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SLOVAK MATTERS

More than a beast?

ARE HUMANS really any more than animals (zvieratá), and do we come closer to perfection (and further from our animal past) as our civilization develops? I thought a new answer to this tired question might be found in the wisdom of the Slovak language, and have conducted a little research from this perspective. Unfortunately, I still cannot make up my mind about this problem and have to admit that I'm a deer on it (som z toho jeleň).

ARE HUMANS really any more than animals (zvieratá), and do we come closer to perfection (and further from our animal past) as our civilization develops? I thought a new answer to this tired question might be found in the wisdom of the Slovak language, and have conducted a little research from this perspective. Unfortunately, I still cannot make up my mind about this problem and have to admit that I'm a deer on it (som z toho jeleň).

Perhaps this is an answer in itself.

One thing that distinguishes our civilization from the animal world is work. Here we compete, create, and strive for greatness. Though when it comes to work, it's tough to stay motivated, and easy to get distracted when a friend argues, "work isn't a rabbit, it won't run away" (práca nie je zajac, neutečie).

But this expression doesn't tell the whole story. Work may not disappear, but it is difficult to get a grip on, and usually harder to finish than you expect. When people start talking rabbits to you, think to yourself "better a sparrow in the hand than a pigeon on the roof" (lepší vrabec v hrsti ako holub na streche).

If you don't feel like trying to catch a sparrow, and don't intend to climb a ladder to chase a pigeon, you risk being told you're lazy as a flea (lenivý ako voš). Unfortunately, we are not as lucky as insects. When the alarm goes off in the morning, you might want to cling like a bedbug (drží ako ploštica) to your pillow, but you don't have this luxury. You have no time to wait like a goose for wheat (dočkaj času ako hus klasu) because that wheat will not grow without some effort on your part. And if you are tempted not to work anyway, you will face the accusation "what do you think, that roasted pigeons will fall into your mouth?" (čo si myslíš, že ti budú padať pečené holuby do huby?). They won't.

Our willingness to avoid work seems to discredit it as a guiding principle of humankind. And is it even fair to say that only humans have a work ethic? Animals work hard too, teaches general Slovak knowledge: Not even a chicken scratches for free (zadarmo ani kura nehrabe).

Aside from work, politics also separate humankind from the beasts. As Slovaks will tell you, the bull (idiot) leads the herd and every cow (another word for idiot) lags behind (stádo vedie vôl a každá krava zaostáva). In the world's capitals, the bulls meet to lead us towards moral perfection and away from our animal ways, and the rest follow with little interest.

Unfortunately, though, too many politicians only want to get rich and live like a pig in rye (žiť ako prasa v žite). And all too often, political struggles grow until the two rivals appear to be two roosters on a trash heap (dvaja kohúti na smetisku); two bossy, self-important people squabbling. In countries with proportional representation and coalition governments, there are usually six or seven. As squabbles progress, it is hard not to feel apathetic and to see them, as a Canadian friend once told me, as a storm in a teacup, or, in Slovak, as a frog-mouse war (žabomyšie vojny).

I think it is clear by now that humans are not morally superior to the other creatures on earth. It seems that we behave like... animals. But even when it comes to our bad qualities, animals are better than we are. For example, you can be cheeky as a monkey (drzý ako opica) or scream like a baboon (vreští ako pavián), but you will only be comparable to, and not as good as, the original.

The Slovak language offers another excellent example: The phrase for thick-skinned (hrošia koža) comes from the word for hippopotamus (hroch), but our skin can only try to be so thick.

As we have only animals with which to compare ourselves, it is hard to say that we are any better than them. But it still seems that there is something unique about our species, and when it comes to our civilization, we are proud as peacocks (pyšní ako pávy). There is no answer to my question that satisfies everyone, letting me conclude with the words "and the wolf was full and the goat in one piece" (aj vlk bol sýty aj koza celá). Perhaps, though, we are the only kind of animal to hope for such utopian conclusions.

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