Tuesday, September 11, 2007

language of the day: Hungarian

What probably motivates me most when learning languages, other than the languages themselves, are the coursebooks that present and teach them. The fact that I find language teachers quite annoying at times (nothing personal), and that classes are just not my cup of tea, implies that I'm literally up to my head in all sorts of 'teach yourself-in thirty days-easy introduction-beginners' sort of books. Which, for me, is one of the greatest joys of life, and I've spent countless hours at bookstores like Grant and Cutler in London, which is for hardcore language fans only, or Morawa in Vienna, which also has a stuffed language section.

One of my all-time favourites is a book called Lako i brzo mađarski ('Hungarian easily and quickly', or if you want a nicer translation, 'Easy and quick Hungarian'), which I had bought with pocket money ages ago, at a marketplace somewhere in Bosnia, and which is stunning from the very beginning. Here's an excerpt from the 'revolutionary' preface: “The ever-growing reality of the brotherhood and unity of our nations and nationalities, together with the growing conscience of their togetherness and the proper enactment of the equality of nations and nationalities in our self-governing socialist community and of their right to use their languages in the overall self-governing practice of policy and public life, are all elements that help grow mutual interest for languages and cultures such as Hungarian. If we add the constant progress in the relations between our country and the neighbouring People's Republic of Hungary, then it is clear that the number of our citizens excited about learning Hungarian is steadily growing”. And that's just the beginning. Lesson three already teaches you the word for 'first-class' (elsőrendű), lesson seven begins with Ma rendkivül forrón tűz a nap ('Today, the sun is shining unusually hot', approximately), in lesson nine comrade Fenyvesi (Fenyvesi elvtárs) visits an agricultural cooperative and in lesson thirteen you learn that Jugoszláv Dolgozó Nép Szocialista Szövetsége is Hungarian for 'Socialist Association of the Yugoslav Working People'. Plus it's all illustrated with black and white caricatures of men with huge, round stomachs and moustaches and women to match. I suppose you can understand how desperate and amused at the same time I was learning Hungarian at age 13. (I will probably have to blog a bit about languages and communism – it's an awfully broad subject, though.)

There's this idea of Hungarian – a magyar nyelv – being an extremely difficult language, but I'm not buying. Whereas it does come up with place names like Hódmezővásárhelykutasipuszta (which, to be precise, is a corruption of Hódmezővásárhely-Kutaspuszta, later known as Székkutas, by the German author Hugo Hartung whose most celebrated work speaks of a Hungarian girl named Piroska), and there is a bit of a feel to it that the Hungarians do try to put as much as they can into a single word, this still doesn't make it extremely difficult. Some 12 to 14 million people in Hungary and other places that were previously part thereof (such as in southern Slovakia, Transylvania and Vojvodina) call it their mother tongue, and its closer relatives include only two languages spoken in western Siberia, Khanty and Mansi. By virtue of common ancestors that have come from the Uralic mountains, it is also related to Finish, Estonian and the other Uralic languages.

Hungarian regular verbs have two conjugations in the present tense – one when followed by a definite direct object (Kérem ezt az almát – I want this apple) and one for the other lot (Kérek almát – I want an apple). Like the other Uralic languages, it has no construction for 'to have', but to say 'I have X' uses 'my X is to me' (Nekem van időm – I have time). It also has a bunch of 'cases', or rather suffixes used to describe the various positions a noun or an adjective or a pronoun take within a sentence; such as a házban – in the house; a házba – into the house; a házból – from the house.

Hungarians being the polite people they are, you'll hear jó napot which means 'good day/afternoon' pretty much everywhere and often extended to jó napot kivánok ('I wish a good day/afternoon'), whereas women (and older people) are still greeted with kézet csókolom ('I kiss the hand'). Goodbye is the somewhat bumpy viszontlátásra, often shortened to viszlát, and 'I love you' is szeretlek. Hungarians pronounce the 'sz' as the s in the English word 'sun', and their 's' as sh in the English word 'shoe'.And if you're looking for something to take back home with you, make it powdered red pepper (füszerpaprika).

The photo of the Hungarian-language tourist attractions sign from Budapest was taken by Molly E. Holzschlag and is used under a Creative Commons license. On Flickr, someone made a quite amusing comment about the photo: "Thank God they have pictures!"


Anonymous said...

I came across your blog while waiting (again) for my programs to compile - I wanted to say I've enjoyed your posts very much so far, and hope you continue - seeing someone with knowledge of 38 languages is humbling but inspiring to a someone with "just" 8 ...

Anonymous said...


I've found a site that you might find interesting. It's a language learning site where you can have a live converation with a native speaking tutor using Skype. I know you said that language teachers are not your thing but on this site you are able to look through a marketplace of tutors, read their profiles before you choose. I've found it fun and it's really improved my prounciation and understanding.


Personal Spanish said...

Hungarian is such a sweet language, but not so much speakers out there like for example spanish, or english. Hmmm, dificult. Should i start with learning it?

Übersetzungsbüro said...

Beeing native Hungarian and I also used to teach the language I can tell you, it is difficult! However it is a challenge and as I was reading in your posts you speak a lot of languages, learning Hungarian is then definitely a great experience! Good Luck : )