ONE of the joys of English is that we no longer distinguish between the formal and informal "you". One of the joys of Slovak is that they still do.
That means that you have to remember that when you address people formally you should vykať - use the formal vy to mean "you" (this is also used for the plural you). Of course, Slovaks tend to drop the vy element, leaving just the verb with its formal ending of -te: idete (you are going), máte (you have). These also have the same form for questions: idete? máte?
It's worth knowing that when you write to an individual you should use a capital V in Vy, and also in Váš (your), Vám (to you), and the other nine forms (if you don't know what the other forms are, believe me, you don't want to know). The capital V is dropped to lower case when referring to "you" in the plural.
In the ty form, verbs end in -š, so máte becomes máš and idete becomes ideš. Creating the appropriate forms is therefore relatively straightforward - the real problem is knowing when to use which.
The most basic rule is: if in doubt, vykať. Only use tykanie when talking to small children. With the younger generation, it's much more common to tykať people you meet in an informal environment, but it's much safer simply to wait for them to suggest it.
Also, do not be fooled into thinking that if someone uses ty to you, you can use ty back. It's quite normal for the older generation to use ty to much younger strangers (we are just children to them!), but a social faux pas to use it back.
One Slovak colleague told me that when her American boyfriend first met her parents, he replied to her mother's informal greeting of čau (formal is dobrý deň) with the equally informal ahoj and continued informally with tykanie. She found the whole experience embarrassing: No one uses ty the first time they meet their partner's parents.
In fact, many do not start to tykať their partners' parents until after they become parents-in-law (svokrovci). Another colleague told me that she still finds it difficult to tykať her mother-in-law (svokra) after eight years of marriage.
In some families you will find (if you listen carefully enough) that the grandparents or more distant relations are addressed as Vy, but this varies from family to family.
The situation in the workplace is equally hazardous, and the best solution is to listen to the way the rest of your colleagues address one another.
In larger companies there is a tendency towards vykanie, and in smaller, less formal companies you may find that tykanie is the norm. You should always start with vykanie with all professional contacts, just to be on the safe side.
And do not assume that first-name terms in English is equivalent to tykanie. It is not unusual to call colleagues by their first names but still vykať them.
Eventually, you should be invited to switch to tykanie. The question you need to listen out for is: "Môžeme si potykať?" ("Shall we use the 'ty' form?"). The answer to this should always be positive - it is a great insult to refuse to tykať someone. The following exchange will then take place, accompanied by a handshake: "Ja som John." (I'm John), "Ja som Ján." (I'm Ján), "Teší ma." (Pleased to meet you), "Aj mňa." (Me too.). This can feel a little strange if you already know the person quite well.
In my experience, the switch to ty is normally accompanied by at least one drink (and it probably takes place after several) although everyone here at the paper seems to think that this is just an indication that people outside Bratislava are way behind the times.
There is a further problem when you do not meet someone regularly and cannot remember whether you vykať or tykať to him or her. I'm told that it is perfectly acceptable to ask "My si tykáme alebo vykáme?" (Do we tykať or vykať?), although this seems to be pushing the issue a little.
Personally, I tend to revert to vykanie when I cannot remember. The advantage of this is that you can have another drink to switch from Vy to ty. I've done this with one person at least four times now. He always seems to accept this with both good spirit and good spirits.
Another way of dealing with the situation when you are not sure whether you tykať or vykať is to avoid using either form and use the first person plural instead. It is quite an art form.
For example, instead of asking "Ako sa máte?" or "Ako sa máš?" (How are you?), you can use "Ako sa máme?" (How are we?). Sneaky, huh?
If all this sounds confusing to you (and it still confuses me after five years here), there is no need to panic. In most cases, Slovaks accept that foreigners make mistakes in vykanie/tykanie, and just find it quaint and charming that you are making the effort to speak Slovak at all.
2. Jun 2003 at 0:00 | Conrad Toft