Podiet' sa

Juliana Sokolova
22 September 2004

slovakian woman

The verb podiet'sa is not a word or a concept that somehow captures the “spirit of the nation”. It does not convey a unique Slovak characteristic. Yet its usages in popular tradition and in present-day Slovakian reveal an inner linguistic life that render it, in effect, untranslatable from the language of this small central European country.

Podiet' sa, a soft-sounding word characteristic of the Slovak language, gathers force from folklore.

A woman had three sons and a baby daughter. One day, the boys were meant to look after their little sister and accidentally tipped her out of the cot. Just then their mother walked in. Overcome with fear for the baby, and anger at the boys not helping with her chores, she threw a curse: “I wish you would turn into ravens, you!”

In an instant the three took on the form of these black birds. They opened their beaks in surprise, only to find themselves no longer able to speak in human tongue. They fluttered their wings, circled over their small village home and flew off towards the deep forest where they disappeared from sight.

When the mother saw the effect of her unthinking words, she tore at her hair in despair over the power of a word.

Podiet' sa is not the mother’s powerful curse itself, but rather – in the future form of the verb – the word she employs to express her despairing state of mind over the loss of her sons. In some versions of the story, the woman laments: Kam sa ja nešt'astná teraz podejem? (“where will I, the unfortunate one, find rest now?”, or “what will happen to me now?”)

The entry for podiet'sa in the lexicon of the Slovak language lists two meanings:

  • to disappear, to get lost: as in “our dog got lost” (Pes sa nám kamsi podel)
  • to find refuge, shelter: as in “she doesn’t know what to do/ where to hide/ where to find a refuge/relief from her pain” (Nevie, kam sa podiet' od bolesti)
In its first meaning, the word can be used of a thing that has gone missing, with the reflexive pronoun sa hinting at some mischievous movement of its own. Indeed, when the father of the cursed sons comes home at night and wonders where the boys have gone, he may be using the very same word, podie sa.

In its second meaning, the word is most often used in the negative: “I don’t know where to…” (Neviem, kam sa podiet'), or in the form of a question: “Where will I now…?” (Kam sa ja teraz podejem?).

Both uses indicate a kind of lack, of being at a loss. This can be lack of refuge in the physical sense (the lack of a home or shelter from the weather), or it can reflect a state of mind (a confusion about where to go in this world, where to find shelter from affliction, what to do with oneself or how to make this pain go away). Like the woman who lost her children and did not know where to seek comfort, so great was her sorrow.

In my mind the word evokes the gesture of clasping one’s head in one’s hands, accompanied by the sound of a woman wailing, lamenting her (or someone else’s) fate; in particular by a village woman wearing a traditional headscarf. Amid the flow of her tears she cries, now towards the heavens, now to the people of her village: Kam sa teraz podiet'?

The word can have an archaic ring, but it has adapted to modern circumstances well. When used by members of a homeless family to describe their situation, both layers of meaning are present: the lack of physical shelter and the desolation of finding themselves in such a hopeless condition.

The use of podiet' sa indicates that a person (or a thing, or animal) has lost its bearings, is torn out of the normal flow of events and thrown into confusion and despair.

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