Saturday, May 31, 2008


The bulk of the various advertisements, billboards and promotional signs which adorn our lovely city consists of the usual fare of telecommunication products, financial services and real estate done in the usual bland unremarkable style of the two or three ad agencies which control our small advertising market. But once in a while, an ad comes along - or, rather, is put up - which truly boggles the mind. Like this one, from last October:

When I first noticed it, I actually stopped dead in my tracks and stared at it for about a minute. I was stunned at the fact that I immediately understood what the ad was all about. Once I got over that and back to work, I found myself once confounded once again, this time by the question of just who the makers of the ad had in mind as their target group. Why? Let's break it down:

The text says "To the Winter Palace!" and then "New Fall/Winter Collections 2007", the latter part we can ignore. As for semantic content of the rest of the ad and its context:

- we're in Slovakia;
- it's October;
- the ad is for a Winter sale taking place at a shopping mall called Shopping Palace Zlaté Piesky ("Zlaté Piesky" is the name of the neighborhood and the word "Palace" is, naturally, English, the Slovak equivalent would be "palác"); combined with
- the preposition "na" which is used in wishes ("Na zdravie!"), exhortations ("Poďme na to!") and for other similar purposes, such as a call to attack (readers of Hašek will recall his famous "Na Bělehrad!")
- the young man's raised fist is a well known gesture of defiance, a symbol of resistance etc.; and finally (and most interestingly);
- the couple's faces.

October. Winter Palace. Defiance, resistance, revolution. A call to arms. Son of a bitch - the advertisers in '00s Slovakia are using the Great October Socialist Revolution to hawk their products. When the girls and me discussed this at the office, we all agreed that the semiotic content of the ad was immediately clear to anyone of from our generation and older. All of us at the office are Husák's kids, i.e. we were born in the baby boom of late 70's and early 80's Czechoslovakia. All of us also spent at least a few years in communist-era elementary schools where the teachers were addressed "súdruh učiteľ/súdružka učiteľka" (lit. "comrade teacher"), the official form of greeting was - I shit you not - "Česť práci!" (lit. "Honor to work!"), the October Revolution was the biggest thing in history evah, especially in October and November (it was officially celebrated on November 7th with compulsory parades and stuff), and pictures of people looking exactly like the couple in this ad lined the walls of every school's hallways. Those pictures and the whole art movement which was to referred to as "socialist realism" is the main reason I was stunned upon seeing the ad for the first time. You see, when I think of iconic images representing communism and the communist era in Central European history, I think of potraits of Lenin, Stalin, perhaps even Marx (but, oddly enough, not Che Guevara). Or I think of Kremlin, hammer and sickle, red flag, red stars, May Day parades. But all of those would have too obvious. And so the creators of the ad dug a little deeper into our public subconscious and came up with this very subtle, yet unambiguous reference to the former era and it's icons. Kudoz Kudos to them for hitting a nerve most of us probably didn't even know they had, which is - after all - the purpose of every advertisement. I, for one, am still shocked at how firmly entrenched the indoctrination I received in my early years still is in my mind. And I wonder if I'll ever be able to get rid of it and if not, what would that mean...

And this brings me to my original question: just who is the target group for this ad? Is it people who still remember the previous era, like my generation, people in their mid-twenties to early thirties, or even people older than that? Most of us do have the disposable income, but are we really likely to be persuaded by a billboard to visit a shopping mall located at the outskirts of the city (like this one is) in the notoriously bad traffic? And are we really the group of people who is most likely to spend any amount of time in malls? Not so much. Here just like anywhere else, it's teenagers who hang out in malls. But will they get the ad? Based on a number of surveys in regard to history the Ministry of Education conducted, I doubt that very much. The kids today are barely aware of the pre-1989 period in our history and - thankfully - know little of its mythology. So the ad probably missed its target by a lot. But still, it is a great piece of advertising art.

Another interesting ad came along a few weeks ago. I don't have a good action shot, so a picture taken from the advertiser's website must suffice:

Translation: "May is all about ..." and then there's the L-word. Even those inhabitants of Bratislava (and, I imagine, all other cities, towns and villages) with minimal command of English recognize the word "love" and nod in agreement. After all, in our culture, May is commonly - if somewhat clichedly - referred to as the month of love or the time for love ("máj - lásky čas"). Come to think of it, back in the day (see the trip down the memory lane above), every month was a month of something. March, for example, was the month of books. April was the month of forrests. And four weeks between late October and early November were officially designated the month of Soviet-Czechoslovak friendship - in fact, there are couple of good jokes about that one, but you kind of had to be there to get them. As for the ad, it's all pretty straightforward until now - the connection between May and love is a transparent one for every Slovak, even if the word for love is English. But that can't be all, can it?

Of course it's not. And that's where the second layer of meaning comes in. First, this is an ad for a bank, more specifically a particular investment product. Then there's the pile of silver coins and the gold coins which make out the L-word. And finally, there is that one more word that is spelt "love". It's a Romani word pronounced ['lɔvɛ] or ['lɔːvɛ] which means - "money". So what we have here is a trilingual pun. Pretty neat, wouldn't you say?

And once again I have to ask myself, just who the target group for this ad is? It is true that Romani borrowings are quite common in some dialects of Slovak, especially in those regions with large Roma population, but they are hardly ubiquitous. My native dialect (which is more or less the dialect of Košice) is probably the best example of Romani influence. The Romani word čaja and the interjection dig are widely recognized as shibbolets of our dialect and, needless to say, routinely feature in parodies thereof. What's more, with the growth of the Roma community, their (admittedly very slow) integration into the mainstream society and various government programs designed to promote Romani language and culture, the number of these borrowings may even increase.

I came across one just the other day, when my baby sister described something as "totally mište". "Totally what?" I said, perplexed. "Mište," she said. "What?" she went on noticing my blank look, "Mr. Big-shot Linguist just heard a word he doesn't understand?" I said "Well, yeah." and then the little brat proceeded to laugh her butt off. Only when I threatened to revoke her access to my bank account did she stop mocking my ignorance (at least outwardly) and explained that mište means "great, cool, awesome". When I asked where she got the word from, she gave me a "well duh!" look and said that her and her friends got the word from a Roma classmate and liked it so much that for some time, it even replaced the ubiquitous Hungarian derived "fasa". Somewhat surprised, I checked the authoritative Romani-Czech dictionary and sure enough, there it was: "mištes = right, correct, proper." The variant mište (though neither in my dictionary, nor any of the others) is even commonly used in Slovak Romani meaning "good, well":

O dad but mište bašavelas pre cimbalma, bašavelas andre banda mire papuha, no le pandže čhavendar ča jekh phral bašavel.

My father played cymbal cimbalom very well, he played in a band with my grandfather, but of the five children, only one brother plays [an instrument].

A few more questions and one brief Google search revealed that this word is far from the local (read: our village) phenomenon my sister made it out to be and has in fact made it into most Eastern dialects. My favorite example is one from a chat room where while discussing music sharing someone asked "Nemáte dakto nejaké mište bootlegy?". Mište, ain't it?

With my sister's help, I then compiled the following list of Romani words in Eastern Slovak, words/meanings marked with an asterisk are the ones that appear to be new:

čávo [noun, masculine] = 1. boy, young man; 2. boyfriend; 3. a flashy macho-type young man (see chav); 4. *douchebag (cf.) (o čhavo)
čaja [noun, feminine] = 1. girl; 2. a good looking girl; 3. girlfriend (e čhaj)
dig (alt.: dik, dyk) [interjection] = 1. lo!, behold! (originally dikh, the imperative of dikhel = to see)
gádžo [noun, masculine] = 1. a Gentile (non-Roma); 2. a person of low intelligence and/or education, a person with no manners (see redneck) (origin unknown, the Sanskrit word gṛhastha is sometimes cited as one possible etymology)
love [noun, masculine, plural] = money (o love, e love)
*mište [adjective] = great, cool, awesome (mištes = right, correct).
more [interjection] = 1. a familiar way to address a man (see "dude!"); 2. a general-purpose interjection, often preceded by ci.
*mulo [noun, masculine] = dumbass (o mulo = revenant)
*piraňa = 1.a good-looking girl; 2. a female equivalent of čávo 3 (e piraňi = a young woman)
*temerav = an oath: "May I die!" (te merav)

That last one is particularly interesting. My sister was only able to identify it as "some sort of a curse". I figured out that it's a first person singular present tense form of "merel" = "to die" and "te" is a conjunctive particle, but it's pragmatic properties eluded me. It wasn't until a buddy of mine visited a casino where he found himself at a table with some Vlax Roma (or, as he put it, "a bunch of Klingons") who kept using the phrase. Once he got back, he inquired about it in a forum I'm a member of and other participants were quick to point out that the term is also used by a fellow who calls himself Rytmus and is apparently a rapper. His music isn't exactly my cup of tea, but he seems pretty successful and very controversial, both by virtue of his language and as a result of a number of (most likely manufactured) feuds with other rappers and mainstream pop musicians. And, most importantly, he is a Roma and very proud of his Roma heritage. He has made it his trademark and he claims it is the inspiration for his anger and his music. Here is a video of track 3 "Temerav" (also spelt "Temeraf") from his album Bengoro ("The Devil" in Romani) which is also a very good sample of his style. Judging by the views on YouTube, the amount of Google hits he gets and my sister's iPod, Rytmus is quite popular among the young generation and it is thus not inconceivable that "temerav" is not the only Romani word his fans learned from him. A case in point is the second Google search hit on "mište" I quoted, which is, as the address bar of your browser immediately reveals, from a hip-hop forum. And more to the point, consider one of his most popular bits, the uncharacteristically sentimental "Mama" ("mother" in Slovak) which features a chorus in Romani and the phrase "potrebujem lóve" = "I need money" between 00:42 and 00:44.

So perhaps I'm wrong and the distribution of the Romani word "love" is much wider than I thought. The Slovak National Corpus isn't of much help here and there is not much other research on the subject, so I'll leave it at that. And perhaps I'm wrong entirely and it's not dialect distribution the makers of the L-word ad rely on to deliver their message. Instead, they are using popular culture to sell their products. And if popular culture takes Romani to the national level, even if it's in tiny bits and pieces, I certainly won't complain. Especially with a trilingual pun like this one.


lemuel said...

Dunno, the commie propaganda imagery is prominently displayed in school history books, so anyone who actually opened them should be familiar with the style - this probably means the image is incomprehensible to anyone under the age of 20. :)

I love the love ad.
Growing up in the 90's in Bratislava, words like cavo, caja, dyk more, love, gadzo, were indeed pretty common. With passing age I seem to have lost touch with the slang and today's youth culture as well. For example I have not been familiar with the eloquent lyrics of the gentleman who styles himself Rytmus. Watching the first vid, I had a genuine rofl moment there, so to speak.

(possibly)OT: the word verification gizmo just accused me of being a ponce.

bulbul said...

this probably means the image is incomprehensible to anyone under the age of 20. :)
It would appear so :) I even tried testing this on few unsuspecting teenager (mostly my sister's and my friends' friends), but blank looks is all I got.

With passing age I seem to have lost touch with the slang and today's youth culture as well
I was on the same path, but fortunately (from purely linguistic point of view, of course), as I was on the verge of losing touch with them completely, my sister turned 13.

have not been familiar with the eloquent lyrics of the gentleman who styles himself Rytmus
Then, my good chap, you are in for a treat. Try this one, probably the most famous example of the manufactured musician feuds I mentioned.

Languagehat said...

Wow, you don't post often, but when you do, it's Katie bar the door! I love the trilingual pun, but was taken aback by your transcription. In most dialects of Romanes, the stress on love is on the final syllable; obviously Slovak speakers borrowing the word would put the stress on the first syllable, but do Slovak Roma do so as well?

(By the way, it's kudos, not kudoz, unless that's some pun I'm not getting.)

TomV said...

I've got a question about your translation of cimbalma in "O dad but mište bašavelas pre cimbalma". Is it perhaps a cimbalom (see rather than a cymbal?

bulbul said...

you don't post often
As God is my witness, I try.

In most dialects of Romanes, stress on love is on the final syllable
I'd have to check, but I'd say that's not the case for Slovak Romani. Whether it's an instance of the influence of Slovak, I'm not so sure. Most non-Vlax speakers of Romani can be found in Eastern Slovakia and it is well established that East Slovak Romani is very much influenced by both Eastern Slovak and Hungarian. I'd have to look into this.

By the way, it's kudos
Of course, thanks. I was thinking of my previous life and, where kudoz were points awarded for helping a colleague out with a translation :)


you're right, it's cimbalom, thanks for catching it. I ran the post through a spellcheck and accepted the first proposed correction :)

goofy said...

I wonder if mište is related to mišto "good", folk-etymologized to be from German "mit Stock" - as in elegant, well-dressed. But possibly from Sanskrit mṛṣṭa- "sweet".

bulbul said...


is "mišto" an English word?

goofy said...

No, I'm talking about the Romani word.

bulbul said...

I see. Then I'm pretty certain it's the same word. If you look here, you'll see it used in other dialects. Some of those samples of Romani dialects - notably the Slovak one - also feature the word "lačho/lačhe/lačhes" which is the word for "good, well" I learned from my Roma classmates.

Anonymous said...

Too cool.

or, as he put it, "a bunch of Klingons"


Languagehat said...

So I blogged this post, and a reader asked if the initial stress in Czech and Slovak might be due to the influence of Hungarian. Any thoughts?

Y ddraig werdd said...

Mišto with the meaning of great, good is a commonly used word in Romanian (spelled mişto) . I think in the early '90 you could say it was still a slang but now it definitely isn't. Lovele, meaning money, didn't get is not that common at all, though for a time in the mid '90 it had some popularity. The other word mentioned aren't part of the common slang in Romanian, execept for piranda which it's used for all Roma women.

Anonymous said...


AARGH! I meant nuqjatlh. Note to self: Never meddle in the affairs of Klingons [such as their language], for they are prepared to kill you where you stand.

Unknown said...

Enjoyed reading this. Food for thought. In Croatian --- not so far from Slovakia, as you know --- there is also "lova" (f, first syllable stressed) as a slang word for "money". Did not have any clue about its Roma origin, though.

Panu said...

This čaja is of course the same word as the colloquial or slangy Swedish word for a girl, tjej.

Anonymous said...

well, in romanian, which is the language spoken by native Romanian people, not romanes, as in gypsies the mentioned L.word turned into "lovele", with the same money signification.
...und excuse my english.

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