Slovak is ...
- a link language, sometimes it is referred to as the “Esperanto among Slavic languages”. Why? There is a simple explanation to this: Slovak belongs to the group of West Slavic languages (along with Czech, Polish, Upper and Lower Sorbian), but at the same time it has preserved many linguistic phenomena typical of South Slavic languages.
- euphonic, it is considered pleasing to the ear thanks to rather frequent use of acoustically interesting consonants ď, ť, ň, ľ, ž, š, dž, č as well as diphthongs ia, ie, iu (in words like čučoriedka, žinčica)
- tender, thanks to its capability of creating numerous diminutives
- complex, owing to its capability to differentiate between natural and grammatical gender
- simple, using only three tenses and many international words
- a language that can be gender-specific, which is shown for example in the past tense of verbs (masculine: muž išiel, feminine: žena spievala, neutral: dieťa sa hralo)
- a language that sometimes refuses to be gender-specific. Although women’s surnames do have a specific form in Slovak (pán Slávik – pani Sláviková) and feminine forms of professions or occupations of women differ from their masculine counterparts (profesor – profesorka), these rules are often ignored
- a little archaic, sometimes preserving older alternations (noha – nôžka – nožička, ruka – rúčka – ručička, krok – krôčik – kráčať, boh – božský – náboženstvo)
- jawbreaking, as the consonants l, ĺ, r, ŕ may be syllabic and so there are words without vowels (krk, stĺp, prst) which are very difficult to pronounce. There even exist whole sentences entirely without vowels: Strč prst skrz krk.
Slovak Sounds and Characters
The Slovak alphabet uses letters of the Latin alphabet, yet it also employs various “odd” marks, such as:
acute accent (á, é, í, ó, ú, ý, ĺ, ŕ),
caron (ď, ť, ň, ľ, ž, š, dž, č),
umlaut or two dots (ä) – used only for the letter “a”, the current pronunciation in Slovak is [e]
circumflex (ô) – it looks like a small roof and is used for writing the diphthong [oo-ŏ]
In pronunciation, the language differentiates between long and short vowels – long vowels take 1.5 times longer to pronounce than the short ones. However, the quantity, that is the difference in the length of a vowel, can change the meaning of word, for this reason, one needs to be careful with some words, in particular with pairs like sud – súd (barrel – court), parky – párky (parks – saussages), tvar – tvár (shape - face).
In standard Slovak, the word stress is usually on the first syllable, so the syllables with a long vowel which are found in the middle of a word or at its end are not stressed kultúra, manažér (the stressed syllable is underlined).
Slovak also features interesting vowel combinations:
ia [ĭ-ă] piatok, sviatok
ie [ĭ-ĕ] biela, poschodie
iu [ĭ-oo] číta tretiu (novšiu) esemesku (iu exists only in grammatical suffixes)
ô [oo-ŏ] nôž, stôl.
They are pronounced in a specific way, indistinctly, not as combinations of two separate vowels.
Apart from letters known from other languages, there are also rather specific characters with peculiar articulation. A distinctive feature of Slovak is for example the presence of the short and the long syllabic ‘jawbreaking’ consonants r, l, ŕ, ĺ and the so-called soft consonants, such as č, ď, ž, š, dž, ď, ť, ň, ľ.
č čokoláda, Čína (as in ‘chocolate’)
ď ďakovať, ďalej
ľ ľad, ľahký
ň koňak, vaňa (as in ‘cognac’)
š študent, šalát (as in ‘show’)
ť ťava, šťastie
ž žirafa, žurnalistika (as in ‘treasure’)
The combinations of consonants ch and dz, dž are also peculiar. As with the vocalic diphthongs, these consonant groups each have a specific sound:
ch chirurg, chlapec (as in Scottish ‘loch’)
dz schôdza, cudzinec[KM3]
dž džem, džez (as in ‘jazz’)
Slovak then and now
Approximately in the 10th century, the language of West Slavs was separated
from Proto-Slavic and laid the foundations for the future development of Czech, Polish as well as Slovak. On the territory of present-day Slovakia, Latin and later German, Hungarian and Czech were used in official communication, but in those times various Slovak dialects also flourished. Slovak underwent the most significant differential changes in the 10th–12th century.
In the 16th–18th century, Czech assumed the role of the cultural language on Slovakia’s territory, but some variants of cultural Slovak, such as Western Slovak, Middle Slovak and Eastern Slovak, were also used. The 18th century marked the attempt to develop standard Slovak. First significant efforts were made by Anton Bernolák, who based his codification on cultural Western Slovak (1787). More than half a century later, Ľudovít Štúr codified the standard language on the basis of Middle Slovak (1863). His codification was adopted very soon and except for several modifications, it has been preserved to this day.
At present, Slovak is a proud dynamic language with rich stylistic stratification. Slovakia ranks among the few European countries that decided to declare the status of their language by law. Since 1995 Slovak is regarded as the “national language” and the Ministry of Culture of the Slovak Republic is in charge of its codification.
Slovak in the World
Slovak is the official language of Slovakia. However, it is also spoken by hundreds of thousands of people in countries all over the world, for instance the US, Canada, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania, Serbia, Croatia, etc. There has been a sustained interest in the study of the Slovak language for more than 50 years, which is also thanks to Studia Academica Slovaca – the Centre for Slovak as a Foreign Language at the Faculty of Arts of Comenius University and its many educational programmes and learning materials (e.g. the textbook series Krížom-Krážom). You can also learn the nuts and bolts of Slovak from a distance by enrolling in e-leaning courses e-slovak.sk and myslovak.sk.
Author: Júlia Vrábľová, based on the publication Prvá pomoc po slovensky – First Aid in Slovak (Vrábľová et al.)
Illustrator: Oto Hudec
A multilingual website to learn Slovak: slovake.eu