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SLOVAK MATTERS

Can you survive these streets? I don't think so.

IT IS tough to establish credibility when you are learning a new language, like Slovak. Sure, at first your mistakes are funny for you and the Slovaks who are laughing with you. Then, after months of struggling and studying and practicing to make yourself understandable, you reach that point of frustration when you realise you still do not sound like a native, and you do not find your unnatural Slovak so funny any more. At about this time you begin to wonder if the Slovaks have not actually been laughing at you all this time.

IT IS tough to establish credibility when you are learning a new language, like Slovak. Sure, at first your mistakes are funny for you and the Slovaks who are laughing with you. Then, after months of struggling and studying and practicing to make yourself understandable, you reach that point of frustration when you realise you still do not sound like a native, and you do not find your unnatural Slovak so funny any more. At about this time you begin to wonder if the Slovaks have not actually been laughing at you all this time.

To overcome my unnatural speech, I turned to the field of language that could give me the most credibility with the natives: slang and spoken Slovak. What better way to overcome my image as the US clown who speaks Slovak funny than to brush up on some street talk? Here are some basic notes about what I found.

At first I tried to make direct translations of US street expressions into Slovak, like asking someone to daj mi päť (give me five). This went over really well. Those Slovaks who actually understood my feeble attempt to be cool generally rolled their eyes in disgust and walked away. In retrospect, this is probably for the best, since even my peers back home refuse to oblige this request. Meanwhile, my failure pushed me to try harder.

One phrase that does cross over directly is "that's the bomb!" (to je bomba!). I am not sure how cool this phrase is in Slovak but I distrust it, as most English speakers would not be caught using it. This leads to the problem of knowing when and with whom to use slang, which I will try to tell you as we go along.

Speaking of cool, there does seem to be a word for it in Slovak: pohoda. Here it has somewhat more of a hippy-stoner image than it does in English, as it also means good weather, well-being, and equilibrium. On the other hand, depending on the context and enunciation, you can suggest that a pair of futuristic sunglasses or a film like The Matrix are not bad or great (sú v pohode), the way cool has many grades of meaning in English.

In general you use the word to say that a situation is all good. For example, your friend says "sorry I ate all your food," and you reply "pohoda, we'll get some more." You can also use it to say "I'm cool, no problem" (som v pohode) freely in situations where this expression would apply in English, though this will be more understandable to the young than the old.

Greetings are also basic to building up your street credibility. You can use these when you're sick of saying čau and tired of feeling like a seafarer every time you say ahoj. Other options you may have already picked up on are nazdar, which is originally Czech, and servus, which is Hungarian. Both of these words, more or less, mean "hey there" and seem to be used by people of all ages. Nazdar can also be transformed into nazdárek, a more informal and often-used term. Another phrase close to "what's up" is "no čo, ako?" which literally means "yeah, what, how [are you]?" and seems to be used by the younger generations.

Depending on what conversations you listen in on, these greetings should pop up often. Another trick of the tongue that is often used is ty kokšo, which also comes in the variations ty kokso, ty koki or ty kokos, meaning exactly the same thing. This interjection is great fun and can be thrown into conversation any time you want to express surprise, wonder, or disbelief. The most fitting translation I can think of can only be published in this paper as "no poop!" or perhaps "holy poop!"

The advantage of ty kokšo is that it is easy to learn and can be used often. It is a good way to cheat your way into sounding like a real Slovak - you let the others do the talking and then when you hear something interesting all you have to do is say those two little words and everyone thinks you are a real natural. I must admit, though, that using this one still gets me a laugh from Slovaks, probably at the oddness of hearing a non-native use colloquial language.

Laughs like these can put you back where we were at the beginning of this article. But do not despair! I evoked wonder and perhaps even impressed some friends when I started to use the word haluz. Shortened from the word halucinácia or hallucination, but literally translated as 'branch', it is used to describe something astonishing, unexpected, or strange. I recently heard someone refer to a difficult but eye-opening book he was reading by saying "je to úplna haluz" ("it is totally astonishing"). Drop this one correctly and your friends may use it to describe the sudden sophistication of your vocabulary, that is, if your friends are younger than 30.

Finally, if you are going to sound natural out there, you need to know how to pass judgement. When something is boring, bland, or not useful you can say "that is rice" (to je ryža). According to my Košice native team, in eastern Slovakia they substitute flour (múka) for rice in the expression.

And when you are bored, at least in the Petržalka section of Bratislava, you say "I'm carping" (kaprujem), meaning you are just sitting and doing nothing with your mouth open, yawning like the fish.

Will these common colloquialisms really make you sound natural? I doubt it. I am certain that I sound even more ridiculous when I try to pose as a street-smart Slovak. The best way to be natural, as we all know, is to be ourselves. In my case, this means a clown from the US who speaks Slovak funny, which may not be as bad as I thought, as it gives me the right to try to talk as much street Slovak as I want.

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