WHY AND HOW TO LEARN AND SPEAK HUNGARIAN?
Dedicated to my grandchildren
Dr. Sandor Balogh
The main issue for Hungarian linguists concerns the origin of the Hungarian language. According to some, the current official explanation, suggesting a Finn-Ugric relationship was created by Austrian linguists, who had enjoyed official support by the government, and its purpose was to list Hungarians with peoples and cultures they had considered inferior. But in this paper I am concerned with the structure of the language which shows a surprising sophistication and consistency.
I have heard many anecdotal stories about the Hungarian language, and read several quotes from linguists, but not a detailed study until recently. I have heard also stories that the group of famous Hungarian scientists that included Edward Teller, were men from Mars who came to scout the Earth for an eventual Martian invasion. In a more serious vein, there was speculation that the group that had developed the nuclear bomb was so successful because of the logic of the Hungarian language they spoke.
I had also read about Cardinal Giuseppe Mezzafonti, the Italian linguist who spoke 58 languages, including Hungarian. He is quoted as asking in 1817: “Do you know which language competes with the Greek and Latin in its ability to be constructive? The Hungarian. It seems even the Hungarians fail to realize what a treasure their language is.”
The English philologist, Sir John Bowring (1792-1872), spoke many languages: Hungarian was one of them. He translated many Hungarian poems into English, and issued a literary chrestomathy. In its foreword supposedly he wrote the following:
The Hungarian language goes far back. It developed in a very peculiar manner and its structure reaches back to times when most of the now spoken European languages did not even exist. It is a language which developed steadily and firmly in itself, and in which there are logic and mathematics with the adaptability and malleability of strength and chords. The Englishman should be proud that his language indicates an epic of human history. One can show forth its origin; and all layers can be distinguished in it, which gathered together during contacts with different nations. Whereas the Hungarian language is like a rubble-stone, consisting of only one piece, on which the storms of time left not a scratch. It's not a calendar that adjusts to the changes of the ages. It needs no one, it doesn't borrow, and doesn't give or take from anyone. This language is the oldest and most glorious monument of national sovereignty and mental independence. What scholars cannot solve, they ignore. In philology it's the same way as in archeology. The roofs of the old Egyptian temples, which were made out of only one rock, can't be explained. No one knows where they came from, or from which mountain the wondrous mass was taken. How they were transported and lifted to the top of the temples. The genuineness of the Hungarian language is a phenomenon much more wondrous than this. He who solves it shall be analyzing the Divine secret; in fact the first thesis of this secret:
"In the beginning there was the
and the Word was with GOD,
and the Word was God."
In fact, I was even afraid to use this quote, since I had little evidence to back it up. But just recently I found an essay by the Hungarian linguist, Iren Lange, that explains why and how the Hungarian language is different, in fact, quite unique (see http://www.betonopus.hu/notesz/lange-magyar-nyelv.PDF). It made me realize that the above quotes were worth quoting, so I decided to write down, primarily for my children and grand children what a treasure the Hungarian language is and why.
While the most important and most obvious function of a language is to communicate ideas and experiences, and most languages do a satisfactory job, the Hungarian language goes further. It teaches one to think clearly and speak economically, without wasting words and time. Therefore if one wants to learn Hungarian, in addition to the vocabulary and the rules of grammar, one needs to acquaint him/herself with the mentality of the Hungarian language. Below are listed some examples.
1. The first rule is “don’t be redundant.” If something is obvious or self-evident, it does not need explanation or special construction, and to explain something, use as few words as necessary.
a. For example, if I name an object and assign it a size or color, like table and large, it is obvious that the two are related, therefore there is no need to make it explicit by using a verb. In English the correct way is “the table is large,” but in Hungarian the auxiliary verb, the “is” is always omitted: “az asztal nagy.” It is obvious that the “nagy asztal” exists, I do not have to add the verb “is.” When I want to say that the table exists, I would say “ott van (is) egy asztal,” or simply “ott az asztal” (There the table). In the English one has to emphasize “there is a table there.”
b. Another example is when certain obvious activity takes place: when “it rains,” or “it snows,” the question would be stupid: “what snows?” So in Hungarian we use a single word, and it is a complete sentence: “Havazik,” i.e. “snows,” singular third person, without any subject, noun or pronoun. Everybody knows “what” snows. The “it” does not give any new information.
c. Similarly, when the subject is obvious, it is omitted in Hungarian. For example, “in the stone age, they believed in many gods.” In Hungarian we omit the “they,” since it does not add any new information to the sentence: “A kökorszakban sok istenben hittek.” Who believed in several gods? Why, obviously, “they!” Who else? In any case, the verb “hittek,” is past tense third person plural already, so it refers to “them.”
d. Just like in Latin, the Hungarian language also uses "conjugation," that is, suffixes are added to verbs to indicate the tense, the person and number of the predicate. But unlike Latin, except in special cases, it omits the pronoun, since the meaning of the verb is obvious. For example, “I ride a horse,” in Hungarian is “lovagolok; “you ride a horse,” becomes “lovagolsz,” etc. The same principle applies to all the other tenses and modes. In the English language similar omission occurs when one answers a question that includes the auxiliary word :do”. For example, when asked “Did you eat?” “I did” is sufficient.
e. If a number or a numeric pronoun is given, it is superfluous to use plural for the objects: in Hungarian any given number of objects is singular, as is the indeterminate “many,” “all,” etc. unless you just name the object. Thus “two tables,” “many tables,” “all tables,” in Hungarian carry the singular case, “asztal.” Plural is only used if the noun stands alone, with the definite article: “bring the tables here,” i. e. “hozd ide az asztalokat.” In singular, it means one table, in plural it means all of them.
f. Capitalizing the first letter of proper nouns is another example of language-economizing For example, the historic agreement between the Austrian emperor and Hungarian king, Ferenc Jozsef and the Hungarian nation in 1867 is capitalized, “Kiegyezes” (Compromise). Otherwise, to make the meaning clear, it would have to be specified; “az 1867-es kiegyezes” (the compromise of 1867)
g There are objects that are obviously plural, or come in pairs, that in Hungarian are treated as one. In this case in Hungarian we use singular: “I have two hands,” in Hungarian singular: két kezem van.” If one had an accident and has (or uses) only one hand, instead of singular we use “half” hand or “half-handed,” like “fél kézü,” vagy “félkézzel.” On the two hands there are ten fingers, and on the ten fingers there are ten nails. In Hungarian none of these nouns is in plural. If somebody would say in Hungarian, hogy “levágatom a körmeimet” (I have my nails cut) it would sound foreign: one would know that the speaker is not Hungarian. If he wants to cut less than all ten, which is unusual, one would have to specify how many, but in routine cases always use the singular. Similarly, for shoes, stockings or socks, since they come in pairs, we use the singular for the noun: “a pair of shoes” in Hungarian is “egy pár cipő.” For one shoe we say either “one shoe,” “egy cipö,” or “fél pár,” that is, “half a pair,” half of what is normal. For the pants English specifies “a pair of,” while in the Hungarian it is only “nadrág.” It is similar with objects like “a pair” of scissors, glasses, binoculars, etc.
h. Also, when it comes to tense, the Hungarian language is economical. When one names an activity in the present tense, if it is happening then and there, it is obviously present tense. If it is not happening, then it is self evident, that one has the intention to have it done in the future. For example, “levágatom a körmömet” (I have my nails cut), if it is happening now, it is present tense, but if at the time one is doing something else, then it is obviously in the future tense. Or, if one asks, what will you do tomorrow, you say again, “levágatom a körmömet” (I will have my nails cut), and it is obviously in the future tense. If the use of the present tense is ambiguous, the Hungarian might add “majd,” which has several meanings, one of them is “sometime in the future.”
i. Speaking of the future tense, the “to be” (lenni) auxiliary word has a future tense, “lesz,” which in English is “shall be.” It is a violation of the economy rule to translate this (or its German equivalent) and say “fog lenni.” Similarly, to indicate the future tense with other verbs , the proper method is to use the present tense and the “majd” adverb, instead of the “fog,” that is “shall” auxiliary verb. Fog may be used only for special emphasis, like “Te pedig el fogsz menni!”, like in “You SHALL go!”
j. Another example of omitting the superfluous element in the Hungarian language is the absence of gender designation. All objects are genderless, unless gender makes a difference, but then we use the gender specific noun: father - apa, mother - anya, etc. just like in English. Non gender-related objects are all treated as the same; there is no gender-related pronoun in Hungarian (this is the reason why Hungarians often make mistakes when referring to a person by a pronoun - they are not used to it). The only difference is that the pronoun for human persons is “ő,” (he/she), while for all other objects it is “az” (it). This feature makes the Hungarian society more gender-neutral, and the Hungarian word for “wife” is “feleség,” that is, “half-ness,” half of the marriage partnership.
k. When it comes to the use of articles, the definite article depends on the first letter of the noun that it refers to: before vowels it is "az," before consonants it is abbreviated to "a," but it has no singular or plural. The indefinite article, “egy,” since it is numerical, when the object of the article is singular, it is not necessary and unless it is emphasized, that is, when one speaks of one of many (egy a sok közül), it is omitted. Although the “egy” indefinite article is used often, by purists it is considered a Germanism.
l. Using the fewest words possible, often leads to new word creation. For example, according to the linguist Dénes Kiss, in the old days (boy scouts still do it) they used to rub two pieces of wood together to make fire. Why did they want the fire? Because it was cold. In English there is no relationship between wood, rubbing the wood, and cold. In Hungarian the wood is fa. The infinitive of the activity with fa, to do something with the fa is “fázni” . To feel cold is also “fázni”. The logic is obvious: I am working on the wood (fázok [verb] with the fa) because it’s cold (fázok [feeling] - I am cold). Whenever possible, the Hungarians turn a noun into the appropriate verb. So we have word clusters that are rare in most other languages. All activity related to the horse, like rider or riding, are also related linguistically to the horse: ló, lovas, lovagol, lovász, etc. Also, the car is auto, the short form of automobile, to ride in a car is “autózni,” and to pick or eat cherries “cseresznyézni,” from the word “cherry,” cseresznye.
m. As languages were formed, certain similarities in otherwise unrelated objects became represented in the language also. According to Kiss, circularity represents such an ancient word cluster: In languages in their primitive stage, using variations of runic writing, they wrote down only the consonants, in this case the KR, and filled in the vowels. Thus, we have a cluster of related words with KR, related to circularity: kör-circle, kerek- round, kerék-wheel, karima-brim, karika-hoop, karám-corral, kerület-district or circumference in geometry, kéreg-tree bark, kering-orbit or revolve, circulate (blood), kerítés-fence, enclosure, kerülget-go round about, elkerülni-going around, avoiding, korong-disk, potter’s wheel, korona-crown. Of these 14 words that in Hungarian belong to one cluster, the English equivalents show some similarity only when they are related to the Latin circle. One can wonder, of course, if the Latin circus is related to the Hungarian KR root.
n. Since the Hungarian language is stingy with new words, often new nouns are also created combining existing words. For example, sibling combines body (test) and blood (vér): testvér. Brother is fivér, i.e. male blood (relative) and sister is növér, i.e. female blood. Accent is “hangsuly,” i.e. voice and weight. Or when new words are needed, we often analyze the function or activity involved, to create a new word. In English the word “knight” has no other meaning than the obvious one. In Hungarian (and German) it indicates the most recognizable aspect of the knight: he rides horses, so in Hungarian it becomes “lovag,” which derives from the horse, “ló,” and with the “-ni,” the suffix of the infinitive, lovagolni means to ride the horse.
2. The second rule is to put first things first. If some information is not self evident, then we always start with the most important, or most inclusive, and go to details from the important or the inclusive. This method became famous and is known in the computer programming industry as the “Hungarian Notation,” invented for Microsoft by Charles Simonyi, the Hungarian computer programmer who became a millionaire, and who went into space on a Russian space ship as a paying passenger. Hungarian Notation is a naming convention that (in theory) allows the programmer to determine the type and use of an identifier (variable, function, constant, etc.) It is frequently used in Windows programming, The essence of the H. N. is that it follows the sequencing order used in the Hungarian language (see http://www.gregleg.com/oldHome/hungarian.html). If Simonyi spoke German or English, he never could have invented the Hungarian notation, and Microsoft would not enjoy the near monopoly in the computer software business.
a. This sequence is most obvious in the use of names. In most languages the baptismal or given names come first, while in Hungarian the family name. The functionality of the Hungarian order is obvious if one looks at a telephone book. Imagine, if the phone book was organized according to first names: all the George's or Joseph's in one group. (Chinese, Japanese, Koreans also put family name first, given name as last; in Europe only the Hungarian language follows this rule. – George Marx)
b. Another, equally important usage is the addressing convention. Your address in the Anglo-Saxon convention starts with the house number, then the street, and finally, the city. Imagine, if the mail man had to sort all the mail by house number first, or the list of addresses organized this way. The Hungarian convention starts with the most inclusive, the country, the city, then the street, and last are the house and the apartment numbers.
c. Similarly, the dates are all screwed up in English: month, day, year. The Hungarians start with the most inclusive, the year, followed by the month, and finally the day, which changes every 24 hours.
d. The same logic is used in the number system. While French uses the most complicated system, expressing 89 as 4-20-9, the German is shorter, 9 und 80, the Hungarian, just like the English, says 80-9. But with larger numbers, the Hungarian breaks it down even more than the English: nineteen hundred eleven while in Hungarian it’s “ezer kilencszáz tizenegy." Here again the “ezer” (thousand) is enough, because it is obviously only one-thousand, but two thousand is kétezer. The same principle applies to the hundreds: we always omit the “egy” (one) when it is one hundred.
e. The sequence of the parts of the sentence is also different. While in English, since it uses no suffixes, the order is always subject-predicate-object, in Hungarian it is flexible. Since the suffix always makes the meaning of every word, including the verb, exact, and the object is also indicated with a suffix (…t), they can be found anywhere in the sentence. So Hungarians can start with the most important word, the one they want to emphasize. For example, “Ettem kenyeret” means I ate bread. But when asked “what did you eat?” the answer is “Kenyeret (ettem)” (that is, “bread that I ate”). If the bread was stale and I want to emphasize that, I put stale first: “Száraz kenyeret ettem.” Another example would be “zöld autót láttam,” that is, “green car I saw.”
I did not exhaust by any means the unique features of the Hungarian language, but this should be sufficient to justify the statements quoted in the beginning of this brief essay, and to show that it is truly a unique treasure.