In our last column we promised five Slovak sayings. But after a fortnight of rummaging through books and harassing Slovaks for ideas, it became clear that the number was impossibly small. One Slovak book alone lists 12,000 sayings (porekadlá), proverbs (príslovia) and expressions (úslovia).
Learning sayings is a lively way for a language student to examine the way vocabulary teams up with grammar, and if used at the proper time, allows him or her to appear erudite after studying for only five minutes.
Say you're an English teacher living in Slovakia, and you've got some backpacker type English teaching friends sleeping on your floor and eating your food. You might say to them, "Look, bez práce nie sú koláče." (Without work there is no cake. See grammar note 1.)
During my months as an English teacher avoiding teaching English at all costs I lived with a mother and daughter who had a love/hate relationship. It was easy to make them laugh by saying at a choice moment, Aká matka taká Katka (like mother, like Katka), although I still prefer upstate New York's 'plant a potato, get a potato'.
Speaking of potatoes, Slovakia is above all a rural nation, or was when most of the country's sayings were thought up. What metaphor do you use in Slovak to give your expressions of affection that added kick? Do you compare your beloved's beauty to a sunset or moonrise, do you fasten the weight of your passion to the cosmic scale? No. You say, I love you like a horse (ľúbim ťa ako koňa).
If you find a suspicious character hanging around your horse (boy, girl), Slovak permits you to shout at them nepoľuj v cudzom revíri (don't hunt in a foreign forest). Or if you and your friend are going to a horse farm (single's club) and you would rather he or she leave the horse (girlfriend, boyfriend) at home, pose this question: načo nosiť drevo do lesa? (why carry wood to a forest?)
[If you're mixed up, it may be the right time to memorise Ja o koze, ty o voze - me about goat, you about carriage - used when two people discover they are talking about different things, and a clever way of admitting (and changing the subject) when you haven't understood what a Slovak has been saying for an embarrassing length of time.]
Theoretically unisex, that last expression is used more often by Slovak males, as are these relics from a time when men were men and women cooked potatoes: Láska ide cez žalúdok (love goes through the stomach) or pri studenej kuchyni horúca láska chladne (near a cold kitchen hot love cools).
Stepping away from horses and love, we find a pessimistic streak runs through Slovak sayings. Slovaks can't seem to win. They've got bad luck following them - nešťastie nechodí po horách ale po ľuďoch, (bad luck runs after people, not through the hills) and when they try to avoid trouble, they are invariably soaked in it - z dažďa rovno pod odkvap (from the rain straight under the gutter).
Communism also made its mark on Slovak proverbs, even if society has changed. Kto nekradne, okráda svoju rodinu (he who doesn't steal, steals from his family) is not every man's credo, but it still finds currency today.
And although those Slovaks who can actually find employment may spend more time working than before, they still don't like to be rushed, which is why you may sometimes hear ani pes sa rýchlo nevyserie (even a dog doesn't poop fast) or deväť žien za mesiac neporodí (even nine women cannot give birth after one month. See grammar note 2).
But my personal favourites are still the classics straight off the farm, which are especially funny when applied to modern life. Trafená hus zagága (lit. the struck goose squeals) means a person with a guilty conscience who unwillingly speaks out. Imagine your boss has discovered someone used his computer to surf naughty web sites. He walks in and says, "Who used my computer yesterday?" and you blurt out, "I don't even like computer porn."
And finally, in rural America, if you forget to close a door, people shout, do you live in a barn? In Slovakia they ask, máš v riti oje? (do you have a yoke up your butt?).
I leave it to the reader to discover the meaning of that one. But yes, Slovaks actually say this.
Grammar note 1: The preposition bez takes the genitive case, so práca turns to práce following bez, as would grammar exemplar ulica (street). When learning a preposition, always learn what case it takes. Do, z, od, u, and blízko also take the genitive.
Grammar note 2: In Slovak the genitive plural is used for numbers over five, here deväť žien (nine women). Jedna žena (one woman), tri ženy (three women), päť žien (five women). Mastering the genitive plural is essential to learning Slovak, especially as beer is usually ordered in great quantities.
Slovak Matters is a bi-weekly column devoted to helping ex-pats and foreigners appreciate the beautiful but difficult Slovak language.
Next column (on stands May 14, Vol. 7, No. 19): The language of love.
30. Apr 2001 at 0:00 | Matthew J. Reynolds