Slovak has one big boogieman of a reality: six cases, singular and plural, with twelve declension, a total of 144 possible endings. If that's not enough to scare off beginners, there's this frightening fact: strč prst skrz krk (stick your finger down your throat) is a complete, grammatically sound and voweless sentence.
But Slovak does have an encouraging side: an expanding lexicon of commonly understood English words. Words like tím (team), drink and dizajnér (designer).
The trend began long before teenagers wore mejkap (make-up) and talked on mobily (mobile phones). Halo (hello) arrived with the telephone, and Slovak cinema-goers have been eating popkorn (popcorn) for at least two decades. But the migration of English terminology has increased dramatically since the fall of communism.
We see this most clearly in Business, where dnešní biznis menežéri majú mítingy kde negociujú aby dosiahli konsenzus. (today's business managers have meetings where they negotiate to reach consensus) Politicians, especially Western-looking Dzurindites, have adopted English phrases from EUspeak. For example: Lídri bývalých komunistických krajín negociujú aproximáciu legislatívy v procese integrácie do EU.(leaders of former communist countries negotiate approximations in legislation in the process of EU integration)
Borrowed English words are sometimes tough to spot. Slovaks spell everything phonetically, as in džús, džez and džob (juice, jazz and job). And some words have been swallowed whole and spit back out with Slovak markings, such as asertívny (assertive), bejzbolka (baseball hat) and písíčko (PC).
Pronunciation is another tricky matter. Words such as okej (OK) are easily recognisable, even with Slovak nuances, in this case the lingering Y sound at the end. But words in which a V replaces the English W, as in volkmen (walkman), test the ear, as do rolled R's and flat O's, as in rokenrol (rock 'n' roll).
Slovak consumers have been asked to adapt to much in the last 12 years, not least their vocabulary. Today they use kompjútre aby čekovali svoj mejl (computers to check their email). And where they once ate ovsené vločky for breakfast they now pour milk over kornflejky (corn flakes, which in Slovak is any breakfast cereal).
Music terminology also passes quickly from English to Slovak. You will find hedlajneri (headliners) at Slovak rokenrol festivals promoting cédéčka (CD's) with the newest single (singles). In a curious transformation, evergrín (evergreen) has come to mean a band or musician whose appeal appears undying, like džezmen (jazz-man) Louis Armstrong.
You may have noticed džezmen is singular, despite the 'men' on the end. Plural is džezmeni. Same goes for biznismen (businessman, plural: biznismeni). Most foreign words are declined - party is an exception that springs to mind - so whatever English you discover in Slovak will not save you from memorising the 144-ending chart.
In fact, English becomes less and less useful the further east you travel from Bratislava. If you want to speak to a babka (grandmother) from Trebišov, you'll have to learn words like pukance (popcorn), riaditeľ (manager) and rokovať (negotiate). But it's not hard to make those kind of switches once you're familiar with the language. Besides, rokovať is so much more daring and exciting than negotiate.
Slovak Matters is a bi-weekly column devoted to helping expats and foreigners appreciate the beautiful but difficult Slovak language.
The next Slovak Matters will appear on stands December 10, Vol. 7, No. 47.
26. Nov 2001 at 0:00 | Matthew J. Reynolds