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Here’s something new for the blog: audio! If, for some reason, you’d like to hear my dulcet tones offending multiple European countries with my pronunciation of their words, you can listen to the full article here:
This month, I had the good fortune to make a visit to Hungary and to see there a dear friend who now works in its capital city, Budapest. This country has long fascinated me from afar, what with its large role in European history and its infamously distinct national language, Hungarian.
As you may know, Hungarian is not genealogically related to most other languages of Europe. It does not belong to the Indo-European language family, but rather to Finno-Ugric. In terms of ancestry, its closest relatives are spoken in Siberia. This makes Hungarian very different and very difficult to learn for many people. As an Indo-Europeanist by trade, a step into Hungarian is a step outside my linguistic comfort zone.
That step though doesn’t mean that the brain of a linguist stops its constant computation; rather, it speeds up. My brief immersion in the Hungarian environment had me picking apart the threads and peering into the machinery of the language, as well as trying to actually speak it, because that’s just what I do.
Starting from a very elementary basis of knowledge acquired from a previous visit and from general linguistics osmosis, here’s what came to this linguist’s mind on this particular visit to Hungary in the form of six short and personal reflections. I hope they will interest the curious, discussing some key features of the language, and perhaps may even be of use for new learners out there!
In a nutshell, my overall impression continues to be that while Hungarian certainly isn’t an Indo-European language, it is nonetheless a European one. These six subsequent points should demonstrate what I mean.
1. Gender-free Grammar
Unlike its neighbours, Hungarian does not have grammatical gender, that feature that nouns share with their associated adjectives and other words. In contrast, Slovak, to the north, has a grammar with three genders. To use a Slovak noun correctly, you have to know which gender it has.
- ten pekný slovenský muž
‘that nice Slovak man’ (masculine)
- tá pekná slovenská žena
‘that nice Slovak woman’ (feminine)
Meanwhile, in Hungarian, gender is just not a factor to be considered. See here how the adjectives kedves and magyar don’t change in these phrases:
- az a kedves magyar férfi
‘that nice Hungarian man’
- az a kedves magyar nő
‘that nice Hungarian woman’
In this absence, Hungarian is like Modern English, although arguably it has even less grammatical gender; English has lost it over time, but Hungarian never had it. English maintains to this day a three-way gender split in the pronouns he, she and it. For Hungarian, these are just ő.
Not having to worry about to gender feels like a big benefit. If you know the noun and the adjective, you can stick them together and you’re on your way. There’s no need for multiple endings and gender forms of the same word. For instance, when asking for a discounted ticket, I already knew angol ‘English’ and diák ‘student’, so I could produce angol diák vagyok ‘I am an English student’ with confidence. It didn’t help with the discount though.
Hungarian is infamous for its many grammatical cases that you have to learn, and I don’t doubt that they are a challenge, yet the lack of gender feels like a fair trade-off.
2: Sweet Harmony
Another distinctive feature of Hungarian is its vowel harmony. This is, in brief, the rule in which the vowels within a word are required to be similar to one another in set ways. Hungarian makes the vowels of a word harmonious. It’s a feature too of other European languages like Turkish and Finnish, which are likewise non-Indo-European in their origin.
Vowels are produced in the mouth with the tongue. Change the position of the tongue and you change the vowel. Some are made with the tongue pushed forward; these are front vowels, such as the /i/ vowel in English meet. Others are made with the tongue held back; these are back vowels, like /ɑ/ in English palm. Front-ness and back-ness are the key criteria for harmony in Hungarian. If the stem of a word contains a back vowel, all the other vowels must either match it in its back-ness, or be one of the neutral vowels. For example:
‘I thank’/’thank you’
- borban és sörben
‘in wine and in beer’
Vowels: back-back, front-front
For the newcomer to Hungarian and vowel harmony, this must be tricky. It means for instance that you have to recognise two suffixes that mean ‘in’: the front version -ben and the back -ban. Yet I do feel that this is something that a learner will gain an intuition for quite quickly. Even without a technical explanation, inharmonious words will sound off and un-Hungarian-like. Knowing that a ticket is a jegy and a house is a ház, I found myself already guessing by instinct that more than one would be jegyek and házak, with matching vowels, and not jegyok or házek or somesuch dissonance.
3: Indefinitely Definite
This one’s a grammatical mind-boggler.
Like most European languages, Hungarian verbs change according to their subject, the person or thing that is the doer of the verb’s action. So, just as Italian ballo and Czech tančím tell you that I am the one dancing, Hungarian táncolok conveys the same information. However, Hungarian verbs also change according to their object, the thing affected by the action. Specifically, they reflect the specific-ness of the object. That is to say, they distinguish between indefinite (unspecific, generic, unknown) and definite (specific, particular, known) objects. I had heard of this as a phenomenon, but I didn’t know that Hungarian had it.
Let’s say that a city is being seen by me. In Hungarian, we need the verb lát ‘to see’ and the noun város ‘city’. If the city is known to the speaker and their audience, it is definite. If the city is new information or somehow unspecific, it is indefinite. If the former, it is a város ‘the city’. If the latter, it is egy város ‘a city’. So far it’s like English. Yet lát too is sensitive to the difference.
- a várost látom
‘I see the city’
- egy várost látok
‘I see a city’
Látok and látom both mean ‘I see’. What differs is not who is seeing, but the definiteness of what is seen.
Awareness of this difference really stumped me. While theoretically fascinating (and I’ve since been eagerly looking into how it came about), I imagine this is quite a hurdle for learners to jump in order to produce a good Hungarian sentence. You effectively have to double the number of endings to learn, and remember which is which. As I found, it’s something you need even for the basics. Asking for the menu in a restaurant? That’s a definite thing. Asking for a table? That’ll be indefinite, and your request should reflect that.
- az étlapot kérem
‘I ask for the menu’/’the menu please’
- egy asztalt kérek
‘I ask for one table’/’one table please’
In this feature for sure, I really don’t envy learners of Hungarian.
4: Secret Slavic
Now let’s turn to one way in which Hungarian is linked to its European neighbours. Hungarian has for many centuries been in contact with Slavic languages. This language family (which includes Czech, Slovak, Polish, Ukrainian, Serbian and many more) is itself a part of the wider Indo-European family. It’s also a language family I am much more at home in, so it’s very nice to spot Slavic words that have made a home in Hungarian, or words from a third source that the two share. One estimate (Kiefer 2010) puts the number of Slavic loanwords in basic Hungarian vocabulary at around five hundred.
Sonka and kolbász will quickly be recognised by the Slavically inclined as ham and sausage (compare Polish szynka and kiełbasa). Likewise, Hungarian tészta refers to both dough and pasta, while Czech has těsto and těstoviny for these foodstuffs. The Hungarian word for ‘money’ is pénz, which we can connect not only to some Slavic words like Czech peníze ‘money’, but further back to a Germanic origin which provided English with the humble penny. Moreover, Hungarian könyv ‘book’ looks a bit like the equivalent Slavic words kniga/kniha/księga/etc., although from their differences I would suspect that this is a very ancient connection.
Hungarian also follows Slavic in referring to something German as német, from the Slavic root *němъ ‘mute’. Likewise, Hungarian sides with Polish in their words for ‘Italian’, olasz and włoski, two members of a word family that I enjoyed writing about previously.
While in itself not surprising, given their longstanding contact, the connections in Hungarian vocabulary to Slavic are there to be spotted, enjoyed and made use of!
5: Crafty Calques
As well as borrowing from other languages, Hungarian also seems to have translated foreign terms part by part. This has created Hungarian vocabulary that matches foreign words in its meaning and composition, yet looks very Hungarian. This process we call calquing. For example, Budapest’s famously grand train stations are pályaudvarok. On the surface, pályaudvar is 100% Hungarian, yet it does comprise the words pálya ‘track’ and udvar ‘courtyard, court’. It therefore mirrors German Bahnhof.
A railway meanwhile is a vasút, composed of vas ‘iron’ and út ‘way’, which therefore aligns Hungarian with German Eisenbahn and French chemin de fer. A train itself in Hungarian is a vonat, built on the verb von ‘to pull’, just as English train and German Zug derive from verbs that also meant ‘to pull’.
This calquing reminds me first and foremost of Czech, a language that similarly went through a national revival in the 19th century. As Hungarians and Czechs sought to strengthen their nationhood, the two languages needed to match the vocabulary of powerful European languages like German. Calquing offered a way to achieve this; it allowed for the creation and naturalisation of new words, without borrowing them outright. Through these calqued terms, Hungarian shows its participation in the complex linguistic history of modern Europe.
6: Friendly Phonetics
My final reflection is that the specific sounds of Hungarian are not that unfamiliar and unusual from a general European perspective. Granted, vowel harmony poses a challenge if you’re coming to Hungarian from a language like English. Yet the sounds themselves, the phonemic building blocks of Hungarian, are nearly all sounds you’ll also find in surrounding languages.
For English learners, perhaps Hungarian’s most difficult sounds are its palatal /c/ and /ɟ/ consonants, spelled TY and GY, as in tyúk ‘hen’ and magyar ‘Hungarian’ (click to listen). As my friend remarked though, these are sounds also present in Czech and Slovak. This fact is of limited use for learners, but it may help to make Hungarian feel less strange. The two sounds are also fun to pronounce and, to my ears at least, make spoken Hungarian sound rather lovely.
All in all, Hungarian seems to me to fit well into its broader phonological ‘environment’. How that all came about is complex, perhaps partly coincidental, but Hungarian today strikes me, in terms of its sounds, as a very European language.
I hope that these six points of reflection, which occurred the most readily to me during my stay in Hungary, illustrate my overall impression of the Hungarian language: that while it certainly is not Indo-European, it is nonetheless European.
Many of the deeper, more fundamental elements of its grammar are at odds with its Indo-European neighbours, like its (in)definite object agreement and its lack of grammatical gender. Such features Hungarian has preserved from its Finno-Ugric ancestry. However, things that are less resistant to change, like its vocabulary, bear witness to its longstanding position within the ebb and flow of European language. Hungarian is a language like any other; it’s really nothing to be scared of.
- Kiefer, F. (2010). Hungarian. Revue belge de philologie et d’histoire 88, fasc. 3. Langues et littératures modernes. 715-739.
Thanks must go to Cristian Gașpar for checking my homemade Hungarian phrases.
6 thoughts on “A Linguist Abroad: Holidaying with Hungarian”
Just a tiny typo: a étlap > az étlap. The definite article is a or az, depending on whether the word begins with a vowel or a consonant, just like with the English indefinite a/an. The article derives from the demonstrative pronoun az; in Old Hungarian literature, they still wrote “az” everywhere, and even up to the 19th century, they used the apostrophe (“a’”) to mark the “mute” z.
And then my pet peeve: the “definite conjugation”, as the Hungarians call it, or the marking of definite object on the verb. It is present in some other Uralic languages, too, but only in Hungarian is it connected to definiteness; in other Uralic languages, it’s rather about topicality.
What’s more, it’s also about object person and politeness: first- and second-person objects are “indefinite” and trigger the “indefinite conjugation”, whereas the polite-address pronouns (Ön/Maga, both etymologically something like “himself/herself”) are third-person and require the “definite conjugation”. My favourite example (jocular, of course, but nevertheless): “Tegezhetem vagy magázzalak?” “Tegezhetem” is the definite 1SG form with the potential suffix -het- from the verb “tegez”, a derivative of te ‘you (SG), informal address’, that is: “may I call you “tu”, can we be on first-name terms, Sir?”. “Magázzalak” has the special suffix -lak for 1SG subject and second-person object, -z(a)- is the imperative suffix and the verb is “magáz”, derived from the polite address pronoun “maga”, that is: “must I call you “vous””? So, the whole thing would be something like “May I just call you Danny, Sir, or must I say “Sir” to you, Danny?”. Much more compact in Hungarian.
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Oops, thanks. That’s an oversight on my part. The example was previously ‘a menüt’, but it was suggested to me to change the word to ‘étlapot’, since that’s a better equivalent for the English than ‘menü’, which I did not know! Very interesting info about definiteness, person and topicality, thanks!
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When I took an undergraduate linguistics course 50 years ago, our textbook had some speculations suggesting that the Finno-Ugric languages might have some connections to Basque and Korean. Our professor chalked that up mostly to desperate attempts to connect everything to everything else at some ancient proto-proto-proto level.
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The pronominal definiteness distinction mentioned by Sentrooppa-Santra above is actually made weirder by the fact that Hungarian allows null object pronouns as well as null subject pronouns. When learning Hungarian, I never really got used to the fact that if you see an indefinite verb with no object in sight, the implied object is “me” (occasionally “you”).
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Exactly. Ages ago, I taught a translation course with authentic literary texts in Helsinki, and one of the main challenges for Finnish-speaking students was to understand who was doing the whatever thing to whom. Finnish belongs to those Uralic languages which don’t have objective conjugation (object person marking on verb), and third-person pronouns cannot be omitted: the null third person is not zero anaphora but usually refers to a generic subject person (“one”).
Thanks! Always an interesting read
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