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SLOVAK MATTERS

In Slovak slang, everything is 'nuts'

THERE are many ways to learn a foreign language. I attempted to learn French for years by studying it academically and reading novels by the greats, such as Baudelaire and La Fontaine. The problem with that method occurred to me when I stepped off the plane in France and found myself unable to communicate with the natives.

THERE are many ways to learn a foreign language. I attempted to learn French for years by studying it academically and reading novels by the greats, such as Baudelaire and La Fontaine. The problem with that method occurred to me when I stepped off the plane in France and found myself unable to communicate with the natives.

My experience learning Slovak has been decidedly different. After arriving here five years ago, I first learned words not usually uttered in polite conversation - teenage slang and tram-talk. But that has actually proved much more useful than studying from a book.

That's because the method of study you choose depends a lot on your goal. If you simply want to communicate, as opposed to write a thesis, then listening to a teenager on her cell phone while on the bus is much more useful than spending hours deciphering Štúr or Hviezdoslav. (Though, if the latter floats your boat, by all means, carry on. I consider you my linguistic superior.)

Even a short exchange from the real world can introduce valuable expressions that have become part of almost everyone's vocabulary. Here's an example:


- Ty kokos, to bola iná haluz.
- Tebe sa to páčilo?
- No určite. Čo ti šibe?


Ty kokos (literally 'you coconut') is a phrase heard at great decibels throughout the country. Children say it, as do students of all ages, and business people of diverse stature. Even grandma uses it, though perhaps only while she's cooking.

Kokos or Ty kokos both express surprise. But whereas Kokos is used as a full-stop for an unbelievable situation, Ty kokos is closest to expressions like "Wow!", "Man!", "Jeez!", or "Gosh!" in English. You may also hear common variations: Kokso or Ty kokso.

Haluz, which literally means "branch", is part of many expressions, and can be tricky to translate. It's often used in these ways: to je iná haluz; aká haluz; to je haluzné. Alone, it's a slang word for a hallucination, but when used in connection with something good or bad, it can mean anything from trippy to weird to cool to great.

Another way to express that something or someone is downright crazy is to exclaim: "Čo ti šibe?" (Are you crazy?), "Čo si blázon?" (Are you a crazy person?) or "Čo ti preskočilo?" (Are you out of your mind?)

So when the dialogue above is put into the context of a conversation between two girls who are trashing a movie they've just seen, it translates as:


- Wow, that was awful!
- Did you like it?
- Yeah, right. Are you crazy?


Once you've mastered the use of ty kokos, blázon, and haluz, it's time to take your slang to the next level by playing with the use of words as sounds.

Showing you're surprised by what someone has said is done with a long drawn-out "fí-ha" (oh my gosh). To express doubt or disbelief, do the same with "á-le" (uh-Huh), or even go for the ever-present "hej?", which again you stretch out as much as you wish into "héj?" (reel-ly?)

So next time you're on a tram and time is going by in slow motion, tune out your iPod or internal dialogue and eavesdrop a little. You might pick up some new words from Danka and Janka:

- Včera večer, aká haluz!
- Héj?
- No, ty kokso, Peťo prišiel a...

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