Zreče crest

Speaking Slovene

Some thoughts on the Slovene language from David Burbidge, organiser of numerous exchange singing events.

There are many who say that Slovene is a very hard language to speak – my experience has been the opposite, it must be one of the easiest.

I’ve never been good at languages. I put it down to a crippling experience in my early teenage years. My father worked in the United Nations and clearly thought that speaking more than English was a good thing. So I was packed off to stay with Vincent Roland in Paris for the summer. On arrival I tried out my creaky schoolboy French: ‘Bonjour. Je m’appel David. Comment allez vous?’ And was greeted by guffaws of laughter and: ‘I think perhaps we speak in English – your French is terrible.’

So what makes Slovene so easy to speak is the enormous ammount of encouragement you receive if you say anything more than hvala (thank you) or dober dan (good day). I try out my growing list of phrases which started with those gleaned form the Berlitz phrase book: Kako cudovit dan (what a wonderful day) and Bi kay popili? (can I get you a drink) and moved on to even more useful proclamations: Naj bo vasa casa vedno polna (may your cup always be full) – and the results are either total delight or total incomprehension (can an Englishman really be speaking Slovene?) But never scorn.

The reasons why there is this myth about Slovene being a difficult language and why there is so much encouragement to learn it are, ironically, the same. With only 1.8 million people in the country Slovene is not very widely spoken throughout the world. And most people having enough spare time to learn a language tend to choose the ones where there are countless millions of people to communicate with.

And the Slovenes, being essentially a polite and thoughful race of people, let people off the hook by telling them that the language is far too hard to learn anyway.

Je Skomarskih Ofarjev – a song about a pig
Je Skomarskih Ofarjev is a song by the famous Zreče poet Juri Vodovnik about a pig who hides in an old house which the villagers use as a toilet, because the mushrooms are so good there!

What I think is this: if it is so hard, how come that all the tiny infants and children in Slovenia speak it? And also, if there are only 1.8 million people speaking it then the more people who learn it the better – there’s already far too many people speaking in German, French and Spanish.

Although, having said that, the grammar for Slovene is not easy – there are different endings for everything, not just for singular and plural but also for if you are speaking to two people. (Though every language has its hurdles. How people learn English with grammatical constructions like one cow, two cows – and then, one sheep, two sheep – is a mystery to me.)

Personally I find it easier to sing Slovene than to speak it. Our group in Sedbergh has been learning some of the Slovene songs, most of which tend to be very sad love songs. Like Nocoj pa oh nocoj (Tonight oh tonight, when the moon shines over the earth, I will leave – but don’t cry my love, I will be back in seven short years.) But also lively drinking songs like Kolko kaplic tolko let (May God grant you as many years in your life as there are drops of wine in the glass).

And the wonderful national anthem which translates as:

God’s blessings on all nations who long and pray for that bright day,
When over earth’s habitation, no war, no strife, shall hold its sway.
Who long to see, that all men free, no more shall foes but neighbours be.

Being the seventh verse of a long poem by the national poet France Preseren called the Toast, in praise of wine, women and camaraderie. And the only national anthem in the world to advocate world peace rather than national glory.

The advantage of having a healthy repertoire of songs is that I am now able to communicate the odd line when appropriate. So when I am leaving a company of Slovenians with friends I turn to them and say: Pojd’mo veselo domo (let us go joyfully home) – from the lovely old song Vecernica (Evening hymn).

The Cautley Carollers in Medved
The Cautley Carollers met with the Skomarje singers in Medved – along with the Mayor and the president of Unior who both made some fine speeches. We all sang Zivijo together, the pace slowing down with every toast.

And from the same song I am able to comment on beautiful sunsets: Glejte ze solnce zahaja, skoraj za goro bo slo (look at the sun setting over the distant hills). A translation of an Ali Burns song – May your cup always be full – has many useful lines for greeting and toasting like: Zelimo vam veselja in zdravja in ljubesni in vecni mir (we wish you joy and health and love and peace for ever) though it’s not so useful when shopping at a supermarket or haggling over the price of a taxi ride.

Other phrases come from asking my long suffereing Slovene friends for translations. So when I was asked how I like being back in Zreče recently I was able to reply: Vreme je lepo in toplo kot se srca Zrečanov – (the weather is beautiful and warm like the hearts of the people of Zreče).

I have been organising cultural exchanges and performance projects between singers from Sedbergh and singers from Zreče for the last couple of years and have found that the best events were the ones where most people didn’t speak the other’s language.

Oscar Wilde put his finger on it when he said that America and England were two countries divided by a common language. Language is so much more than the mere words – behind everything we say there are layers of meaning which are tied up with our culture and our history.

So when the Zreče youth choir visited Sedbergh and were singing in the mediaeval market fair they met the Fool, the court jester, sitting on a pole in the middle of the street. ‘Ah here come the Slovenes, you can smell them.’

The Odmev Quartet from Zreče
The Odmev Quartet from Zreče singing in Rydal Caves with the Lakeland Voice singers one wintry night in December 2005. The acoustics were terrific. Everyone had learnt some Slovene phrases, and especially Bi kaj popili? – which was very useful when we all went to warm up and continue our singing in the Badger Bar.

Now as a straight translation this is nothing but a terrible insult – what a dreadful thing to say! But the wider context around the court jester being the only one who could insult the king, and his role as the one who makes everyone feel a bit uncomfortable, gives a different meaning. (Although personally I was quite ready to kick him off his pole.)

Similarly, when the Scottish football players were recently visiting Slovenia and walking down Celje high street in their kilts singing and happy after having won the match, the Slovenes all said how much they liked them. ‘Yes, we were calling out to them how pretty they looked in the skirts.’ Fortunately in Slovene rather than in English. I have known Scotsmen who had been told something similar in England and had never returned south of border again.

And when the Ljudski Pevci iz Stranice (folk singers from Stranice) came to Sedbergh, none of the singers spoke any English at all. But that didn’t stop Ivan getting into a very long conversation with Vivienne Postlethwaite in her shop, both in their native tongues, neither of them worried that they didn’t understand a word the other said.

The Odmev Quartet from Zreče in the Sportsman’s Inn
The Odmev male voice Quartet joined us in the Sportsman’s Inn for some more singing – 150 people all joining in on the choruses, and even some Balkan dancing in the back room. A night to remember.

Afterwards Ivan told our friend Igor Cvetko, a Slovene ethnomusicologist who speaks perfect English, that Ivan had had such a good time that he wanted to take her home and marry her!

There has been much research which suggests that communication has little to do with the actual words – some people say as little as seven per cent – and everything to do with the tone of voice, facial expression, and body language.

When we visited at Christmas and drove a minibus on the right for the first time we managed to upset several other drivers who saw our number plates and thought we were Italian. Their gesticulations really needed no translation. Though it was interesting that when we translated the number plates with the addition of GB stickers, the rude gestures changed to friendly waves.

And there is also the point raised by a Irishman I heard on the radio recently talking about his countrymen’s fame as talkers: ‘It’s said that Ireland is a nation populated by warm hearted people talking to each other’, he said describing typical people meeting to talk in the emerald isle. ‘But my experience is that they are a nation of warm hearted people talking to themselves. Few people bother to listen to each other.’

Perhaps there is something of that in all of us.

I recently attended a meeting of Slovene poets in the hilltop village of Skomarje, in the Skomarski Hisa – the old house where Zreče’s most famous poet Juri Vodovnik lived. The poems were all written by the people who read them, about love, and loss, and hope – the poets’ themes. I sat listening to the music of their voices, not particularly troubled by understanding only one word in every fifty.

And then someone read a poem by Robert Frost – and the extraordinary thing was that it was no different – I still couldn’t understand a word, but took great delight from the music of the words and the drama of the setting.

But I continue learning my phrases and my songs, because it gives me as much pleasure as it obviously does our Slovene friends to be able to say something in the language of this beautiful country. So . . . Se eno si zapojmo.

David Burbidge

A video with some basic phrases useful when visiting Slovenia.
Slovene language courses in Sedbergh take place each year.
See comments from His Excellency Iztok Mirošič, Ambassador of the Republic of Slovenia, (2008).

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