Lenni vagy nem lenni? Ez itt a kérdés.

Posted on January 29th, 2010 by

I feel that the time may have come to discuss the Hungarian language in all its quirky glory. For some reason unknown even to the Hungarians themselves, Hungarian bears very little resemblance to any other languages, including the ones spoken in neighboring countries. I have also heard that the history behind the language and the country’s early history are also sketchy at best, which is a weird concept growing up learning the relatively short, well-known history of the US.

Oh, where to begin.. for starters, the title of this post translates to, “To be or not to be? That is the question.”, perhaps not something I will use in day to day life, but a good introduction to the Hungarian infinitive nonetheless. Speaking of infinitives, this is the first area where Hungarian is different from French or Spanish. Our verb vocab is actually in the third person and then all conjugations stem from there. The infinitive actually involves adding letters to the third person rather than being the starting point. Hungarian also has a relaxed word order (somewhat like Latin) and the use of pronouns like “I”, “you”, “we” are optional and really only used for emphasis on the subject.

So wading through all of these ambiguities, one finds that the undeniable key to understanding the confusion that is Magyar (Hungarian) is suffixes. If you want to say “on the __” you use a suffix. If you want to say “from ___ to ___” you use multiple suffixes. If you play your cards right you can even create a sentence where every word has a suffix (or two). It’s such a crazy and unique system, and the longer I’m in language school, the more I appreciate it. The coolest part about it is that within each suffix group, the specific suffix that you use depends on something called “vowel harmony.” Basically, they categorize vowels as either “back vowels” or “front vowels” depending on where they are pronounced inside your mouth and then decide on the suffix accordingly. There’s more to it than that, but all that really matters is that they pay a lot of attention to how the different sounds in a word work together, and that’s why I think Hungarian is one of the most beautiful languages in the world. I love listening to people talk to each other at the grocery store or on the metro even though the only words I can really decifer are “igen” (yes) and “nem” (no). I’m really starting to love Magyar, and I’m actually considering taking the next level as one of my courses once the semester starts. It might not be the most useful thing I could take, but when else am I going to get to learn a language as different as Hungarian in a place where I can walk out of the classroom and immediately practice what I’ve learned in a real life setting. It’s exciting to be able to read signs and food packages, ask for “tix tojás” from the scary market lady, or respond to the greeting “Jo napot kivánok” from the cashier at the drug store. I still can’t believe I actually live in Hungary (at least for the next 4 months). Life is so crazy.



  1. Joseph Ertavy says:

    Jennifer, i applaud your attempt to tackle my language. If you want to quickly learn to read Hungarian, just learn the alphabet and its pronunciations, especially the four o’s and u’s. Also, note that in Hungarian the accent is always on the first accent, just the opposite of French.
    Jó tanulást kivánok!

  2. cat says:

    It’s a nice post and I glad to you like being here :) Hungarian is a difficult language indeed, mostly for those people who using a totally different language structure, but I think it’s not a mission impossible to learn it. I wish you good luck!

    Btw actually that’s “tíz tojás” what you’ll ask from the scary market lady :D