THE WOMAN from the Prague embassy was getting cross with me. She had called to place an order of some kind, but after asking her three times to repeat her request, I still had no clue what she wanted.
"I would have thought your paper would have people answering phones who at least spoke Slovak," she snapped.
"I do," I replied, "but you're speaking Czech. It's a different language."
If there's anything that gets my dander up, it's a Czech who thinks that all Slovak speakers should automatically understand the lingo spoken west of the Morava river. For people who grew up in the former Czechoslovakia this may be a reasonable assumption, but for younger Czechs and Slovaks, and particularly for expats, the other's language might as well be Finnish.
Alright, that's an exaggeration, but the differences between Czech and Slovak for a foreigner can be a real handicap, and one that is underestimated by the natives. Movies, television programmes, much world literature, are often translated into Czech rather than Slovak. For those of us living a largely non-English existence, it's frustrating to have learned the local language but find Czech used so often in preference to Slovak.
For those Slovaks who maintain that Czech and Slovak are virtually the same tongue, here are a few reminders.
First, for all the similar terms they use, there are some startling differences even in the basic words. A farewell in Bratislava is dovidenia, in Prague na schledanou. A murmur of agreement here is 'no', over there it's 'jo'. Even the here and now - in Slovak 'tu' and 'teraz' - is in Czech 'tady' and 'teď'. You'd have a tough time in Prague ordering cabbage (kapusta vs. zelí) and a bread roll (žemľa vs. houska), meaning that at some restaurants at least half the menu would be unrecognisable, and in asking for breakfast (raňajky) you would stand little chance of getting the real article (snídane).
The months of the year, which in Czech were taken from the old Slavic tongue and in Slovak from the romance languages, are another mountain to cross.
But it's more than just vocabulary. The Czechs have a totally different approach to speaking, which is often very close to singing. "Co to je" (what is it) can rise almost a full octave, distracting to foreigners accustomed to the downward, more dour inflection Slovaks use.
Czech is also sharper, less inflected than Slovak. Take a word like 'neni', Czech for 'it isn't': the Slovak equivalent, nie je, has a soft 'n' and requires your lower jaw to do a small outward loop, while 'neni' can be rapped out with less effort. Já vím, I know in Czech, is also more direct than Slovakia's ja viem.
If Slovak seems to have a few extra syllables in each word, Czech has a number of sounds you won't hear in Štúr country, such as the good old 'ř'. This tongue terrorist is pronounced as a rolled 'r' and 'shh' at the same time, making a meal out of plain old 'good' (dobře vs. dobre). Slovak has unique characters such as ô (pronounced 'oa', as in kôpor, dill) and ä (pronounced as a short 'e', as in mäkký, soft) while Czech has hůl (stick, compared to the Slovak palica).
The upshot of all this, for a foreigner, is that you're faced with two problems. Not only do Czech and Slovak have significantly different vocabularies, but the words they share are often pronounced slightly differently. If you're a native, the altered pronunciation is a curiosity but not a barrier. If you're struggling to understand and be understood in Slovak, anything - even a regional Slovak accent - is enough to turn what you're hearing into gibberish.
I have to say, I much prefer Slovak, and not just because I've invested the time into learning it. In its softness and indirectness compared to Czech it seems to capture an attractive part of the national character - modesty.
But I'm sure there are plenty of Czech speakers who would agree with the late Karel Kryl, a chain-smoking folk singer who returned to Bratislava in November 1989 to play before the crowds on SNP square. In an interview with the STV channel, he began talking in Slovak, apparently out of deference to his audience. But as the interview went on, and the possibility of Czechoslovak separation came up, Kryl slipped back into his native Czech. I wouldn't want to have to decide, he said, "ale kdyby sem se musel rozhodnout, tak mluvím radši po česky" (if it came to the crunch I'd rather speak Czech).
In Slovakia I'd rather speak and hear Slovak, and failing that, at least not be treated as desperately thick for not understanding Czech.
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 15, Vol. 8, No. 14.