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SLOVAK MATTERS

May they please you

A WORD changed my life a few weeks ago. That may sound dramatic, but I am speaking practically. I was mid-sentence in conversation with a friend when she stopped me and asked if I wanted to learn to say something sophisticated.
I swallowed my pride and opened my ears to the word ohľadne. Of course, I thought this had something to do with being hungry (hladný). Very sophisticated.
In fact, this word means "in respect to" or "as to". This may not seem very revolutionary, but learning this word was like finding a secret highway connecting your garage and work.

A WORD changed my life a few weeks ago. That may sound dramatic, but I am speaking practically. I was mid-sentence in conversation with a friend when she stopped me and asked if I wanted to learn to say something sophisticated.

I swallowed my pride and opened my ears to the word ohľadne. Of course, I thought this had something to do with being hungry (hladný). Very sophisticated.

In fact, this word means "in respect to" or "as to". This may not seem very revolutionary, but learning this word was like finding a secret highway connecting your garage and work. Or, in Bratislava terms, discovering a private, direct bus between your panelák apartment building and the office. In other words, after learning of ohľadne and its cousin, v súvislosti s (in regards to), I no longer need to struggle through a mess of clumsy words and phrases in order to tell someone why I am talking about something. I now use these most days.

Reflecting on this newly found communicative shortcut, it occurred to me that there are other words that I find handy or pleasant enough to use every day. Let me introduce some favourite Slovak words.

One is aby, which was revealed to me by another foreign speaker of Slovak as one of his most useful words. It is used as a conditional (that is, with the past tense) to say "so that". For example: "Put on your pants so we can go fishing" - "Obleč si nohavice aby sme mohli ísť rybárčiť". Just in case my example is not illustrative enough, this connecting word is amazingly useful when you want to explain why something should be done.

One nice thing about aby is that it does not require a lot of mental acrobatics, even though it is a conditional.

A good way to get around the formality and the complications of the woulds and coulds is nechceš (don't you want). If you would like to politely and simply offer someone a cup of coffee, try "Nechceš kávu?" In a more formal situation, do not forget to vykať, exchanging the -š for a -te. Or give this one a try if you want to suggest a plan to your friends without being overbearing: "Nechcete ísť tancovať?" - "Don't you [guys] want to go dancing?"

This use of want in the negative does not really work the same way in English, and Slovak speakers of English often use it when "would you like" is what they really mean.

There are also some adjectives that, while not revolutionary, I use and hear so often that they deserve mention. Strašne (terribly) is the first that comes to mind, as it is not only used as an adjective to say that something is bad (strašné), but also as an adverb meaning "very", as in British English: "I'm terribly sorry" - "Je mi to strašne ľúto".

Then, when someone tells you something and you want to say that you knew or expected it beforehand (that is, to sound smart), you can say prirodzene (naturally).

When you do not know something, however, you need to know how to ask. For Slovak learners, "ako sa povie" ("how do you say") and "čo to znamená" ("what does it mean") are mantras whose repeated use is unarguably important. Sometimes I think I should just write "Čo to znamená?" on a little cardboard flag that I can raise whenever I cannot understand a word, saving myself the trouble of actually saying it one more time.

On the more fanciful side of language, my recent favourites are a pair of similar-sounding words: duša, which means soul, and dúšok, which means a sip. My clumsy ears, which easily confuse the ends of words, hear poetry between these two; between the spiritual and the delicately mundane.

The happy confusion is not just my own. I came to these words when a friend was brewing a cup of materina dúška (thyme) tea to soothe her cough.

Materina means "mother's" and dúška means, well, people cannot seem to agree. Some think it means little soul, citing a legend that a daughter found the herb growing on her mother's grave. Others think it means "little sip", for practical reasons. I am sure that there are historians of language who have informed opinions on the matter, but I prefer to leave this etymology to the imagination for now.

I cannot end without including the classic "nech sa páči".

This is a long-time favourite of most visiting foreigners as it is so often heard on the street and in stores and restaurants. I propose "let it please you" as a literal translation. The phrase is used in situations where English speakers might say, "You're welcome," "Here you are," and "Come see what I have for sale".

In my opinion, though, the statement is also an affirmation of existence. Its repeated use in pedestrian situations dulls its actual meaning, which is not unlike "let it be", but with a wish that fate be enjoyed instead of merely accepted.

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