My Hungarian is progressing. Painfully slowly but it is progressing. I attend a Hungarian class twice a week with two Romanians and a German (and for a couple of weeks a Greek bloke), and this is helping a lot. Here are my latest observations about the language: It is not as difficult as people make out. People are very quick to tell you how hard Hungarian is to learn. This is particularly mentioned by Hungarians themselves who are often at great pains to let you know that their language is amazingly difficult. I am not sure if this comes from sympathy for those learning the language and a desire to be understanding of errors, or from a kind of perverse pride in having a complex and impenetrable language (I actually suspect it’s more the latter than the former).
But it’s a myth (or at least an exaggeration). To start with, Hungarian verb tenses and conjugations are relatively simple. There are only three verb tenses, for example - past, present, and future. Contrast with English, for example, and its mysterious and unfathomable present perfect tense, the correct and shifting use of which is seemingly designed to ensure that foreigners remain foreigners and never mistaken for native speakers. Now there is a catch here, in the each verb tense has two sets of conjugations – one when the verb is referring to a defined thing and one when it is referring to something less specific. To give an example from English it would be as if the conjugation of “watch” in “I watched a film last night” were different from its conjugation in “I watched Top Gun last night”. [I’d like to point out that I didn’t, and would never again watch Top Gun – the one and only time I saw it was a waste of enough of my life]. But even with this you are left with a mere 6 separate sets of conjugations. While this results in more verb forms than English, it is many many fewer than most Latin languages. This area is actually the one in which English really shines in the simplicity stakes - in that each verb has very few forms – “watch” can be watch, watches, watched, or watching. And that’s it. I’ve never encountered another language that has this level of simplicity. The most complex verb in English – to be – has a grand total of 8 forms – be, being, been, am, is, are, was, and were, Look at any Latin language and all the conjugations of each verb and your brain starts to melt.
Like most Latin languages and unlike English, Hungarian also has a very clear correlation between spelling and pronunciation. This also makes it easier for the learner. If I hear a word I can spell it (well I’m getting there – I’m still often guilty of mistaking an “a” for an “o”) and if I read a word I can pronounce it (though I sound like a 5 year old sounding words out, especially with some of the long words that exist in Hungarian. Bogi sometimes asks me to read her a bedtime story – not because she likes the way the story sounds in my deeper masculine voice, but because it cracks her up to listen to me struggling through the words).
Where Hungarian is difficult, at least for this learner, is in its cases. Now because I’m a mediocre language learner I can’t just accept cases and immerse myself in them. I have to associate them with something in English. In this instance prepositions. So, rather than prepositions, Hungarian has dense thickets of suffixes. -vol, -völ, -hoz, -hez, -ben, -ban, -rol, -röl, -ra, -re, -bol, -böl, the list is (not quite, but seemingly) endless. I hope that one day my mind will clear and suddenly I will be able to automatically suffixise words like I’ve been doing it all my life. But for now, they just leave me tongue tied and gasping for air. Which word or words should take the suffix, which order should the suffixes come in (you can add more than one onto each word), which suffix it should be, and what the vowel in the suffix should be to obey the rules of vowel harmony. All of these questions have to go through my mind every time I say a sentence. And my mind’s not that quick.
So, I have invented my own hybrid language, which I call Hunganian. This is basically Hungarian but without the suffixes and with Romanian prepositions instead. You see, Romanian, while I’m not actually studying it, is similar enough to languages I have studied in the past for me to be able to pick it up relatively easily. I can’t really produce Romanian, but my listening and reading skills are fairly OK. And here in Csikszereda, if you can’t produce the correct Hungarian, you know what everybody’s second language is and you can try that instead. So, for example I might be in a pizza place and say something like “Kerek egy pizzát cu paradicsom, gomba, es paprika, de fara sajt” This is a Hungarian sentence with two Romanian prepositions in it (and one internationally understood Italian word). It translates as “I’d like a pizza with tomato, mushroom and pepper, but without cheese”, where the italicized words are Romanian. Or I’ll be in the chemist and ask for “D-vitamin pentru baba” which means (as you may be able to guess) “Vitamin D for a baby”, with the pentru (for) being Romanian.
Now, as it goes, this works fine. I can get things done and live a relatively normal life. Sadly however, Hunganian is a language that is only very locally useful. Outside Harghita and Covasna counties in the Eastern Carpathians, I suspect it will prove to be a language of no great value. Unless I set myself up as some kind of bringer of Transylvanian harmony and promote the language as a new kind of Esperanto, uniting people in a gloriously peaceful tomorrow.
[Just to riff a little further on the pizza sentence, I'm still not sure of the correct Hungarian version of my original Hunganian. My instinct tells me that it ought to be a "paradicsomos, gombás, paprikás pizza" which would translate something like a tomatoey, mushroomy, peppery pizza, but that sounds too clunky. There must be a suffix I could add to the pizza rather than to all the toppings. And yes, paradicsom is the word for tomato, and yes it does also mean paradise. The first Magyar to sink his teeth into one after they were brought back from the new world must have been more effusively positive than most Magyars seem to be.]