I was sitting in a Bratislava restaurant finishing the last bites of a dish of halušky (potato dumplings) when a passing waitress made a grab for
"Ah," I started, searching for the right Slovak word.
"Aha," she said. "Ešte chces papkať?"
Ešte (still) and chceš (you want) I understood. The third word was a mystery. "What does papkať mean?" I said, turning to my friend.
"It means to eat," she said. "But it's a form of the word usually reserved for small children."
"Áno," I turned back to the bemused waitress. "Ešte chcem papkať."
Since I hadn't been dribbling beer on my shirt or squeezing my halušky in my fists, I wondered why the waitress had addressed me as she might have spoken to a baby. But as I later discovered, Slovak baby-talk and its soothing diminutive forms often spring up in the adult vernacular - sometimes to give a sense of familiarity, sometimes because the bald adult forms are considered rather cold and abrupt, sometimes to be silly, and sometimes because words like papkať are simply more fun to say than the formal jesť (to eat).
So the next time you want to congratulate someone on a job well done, replace the quotidian to bolo perfektné (that was great) with the tongue-pleaser urobil si to eňoňuňo (you did that perfectly). Need to invite someone to sit? Forget sadni si (sit down). Go with hačni si or hapkaj si. Want to congratulate your host on a meal well cooked? Why say veľmi mi to chutilo (that tasted great) when the noises mňam mňam mňam (yum, yum, yum) suffice?
In fact, some children's word are more acceptable in everyday speech than their adult equivalents. If it is absolutely necessary to be more specific than "I'm going to the bathroom" (idem na záchod), your best bets are idem cikať (I'm going to pee), and idem kakať (to poo).
Any Slovak word can be made detské (child-like) by adding the suffixes ka (for feminine nouns) ko (for masculine and neuter) and ky (plural). Thus we have pivečko (little beer, from the standard form pivo), or plienočky (diapers, from the standard form plienky). These zdrobneniny (diminutive forms) technically signify a change in size, as in nohavice (pants) and nohavičky (panties), but often serve those in the mood to talk like a baby (bábätko, bambino, špunt, drobček).
Zdrobneniny can throw the novice Slovak speaker off, since they are largely the spoken rather than written norm; you can find džús (juice) but not džúsik, pieseň (song) but not pesnička, kľúč (key) but not kľúčik in the dictionary. Other common zdrobneniny include pohárik (glass/cup, standard form: pohár), slniečko (sun, standard from: slnko), and zvieratko (animal, standard form: zviera).
The practice can reach absurd proportions. Consider trošku, which means small, as do trošičku, trošinku, trolinku, trolilinku, trošilinku and many other variations. Once I encountered a cottage owner who replaced nearly every word with a diminutive, which was highly irritating since he was constantly trying to rip us off despite his profession of intimate good wishes. Dobré ránko zlatúšikovia, he would say, vyspinkali ste sa do ružovučka? (lit. good morning golden ones, did you sleep to the pink?) A normal human might have said, Dobré ráno, vyspali ste sa dobre? (Good morning, did you sleep well?) .
The most common zdrobneniny are names. Among friends, Ján becomes Janko, Jozef is Jožko, Zuzana becomes Zuzka, and so forth. Some names are used almost exclusively in this form, such as Jarka, Katka, Slávka and Lenka, or for males Zlatko and Zdenko. Others, such as Martinka, Nataška, and Tomáško, are reserved almost exclusively for children.
I once erroneously compared this practice to that in the English language of shortening names - Matthew becoming Matt, Jacob becoming Jay, Elizabeth becoming Beth, and so on. But using the zdrobneniny of the name of an elder, a boss or a stranger in Slovak would be regarded as either eccentric or rude. William Jefferson Clinton is Bill the world over, but when Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda is called Miky in Slovakia, it's a deliberate insult.
I've never heard anyone refer to the PM as ujo (uncle) Dzurinda, although I do hear the word ujo used quite often. Any seemingly innocuous man may be called ujo in Slovak. A man with a wrong number dials your flat. Kto volal? (Who called?), asks your girlfriend. Nejaký ujo (some man), you reply. The same rule goes for women and the word teta (aunt).
To end on a minor digression, my new favourite Slovak baby phrase is nešťastný zemepán. Literally "the unhappy landowner", nešťastný zemepán was the hapless butt of the pranks and thievery of Slovakia's Robin Hood equivalent, Juraj Jánošík; something like Mister Wilson in the cartoon strip Dennis the Menace.
When something is not going right for me at work, I tell the Slovak woman who sits across from me that I am a nešťastný zemepán, and we smile at each other like two bábätká (babies), enjoying a language that has not yet erased the child in all of us.
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 September 4, Vol. 7, No. 33.