The Language of Something


I took a Hungarian class for four years. Okay, it was only 90 minutes a week, but I am continually amazed at how much I still have to learn (the practice will be a lifetime’s worth). This from a guy who got two certificates of excellence out of those classes. I can say that I have a decent foundation, and I have seen improvements while living here. For example, my listening and comprehension ability has improved greatly. When I was still living in Leeds, I dreaded the classes when we had to listen to some awful audio and then either discuss what was said, or privately answer questions on a handout.

I have also seen my ability to conjugate on the fly improve. I should have known I’d be in for the long haul (with lots of roadblocks and traffic accidents along the way) when my first class had my teacher explaining the ins and outs of verb conjugation. It was like being back in my high school Latin class, and what did I hate most about that class (and why did I not take the second year of it)? You guessed right if you said conjugation. Oh, the headaches! Add to Hungarian conjugation a million and one exceptions and what seems like a billion and one different ways to end a word. Imagine words as building blocks if you are trying to picture Hungarian. One little tag on at the end indicates plural (not unlike English, but k instead of s). Another tag on gets you the tense. Another might indicate the….anyway, the point I’m trying to make is that you can feasibly end up with a word that has 6 or 7 endings added on and is nearly 44 letters long in the end (Megszentségteleníthetetlenségeskedéseitekért for example). Never mind trying to sort this out as you listen to it as a second language.

Therein lies ones of the tricks with Hungarian. You have to listen to the very end of every sentence to know what is being said. You might think this is the same in English, but it isn’t. You can infer with English, but not so with Hungarian. There’s a reason that people who publicly translate on the fly from Hungarian to English make so much money. The specifics of it are because as they are translating to English, the native speaker has moved on to another sentence (and possibly another topic as well). Therefore, they have to speak or take down their English translation (which requires patience) while covertly listening to the Hungarian that is continually being spoken. Anyway, it’s a good job if you can do it. Most can’t, and I’m surrounded by lots of Hungarians who speak great English.

Thankfully, I have also seen my pronunciation improve. This largely includes stressing the first syllable. In Hungarian, you always stress the first syllable…always. My wife says this is easy, but as you should already know, this is never the case in English. My wife also says that this is an added bonus for those learning Hungarian as the end can sometimes be muddled as long as you stress the first syllable. This is a boldface lie (see above and the numerous endings to be attached).

Enough complaining. I’m a big boy to say the least and I can learn a second language. Let’s discuss the positive sides of Hungarian. First and foremost of these is the fact that the language is phonetic. That’s right folks, as long as you know how to pronounce every sound/letter, you’ve got that part down. The sounds don’t change, so you can be assured that you are correct (barring the fact that you don’t have my problem of thinking you know the correct sound when you really don’t).  This phonetic bit of Hungarian is brilliant to say the least. The trick (I’m back to being slightly negative again) is that you’ve got a million and one vowels in Hungarian. There are, and I’m not kidding here: o, ó, ö, ő, u, ú, ü, ű, e, é, a, á, i and Í. Although it is very possible to learn these sounds, I can attest to the challenge it makes with spelling (especially with the short versus long i).

Here are some useful tips for Hungarian pronunciation if you are planning to come and visit this lovely country.

Zs is pronounced something like Zsa Zsa Gabor (a famous Hungarian you might know).

S is pronounced like an sh. Therefore, Budapest is not pronounced how you think it should be. It is pronounced more like ‘Budapesht’. When I first came to Hungary, I refused to say it the proper way until my mother-in-law pointed out to my wife that foreigners always sound like they have a lisp when saying Budapest. Well, I didn’t want to have a lisp (or at least have my mother-in-law thinking I had one).

Sz is pronounced like the English s. Therefore, Eszter is said like Ester. Szia, which means both hello and goodbye is said like see-a. Hungarians sometimes say hello in English when saying goodbye (you can now see why).

Köszönöm means ‘thank you’. That’s always a good word to know. I don’t know how to explain the pronunciation of that one, other than to remind you of the s sound and that it’s three short vowels (Hungarian vowels fall into categories such as short/long and back/front).

Kérek means ‘I’d like’. That’s a good one to know as well. A long e (é) is pronounced like an English ‘a’. The Hungarian a sound is actually quite flat and sounds more like a flat English ‘o’. You could for example say something like Kérek egy kávét (I’d like a coffee). The t on the end of kávé indicates the accusative. Trust me, you don’t even want to dip your toe in those waters.

These are just a few helpful tips. There is plenty on-line to help you in your quest (some excellent YouTube channels for basics and Live Mocha for something a bit more intensive).

The good news is that English is spoken by enough people that you can sometimes get a friendly and bilingual Hungarian to step up and help with translation issues. If not, then I can only wish you good luck and say that it’s good to get out of your comfort zone and try to wing it with foreigners. Speaking of help, we once tried to assist a  German tourist who looked confused (he had two maps in hand) by asking him if he was lost. He only looked at us strangely and muttered ‘Aren’t we all?’. My wife and I almost responded with, ‘Well, you may be, but we certainly aren’t’, but didn’t. You’ve got to love people who have an intellectual/philosophical point to prove at every turn.

You will also see the occasional rune about. Yes, there are Hungarian runes, but I don’t think anyone really knows what they mean. It is debatable whether or not these were a developed alphabet or just something akin to builder’s marks. Whatever the case, I just point them out as an aside. You don’t have to learn them for your trip.

Anyway, good luck and have fun…or…

Sok szerencsét és jó szórakozást!

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