Ahoj!: The Nautical Origins of a Slovak Hello

For a landlocked country, Slovakia has a very nautical way of saying hello.

Pronounced ‘Ahoy’ and spelled ‘Ahoj’ in Slovak, the term harks back to the English greeting for people on boats or ships.

Experts say the term was originally adopted from English by young people in the 1930s who used it for canoeing and kayaking activities; the word then caught on.

Interestingly, Scottish-born American Alexander Bell who invented the telephone originally suggested ‘Ahoy’ as a standard greeting when answering a telephone.

But, possibly to his annoyance, the word ‘Hello’ suggested by American inventor Thomas Edison was taken up instead.

Happily for Alexander Bell, the word ‘Ahoy’ did catch on in some countries as well as Slovakia.  The word ‘Hoi’ is used in Dutch and Swiss German and ‘Oi’ is used informally in Brazilian Portuguese and likewise ‘Ohøj’ in Danish.

And, although the word ‘Ahoy’ didn’t enter everyday use in the English language, it is derived from the English word ‘Hoy’. Curiously, this was commonly used in the 14th century to help herd cattle.

The Slovak language is the official language of the Slovak Republic, spoken by 5.5 million inhabitants in the country as well as more than one million emigrants in the United States.

It is known as the ‘Esperanto’ of Slavic languages because many people find it the easiest to learn of this group of languages which include Russian, Ukrainian, Polish, Czech, Slovenian, Bulgarian and Bosnian, Croatian and Serbian.

Knowing Slovak will also help you understand some Czech and Polish, among other languages.

Slovak makes things a little easier for Western learners by using the Latin alphabet although, if you want to write it, there’s some diacritical marks to get your head round. A diacritical mark is a point, sign or squiggle added to a letter or character to indicate appropriate stress or special pronunciation.

We think this makes a very good case for learning to speak the language first and learning to write it second!

There’s also another incentive for people interested in speaking Slovak – some of the vocab will already be familiar to you. That’s because it’s common practice to change the spelling of more modern foreign words into Slovak to establish a new Slovak word eg weekend = vikend, taxi = taxik, ham and eggs = hemendex.

Another example of this is the Slovak word for a tram: električka (pronounced electric car) which is a common form of transport in Slovakia’s capital city, Bratislava.

But beware of traffic jams when buying a ticket on the električka.  Locals in Bratislava, known colloquially as Blavaci, buy tickets according to their journey time – not distance.  Get it wrong and there’s a penalty fine! 

As well as avoiding penalty fines, if you do go to Slovakia ever, there’s another pitfall to avoid.

Its inhabitants are fed up of people confusing Slovakia with Slovenia!

This has been famously done by former US President George W Bush who said: “The only thing I know about Slovakia is what I learned first-hand from your Foreign Minister, who came to Texas.”  Unfortunately, he was talking about the Slovenian Foreign Minister.

While, at a news conference in Rome, former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, introduced Slovenian Prime Minister Anton Rop with the words: “I’m very happy to be here today with the Prime Minister of Slovakia.”

Mr Rop later commented: “It was very strange, we asked journalists not to mention it in their reports.”

One world leader who hasn’t confused the two countries is US President Donald Trump but as commentators have been quick to point out, he has a good reason not to.

His wife, First Lady Melania Trump, was born in Slovenia whereas his ex-wife Ivana was born in Czechoslovakia.

So where does all this confusion come from? Well clearly the similarity of country names doesn’t help. Slovakia calls itself Slovenská republika while Slovenia is Republika Slovenija.

Written in their native tongues, the language names are even more similar; one is slovenčina and the other is slovenščina.  

Both countries are also former socialist republics and emerged in their modern form in the early 1990s.

Slovenia achieved independence from Yugoslavia in 1991.  Similarly, the state of Czechoslovakia split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1992 in the so-called Velvet Divorce.

This brings us to another important point – the common history of the Slovak and Czech languages. Because of their previous close ties, the languages are largely mutually intelligible. But, with each nation now having an independent identity, they are gradually becoming less aligned in spelling, pronunciation and vocabulary.

In fact, even in Slovakia as a whole, there is more than one dialect of Slovak. Standard Slovak, which is voiced on the uTalk app, is the official language of the Slovak Republic and is broadly based on the dialect spoken in Central Slovakia. The other major dialects are the ones spoken in Western and Eastern Slovakia but all three are understandable by speakers of the others.

Endearingly, languages are not just a key skill for Slovakians but also something very close to their hearts.

There is a Slovak phrase, ‘Koľko jazykov vieš, toľko krát si človekom’, which means the more languages you speak, the more of a person you are.

So, if you’d like to become more of a person and are interested in speaking and understanding some Slovak then go here and give it a try! And, if learning Slovak isn’t your thing but you’re going to Slovakia sometime soon, it might be worth keeping the word ‘ahoy!’ in mind, alongside a friendly smile.

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