Zmrzlina & Šľahačka
September 22, 2011
By Allan Stevo
Zmrzlina can be a hard to pronounce word for many new to the Slovak language. This is partly because the first five letters are consonants. It is commonly translated into English as “ice cream,” but that translation can be misleading as it implies that the product is made from cream (a fattier liquid collected from whole milk), while in fact zmrzlina in Slovakia often doesn’t even contain milk, let alone cream.
The main ingredient is sometimes water, but more often vegetable fat (like margarine). The margarine-like vegetable fat is, in fact, the most common ingredient that I have noticed over years of inspecting zmrzlina labels in Slovakia.
While the common English translation of this term is not entirely accurate, the Slovak word used to describe the product is. Zmrzlina in Slovak essentially means “frozen thing” and accurately describes this treat consumed throughout the spring, summer and fall in cities and villages throughout Slovakia.
This translation difficulty is often overlooked, as can be attested to by the fact that every Slovak-English dictionary I’ve looked through to research this article over the last few months conveniently lists “ice cream” as the proper English equivalent – including this one, this one, this one, this one, and this one. The last one seems to be the most popular Slovak-English dictionary among Slovaks and native speakers of English in Slovakia, as I’ve seen it on bookshelves across the country more than I’ve seen others.
This translation of zmrzlina as “ice cream” is still true to the spirit of the product however – a tasty frozen treat that you carelessly enjoy throughout childhood and at times during adulthood when you feel like something special on a warm day or any time you feel like being extra nice to yourself. In that way the translation is the same. The words in both languages have a similar purpose, but aren’t exactly the same. It’s sort of like how “heavy Webster’s Dictionary” and “doorstop,” while not the same thing, may serve the same purpose on a windy day.
As “frozen margarine” would probably sell fewer scoops and would leave some people feeling less happy with the selection of frozen products for sale in Slovakia, this is perhaps a convenient oversight for vendor and consumer alike. With all the chemicals used to (often quite effectively) create the right texture, the sweeteners, and the flavoring, one has to be pretty sensitive to the texture of cream to be able to notice its absence in most zmrzlina-s.
Šľahačka is often translated into English as “whipped cream,” but like its cousin zmrzlina , it does not often containing cream at all. Just like zmrzlina, it most often contains water and margarine as primary ingredients.
Once again, the error is made in the translation into English as “whipped cream” rather than in the original Slovak. Šľahačka in Slovak, just like zmrzlina, accurately describes the product – literally “something whipped into a foam.”
Sometimes this unnatural texture is easier to discern than with some of the more carefully designed zmrzlina-s. Good cream is easy to come by in Slovakia, with fat percentages clearly labeled, and available in many varieties in grocery stores. The fact that it’s so readily available and used so much in regional cooking helps makes the imitation all the more recognizable. However, it is important to recognize that it’s really only an imitation in the English language.
Šľahačka, sold in spray cans, is meant to be convenient to use, rather than to capture the identical texture of whipped cream. Again, while the translation into English sort of misconstrues what šľahačka is, the Slovak original does not. It is not something that pretends to be a liquid milk product with 33% fat that has been whipped into a foam. It intends to be sweet, easily accessible, and foamy.
The People of Bratislava and Šľahačka
As with many words containing softened letters, I have, through a random sampling, come to the conclusion that a fair portion of the inhabitants of Bratislava do not know how to properly spell the word šľahačka. In much of the rest of Slovakia, a ” Ľ ” is pronounced differently than an ” L .” This is not always the case in Bratislava.
Of course many people in Bratislava take great care to soften their consonants in accordance with standard Slovak. However, not doing so is common enough for the rest of the Slovaks to have noticed it. From my experience, it is just as common to receive an SMS or email with this product written as “Šlahačka” instead of “Šľahačka.” The fact that so many of the natives of the capital city seem to be unable to grasp the simpler points of the Slovak language is an issue about which the other 95% of Slovaks enjoy joking about incessantly.
Now, as zmrzlina is often considered a difficult to pronounce word for non-Slovaks, I was hoping to find a YouTube video that showed someone trying to pronounce this word, but I had no luck. All I found were bawdy clips from international “candid camera” type shows like this one or this one that air on Slovak television and around Europe. (They are bawdy, so please don’t click on them unless you’re in the mood for humor that wouldn’t fly on American network TV, but is not a problem for broadcast television in Europe.)
Instead of interesting pronunciations of zmrzlina , as I had hoped, what I will leave you with is a video of the Albanian ice cream man on Hviezdoslavovo Namestie in Bratislava doing his schtick.
I’ve long speculated about this one, but have never been able to come up with an answer. In a country like Slovakia that so appreciates fresh foods and appreciates foods free of additives, why is it that it is so hard to find zmrzlina that contains cream? Milk is an important staple in the Slovak diet and cream is an important ingredient. Why isn’t zmrzlina that contains cream also part of the summertime custom? If anyone can help me with that one, I would very kindly appreciate it.
Allan Stevo writes on Slovak culture at www.52inSk.com. He is from Chicago and spends most of his time travelling Europe and writing. You can find more of his writing at www.AllanStevo.com. If you enjoyed this post, please use the buttons below to like it on Facebook or to share it with your friends by email. You can sign up for emails on Slovak culture from 52 Weeks in Slovakia by clicking here.