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SLOVAK MATTERS

Greetings, comrades! Honour work!

During my first weeks in Bratislava, the family I lived with dug out an old Slovak textbook for me from their closet. It was long and bulky, with soft orange covers, and contained not a smidgen of English. Words were presented next to pictures, and phrases were accompanied by sketches.
One sketch depicted a man in a shirt and tie with a brief case greeting a colleague. The caption read, "česť práci", which I took to be a greeting akin to "good day" or "good morning". That afternoon I practised the new phrase with strangers - with peculiar results.
Clerks at the post office and supermarket looked askance at me, as if trying to decide whether I was being cheeky. A policeman shot me an expression that seemed to be asking if I wanted to lose my teeth. Hip-looking teenagers chuckled knowingly, crediting me, it seemed, with a witty inside joke.

During my first weeks in Bratislava, the family I lived with dug out an old Slovak textbook for me from their closet. It was long and bulky, with soft orange covers, and contained not a smidgen of English. Words were presented next to pictures, and phrases were accompanied by sketches.

One sketch depicted a man in a shirt and tie with a brief case greeting a colleague. The caption read, "česť práci", which I took to be a greeting akin to "good day" or "good morning". That afternoon I practised the new phrase with strangers - with peculiar results.

Clerks at the post office and supermarket looked askance at me, as if trying to decide whether I was being cheeky. A policeman shot me an expression that seemed to be asking if I wanted to lose my teeth. Hip-looking teenagers chuckled knowingly, crediting me, it seemed, with a witty inside joke.

I dug the dictionary out of my bag. Česť meant honour and praci was the genitive form of práca (work). That evening it was explained that the text book had been written before the 1989 anti-communist revolution, and that česť práci, 'honour work', was a communist greeting abandoned after 1989.

That was my introduction to a fascinating cultural fact: the 1989 revolution marked an upheaval in Czechoslovakia that was lexical as well as political. Overnight, words associated with communist institutions and ideas took on new meanings, or were jettisoned altogether, left to surface in books and in conversations much as other landmark moments in history do.

Before the revolution, strangers had addressed one another as súdruh or súdružka (comrade) - all the way up to súdruh Husák, the president of Czechoslovakia. But within a year, everyone but die-hard communists were back to pán, pani and slečna (Mr, Mrs and Miss); even the kids were now saying pani učiteľka (Miss Teacher) instead of súdružka učiteľka.

Nowadays, outside the offices of the Komunistická strana Slovenska (Communist Party of Slovakia) česť práci and súdruh are usually used ironically. I have a friend who says česť práci when he clinks glasses as a joke. And súdruh is a popular way of mocking politicians with communist pasts. Česť práci, súdruh prezident.

Other words have gone the way of the Zväz Sovietskych Socialistických Republík (USSR). There is no longer much talk of triedni nepriatelia (class enemies), Prvomájový sprievod (May first parade), although since George Bush's missile defence system was mooted, Americký imperializmus (American imperialism) has made a comeback. Nor do tuzex (special government stores where 'luxury' consumer goods could be obtained) sell jeans, electronics and toys in exchange for bony (a special currency issued for use at the stores). Veksláci - black market bony-changers - still exist, but today hound tourists for dollars and German marks.

Although Slovakia's western-looking politicians portray EU accession as if the organisation were a promised land, štastné zajtrajšky (happy tomorrows) has fallen out of favour as a buzz phrase. Nor are economic reforms always packaged in five-year plans (päťročnica). However, officials still claim that produkcia neustále stúpa (production is constantly rising) in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Other jargon from the communist era have become so deeply embedded in the history of Slovakia and in the lives of Slovaks that they remain in currency. Pražská jar (the Prague Spring), a period of reform ended by the invasion of Warsaw Pact troops in 1968, will not soon be forgotten. Neither will normalizácia (normalisation), the strict adherence to communist principles that followed. And if Bush gets re-elected in 2004 we may see the return of the phrase studená vojna (cold war).

Of course, it wasn't all bad. Slovaks fondly remember their times as pionieri, a scout-like corps run by the Communist Party, where members were issued uniforms and a code of ethics, and were packed off to summer camps (tábory). Teenagers spent holidays travelling through the country picking fruit in work gangs (brigády).

Disbanded in 1989, the Štátna bezpečnosť, or ŠtB, was the secret police of the communist regime. Its members, known to Slovaks as ŠtBáci, were known for impeccable manners, diabolic tactics and frightening attention to detail. The term has been given new life since Slovaks gained the freedom to travel - I have heard ŠtBáci jeeringly applied to those who check visa applications at Western embassies. Talk about post-studená vojna irony.

Now that the studená vojna is over, however, the east and west should take the time to repair a few incongruencies in terminology. The west has always referred to the former regimes east of the iron curtain as communist. But in Slovak, these countries were never komunistické, but socialistické (socialist). Communism, for Slovaks, was marked by conditions - no want, ubiquitous state ownership, no cash money, and ultimate fairness in the distribution of wealth - that were never put into practice in this country.

For a lighter look at Slovakia's communist past, complete with pictures, see mirex@internet.sk/sol.

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 17, Vol. 7, No. 35.

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