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SLOVAK MATTERS

Slovak is hard

I HEAR the statement "Slovak is hard" over and over again. Slovaks say it with sympathy in their voices, and non-natives often with a sense of resignation or awe. I think I've actually heard it most from Slovak acquaintances (počujem to od známych), who correct me with confidence, and from close friends (od kamarátok, when female, od kamarátov, when male), who correct me with a sort of apologetic superiority.

I HEAR the statement "Slovak is hard" over and over again. Slovaks say it with sympathy in their voices, and non-natives often with a sense of resignation or awe. I think I've actually heard it most from Slovak acquaintances (počujem to od známych), who correct me with confidence, and from close friends (od kamarátok, when female, od kamarátov, when male), who correct me with a sort of apologetic superiority. But my reaction is always the same: every language is hard.

Take, for example, English and the title of this column, Slovak Matters. It is a pun, a double meaning! It can be understood as "Slovak is of importance" (na slovenčine záleží) or "Slovak issues" (slovenské záležitosti). Furthermore, matter means mass (hmota), as well as something written or printed (tlačovina). It is also something wrong, as in "What's the matter?" (V čom je problém?). All different meanings, same pronunciation, compounded with a lovely variety of tenses to choose from.

As British wordsmith Michael Quinion points out, the largest English language dictionary has 400,000 words - 40 of which are definitions for the word "set". We don't need to go through those puns. Csaba's not dead and English isn't easy.

But the common wisdom is that English is easy and anyone can learn it, while the reverse is true for Slovak. Although disheartening to some, its perceived difficulty is actually a great advantage for anyone to whom Slovak matters (pre toho, komu na slovenčine záleží) enough to learn more than the daily pleasantries. In general, I have been greeted with kindness and an open curiosity when speaking Slovak - even if just the cursory "Where are you from?" (Odkiaľ ste?) - and, on the larger scale, have experienced the strange phenomenon of being understood despite what I actually said.

Allow me to demonstrate with a short vignette:

In celebration of a special event in the life of a good friend of mine, I decided to purchase a black onyx silver ring for him. It was supposed to be a surprise, and therefore I was alone in my attempt to find this singular piece of jewelry.

As you probably know, fine jewelry is behind a counter, so at several different stores in Bratislava I had the following conversation:


Me: Dobrý deň.
Shop Assistant:
(Gives me a bit of time to browse the selection).
Dobrý deň.
  Vybrali ste si niečo?
Me. Máte mužský čierny prsník?
Shop Assistant:
(With a stranger look on her face).
Áno.
(Showing me what I wanted to see)  


 


English translation:

And out came the black onyx rings
(mužský čierny prsteň).

Me: Good day. I still find it hard to believe the shop assistant caught my drift, despite my inadvertent double entendre.

I guess this all goes to prove that, even though you may run across those who will try to discourage you, if you keep trying to learn Slovak you will soon discover that in the end it's all about mind over matter (sila vôle všetko prekoná).

Shop Assistant: Good day.
  Have you chosen anything?
Me: Do you have a manly black breast?
Shop Assistant:
(After pause)
Yes.


 


Vocabulary review
I hear it from acquaintances počujem to od známych
... from close friends od kamarátok (f), kamarátov (m)
Sk7 Slovak is of importance 90 na slovenčine záleží
Slovak issues slovenské záležitosti
Mass hmota
Printed matter tlačovina
What's the matter? V čom je problém?
Where are you from? Odkiaľ ste?
It's mind over matter sila vôle všetko prekoná

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