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A brief lesson in Hungarian

I've been away for a week on my annual pilgrimage to meet my wife's family in Hungary. Each visit changes my perceptions of the country as I learn more about its culture and people, and I thought I'd share some of my insights with you. At least that's how this blog post started, but it ended up mostly being a rant about the Hungarian language. Onwards!

Hungarian language

Hungarian is a devilishly hard language to learn. It is entirely unlike the Slavonic languages from the countries that surround it, instead being part of the Finno-Ugric language group. Most Hungarian speakers live in Hungary, with the majority of the remainder living in countries immediately surrounding Hungary in lands that belonged to Hungary before various wars. Transylvania is ful of Hungarian natives who now live under the Romanian flag.

My attempts to learn Hungarian have been hampered by the fact that most Hungarians don't seem to understand how their language works. For you to follow in this confusion, you need to understand some of how Hungarian works. So, let's start at the top (please excuse my lack of accents in the letters (due to laziness) and bad spelling (due to ignorance)...

Rabbit: nyul
Bunny: nyuszi
Little bunny: nyuszika
My little bunny: nyusziskam
Her little bunny: nyuszikaya

There you can see the suffix "ka" is being added to make the diminuitive, the suffix "m" is added to make personal possessive, and the suffix "aya" is added to make the third-person possessive. "ka" is pervasive in Hungarian: if you have an aunt called Erzsebet (Elizabeth), chances are she will call her first daughter the same name. To distinguish between the two, the younger is called Erzseke, meaning "Little Elizabeth". Now another subtlety has arisen: the "ka" suffix has become "ke", but retains its meaning.

The choice of "ka" or "ke" for small is down to the sound of the word. This applies to all Hungarian suffixes. For example, to say "for Ildiko" (ie, "I bought the book for Ildiko"), you use the suffix "nak" to make Ildikonak. The shorter form of Ildiko is "Ildi", but if you bought a book for Ildi you use "nek", giving Ildikonek. So, Ildikonak and Ildinek. The suffixes for "to" are "ra" and "re", so to go to Buda (the posh part of Budapest) its "Budara", but to go to Pest it's "Pestre".

Appending suffixes to a word rather than using extra words means that Hungarian words are inevitably very long and convey a lot of meaning. Most of the suffixes convey what we would consider prepositions (to, into, for, etc), but some are incredibly clever. For example, the suffixes "sag" and "seg" are, in my opinion, best translated as "stuff" because they turn a verb or an adjective into nouns. For example, "sovanyu" is "sour", whereas "sovanyusag" is "sour stuff", meaning pickled vegetables eaten as a side dish with a meal. "Uj" is "new"; "ujsag" is "new stuff", meaning a newspaper. "orok" is "forever"; "oroksag" is "heritage". Interestingly, "orokzold" means "ever green" (zold means "green"), which is always the term used to describe music that keeps coming back year on year - "Do they know it's Christmas time?" is an evergreen song to the Hungarians.

Now, onto the conundrum: not many Hungarian seem to fully grasp how their language works. We have looked at the suffixes "ra" and "re" that mean "to", but there are also the suffixes "ba" and "be", which also mean "to". However, for a given town name you can only use either ra/re or ba/be; they are not interchangeable. So it's Pestre and Budara, but Londonba, New Yorkba, Manchesterba, Dunaujvarosba (a Hungarian town; you recognise "uj" because it means "new"; "duna" is Hungarian for "Danube", and "varos" is Hungarian for "town", so it's "Danube New Town"), etc.

The curious thing is that Hungarians instinctively know which to use - if you give them any town name in the world, they will unanimously agree that it's either ba/be or ra/re, but don't seem to know why that is. Similarly, the two words "mas" and "kulonbozo" both mean "different", and yet there is no difference between them - irony indeed. You can imagine why this frustrates language learning!

Perhaps the only easy part of Hungarian is that it is remarkably predictable because it has so few words. For example, at a dinner with ten people, nearly every one will say either "finom volt" (that was fine/nice) or "nagyon finom volt" (that was very fine/nice) at the end of the meal. The other one or two are likely to say "tokeletes", ("ter-kay-leh-tesh") which means "delicious". As far as I'm aware (and believe me, I've asked around), those are the only two responses to good food. We have delicious, tasty, fine, appetising, scrumptious, yummy, luscious, delectable and many more, so just using "finom volt" time and time again makes it feel quite fake.

English language

Not many Hungarians speak English. Those that do are very bad at pronouncing "r", "v", and "w", apparently because they are taught at school that every "r" is pronounced and that the inability to pronounce "w" is best avoided by just using "v". You can imagine the hilarity at my wedding when Ildiko tries to say "this is my solemn vow." . That said, a few English words have infiltrated their language, of which the most notable is "hello".

Hungarian has a number of different ways to say hello. In order of familiarity (based upon my study), you can choose from "szia" (pronounced "see ya"), "szervusz" (sair-voos), "jo napot" (yo na-pot; good day) and "csokolom" (cho-ko-lom; literally, "I kiss your hand"). These are also used as goodbye, so you say "szia" when you greet, and "szia" again when you part. If you are speaking to more than one person, append "stok" to your word, giving "sziastok" (hello/goodbye all of you; pronounced "see ya ostock") and szervuszstok. For saying goodbye, there's also the very formal "viszontlatasra" (vee-sont-lah-tash-ra), but that's best avoided because it's easy to mispronounce.

Hello has wormed its way into the language, so you'll now find many Hungarians greeting you with "hello". Curious to foreigners - but wholly inline with Hungarian logic - they also say "hello" when they part. Furthermore, they have extended the plural to hello, so you get "hellostok" for "hello/goodbye to all of you."


Hungarian people seem to have a fascination with what we would consider "high culture". For example, visiting a local bookshop I noticed there were more Hungarian to Latin dictionaries available for sale than Hungarian to English dictionaries.

Hungarians also seem to put a lot of stock in opera and ballet, which causes nothing but strife in my marriage. Last year I took Ildiko to see the English National Ballet perform Swan Lake, and she tutted through most of the first half as some of the dancers were a microsecond behind their colleagues. Worse, last week we went to see Madame Butterfly at the Hungarian State Opera House. It was sung in Italian, with Hungarian words flashed above the stage to explain the goings-on to the audience.

Now, my knowledge of Hungarian is dire, but my knowledge of Italian is limited only to what I have gleaned from reading Linux Format in Italian and the few words that are the same in Spanish and Italian. So, for much of the time I was listening hard to the singers, trying to figure out at least one Hungarian word from the translation, and trying to remember the plot from what I know of it in the first place. Suffice to say I left with a headache, but I think it was worth it for the opportunity to drink Tokaji on the state opera balcony inbetween the second and third acts.

Speaking of Tokaji, I brought a bottle back for Andrew Gregory. Hungarians seem to enjoy their wine very much, and I don't blame them because it's delicious. Tokaji is a special type of Hungarian wine, usually considered to be the best by Hungarians, and it's made by using dried white grapes. Traditionally, these special grapes (known as "aszu") were collected in special hods (known as "puttony") and added to grape must. The more hods that were added, the sweeter the wine, so you will find Tokaji rated in puttanyos from 3 (least sweet) to 6 (most sweet), along with an extra category called aszu-eszencia making what is essentially a 6+ category for "extra sweet". Most bottles of Tokaji carry the slogan "Vinum Regum, Rex Vinorum" (Wine of Kings, King of Wines), which was given to it by King Louis XIV some years ago. If you've ever had the opportunity to drink a 6-puttonyos Tokaji, you'll know it's a very fine drink indeed, but be sure to remember that despite its rosé colour it definitely is a white wine. I just hope Gregory has someone nice to share it with...

One bright spot in our trip was a visit to the Budapest Christmas Market (karacsonyi vasar), and, while dodging vats of mulled wine, proved to be an enjoyable place to pick up handmade items. For a change, things were actually quite cheap there - most things in Hungary are ridiculously expensive, and I guess the market misses out the middlemen who take the big cuts.

While in Hungary, I introduced several people to the joys of Nintendo DS. No one I met there had seen one before, or indeed had played any video games beyond what came on their mobile phones - Mario, Sonic the Hedgehog, etc, just missed them out thanks (I presume) to the Russians. However, they caught on pretty quick, and Mario Kart and Bomberman proved to be big hits with young and old.


Hungarian food is a curious mix of hearty farm meals and what we would consider continental food. For breakfast (and often dinner), we would eat bread rolls topped with a selection of salami and cheese. I particularly like paprikas salami, which is strongly spiced with paprika, but they also have winter salami (so named because it has a white coat of penicillin), kolbasz and many others. Most of them taste the same to me.

For main dishes, you will nearly always start with a dish of lukewarm, thin soup with vegetables. The vegetables - usually just half a carrot - are usually straight from the fridge, and the soup itself tastes of very little. The main course varies, but seems limited. By far the most popular is fried chicken, and in one week you can expect to be served fried chicken at least twice. The next favourite is "fasirt" ("far-sheert"), which is fried pork. Yes, they like their fried food. My personal favourite of all the Hungarian dishes is rakutkrumpli ("layered potato"), which made up of sliced potato, egg and salami, doused in sour cream and baked. Hideously bad for your arteries, but nagyon finom every time.

Dessert is rare, and usually consists of someone presenting you with a pile (well, a mountain) of little cakes to eat. These are small and light enough that you don't notice how many you're eating; I must have had more than 50 over the week. Retes (ray-tesh; the Hungarian equivalent to strudel) also seems to be quite popular, but apparently it's fussy to make so few people bother any more. One last thing: if you get the chance, try eating a turo-rudi. It's sweetened cottage cheese mixed with vanilla, then coated in milk chocolate and chilled. These are as close as Hungarians get to delicacies, but cost only 30p. You can get them with stripes of flavour through (Nutella, jam, etc), but the "natur" (unflavoured") variety is best.

Busy reading

While out there, I spent most of my time reading - no surprise there. I managed to get through Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (JK Rowling; 9/10), The Redemption of Althalus (David Eddings; 5/10), Troy (David Gemmel; 10/10), Sharpe's Tigers (Bernard Cornwell; 7/10), Sharpe's Triumph (Cornwell; 6/10), and part of George R. R. Martin's new book. I also managed to get in some practice at Mario Kart, and one of these days Mike's going to challenge me to the death at this game. Sadly I know for a fact he's a great deal better than me, but I'm going to play him anyway. The only way to get better is to play those better than you, right? Of course, Mike refuses to play UT any more, claiming it hurts his wrists or some other excuse... ;)

Now, back to work on LXF76...

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