Language Ferments

Tereza Stöckelová (Institute of Sociology of the Czech Academy of Sciences)

January 6th, 2022

How do concepts move between languages and get stuck? How are they molded, folded, and digested in the hands and mouths of foreign speakers? The notes in this post reflect on and arise from encounters between three languages, Czech, German and English and involve two voices: Tereza, who is a Czech native speaker, sociologist and STS scholar based in Prague for most of her life, and Robin, who has edited most of Tereza’s academic texts in English over the past decade or more – including this one. With more than 20 years of professional experience, Robin, a native Canadian living in Prague since early 1992, has translated, edited, and in some ways enabled a huge volume of Czech social science production, yet she is mostly an invisible mediator in the wider transmission of Czech social science.

The main text—by Tereza, with many invisible interferences (save one) by Robin— suggests that traffic(king) concepts across (“imperial” and minor) languages can be productively approached with the help of the imaginary of microbial fermentation. In contrast to the risk of the oppression of a minor language, it highlights the impure, collective, multidirectional, and uncontrollable aspects of language circulation processes. The main text is accompanied by a boxed (not black-boxed this time!) conversation in which the voice and logics of a professional language editor comes to the forefront.

The fermentation of “imperial” languages in(to) Czech

Robert Dunn and his colleagues carried out an experiment with bread bakers and bacteria. They asked eighteen bakers from fourteen countries to use a standardized recipe and ingredients to make starters, from which the bakers then baked bread. With the help of genome sequencing the fungi and bacteria associated with the starters, the bakers’ hands, and the ingredients, they concluded that

“Even when the recipe and ingredients for starter and bread are identical, different bakers around the globe produce highly diverse starters which then alter bread acidity and flavor. Much of the starter microbial community comes from bread flour, but the diversity is also associated with differences in the microbial community on the hands of bakers. These results indicate that bakers may be a source for yeast and bacteria in their breads and/or that bakers’ jobs are reflected in their skin microbiome.” (Reese et al. 2020)

This experiment is a lovely example of global circulation, where the same ingredients result in somewhat different products due to the localized fermentation process. It also highlights how nothing that moves or is transported from one location to be placed or to settle in another does so in isolation. Matter moves and settles in untamable multitudes—even if they are formed by invisible microbes. Our professional (and other) histories leave traces of microbes in and on us.

In this paper I suggest that the imaginary of multispecies flows and transactions offers an interesting way in which to consider how words and concepts from “imperial” languages, specifically German and English, make it into the Czech language. How they may inhabit it in more or less visible ways, and how they contribute to a variety of its tastes. I suggest they can be conceived as having been fermented in(to) Czech.

Wait a minute, the language editor alerts the author: “The way the word fermentation or related words is used doesn’t always work in the text, by which I mean it is being used to signify this movement into the Czech language, where one might normally talk about a word percolating or filtering into the language. There’s no problem with the idea of fermentation, but there’s a need to get around the lexical limitations of the word by phrasing the process in some other way.”

The author ventures to resist in this particular case: “I know a native English speaker might not wish to ‘torture’ the English reader in this way, but my not being an English speaker allows me to do so. Percolating or filtering sound too mechanical to me. They suggest a slightly different process to fermentation—one that cannot be completely governed or engineered. Perhaps unusual usage of the word will spark some productive conceptual reflection among native English speakers. Moreover, as Annemarie Mol (2020: 392-393) notes, native users of English (or Czech for that matter—see below), may sometimes disagree on what their language can do and what it articulates.”

The following text offers a few empirical vignettes to, rather unsystematically, illustrate the different ways in which “imperial languages” ferment in(to) Czech. I deliberately want to highlight the productive, collective, and somewhat uncontrollable nature of this process and argue that even if the over the centuries the Czech lands have been a part of different successive empires and have been implicated in different geopolitical struggles and shifting warzones, language traffic(king) cannot be reduced simply to imperial oppression.

The German borderlands

When the Czech lands were part of the Habsburg Monarchy, German was the dominant language, especially in urban centers, while various forms of vernacular Czech were spoken across the countryside. Even after the Czech language was consolidated and became one of the official languages of the new independent state established in 1918, the traces of German influence could still be found in the Czech language—and they still can now.

Some words that were originally German have become a standard part of the Czech language, their roots in German invisible to most people—for example, knedlík, the Czech word for dumpling, comes from the German Knödel. The Czech knedlík and the German Knödel may look slightly different and be served in combination with somewhat different companion foods, but the concept of a dumpling is denoted by both and the word knedlík is completely natural and unmarked in Czech, with any sense of its German roots largely forgotten.

This is not, however, the case of many other Czech words of German origin. For example, fotr in Czech comes from the German Vater but has a rather different connotation and expresses a different feeling than otec, which is the standard Czech word for “father.” In most contexts, use of the word fotr sounds crude and offensive. Similarly, it may be acceptable to use the word ksicht (from the German Gesicht) to talk about one’s own face, but you had better use the standard word tvář to refer to someone else’s face—if you want to avoid offending the other person or play a special language game with her. In these cases where two (or more) variants of a concept coexist, it is the difference between them that creates the nuance in meaning (the specific acidity and taste) of each variant. Usually, the German variant sounds less polite, which perhaps reflects some uneasy aspects of and frictions in the history of Czech-German coexistence.

The origin of some words in Czech and German and the direction of the traffic remain unclear. For example, some scholars claim that the term bouda came to Czech from the German Baude (chalet in English); others have hypothesized that it was the other way round. It is probably no coincidence that you mostly find these chalets in the Sudetenland, a mountainous area in what is now the Czech Republic’s border region, where Germans and Czechs lived side by side for centuries. Fermentation processes are hardly ever clear and fully traceable.

The geopolitics of English

English started to “ferment” into Czech after 1989 following the change in political regime. This fermentation process occurred in connection with the political reorientation of the country, the acceleration of economic globalization, and the rise of the digital technologies and social media that have become a part of everyday life. When you “like” a post on social media, in Czech you lajkuješ [like-oo-yesh] it. There is no Czech alternative to describe this act. Smart cities is a fancy concept trumpeted in the Czech Republic using the English term but often then proving to be nothing more than an empty slogan (and an easy way to get EU funding for different projects). I prefer to see it translated into Czech—chytré město—as to me this is a sign that at least some effort (though there is no guarantee!) has been made to translate the notion into meaningful, localized usage in the Czech city to which it is being applied, instead of lazily relying on an English buzzword with a supposedly universal meaning and associated set of standardized urban material practices.

Figure 1: Czech miso peaso (source:

During my fieldwork on microbiopolitical citizenship in Czechia, I encountered a local vinegar and miso manufacturer who produces “peaSo”. Inspired by Japanese kōji production and culinary traditions, the manufacturer insists strongly on localizing miso for ecological, logistic, and culinary reasons. It uses the kōji mold Aspergillus Oryzae, the spores of which it imports from Japan, and combines the mold with European ingredients – Czech peas and barley, and Italian rice – to avoid having to ship any products from East Asia. The manufacturer localizes recipes to make the product accessible to a wider culinary public in the country, and to people who may have little experience and a less developed taste for traditional strong misos. Its misos are “lighter” and less salty – but they are still salty enough to be durable as an unpasteurized food as this allows to preserve the food’s nutritional value by ecological, low-energy means – as opposed, for instance, to the method of freezing. Along with the strong emphasis on ecological and culinary localization, the manufacturer uses an English-language brand name and the hashtag “peaSo”, thereby linking their product to wider, international, English-speaking contexts and communities of people, who translate the original Japanese concept of miso as a paste made from soy into one made from peas. For ecological reasons, the Czech manufacturer is not interested in exporting its products; on the contrary, the company dreams of having most of its customers in regional proximity to the company’s base. The use of English helps to make the manufacturer’s deliberately local product cosmopolitan.

There are, however, some English words that have not been easily digested and accepted by many Czech-language speakers. One of them is gender. Since the 1990s, when gender studies entered the local academic and public discourse, this word has never become fully and comfortably at home in the Czech language. After initial debates about the possible translation of the English term into Czech (the alternative suggestion was to use the Czech word rod, which denotes the grammatical category of gender and also means “family lineage”), the English word gender was adopted as the lexical vehicle for speaking about and researching “social” constructions and expectations relating to women and men, which are deemed largely contingent (unlike pohlaví, the term used to indicate sex, for example, on ID cards and in public opinion polls, which denotes the mainstream understanding of sex as a biological and naturalized bodily reality). The concept of gender was used by some to legitimize new research streams and agendas in the social sciences and humanities after the regime change in 1989. The use of an English term and the access Czech gender studies scholars thereby gained to foreign funding and to publishing opportunities in established international journals and with prestigious book publishers helped to weaken resistance to this concept among the more conservative segments of local academia. 

On the other hand, this may also have contributed to the lack of a more sustained attempt to establish the concept’s local relevance, as Nyklová (2018) argues. Moreover, the English term has at times been used as a trick to sidestep the political loadedness of the issues being addressed. As a result, instead of politicizing and denaturalizing pohlaví and challenging the strict divide between the biological and the social, using the English term gender allowed the allegedly pure biological meaning of pohlaví to be left largely untouched in the understanding of both academia and the public. The fermentation process this English term has undergone in the Czech language and in the political environment has resulted in rather diverse outcomes, which is to say, in diverse conceptions and practical uses of the term in different domestic spaces and different work- and public places (Nyklová, Fárová 2018).

For an organic language economy

In “Living Sámi Lands,” Joks, Østmo and Law (2020: 13) dismiss words with some other origin as “loanwords” and contrast them with existing Sami words. I tend to be more open to these “other” words, even if they have come to Czech from an “imperial” language, which means they could have an oppressive or silencing effect on the Czech. If we think about their global circulation in the sense of microbial fermentation, a more nuanced picture emerges. Without underestimating the asymmetries at play (I discuss them in Stöckelová 2012, 2016), I wanted to foreground the lively and multifaceted ways in which languages are intra-acted.

Loanwords get nuanced flavors as they exist and express meaning in the context and company of domestic terms. Oftentimes the word’s origins and journey through the language are fuzzy. The economy of these loans is not mechanical but rather organic and largely ungovernable. No standard record-keeping system would ever be able to easily track the trajectories of these loans, because even if these imperial linguistic objects were well-packaged and labelled and traveled in isolation (which they don’t anyway) the fermentation process would result in their being quickly absorbed and then converted into various new “objects” in the new language environment. And if the loanwords were to return to where they came from, they would be returned altered.

As we can see, a receiving language community is not homogeneous and may be structured, for example, by and along the lines of professional activities. As Dunn and colleagues (2020) suggest in their study, “microorganisms on our hands may record not just who we are but also how we have lived, with bakers’ bodies specifically documenting their intimate relationships with bread.” The following conversation with the language editor is an attempt to “sequence” professional hands that are “contaminated” in and by an everyday engagement with the fermentation of social science concepts in(to) Czech and back in(to) English. As undecided Dunn and colleagues are about all the multidirectional microbial flows between the raw ingredients, starters and bakers’ skin microbiome shall we probably stay about the actual agency of a particular language editor with regard to localized scientific discourse. But agency there is!

Instead of offering readers a Czech concept to appropriate, I suggest this idea of a fermentation process, which they can use to experimentally consider ways of relating to other languages. I believe there is nothing specifically Czech about this process. The resulting linguistic ferments will, however, always be localized. But if you wonder what “fermentation” is in Czech, it’s kvašení. The most emblematic local examples of a fermented food are lactic acid pickled cabbage (or the German “sauerkraut”), gherkins, and syrečky (or Quargel in German), a small, round, smelly, ripened cheese.

And, of course, another highly popular mode of kvašení is bottom fermentation (using brewers’ yeasts) employed to produce lager beer. Interestingly, many Czechs will tell you they become more fluent in foreign languages after having a beer or two.

Invisible mediators: Conversation with an English language editor

I want to thank Marcela Linková, Lukáš Senft, Kateřina Kolářová and the journal editors for helpful feedback on the draft of this paper. And, of course, I thank Robin for the thoughtful editing of this text (and the many preceding ones). Her corrections and inquiries often make me rethink and fine-tune not only what I want to articulate in English but also in Czech. Funding for this research was received from the Czech Science Foundation under the project title “Microbiological citizenship between antibiotic and probiotic regimes” (contract no. 20-09830S).


Joks Solveig, Østmo Liv, Law John. 2020. Verbing meahcci: Living Sámi lands. The Sociological Review Monographs, 68(2): 305–321.

Mol, Annemarie. 2020. Not quite clean: Trailing schoon and its resonances. The Sociological Review Monographs, 68(2) 385–400.

Nyklová, Blanka. 2018. Gender Studies in the Czech Republic: Institutionalisation Meets Neo-liberalism Contingent on Geopolitics. In Gender Studies and the New Academic Governance: Global Challenges, Glocal Dynamics and Local Impacts, Heike Kahlert ed., Pp. 255 – 280. Bochum: Springer VS.

Nyklová, Blanka, Fárová, Nina. 2018. Scenes in and outside the library: Continuity and change in contesting feminist knowledge on the semi-periphery. Sociologija 60 (1): 194-209.

Reese AT, Madden AA, Joossens M, Lacaze G, Dunn RR. 2020. Influences of ingredients and bakers on the bacteria and fungi in sourdough starters and bread. mSphere 5: e00950-19.

Stöckelová, Tereza. 2012. Immutable mobiles derailed: STS and the epistemic geopolitics of research assessment. Science, Technology & Human Values, 37(2): 286-311.———. 2016. Frame Against the Grain: Asymmetries, Interference, and the Politics of EU Comparison. In Practising Comparison. J. Deville, M. Guggenheim, Z. Hrdličková eds., Pp. 166-186: Mattering Press.