Monday, November 21, 2005

Conceptual Hungary

Hungarian, as you may or may not be aware, has all these cases. No, not suitcases, linguistic cases. In practice, to someone like me who has never previously tried to learn such a language, this means that there are a bunch of suffixes to learn which can be appended to nouns or adjectives.

So far so good. I will skip over the concept of "vowel harmony" which is a truce declared after the Great Diphthong War of 1293 and still holding to this day, because while it is interesting, it's not what I want to comment upon today.

What I want to comment upon today is the idea of being in or on something. I am sure that the relevant case for this concept has a name like the plaintive case or restive case or something, but I don't know what it is, and I can't really see the value in learning it. What I need, as a student of the language, is to know that to express what English uses the preposition "in" for, one needs the suffix -ben or -ban (depending on vowel harmony, but we're not talking about that). With me so far? Now, if you are in a particular country, say, you may use this suffix to express that. Angliában, for example, means "in England". You can do this over and over: Romaniában, Spanyolorszagban (in Spain), Amerikában, etc etc. It works for every single country in the world bar one. Hungary. For some unaccountable reason you cannot be "in" Hungary, but you can only be "on" it. So you have to say Magyarorszagon. Maybe Hungary is a concept, an indeal, that can only ever be grasped at but can never be entered.

Not only that, but it works for cities too. Londonban, for example, but Budapesten. I think, but am by no means sure, that you can only be "on" most cities in Hungary, and a few others (in Cluj, for example, is actually Kolozsvaron rather than Kolozsvarban). To confuse me even further, while everyone here says Csikszeredában, often on the Duna TV channel (from Hungary, but with lots of Transylvania based news) they often say Csikszeredán.

It's a rum do, that's for sure.

PS I am well aware that English is not in any way whatsoever logical, and while you welcome to comment on how ridiculous my native language is, you will receive nothing but agreement from me. Please take it as read.

PPS. I am sure that my vowels are disharmonious at times. Feel free to taunt me.


Michael Furey said...

We do this in English too. Say for example, you are on a train or bus and it happens to stop in a station/place you once lived, then in relating this to someone else later you would say something like 'I was on my way to Y when the train stopped in X'. If you have no relationship to the place X, then you are more likely to say '... we stopped at X'.

Familiarity makes English speakers more likely to think of a place in three dimensions and use the matching prepositions. In Hungarian, this appears to work in reverse (surprise!). The more they know a place the more point-like they refer to it.

[Don't forget those exception too, like Pecsett.]

I just love how exact you can be in Hungarian about place and how loose they are with time. Again, this is almost the opposite of English with all those tenses, particularly British English with the prefect tenses (and how much do Hungarians love those).

The way I always try to explain this difference to people is with a fairy tale:

English: Once upon a time...
Hungarian: Hol volt, hol nem volt.. (literally, 'where there was, where there wasn't...')

Mystery for a Hungarian child is mapped out in space,perhaps a real remnant of a nomadic past.

AlieMalie said...

I remember giving up on trying to learn Hungarian when I was living in Budapest and also in Borsec, Romania ... I couldn't reconcile all the rules to make them work together. I can give you directions in and around Budapest and I just speak in present tense French when I'm in Romania. Saved me a lot of hassle. I wish I had been able to learn the languages though - I would love to be able to speak Hungarian. Mayhap I'll give it another try.

Anonymous nitpicker said...

Actually, if you want to be absolutely correct, it is Kolozsvárott...

Andy H said...

No it isn't. Or at least that's not what people round here say. It's Kolozsváron.