Monday, January 30, 2006


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.]


Vándorló said...

Sounds like you're having fun.

The pizza ordering sounds fine to me. If it's clear what you're asking for (i.e. you're in a pizza hut) you can always shorten it to 'egy paradicsomos, gombás, paprikást'. Otherwise, you can try adding with '+val' making sure you change the 'v' to match the final consonant or accenting a vowel e.g. paradicsommal, sonkával, gombával, sajttal. Otherwise, something with 'rajta' (on it) + your topping or sauces e.g. rajta ketchup.

On the tenses, sorry to say this, but it can get more complicated. Hungarians can use 'el' and 'meg' in the same sort of ways we express the perfect tenses. Though it depends on the verb. Also, adding these (or others like 'fel', 'le'...) to a verb changes the action from a static one to more of a process. It's often explained as the difference between lookin at photographs and watching a movie. So, you might want to study Hungarian (Magyarul akarok tanulni) or master it (akarok megtanulni Magyarul or some variation depending on what you want to emphasise).

Sounds great anyway. And the best part is it never ends.

Anonymous said...

In case you wonder, the Romanian to be has almost 40 distinct forms:

fi fiind fost sunt eşti este/e suntem sunteţi sunt eram erai era eram eraţi erau fusesem fuseseşi fusese fuseserăm fuseserăţi fuseseră fusei fui fuseşi fuşi fuse fu fuserăm furăm fuserăţi furăţi fuseră fură fiu fii fie fim fiţi

Hungarian has its reputation for being a very hard language because when a foreigner looks on a Hungarian text usually can understands no words.

They Hungarians were pretty reluctant to borrow words and prefered to make their own: For example: 'football', "labdarugo" in Hungarian, "fotbal" in Romanian, 'external trade', "kulkereskedelem" in Hungarian, "comerţ exterior" in Romanian.

Vándorló said...

I feel a bit guilty that my variations weren't much simpler than the one you suggested. You wanted to avoid the case endings on the individual words. Having mulled it over, you could use 'a következővel' (with the following) and then list your toppings sans case-ending. It sounds a bit business like and officious, though.

I agree that Hungarian can be a lot simpler than other languages, once your brain has had time to tune in to vowel harmony, word order and the strange vocabularly. Personally I hate languages that have genders.

Gabe said...

I think in modern and colloquial Hungarian usage, Vandorlo's Pizza Hut example would be the best.

The way I'd order would be (sorry for the missing accents, it's too much of a hassle):

"Kernek szepen egy paradicsom, gomba es paprikas pizzat, legyszives". Although I'm not sure it's textbook correct, you can make a 'list' of suffixes in this way to enhance the speed/understanding of your request.

At least that's how I speak it - and most people in Hungary appreciate my Hungrish...they think it's cute.

Romerican said...

In my self-made parlance, I speak a little Romangleza and have dabbled in Angyarul.

Anonymous said...

"Jobb egy sorhas, mind egy pizza hat!"
Ezt bogozzd ki baratom!