WHILE lexicographers may point to the relative poverty of the Slovak vocabulary when compared to the English (approx. 220,000 words to 450,000), there are certain areas in which the Slovak language excels. One of these is ways of saying hello and goodbye. I offer here a personal guide to some of my favourites.
Dobrý deň hardly needs any introduction. Ideal for use with elderly neighbours and pleasant shop-assistants, it can be suffixed by the word prajem (I wish) for extra effect. While some people may be inclined just to say dobrý (leaving out the deň), I think it sounds insincere and would advise avoidance of this lazy habit.
Occasionally you may hear the word bozkávam, or even ruky bozkávam (I kiss your hands) a very formal greeting with almost Shakespearean overtones. Also in some villages, you may hear people greeting each other with the words pochválen buď Ježiš Kristus (Jesus Christ be praised). This is very striking the first time you hear it, and carries the same old-world gravitas as when children use the formal you - vy - form with their parents.
Dovidenia is the polite goodbye, though zbohom can be used if you are walking out on your job/loved one and wish to create a nice 'adieu' effect. Dovi is OK and more acceptable a diminutive than "dobrý" (see above) in that it can be very nicely enunciated. For advanced Slovak learners, dopočutia (literally 'till I next hear you' and used to say goodbye on the phone) will impress the natives, as should dopo, though be careful to pronounce this properly as it can sound silly if you get it wrong.
Majte sa (formal and plural) and maj sa (informal) are lovely expressions used for saying goodbye and may be followed by such adverbs as dobre, pekne, fajn, even krásne if you feel very well-disposed to the person you're saying goodbye to.
Informal greetings are even more plentiful, the words ahoj and čau being the most common. These words serve both as hello and goodbye and have led to the first-language interference effect all English teachers will be familiar with: that sobering feeling at the end of a good lesson when the students file out and bid you 'hello' or 'hi' as they are leaving. My advice is: never mind! At least they are trying, and it's marginally better that they say 'hello' instead of 'goodbye' than absolutely nothing. Comfort yourself with the euphony of the Slovak ahoj, a magical, sing-song word, no doubt a cognate of the English (as in "ship ahoy"), a word that can be intoned in many ways but almost always sounds good. A mystery, perhaps, that the monosyllabic čau is so often preferred. Personally I've never taken to it, though perhaps I'm too old. It's certainly a favourite among teenagers and radio DJs, I notice. Its derivatives čauko and the ghastly čaues are so absurd as to be almost likeable however, and I have started using čauko of late, a victim perhaps of the accommodation theory (the one in which you unconsciously adopt the lexicon and speech habits of the person you're talking to).
Both the above can be pluralised, hence ahojte and čaute, though good pronunciation of the latter requires careful practice.
More laddish and proletarian than either of these is the curious nazdar (literally "to success"). This may be used with barely-remembered drinking companions and again serves as both hello and goodbye. This is a good expression to use if you want to seem slightly macho and unfazed by life abroad.
My favourite of all though is the time-honoured servus, a glorious Latinism meaning "I serve" which confers dignity on both speaker and auditor. For me, it is a sort of male equivalent to the more feminine-sounding ahoj, and like ahoj its two syllables can be rendered in many different ways (protract the "ser" for as long as possible to create extra geniality). With echoes of the First Czechoslovak Republic to it, servus is a fine word which can be used both at the beginning and end of a conversation.
(Note, too, the word sevas, a derivative of the above, usually heard in the southern, Hungarian-speaking districts.)
A very informal way of saying goodbye, and rather quirky, is to say pa or papa. This is a good one to use with your colleague's two-year-old daughter and your boy/girlfriend if you're on very good (or should I say 'goo-goo') terms. To be used advisedly.
Lastly a word you can use if you're not sure whether to use a formal or informal expression. The word zdravím (literally "I greet") is very handy in such instances and need not be followed by the words vás of ťa if you're not quite sure whether to vykať or tykať your denim-clad neighbours/the nondescript bloke on the desk downstairs/the young woman you see at the bus-stop every morning. Remember though, unlike the previous four, this is only a 'hello' word.
This, then, a rather subjective introduction to Slovak greetings and a list which is surely not exhaustive.
Majte sa pekne a veľa zdaru!
Slovak Matters is a bi-weekly column devoted to helping expats and foreigners understand the beautiful but difficult Slovak language.
The next Slovak Matters will appear on stands April 1, Vol. 8, No. 12.
18. Mar 2002 at 0:00 | Jonathan Gresty