Slavíková-Haunerová, Viera Pawliková-Vilhanová and many others). This second generation of Africanist scholars joined most of us, the first generation, in facing our destinies in the difficult "normalisation" post-1968 time. After all, for almost two decades, we all were "alone facing our own consciousness." [10]


The 1989 return of parliamentary democracy and freedom was obviously no arrival of paradise for African studies in such a landlocked, medium-size country without any past colonial links with Africa, as is the Czech Republic. Top-ranking, well paid academic posts are few, if any, especially in the field of African studies, and funds for research are certainly not easy to get. Yet if Záhořík purports in his Conclusions (<22>) that they hardly exist as a research field in this country, writing that

"it’s not a simple matter to talk about African studies in the Czech Republic, as we do not have such large amounts of personalities, journals and possibilities to take part in international projects and as African studies in our country is rather stagnating. The only solution, in my opinion, is to integrate the young generation of scholars into some international researches concerning any field of study, be it history, languages, social anthropology or other..."

he is overlooking the significant amount of work which has been carried out in this field over the last twenty years. Moreover, he is displaying that he is not acquainted with the content of the publications given in his own list of references. Otherwise he should have mentioned at least four or five internationally coordinated Czech projects focused entirely or partly on Africa operated during the last twenty years in the Czech Republic, granted either by Charles University, or by the Grant Agency of the Czech Republic (called today The Czech Science Foundation). Most of these projects have been conducted by Czech Scholars in cooperation with various scholars from Germany, France, Austria and other European countries, two such projects having been integrated within the Common European Research Project coordinated by the C.N.R.S. [11] Similarly, the Certificate Program in languages and cultures of Black Africa, which was set up by the present author in cooperation with Josef Kandert at the Faculty of Humanities, Charles University, has nurtured a third generation of young students who have participated in these Prague based research projects, and of whom many are now disseminated to various fields of African studies in Europe and elsewhere. There is no excuse for Záhořík (or anybody wrongly advising this young scholar) to pass over all this activity in silence, explicitly purporting that none of this existed, even though the evidence of its existence is published in the references cited in his own paper.

If there has been any stagnation of African studies in the Czech Republic, then it is most likely to have occurred at the Philosophical Faculty of the Charles University, because, methodologically, scientifically and pedagogically speaking, the same deformed line that was followed during the pre-1989 period, continues to be followed virtually unchanged there. But this is worth another paper.



Anonymus 2007

'Petráček.' Kronika. Sborník prací - Filozofické fakulty brněnské univerzity. Studia Minora Facultatis Philosophicae Universitatis Brunensis, (14.08.2013)

Anonymus n.d.

'Siegmund Ernst Martin Brauner.' Professorenkatalog der Universität Leipzig / Catalogus Professorum Lipsiensium, ed. by Lehrstuhl für Neuere und Neueste Geschichte, Historisches Seminar, Universität Leipzig, (19.08.2013)

Brauner, Siegmund 1987

'D.A. Olderogge.' Zeitschrift für Phonetik, Sprachwissenschaft und Kommunikationsforschung 40:590-591

Čermák, František 2010

'Vladimír Skalička.' Journal for Modern Philology 92,1-2:106-112, (14.08.2013)

Holý,Ladislav and Milan Stuchlík (eds.) 1968

Social Stratification in Tribal Africa. Prague: Academia

Illife, John, 2001

Afrika a Afričané (Africans. History of a Continent, translated by Luboš Kropáček). Prague: Vyšehrad

Klíma, Vladimír 1969

Modern Nigerian Novels. Dissertationes Orientales, vol. 18. Prague: Oriental Institute

Klíma, Vladimír 1971

South African Prose Writing in English. Dissertationes Orientales, vol. 32. Prague: Oriental Institute

Klíma, Vladimír, K. F. Růžička and Petr Zima 1976

Black Africa: Literature and Language. Prague: Academia and D. Reidel

Kropáček, Luboš 1997

'Some Remarks on Swahili Proverbs.' Archiv Orientální 65,4:323-330

Palat, Augustin 1967

'The Oriental Institute.' In: Asian and African Studies in Czechoslovakia, ed. by Miroslav Oplt. Moscow: Nauka Publishing House

Pasch, Helma 2005

'Diedrich Westermann.' Biographisch Bibliographisches Kirchenlexikon, vol. XXIV:1531-1547. Verlag Traugott Bautz, (09.09.2013), (06.09.2013)

Skalička, Vladimír 1946 [1979]

'Über die Typologie der Bantusprachen', Archív orientální 15:93-127, republished 1979 in: Typologische Studien. Mit einem Beitrag von Petr Sgall, ed. by Peter Hartmann. Schriften zur Linguistik, Band 11, pp.198-237. Braunschweig: Vieweg

Záhořík, Jan 2006

'African Studies in the Czech Republic-from the early Czech-African contacts until the 21st century' Afrikanistik online, (13.08.2013)

Zima, Petr 1972

Problems of Categories and Word Classes in Hausa. The Paradigm of Case. Dissertationes Orientales, vol. 33. Prague: Academia

Zima, Petr 1973

'Karel F. Růžička.' Archiv Orientální 41:1-3

Zima, Petr 1988

'In memoriam Karel Petráček.' Afrika und Übersee 71:1-3

Zima, Petr 2000

Areal and Genetic Factors in Language Classification and Description. Africa South of the Sahara. Munich: Lincom

Zima, Petr, Jan Jeník and Vladimír Tax 2003

Dynamics of Systems. Prague: SOFIS

Zima; Petr and Robert Nicolai (eds.) 2002

Lexical and Structural Diffusion. Interplay of internal and external factors of language development in the West African Sahel. (Bases, Corpus et Langage. Les Cahiers, 1.) Nice: Université de Nice Sophia Antipolis

Zhukov, A. and Phil Jaggar 1988

D. A. Olderogge.' In: Studies in Hausa Language and Linguistics in Honour of F. W. Parsons, ed. by Graham Furniss and Phil Jaggar, pp.XXIX-XXX. London, New York: Kegan Paul International

[1] To avoid subjectivity, I have refrained from commenting on Záhořík¨s approach to my own publications (other than in connection with data supplied by them). Readers who might be interested in my own papers are invited to email for my full bibliography.

[2] Thus e.g. the collaborative volume quoted on p.2 after A History of Africa has nothing to do with I. Hrbek. Its editors were Ladislav Holý and Milan Stuchlík (1968). Even its references in the Selected Bibliography are wrong, as the name of the second editor is missing, the entry itself is quoted twice, both forms with misprints and errors. In the first case, given alphabetically under Holý, Ladislav (1968) the editor is indicated as the author.

[3] Thus, e.g., Vladimír Klíma is labelled correctly in the text as a literary scientist (p.3), but this is documented in the list of references only by a couple of his Czech booklets which give general information on certain contemporary African states. There is no mention either of his two major research monographies on African literatures published in English (Klíma 1969, 1971) nor of his participation in the collaborative monography Vladimír Klíma, K. F. Růžička, Petr Zima (1976). Several authors, such as L. Kropáček, are labelled as outstanding contemporary Czech Africanists, but this situation is documented in the list of Africanist publications either by marginal papers (such as an interpretation of Swahili proverbs, Kropáček 1997), or by Czech translations of popularising books compiled in English by other authors (Illife, 2001).

[4] For Růžička's life and work see Zima (1973).

[5] As Růžička's papers were published in the late 1950s, they evidently preceded Dějiny Afriky (The History of Africa), which was compiled by Ivan Hrbek and a team of co-authors in Czech, and published in Prague in 1966 by Svoboda, the official publishing house of the Communist Party. I do share (though for different reasons) Záhořík’s opinion that the book was "unfortunately published only in Czech", and I agree that this book was "regrettably written under the influence of the regime." (both quotations from paragr. 2.1.)

[6] Inspired and supported by the first President of Czechoslovakia, T.G. Masaryk, the Oriental Institute was founded in Prague in 1922 and began its activities in 1929. See details in A. Palát (1967). The Oriental Institute , in Asian and African Studies in Czechoslovakia, Moscow 1967, p.87 ff.

[7] Direct personal contacts with West Germany remaining difficult for us even through most of the pre-1968 period, our contacts with the West German scholars were mostly started during our meetings in Africa, the congresses of the West African Linguistic Society (whose founding member I became at that time) serving as excellent pretexts for this paradoxical meeting of European scholars from neighbouring countries of the old continent. I am proud to have received the first reviews of my monograph (Zima, 1972) from such scholars as Prof. Johannes Lukas (Hamburg) and Prof. Herrmann Jungraithmayr (then Marburg), the latter continuing to support me and my professional activities through the “normalization” period. As for Eastern Germany, apart from the officially tolerated ties, these contacts also bore even unexpected fruits: I should record here the brave action of my friend Prof. Siegmund Brauner , who, having heard about my forced departure from all academic posts in Prague in the late 1970s, offered me a post at the Karl-Marx-University in Leipzig. Although neither accepted nor actualized, this mere invitation greatly helped the lives of myself and my family at that time.

[8] Záhořík’s hybridization of the names of two Russian scholars,. Olderogge and Potěkhin is not a simple misprint, but almost an offence especially towards the former, who was a real Africanist scholar with deep ties to the classical German Africanist school, a pupil of Diedrich Westermann . See, e.g., Olderogge's obituaries published by Siegmund Brauner (1987) and by A. Zhukov and Phil Jaggar (1988).

[9] In 1987, I was invited to write an obituary (Zima 1988) of this great Czech Arabist who always maintained his deep interest in Sub-Saharan Africa.

[10] I am paraphrasing the words of Prof. Průšek at one of the final meetings of the Czechoslovak Oriental Society at Liblice, shortly before his dismissal.

[11] Information about these activities, projects, results and the cooperating persons is abundantly available in the prefaces, footnotes and technical remarks of the following publications quoted in Záhořík’s own bibliographical list: Zima, Jeník & Tax (2003), Zima-Nicolai (2002), Zima (2000) etc. However, not a single one was connected with the Philological-/Philosophical Faculty of the Charles University or the Oriental Institute, since the mid-1970s till today.




Es liegen noch keine Kommentare vor.

Möchten Sie Stellung zu diesem Artikel nehmen oder haben Sie Ergänzungen?

Kommentar einreichen.