Monday, February 27, 2012

Oral Gymnastics with the Slovak Language

Anyone who thinks French is difficult to pronounce has never tried to learn Slovak. The Slovak language contains numerous words that are painfully difficult for a native speaker of English to get his or her mouth around. It's as if someone sat around trying to come up with the most impossibly difficult sounds to make: sounds that the tongue simply wasn't designed to utter; sounds that force one's mouth to twist and contort in ways that seem to defy what human jaw muscles are physically capable of. That said, it's a beautiful sounding language; it's fairly delicate, soft, almost kind of understated (which is why Slovaks understandably get pissed off when foreigners can't tell them apart from Russians; Russian sounds very harsh by comparison). I studied French for 7 years and Italian for 3, so I'm no stranger to learning new languages. But nothing in either language gave me anywhere near the trouble that some of the most basic Slovak words do. Trying to learn Slovak is a humbling experience.

Let's start with the common/formal "hello/good afternoon" greeting, "dobrý deň." First off, that "r" requires a hard roll of the tongue (something I've always had trouble with), and the ň - with that little v-shaped accent mark - is pronounced like the "ny" in "canyon." I don't know about you, but this is not a greeting that rolls off my tongue easily. Phonetically, it would look like doh - b-r-r-r - ee  den-yə, but that closing schwa sound is swallowed, so it's kind of only half pronounced. (FYI - "r-r-r" is my made-up pseudo phoneme for a rolled "r" sound). Try saying it! You'd laugh at how often I fumble this one. I mean, it's a totally basic phrase that's necessary for day-to-day survival in Slovakia, and yet saying it correctly still poses a formidable challenge. Contrast this with the Italian "buongiorno" or the French "bonjour," which are both silky smooth greetings that roll off the tongue naturally. Even the German "guten tag" is a breeze, and of course "hello" and "hi" are a snap. 

Fortunately, the Slovak greeting for goodbye  - dovidenia - does roll off the tongue nicely, and it sounds pretty too. 

Slovaks LOVE consonant clusters. The Slovak language has turned lengthy and continuous strings of consonants into an art form. They have words that are entirely devoid of vowels. Yes, there are subtle, de-emphasized vowel sounds - there have to be - but when you see some of these words spelled out, it's a bit of a mind bender. Take the simple "trh," which means market, pronounced t-r-r-r-h. You have to give that "r" a nice hard roll of the tongue and follow it with a subtle, seemingly incongruous "h," like "hello" but without the "ello." Easy, right? Then there's "štvrť," pronounced kind of like shtvertchyə, which means quarter. Again, that schwa sound at the end is swallowed, but it's kind of there if you listen for it, almost like a whisper. Or there's my favorite, zmrzlina (ice cream, an important word to know; to pronounce it, just put an "er" sound between the "m" and the "r"), which doesn't give you a vowel until after 5 letters in. I found a fun blog post devoted to vowel-less Slovak words here. (It's a great blog - check it out!). 

By far one of the most challenging words is "vchod" (entrance). I mean, how the hell do you put a "v" before a "ch" without a vowel in-between? Written phonetically for an English speaking person, it would look something like: vchkhought. But even looking at it phonetically doesn't make it any easier to pronounce. You have to start out with that "v," then for the "ch" you make a soft phlegm hacking sound from the back of your throat, and follow that with "ot," pronounced kind of like "ought" but with more emphasis on the closing "t." Following a "v" sound with just about anything other than a vowel is like some kind of heinously cruel punishment. But Slovaks love starting consonant clusters with "v," so you just gotta get used to it. I still can't quite get this one right. 

Another word that makes me sound like a blithering idiot is the simple word for "where": "kde." Who the hell puts a "d" after a "k," right? Slovaks ram those two consonants together like there's nothing to it. It's pronounced a little something like "g'day," but they kind of run that g and d together and then soften it up by slipping a slight "j" sound in there, so that it's more like: gdjyeh. Terezia says it with such ease, and every time I attempt it, I butcher it like a cleaver-wielding serial killer. I absolutely dread having to ask where someone or something is. 

Here's another fun one: "chcieť," the verb for "want," pronounced with that phlegm hacking sound again, then ts-yeh-tchyə, ending once again with that swallowed schwa sound. Chktsyehtchyə. You can almost hear it as "ho-tsyetchyə," but you've got to do the phlegm hacking thing at the beginning. Conjugated in the first person, it's "chcem." Do the soft phlegm hacking sound, followed by a subtle "ho," which is then followed by "tsem." ("C" without an accent in Slovak is pronounced like "ts," while "č" is like the English "ch." The little v-shaped accent always softens the letter that it hovers over). You want something badly? You better learn this word, or you're out of luck!

And this is all just pronunciation - Slovak offers a whole other world of pain when it comes to grammar. For example, Slovak nouns are subject to declension, meaning, the nouns actually change form. I'm not talking about mere differences between singular and plural. Noun endings change form depending on the preposition (it's kind of like the preposition is built into the noun itself), but it gets even more complicated than that. But I'll get more into that some other time. I'm still trying to wrap my head around some of these basic yet punishingly tongue-twisting words. 

(Click here to see this month's batch of Bratislava photos). 


  1. Glad to read of someone else wrestling with this great material! Thanks for the link... Here's my BASIC SLOVAK PHRASEBOOK for more tonque-twisting fun: