My mind was racing. For more than three hours, I’d been talking to my cousin, Marjeta, in Slovenian. It was February, and she’d just announced that we could no longer speak in English. If I wanted to learn Slovenian—and really speak it, not just pass exams in school—I had to start using it, she said.
After three hours, my head hurt, but I had to admit that it was getting easier to string together words—even if I still had to worry about pesky case endings, the equivalent of conjugating adjectives and nouns in addition to verbs. The noun Amerika, for example, changes when you say: This is America (To je Amerika); I am in America (Sem v Ameriki); I am going to America (Grem v Ameriko); I am from America (Sem iz Amerike). And those are only four of the six cases; the reasons you use them are beyond my grasp, but I have been able to memorize the context clues that usually tell me when to use each one.
In any case, I had a mental chart of case endings (six of them—each ending different based on whether the noun is masculine, feminine, or neuter, and whether it is singular, in the dual form, or in plural). So it is easy to explain why my brain got confused with podobne besede, or words that sound alike.
“Šla sem v trgovino,” I said to my cousin. I went to the store. “In nakupila sem čevlje in jih jedla sem.” And I bought shoes and I ate them.
“Kaj?” my cousin asked. What?
“Čevlje,” I repeated with great dignity. Shoes. “Njih so bili zelo dobre. Njih so imeli dober okus.” They were very good. They had a nice taste.
“Kaj?” my cousin asked. What? She was probably thinking: What on earth?
Refusing to use my English, I pointed to some fruit on the table. She still didn’t get what I was saying. Finally, in English, I relented: “Cherries.”
“Ah, češnje,” she said.
“Češnje, čevlje,” I said, suddenly realizing that while the words for shoes and cherries were remarkably similar in my English-speaking brain, I did not, in fact, eat čevlje (shoes) and wear češnje (cherries) on my feet.
I’m pretty sure she laughed about that one for weeks to come. Actually, I know that she did because it was one of the first stories that came up when my mother recently came to visit Slovenia, our family’s native country.
Among the list of classic punch lines I’ve helped to create since my foray into learning the Slovenian language:
– Nasvidenje vs. Nazdravje. The first means “Good-bye,” while the second means “Cheers.” This is especially important to note if you are asked to make a toast. First, there is the issue of remembering that you must look each of the 42 people seated at the table in the eye individually while saying this and that you must only grasp your wine glass by its stem, never its cup—or else you look “like an American,” which, from the tone that phrase is said in, I gather to mean something closer to “like a heathen.”
It’s easy to see, then, why you—as you struggle to keep up with conversation, might be compelled to say: “Nasvidenje!” Or, effectively: Good-bye. See ya later, folks! I’ve had quite enough of you tonight!
However, this will prompt everyone around you to laugh, and for your cousin’s husband’s brother to exclaim: “Ampak—kam greš?” But—where are you going?
– Kokos vs. Kokoš. For once, this wasn’t a speaking mistake on my part. This one was in comprehension.
“Boš potico?” my cousin asked me. Would you like some potica, which is a lovely bready dessert dish with swirls of walnuts and perhaps other signature regional additions, depending on the chef, such as raisins, coconut, cinnamon, or spices?
To specify, she added: “Ima kokos.” It has coconut.
But I heard: “Ima kokoš.” It has a hen.
A hen? I thought. Dear Lord, this is some kind of bizarre dish with meat in it… again? OK, I can take it when every day you offer me more meat with my meat. I’ve never seen so much meat in my life in a country. You might have chicken with a side of fish and beef and regional sausages (čebabčiči). Oh, and feel free to take a piece of bread with that, if you’d like, of course.
For a quasi-vegetarian, this array of cultural dishes is a minor assault to the stomach. It’s also not too hard to believe that, well, there might be hen in my potica dessert.
“Ummm…” I said in response to the kokos comment.
“Kokos,” my cousin repeated. Coconut.
Finally, I just went for it, half in Engilsh: “Kokos… kot ‘hen’ po angelško?” Coconut… like ‘hen’ in English?
I don’t think my cousin’s eyes have ever gone so wide. She was probably thinking: Why on earth would we put hen in our potica? This shoe-eating girl is insane.
Luckily, that one sorted itself out rather quickly when I ate a piece of potica and recognized a distinct coconut taste, and the lack of any feathers or other hen-like remnants.
Who said language learning couldn’t be fun?
Published this week by the Stonebridge Press and Villager Newspapers.