"Vy ste teda dobrý debil", lit. 'you are a good idiot', is not praising one's instructor so much as praising the purity of idiocy he represents - a.k.a. 'you're quite a jerk, aren't you?'
Perhaps the best place to begin in a series of columns on the Slovak language is with greetings, dobré ráno ('good morning') being the most common formal salutation, followed by dobrý deň ('good day'), dobré popoludnie ('good afternoon') and dobrý večer ('good evening'). In Slovak as in English, good night (dobrú noc) is said in departure, as one staggers hiccuping (štikútajúc) home.
Of course, you're not always going to be greeted in such a formal way. Just as one may grunt mornin' to one's colleagues, so Slovaks may mutter dobrý to you and forget about the rest (as in Spanish you'll hear bueno, or bien bien, far more often than the full buenas dias). Then too, if you're familiar with the greeter, you may be met with čau ('hi'), nazdar, servus, ahoj or čaves (these expressions reflect how much Slovak, like English, borrows from other languages: the first, pronounced 'chow', is Italian; the second is in dispute - it's either a Slovak contraction of na zdravie, the 'to your health' or 'cheers' you say when clinking glasses, just as howdy is a contraction of 'how do ye' in English, or possibly an approximation for nech sa vám darí, or '[may you] be well', or finally a theft of the Czech expression zdar, as in lovu zdar, 'good hunting'; servus is the Latin for 'slave', equivalent to 'at your service'; ahoj duplicates the nautical English greeting ahoy, which itself comes from a + hoy, a small coastal sailing vessel or an expression to attract someone's attention; the last is commonly said in villages, and is a nonsense slang).
But going back to the standard dobrý deň, you'll notice the accent on the 'y'; this indicates that the sound is slightly prolonged and leaned on, although far more subtly than most English speakers initially suppose (you'll get just as many strange looks if you say dobrEEE as if you elide the stress). Deň, too, needs explanation - the cupped symbol above the 'n', called a mäkčeň (pron. 'mekchen', from mäkký, 'soft', and meaning 'soft-maker') means that you pronounce the consonant as if there were a 'y' after it, similar to the 'n' sound in words like Nuremberg, nuisance and innuendo (unless you're American and say noosance or innooendo). Again, you don't bear down on that fragile 'n' as if it were a car jack; it's enough to make that 'nyuhh' sound with the most gossamer of nasal caresses.
You do the same caressing with the consonants 'd', 't', 'n' and 'l' whenever they precede the vowels 'e' and 'i'; thus, deti, which looks as if it should be pronounced 'detty', is in fact said 'dyetyi' - again, caressing rather than throwing one's jaw into those 'y's. Of course, this isn't always true - take diéta (diet) and debil (idiot) for starters. But again, as these are borrowed words (via Latin from Greek diaita, 'a way of life', and Old French from Latin debilis, 'weak'), they can be excused for not following the rules hereabouts.
When these four consonants come before other vowels, such as 'a', 'o' or 'u', they are not softened - dom ('house'), dar ('gift') darebák ('scoundrel'). That old mäkčeň will again tell you when they have to be softened (as in ďakujem - thank you, pron. 'dyakweeyem'), except that when a mäkčeň modifies a 'tall' consonant such as 'd', 't' or 'l', the computer writes it as an apostrophe after the letter (ď vs. ň).
So there you have it - although many of you may not feel thankful (vďačný) for the lesson. Learning how to speak Slovak properly is a daily (každodenná) struggle (drina) that must be waged every day (dennodenne). You may feel you are just getting a handle on words like dobrý, when you find that often they don't mean good at all - vy ste teda dobrý debil, lit. 'you are a good idiot', is not praising one's instructor so much as praising the purity of idiocy he represents - a.k.a. 'you're quite a jerk, aren't you?').
Slovak matters is a monthly column devoted to helping ex-pats and foreigners understand the beautiful but difficult Slovak language. If you have questions you would like answered about either English or Slovak grammar, please drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org We will try to answer, and may afford you some small amusement at our expense.
Next month (issue 7.13, on stands April 2):
Goodbye to all that blbosť.
5. Mar 2001 at 0:00 | Tom Nicholson