Tuesday, October 31, 2006

We Go "na Plzeň"

Late Friday afternoon, Jesse and I boarded the bus to Plzeň (Pilsen) in order to visit Štěpanka and Michael for our planned pseudo-Thanksgiving feast. The bus, for some reason, sat for a good while before starting, growing hotter and hotter. An LED thermometer actually displayed the startling temperature (which I have now forgotten) when not apprising us of the time of day.
In these rather uncomfortable conditions, we became gradually aware of an extremely lively child seated across from and one row behind us. It was gleeful and very loud. Around the time that I whispered to Jesse that at least it was a happy rather than a wailing child, it overheard a woman behind us refer to going “na Plzeň.”
For some reason this phrase struck our small neighbor as ecstatically humorous. The entire bus was treated to a remarkably long performance of the phrase “na PLzeň!” (with a steep rise in pitch and volume on PL), punctuated with many giggles and shrieks of merriment. The phrase was probably repeated over a hundred times before we got a brief intermission, after which it was resumed. At one point Jesse, who has been collecting local sounds, undertook to record the performance, but he began just before one of the rare pauses, so the sample is not entirely characteristic.
I would estimate that we sat in the bus for 15-20 minutes before it left the station and began circulating cooler air. The trip to Plzeň normally takes about an hour and a half by bus, but due to an untoward traffic stoppage around the city of Beroun, on this occasion it lasted an extra hour or so (causing us, incidentally, to miss our connection). The trip enabled us to observe just how patient mothers and other travelers are capable of being in this part of the world.
It is my impression that in the US, the child’s mother would either have yelled at it and slapped it until it howled, or completely ignored it and let it run up and down the aisle doing whatever it pleased. In this case, the mother, who was extremely quiet herself, seemed to think that an occasional whispered suggestion to be quiet would do the trick. Her most successful ploy was to embark on reading a children’s book, which provided a break from “na PLzeň!” for at least twenty minutes.
We concluded, from the pronunciation of a few key words, that the pair was Slovak or from eastern Moravia. This brings up a couple of linguistic questions.
First, the child was of somewhat uncertain gender, as they often are in the first few years. Its mother referred to it as Samko, leading us to assume its name was Samka since Samko is the vocative of Samka. Jesse took it to be male and I was uncertain, since we are accustomed to both male and female diminutives ending in a. But if it was Slovak, its (his) name was Samko, because Slovak has no vocative and my Slovak teacher has announced that male Slovaks do not have names ending in a, only male Czechs (who are called things like Mila, Jirka, Slava, Jindra, and so on).
Second, the phrase “na Plzeň” is a little odd, in that Czech usually employs “do” rather than “na” for the purpose of going to a place. One goes “do Brna,” for example. On the other hand, one does go “na” to quite a few places, including Moravia, Slovakia, islands, and concerts. My knowledge of Slovak is not extensive. Perhaps in Slovak one goes “do” when going to Plzeň, which would suggest why it might seem humorous to go “na Plzeň.” Some kind reader might enlighten me on this.

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