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SLOVAK MATTERS

A Spanish village: Slovak enshrines nations

Although you wouldn't know it by the name Reynolds, the blood coursing through my veins goes back to Italy, France, Germany, England, Ireland, Holland and France. There is a dash of Native American in here, too. All this in a Catholic from a small agricultural town in the US.
Because none of the categories I fall into has ever caused me the slightest discomfort, the crusade to banish hurtful racial terms from everyday American speech has always seemed to me like a cause for good-hearted but bored liberals. In my lifetime, Orientals have become Asians, and Indians Native Americans. My Grandma says coloured, my parents say black, I waver between black and African American.
One casualty of this crusade has been humorous sayings that play on racial stereotypes. You still hear racial slurs of course - at dinner tables and in good-old-boy bars - but those lack the innocence of widespread cultural phenomena.

Although you wouldn't know it by the name Reynolds, the blood coursing through my veins goes back to Italy, France, Germany, England, Ireland, Holland and France. There is a dash of Native American in here, too. All this in a Catholic from a small agricultural town in the US.

Because none of the categories I fall into has ever caused me the slightest discomfort, the crusade to banish hurtful racial terms from everyday American speech has always seemed to me like a cause for good-hearted but bored liberals. In my lifetime, Orientals have become Asians, and Indians Native Americans. My Grandma says coloured, my parents say black, I waver between black and African American.

One casualty of this crusade has been humorous sayings that play on racial stereotypes. You still hear racial slurs of course - at dinner tables and in good-old-boy bars - but those lack the innocence of widespread cultural phenomena.

In Slovak, the racial attitudes expressed in language are mostly hotly debated with the Róm/Cigáň (Roma/Gypsy) issue. Otherwise, nationalities are considered fair game, even in polite society. This reflects perhaps both a relative insensitivity to racial concerns, as well as a commonsense acceptance of stereotyping as human nature. Whatever your politics, you'll have to learn a few examples to understand the Slovak language.

I had this brought home to me during my first months in Bratislava. Accustomed to grid cities, and absentminded in any setting, I regularly got lost. A typical rendezvous with a friend consisted of my getting off the tram short of my destination, realising my mistake and sprinting towards that familiar church always in the distance. Once there, I would discover it was a different familiar church. Then I would catch my breath and call the friend who was more or less in charge of my survival. She would tell me I was in the wrong part of town.

"Čo si Talian, Maťo?" she said on one of those occasions. (What are you, an Italian?)

"One-quarter," I said.

It turns out Italian means thick-headed, especially someone who doesn't understand something that has been explained over and over and in great detail.

No Slovak has been able to tell to me the origins of that usage, but the language has other examples whose beginnings are clear. If someone asks you "Čo si Maďar?" (What, are you Hungarian?) you've probably made an error in Slovak, as Hungarians living in this country are prone to do. Mistrust between Slovaks and Roma is expressed in the verb cigániť, from cigáň (gypsy), meaning 'to lie'.

Slovaks have better relations with the Czechs. But one point of contention is the belief that while Slovaks toiled away extracting natural recourses to build the federation, Czechs spent the profits guilding statues and rooftops in Prague. A person who is vychcaný ako Čech is clever and skilful, especially at using someone else's labour for personal gain.

Russians get slammed in the expressions piješ ako Rus (you drink like a Russian, i.e. a lot) and ruská výroba (a Russian product, i.e. anything that breaks repeatedly). Roztatárený, from the Tartar ethnic group, is to be nearly berserk with happiness, especially from good news.

A stereotype I had never heard before but which is apparently Euro-wide is that of the stingy Scotsman. In Slovak it's skúpy ako Škót. The English are slandered with studený ako Angličan (cold as an Englishman) and the Turks in fajčíš ako Turek (you smoke like a Turk, i.e. you smoke like a Russian drinks).

Španielska dedina is probably used more than any of these, to describe a tremendously confusing situation you will never fully understand. It is no stretch to imagine a Slovak conversation going as follows:

- Čo si Talian?

- Prepáč, ale to je pre mňa španielska dedina (sorry, but for me this whole thing is a Spanish village).

We find fewer examples away from Europe. A Kanadský žart (lit. Canadian joke) is a practical joke, and Kanadský hokej (Canadian hockey) is an over rough style of play. To je ale Bangladéš (that's like Bangladesh) describes extreme poverty.

For some reason the Polish, butts of thousands of American jokes, are off the hook in Slovakia. I brought a Polish joke to Slovakia thinking it would be a sure-fire winner. It goes: Two Poles are standing on opposite sides of a river. One shouts to the other, "How do you get to the other side?" The other shouts back, "You're on the other side."

Funny in Slovak with Poles, but funnier with Záhoráci, the local version of the obtuse Polish immigrant. Záhoráci are a rural people in west Slovakia who speak a dialect in which 'L's are pronounced like 'W's.

Here's that joke in Slovak with Záhoráci substituted for Poles:

Dvaja Záhoráci stoja na opačných brehoch rieky. Jeden kričí na druhého: "Ako sa dostanem na druhý breh?" Druhý mu odpovedá: "Už si na druhom brehu."

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 November 26, Vol. 7, No. 45.

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