I’ve been fascinated with Hungarian for the best part of a decade. I started with some night classes in Vienna during 2002 and continued with the purchase of the US Department of State self-teaching method that runs into fifty-two 90-minute cassettes (we are talking 2004) and is recommended for US embassy staff and spies, I presume. (The course was written during the Cold War with cute references to locals wanting to travel to Vienna and stock up on cigarettes without sadly obtaining a passport.) I’ve since bought another three self-study guides and downloaded a couple from the Internet for good measure.
I was pretty OK in understanding Hungarian around 2006-2007 when I even considered writing a book about the country. But unlike, say, Spanish or Portuguese, Hungarian flushes off from my head as soon as I step out of the country.
Why my fascination in the first place?
Well, having learned several Germanic and Latin languages, I wanted to be stretched. But I did not know how much. Even today, after reviewing some of my Hungarian books for my current trip, I am still in awe of this language which looks and sounds like no other. Forget Finnish by the way. I know linguists say that they are remotely related, but the operative word is ‘remote’. Put a Hungarian phrase in Google translate, opt for automatic language detection and many a time Google will guess Turkish. I’ve been to Finland and I’ve been to Turkey. Sorry, linguists, modern Hungarian sounds and looks Turkish to me.
One of the major shocks of the language is that it operates perfectly well without the basic verb to have. Hungarians say: “To me there are four children” which sounds a Yiddish construct for “I have four children”, yet it works. You don’t know where it will hit you: although the months are understandable (November is november and March is március), the days of the week are not: Tuesday is kedd and Thursday is csütörtök. Plurals exist but surprisingly not after numbers. You can say that “women are waiting at the station” but if you specify the number you say “Four woman is waiting at the station.”
Verbs are declined as usual, but they have two sets of endings depending on their object (definite or indefinite). So “he wants a beer” is declined differently from “he wants THAT beer”. That in all cases and tenses of course. It certainly makes you think before you utter a sentence or like most Hungarians you put the objects before the verb: “This to you I give” they say (which sounds ever so Yiddish again).
As for the possessives my/mine, your/yours: we enter into the realm of total eccentricity. Imagine declining a noun like a noun but also like a verb; it’s the verb endings that tell you if the noun is yours or mine. So if in Spanish you say we drink=bebemos, you (many) drink=bebéis, they drink=beben and cerveza is a beer, then “our beer” would be cervezemos, “your beer” would be cervezéis and “their beer” cervezen. I bet you never thought of that! Hungarians have.
And that is before the agglutinative nature of the language kicks in where prepositions are attached to the noun or the verb turning a simple stem into something long, horrific and unpronounceable. Maybe it’s because they were thinking in that language that Hungarians seem to be good at maths. Paul Erdős, Loránd Eötvös and Ernő Rubik (he of the cube) come to mind.
I’ve left one of the most interesting factoids for the end: we may have given the Hungarians words like szex, húligan, diszkó and sztriptíz and yes, they’ve responded with huszár (Hussar), gulyás (goulash) or sujtás (soutache). But consider this: Kocs is the name of a village in Transdanubia which produced some great palatial carriages: the possessive being –i, they were called kocsi. A Spanish historian Luis de Ávila y Zúñiga wrote in 1548 about the Habsburg Emperor Charles V: “He was sleeping in a covered carriage which is known in Hungary as kocsi and the name of the invention originates in that country.” And that has travelled the whole world (coche in Spanish, Kutsche in German) and ended up as our English coach.
Fascinated? Well, I still am.