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SLOVAK MATTERS

The brick go-behind: Roots to better Slovak

Last week, a reader very gently pointed out that the author of this column had bungled the simplest piece of information he had offered on how to fill out the census form. We (blame is always more bearable when shared) had mistakenly written that forms asking for your meno wanted your surname, while priezvisko demanded your Christian name. It is, in fact, the other way around.
It was the kind of mistake (chyba) that can make readers doubt (pochybovať) whether we know what we're talking about, thus casting doubt (spochybňovať) on the accuracy of the information we provide. That's why, in this week's column, we'd like to draw your attention away from the chyba and focus it on what is going on at the front end of the word - the Slovak prefixes s and po, literally meaning 'with' and 'after' (in that order, honestly).


Slovaks don't have any such nicknames for their go-behinds, perhaps because they have learned not to expect God to intervene between one's idiocy and its consequences.

Last week, a reader very gently pointed out that the author of this column had bungled the simplest piece of information he had offered on how to fill out the census form. We (blame is always more bearable when shared) had mistakenly written that forms asking for your meno wanted your surname, while priezvisko demanded your Christian name. It is, in fact, the other way around.

It was the kind of mistake (chyba) that can make readers doubt (pochybovať) whether we know what we're talking about, thus casting doubt (spochybňovať) on the accuracy of the information we provide. That's why, in this week's column, we'd like to draw your attention away from the chyba and focus it on what is going on at the front end of the word - the Slovak prefixes s and po, literally meaning 'with' and 'after' (in that order, honestly).

Slovak learners of English often claim that English phrasal verbs are one of the toughest parts of the language. Why, they ask, should bring up, bring out, bring in, bring along, bring to, bring about and bring on all mean different things?

For foreigners learning Slovak, it is the endless prefixes attached to root verbs and nouns that are cause for dismay. Take a simple verb such as dať (to give), for example - add the prefix vy (out) in front and you have vydať, to marry or to return change in a financial transaction. It's interesting that only women sa vydajú za (give themselves to) men in marriage, while the latter sa ženia, lit. 'women themselves'.

Then there's predať (for + give = to sell), podať (after + give = to hand over, or to give someone your hand), pridať (near + give = to add), dodať (to, towards + give = to add, to deliver) and oddať sa (from + give = to devote oneself to something or someone).

Or take the verb chodiť, to walk. The root, chod, means gait, pace or the working of some piece of machinery. But stick a prefix on it and you've got a toilet (záchod - behind + go), a crosswalk (priechod - for + go), and departures and arrivals (odchody a príchody).

Of course, the toilet - the go-behind - sticks out head and shoulders here, being so much more expressive, and less prissy, than the English outhouse. Slovak is quite rich in toilet expressions - we have hajzeľ (vulg.), the slangy vecko (a play on the initials WC - water closet), as well as eastern Slovakia's budar (a gross misappropriation of the French boudoir, meaning a woman's small private room, lit. 'sulking place', from bouder, sulk). For those who use go-behinds there is the polite latrina and the Rabelaisian kadibudka (kadiť meaning to crap, búda meaning a booth or shack).

English, of course, does all right in toilet talk - it boasts thunder mug, loo, crapper, can, bog. For those unfortunates who drink too much and end up curled around their toilets, there's the White Porcelain God (i.e. one who demands head-in-toilet prayer), or the Big White Telephone (i.e. through which I spent all night talking to God). Slovaks don't have any such nicknames for their go-behinds, perhaps because they have learned not to expect God to intervene between one's idiocy and its consequences.

We seem to have drifted again towards drinking, which is fine - all grist to the mill. Piť (to drink) does a fascinating tango with prefixes. It gets started with pripiť si, to drink a toast, and often finishes with pripiť sa, to become tipsy. You may think you're only going to napiť (have a sip), but before you know it you've vypiť (to drink to the bottom, to down) your beer and you are in danger of being opitý (drunk), or worse, spitý (wasted). The best thing to do is to dopiť (drink up) while you're able, or maybe to zapiť (to drink a chaser) some water to cut the booze. If you don't, you may find you've drunk away your pay cheque (prepiť výplatu) before you know it.

Thankfully, with beer 15 crowns a pint, that's still a tough thing to do in Slovakia.


Some Slovak prefixes and their meaning

bez- without
do - to, towards
na - on
nad - above
ne- no
o- about
od- from
po- after
pod- under
pre- for
pred- before, in front of
pri- near
s- with
za- behind

Slovak Matters is a bi-weekly column devoted to helping expats and foreigners appreciate the beautiful but difficult Slovak language.

The next Slovak Matters column will appear on stands June 25, Vol. 7, No. 25.

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