I AM completely lost. Sitting across from me a young Slovak woman has been telling me earnestly about her friend. She speaks very good English but at a crucial point she lapses: "Sometimes he is just like a pštros, with his head in the ground," she says and looks me in the eye to see if I have followed her. My face is blank. Although I have never heard the word pštros before, I am not lost in misunderstanding; I am lost because the word sounds so surprising that it chases all else from my mind. I replay it over and over, the "pš" springing upward like a diver only to jackknife and sluice down into the "tros" with a splash.
We often recognize the joy of language in the utilitarian pleasures of communication, exchange and understanding. But the beauty of pštros came to me before I learned that it meant ostrich or understood my friend's metaphor. Equal to the usefulness of language as a tool is the music of each word as it is spoken.
My menagerie of favourite Slovak words extends beyond pštros. Another word that I love is žaba (frog). When said in a low voice, žaba sounds like a frog croaking, but the Slovak word for this is kvákanie and when you want to imitate a frog you say "kvak". Go ahead - say it out loud, even if you are in an embassy waiting room. If that sounds to you like the quack of a duck (kačica), you know more Slovak than you think - kvákanie is also the word for quacking.
By coincidence, nearby in the dictionary is kvaka, or rutabaga (the other word for turnip), one of my favourite-sounding words in English for its taste, which is as unusual as the flavour of the vegetable it describes.
Still on the topic of animals, kôň (horse) is the choice of another Slovak friend.
The round "ô" is an exciting noise around which to fit the lips. For native speakers of English it is a pleasure to use such an exotic sound.
Maybe this is one reason a friend from the United States relished yelling "erdžíš ako kôň" ("you whinny like a horse") unexpectedly at his acquaintances while he lived in Slovakia.
The robust "ô" is at the heart of neokrôchanec, the pick of one Orava native in the office who enjoys tormenting me with those Slovak words most difficult to pronounce. Before you try this one yourself, ask a Slovak to read it out loud so you can appreciate its rich timbre. Just do not ask anyone here at the Spectator as my co-workers are already sick of saying it for me. In any case I still fumble it when I try, ironically coming to resemble the word, which means an ignorant ruffian or boor.
The rolling Slovak "r" and extended "ú" cause another Slovak friend to pick vrúcne as his favourite. Together the two letters create a dramatic flourish in the engine room of this infrequently used word meaning "ardently". Another luxurious word is ľúbozvučný (melodic or harmonious), which starts off smooth and slides through the "z" to hit a bit of drama in the crunchy "č" before the tapering long "ý".
A word loved for its music need not be exotic, however. One Slovak friend prefers mrte, whose chunky sounds crush together to add weight to a sentence. The peculiar adverb is used to add emphasis much like the words very or darn do in English.
Another heavy word is smrť, which is fun to say, even if it means death. The "sm" accelerates into the rolling "r" and through the "ť", whose soft ending dissipates the word's energy. Plus it is just plain fun for an English speaker to say a word of only consonants (spoluhlásky).
Though in most cases the meaning of a word and its sound need have nothing in common, there is an obvious exception. A favourite of my Slovak roommate's is žblnk, which is onomatopoeia (zvukomaľba) for the plunk or glunk sound of an object falling softly into water. Its synonym čľup is fun too.
One person I asked said they liked the soft near-palindrome šípiš, which is the second-person familiar form of the verb šípiť, to suspect.
And the fan of kôň also likes šepot, whose sound cuts to its conclusion in one slice. What does the word mean? Though you may listen closely, unless someone tells it to you personally, you will have to guess what it is. Until then, just enjoy the way it sounds.
14. Mar 2005 at 0:00 | Eric Smillie