The Slovak language has hundreds of dialects, so many that Ján Sabol, head of the Slovak Language Department at Prešov University, won't wager a guess as to an approximate number.
"There is modern Slovak, plus all the old dialects, so many differences..." he says, his voice trailing off.
Centuries of contact with Hungarians, Germans, Czechs, Poles, Russians, Rusyns and others left their mark on the way Slovaks speak. And the remoteness of many of the country's regions, cities and villages created closed pockets where countless dialects formed and developed. Even today, more than 150 years after Slovak was codified, wide variations in vocabulary and expressions linger.
One of Slovakia's strange tongues is the Spiš dialect, which I recently discovered after moving to Spišská Nová Ves (population 40,000). The Spiš region lies to the east and south of the High Tatras mountain range and includes the cities (from north to south) Stará Ľubovňa, Kežmarok, Poprad, Levoča, Spišská Nová Ves and Gelnica.
If you have been out east, be sure not to confuse the Spiš dialect with the Šariš dialect to the east, or the Rusyn language further east, or the Zemplínsky dialect spoken in Hummenné, or the... you see how complicated it can be.
The Spiš dialect is subtle in urban areas. Take the verb 'to go' (standard Slovak: ísť). When conjugating the verb in the Spiš dialect, a 'Z' follows the 'D'. Idem (I go) is instead idzem. The 'train goes' (vlak ide) is vlak idze.
In standard Slovak, kam (where) accompanies the verb 'to go'. But in the Spiš dialect, kam is dropped in favour of the more general dze (kde in standard Slovak). Recently an old lady asked me where the train she was boarding was headed. "Dze idze vlak?" she said, rather than Kam ide vlak?
Other common differences: when buying groceries, Slovak shopkeepers normally ask if you would like anything else by saying 'všetko?' (lit: everything?).
In Spiš, it's 'šicko'. And 'what' (čo) is co, 'you are' (si) is ši, and 'bread' (chlieb) is hlieb.
These urban variations are easy to master compared with the thicker dialect spoken in rural areas, say a team of experts who help me understand the local lingo.
The pure form comes to life in the cities only under special circumstances - when the speaker is either very happy or very drunk. It is no surprise then that much of what I have learned about this dialect revolves around alcohol and women.
Say your friend offers you a beer. The overture is standard Slovak (chceš pivo?) but the response is pure Spiš: Koňu sceš ovsa (lit: horse, do you want hay?).
Don't try that one in a bar. It's rude and your waiter will think you're crazy: co ši še zošaľel, abo co? Are you crazy or what?
Now that the Spiš man has his beer, he seeks out a pretty woman (standard Slovak: pekná žena. Spiš: šumná dzifka) and makes his intentions known.
For the sake of this column, let's say all goes well and he invites her to dinner at his house where he prepares a meal of roasted carrots and potatoes (Slovak: mrkva and zemiaky. Spiš: murna and gruľe).
Before eating, most Slovaks say Dobru chuť (enjoy your meal), the Spišiak says Dobry šmak.
On the other hand, she may tell him to get lost (Slovak: choď preč. Spiš: Idz het).
If her boyfriend is there, he may call him a swine (Slovak: ti sviňa. Spiš: ti švinar), or threaten him with a knuckle sandwich. 'Chceš bombu?' he'd say in Slovak. But out here he says 'jednu ci uderim'.
At this point our rejected hero staggers back to his buddies and orders pint after pint until he is inebriated or 'pregnant' with beer. Okocil som še piva, he says. (Ti si tehotna means 'you are pregnant' in Slovak, the Spiš dialect prefers a verb.)
Later, lamenting the wedding (Slovak: svadba. Spis: vešeľe) that will never be, he mutters Spiš tongue-twisters about romance gone sadly awry.
Try this one: Idzem na bicygľu, vežem sebe dzigľu, dzigľa dzigla z bicygľa (I go on my bike, I take a woman, the woman falls off the bike). The Slovak translation, not that they say this anywhere else, would be Idem na bicykly, veziem si babu, baba spadla z byclka.
Memorise that saying and you'll be well-prepared to impress Spiš natives. Who knows, you may even land a date with šumna dzifka and idz na bicygľu.
If you avoid the part where the dzigľa dzigla z bicygľa, you may end up at a romantic dinner of murna and gruľe. Good luck, and dobry šmak.
Slovak Matters is a bi-weekly column devoted to helping expats and foreigners navigate the thrills and spills of life in Slovakia.
The next Slovak matters column will appear on stands November 12, Vol. 7, No. 43.
29. Oct 2001 at 0:00 | Chris Togneri