I WAS lying in bed two weeks ago at around half past eight thinking about public transportation and the enticing possibility of calling in sick to work. My bus came at 09:12, which meant I had to leave the apartment by 9:07, which meant I had to get out of bed by 9:00, which meant I had roughly 30 or minutes to fantasise about playing hooky. I lurched across the bed look at my alarm clock and find out the exact time, when AHHHHHHH...
I fell back across the bed. I had pulled a mid-rib-cage muscle on the right side of my back. The muscle was simmering painfully in the way only back muscles do. Underneath the pain I felt a knot forming that would be hell tomorrow. I rolled over and shouted to my girlfriend to perform pre-emptive massage.
"Do ľava," (to the left) I yelled, "Nie, do prava" (no, to the right), I gasped, guiding her toward the guilty muscle. "Dolšie," I screamed. "Nie, nie, horšie..."
Those of you who speak Slovak will be laughing now. And to those of you who aren't laughing, welcome to this week's Slovak Matters. It's theme: stupid malapropisms I have made in three years of speaking Slovak. (My back is fine now, incidentally).
The mistake in the instructions to my girlfriend that made her abandon the massage in a fit of laughter was this: dole and hore, which mean up and down, have no comparative form. What I should have said was vyššie and nižšie, which mean lower and higher, or shorter and taller. Dolšie was just silly, but horšie was ludicrous, and potentially dangerous. It is the comparative form of zle, which means bad. So I was shouting, "Worse, worse..."
In three years of goofs (chyby), the one that generated the most laughter involved the words múčnik and mučeník (dessert and martyr). I was on the phone with the Slovak priest Jan Krehlík, advocate of the late Bishop Pavol Gojdič, the first Slovak to be beatified. I had called Gojdič a múčnik four or five times when the laughter behind me grew so loud I couldn't hear Krehlík on the phone. I capped the receiver and turned to scold my colleagues. Here I was conducting serious business and they were horsing around. That's when someone shouted, "It's mučeník, you múčnik."
(I feel I am in good company with a mistake like that. When John F. Kennedy said the famous words "Ich ben ein Berliner" he wasn't just pronouncing himself an honorary citizen of Berlin. Berliner is a kind of German doughnut.)
A more recent slip-up came as I was shopping for Christmas presents. I had decided to purchase a bonsai, a Japanese plant that looks like a shrunken tree and is far more work than a pet kitten. What I told friends before I went to the store, what I probably told the chatty bonsai sales guy and what I certainly told the gift recipient later was that I wanted to buy or had bought a bonzák, which is a kid who tattles. Imagine, for a moment, buying someone a kid that tattles for Christmas.
As is often the case with language blunders, my girlfriend eventually told me why everyone had been laughing. And she corrected me a couple of days later when I asked her to take off my socks. "Môžeš mi vyliečiť ponožky?" I said, which means, "Will you heal my socks?" What I wanted to say was "Môžeš mi vyzliecť ponožky?"
Despite her never-ending help, I was moved one day to tell her that I felt neglected. Som zanedbateľný, I said, which means, I am negligible. That gave her a good laugh. "I agree," she said in Slovak. "You are negligible." What I had wanted to say was zanedbaný.
This is my last Slovak Matters column, and I am glad to end it with one of Slovak's most common and funniest mix-ups. Most of us know that písať means to write. But beginners have a tough time remembering that it is conjugated, "píšem, píšeš, píše, píšeme, píšete, píšu." The fun arises when the Š from the correct conjugation gets crossed with the intuitive endings "ám, áš, á, áme, áte, ajú." The result, in the first person, is pišám, which means I wee-wee.
Over time, as I learned to write instead of wee-wee, I realised what a top-notch word wee-wee was. I have never met anyone - from a drinking buddy, to a babka (grandmother), to a hot date - who could resist laughing when I said idem pišať (I'm going to go wee-wee).
And that leads us to my final bit of language wisdom: don't learn Slovak out of a sense of obligation, don't learn it because your company's paying for it, don't learn it to meet women, and don't learn it because you want to tell off your neighbor. There's only one good reason to learn Slovak - because it's fun.
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 will appear on stands January 28, Vol. 8, No. 4.
21. Jan 2002 at 0:00 | Matthew J. Reynolds