Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Slovak Word of the Day 7: obežník

obežník n.masc. circular

Most of the time I find it hard to remember Slovak words, because I'm new to Slavic languages and it's hard to relate a new word to something I already know. I remember, when my wife and I were first dating, her trying to teach me some basic words of Slovak. The names for the colours bore no resemblance to their names in any other language that I knew, and pretty soon I was wondering whether I would ever make any progress with this language.

Three years down the line, somehow through endless repetition those things have stuck. But it's still very nice when a word creates an image which sticks in your head all on its own. Obežník is a good example - bežať means to run, so of course an obežník is a runner-around: a circular.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Slovak Word of the Day 6: novela

novela n.fem. amendment

SME informed us yesterday that Gašparovič opäť nepodpísal protiextrémistickú novelu. This false friend was news to me. My first thought was how strange it was that Gašparovič, the Slovak President, was refusing to sign copies of his anti-extremist novel. Why was he ashamed to be associated with such a novel and who knew that, like the British Prime Ministers Disraeli and Churchill, Gašparovič was a novelist?

But sadly, that was not the case. Novela (which according to my dictionary can also mean "novella"), in this case meant "amendment". As far as I understand the story, the Slovak Parliament has just passed an amendment to the Criminal Code providing for penalties in the case of violence committed with extremist motives and production, dissemination or possession of extremist material, over the President's veto.

The proper word for "novel" in Slovak, by the way, is román.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Slovak Word of the Day 5: podobať sa ako vajce vajcu

podobať sa ako vajce vajcu to be as alike as two peas in a pod

This one comes from an unexpected source. I've been reading Paulo Coelho's The Alchemist translated into Slovak. The book itself I find rather overrated (but then what's not to like about the message "follow your dream"), but it's short, simple and available (according to the book jacket) in 66 languages. I'd like to get into reading some original Slovak books rather than translations, but for now it's much easier to read something I have read before in a different language.

Right at the start (I haven't got very far yet!), Santiago the shepherd meets the shopkeeper's daughter, who rozprávala o živote v dedine, kde dni sa podobajú ako vajce vajcu. In the original, it just says in literal terms "where one day was the same as the other". Is the Slovak translator getting poetic, or would it not seem right in Slovak to express that literally?

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

A tale of two airlines

SME reported yesterday that Air Slovakia has won the tender to bring the last British troops home from Iraq. SME links to an article in the Daily Mirror which you should probably avoid if you have a sensitive disposition or are not used to the ugly spectacle of the British press working themselves up into a frenzy of outrage over nothing in particular.

Air Slovakia might sound like the national airline of Slovakia, the equivalent of British Airways or Air France, but it's not quite as simple as that. Though it began in Slovakia, it was bought out in 2006 by a British-Punjabi businessman and started flying passengers to Amritsar, the centre of the Sikh religion. I remember how that gave an exotic flavour to the departures board at M.R. Štefanik Airport. Bratislava's airport, by the way, may be the only airport in the world to be named after someone who was killed in a plane crash - though the man in question was one of the great heroes of Slovak nationalism and promoter of the Czechoslovak state; Slovaks would consider it scandalous that British schoolchildren learn about his Czech colleagues Edvard Beneš and Tomas Masaryk, but not about Štefanik.

According to its website, Air Slovakia currently flies once a week to Tel Aviv. Other than that, as far as I can tell, it is primarily a charter airline, serving British servicemen, Slovak holidaymakers heading to the Mediterranean, and people who thought they were buying tickets with what might with more justice be called the national airline, Sky Europe. I have been in two of those three categories - I will leave you to guess which...

Slovaks are justly proud of Sky Europe, which not so long ago allowed you to fly all over Europe from Bratislava. Though the founders were Belgian and the money came from banks such as the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the brand new aircraft were based in Slovakia, registered in Slovakia and carried Slovak crew. Sky Europe (and, to be fair, Ryanair) made it easy and financially accessible for Slovaks living abroad to get home regularly to see their families (and for English stag parties to get to Bratislava). Unfortunately the dream has been coming apart recently. Sky Europe has been flying for some months by the seat of its pants, using aircraft leased from other operators including Air Slovakia. Yesterday it obtained a little more breathing space by getting a court to give it protection from its creditors, allowing it to keep flying for the time being - so with luck, the tale needn't end here.

Today at Wimbledon...

...an Anglo-Slovak battle - Daniela Hantuchová had a tough game against Laura Robson, a British 15-year-old, but made it through in the end by two sets to one. If you listen to the commentary (for example at 1:09) you can see my point about the pronunciation of Slovak names!

Monday, June 22, 2009

Slovak Word of the Day 4: chladný

chladný adj. cool, chilly

Today's Slovak Word of the Day comes thanks to a friend of my wife's, and as a little warning to us about the importance of proper pronunciation.

The word chladný means cool or chilly not only in the literal sense (chladné pivo, cold beer), but also applies figuratively to someone who is cool or distant (an Englishman, for example...)

My friend's English colleague, very proud of his Slovak and wishing to show it off, arrived at a party and announced, very reasonably, Ja som hladný (I am hungry). Unfortunately he must have been trying quite hard at that time to get his ch sound (rather like the ch in "loch") just right, because it came out as Ja som chladný (I am cold, distant, English...)

There's an encouraging side to this, and a disheartening one. The encouraging side is that everyone makes mistakes. The downside is that the accidentally hilarious ones will never be forgotten.

My wife still reminds me of how, visiting Slovakia at New Year and noting how everyone around me was always saying zima je (it's cold, in the sense of cold weather) I announced about a soft drink, zima je (I should have said it was studená). Psychologists say we are more likely to remember things we have learned if they are associated with strong emotions. Well, it works with embarrassment!

Sunday, June 21, 2009

How different are Czech and Slovak?

This question seems to come up quite a lot. When one questioner asked for comments on how similar the two languages are in comparison with English and any other language, many people suggested that Czech and Slovak are as close as two dialects of English, such as the dialects of Scotland and England.

Slovak and Czech certainly seem to be mutually intelligible. My wife has conversations with her Czech friends where she speaks Slovak and they reply in Czech, and everyone chats away as happily as if they were speaking the same language. A few years ago I watched a version of Test the Nation which went out in both Slovakia and the Czech Republic and set out to discover which nation was the smartest (the Slovaks, of course!). They had one Slovak moderatorka (presenter) - the ubiquitous Adela Banášová - and one Czech, and they simply presented it bilingually, the Slovak presenter speaking Slovak and the Czech one speaking Czech.

However, this mutual intelligibility is exaggerated because for many years before the break-up of Czechoslovakia, Czechoslovak TV (you never use the adjective "Czech" to refer to the government, institutions etc of Czechoslovakia in my home unless you want a beating - a point which in Britain is lost even on professional historians like Peter Clarke in Hope and Glory) used to broadcast in both Czech and Slovak. Apparently the language of the nightly news used to alternate between the two. So most Slovaks and Czechs above the age of thirty were regularly exposed to the other language in their childhood. The importance of this in developing an understanding of the other language is suggested by the difficulty which today's Slovak children have in understanding Czech.

Personally, I have always found Czech and Slovak quite similar, though there is a small but significant part of the vocabulary which is entirely different. It is more like the similarity between Spanish and Portuguese, though, than between different dialects of English.

Slovak Word of the Day 3: rozvod

rozvod n. masc. 1. divorce 2. distribution

This story reports that Pavol Rusko's marriage may be in trouble. Rusko is well known in Slovakia as the former owner of TV Markíza, which according to Wikipedia is the most watched channel in Slovakia. It's certainly very popular with my wife's family, mainly for showing quite a good range of foreign films. Unfortunately for me it's still a bit of a stretch to watch a film dubbed into Slovak, even if (as happened at Christmas) we've just watched the same movie in English on DVD the day before.

In this connection, my wife tells me a story of mendacious headlines from the early days of Plus 7 Dní, a tabloidy weekly magazine. The headline screamed Rusko a jeho rozvod and of course, hungry for a bit of gossip, she bought it at once to find out all about Rusko's divorce. Little did she imagine that the headline actually referred to the second meaning of rozvod - distribution, as in distribution of power. The article was not about Rusko's divorce but about his new electrical wiring.

She tells me she has never bought Plus 7 Dní since.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Slovak Names

When my wife and I were married, we decided that she would take my name, but keep the Slovak feminine ending -ová. We thought it would be a nice sort of compromise, so we could have the same surname but she could still keep a bit of Slovak to it. In fact that turned out to be a good call, because when we were married they told us at the matrika (the local administrative office) that she had to have the -ová ending unless she declared herself to be of non-Slovak nationality. (In case you're wondering, národnosť (nationality) is a different thing from štátne občianstvo (citizenship) and might apply, for example, to ethnic Hungarians who are Slovak citizens).

Despite this, it's not at all strange in Slovakia to create a feminine form of a foreign name. It still strikes me as funny the way the Slovak media add the -ová ending to foreign women's names - as in this story about expenses claims by husband of the former British Home Secretary, Jacqui Smithová or this one about the well-known actress Angelina Jolieová.

I do think they may have a little trouble with my wife's name in England though. If you watch Wimbledon this week you will find the commentators struggling with the names of the two Slovak women in the draw, Daniela Hantuchová and Dominika Cibulková. They usually talk about Daniela "Hančukóva", which must sound terrible to Slovak ears. Fortunately my wife will have to work on her serve a bit before she troubles the commentators at Wimbledon. But a while ago, I heard an announcement for a "Mrs Koverkover" ("kover" pronounced both times to rhyme with "Dover") at Stansted Airport and wondered whether Pani Kováčová would have any idea she was being summoned.

The Slovaks are very happy with their system, though. It is so simple that it's used even if there is a perfectly good native feminine form of the name. For example, how would you think the Slovak media discusses Svetlana Kuzentsova? After all, her name already ends in -ova, and it's already the feminine form of a masculine name, Kuznetsov (which is, incidentally, the Russian for "Smith"). So the Slovak media just use her own name, right? Wrong - she is known as Svetlana Kuznecovová!

Slovak Word of the Day 2: diel

diel n. masc. part

Whenever a member of my wife's family comes to visit, they bring a range of Slovak food, including ryža (rice). I've tried to explain that you can get perfectly good rice from the rice fields of England, but to no avail...

Anyhow, today it was my job to make the rice. I usually use 3 parts water to 2 parts rice, but I could see from the side of the rice packet that the proper proportions were 2:1. Unfortunately, in showing off to my wife that I had managed to make sense of the instructions, I inadvertently referred to the Czech word díl rather than the Slovak for part, diel.

It was an understandable mistake, because my Slovak still isn't good enough to notice that I'm reading Czech (unless I notice a stray ř or ě in there somewhere). And, in a nakedly discriminatory manner, they always seem to print the Czech on top of the Slovak. But I am already in trouble for pretending to think that Czech and Slovak are really the same language, so I had to apologise fast.

In penance for that statement, diel is today's Slovak Word of the Day.

Friday, June 19, 2009

A loan is a loan is a loan?

Not in Slovakia, according to my wife, who is a lawyer (like me - imagine the dinner table conversation!). There is actually a big difference between pôžička and výpožička.

Suppose I borrowed €100 (SKK 3012.60!). I would expect to have to pay the money back, but in whatever notes came to hand at the time - I wouldn't expect to have to hand over the exact same notes I received in the first place. That's pôžička - a loan where you have to return the same type of asset to the same value, but not the exact same physical item.

But if I hired a Škoda Octavia to go for a drive in the Tatras, the car hire company would not be very chuffed if I returned a different car, even if it was also a Škoda Octavia - they would expect the exact same car. This kind of loan is a výpožička.

According to this article in TREND, the Slovak equivalent of the Economist, not many Slovaks know about the difference. So next time you're in Slovakia, you can confidently stride into the nearest autopožičovňa (car hire) place and point out that they should actually be advertising autovypožičovňa.

Slovak Word of the Day 1: lakeť

lakeť n. masc. elbow

Why start with elbows? Well, when I saw this article about Hilary Clinton having fallen and broken something called a lakeť, my imagination ran wild...