A Look at the Hungarian Language

From here.

A look at Hungarian from the view of how hard it is to learn for an English speaker. Hungarian is legendary for being a hard language to learn. The British diplomatic corps did a survey of their diplomats and found that Hungarian was the hardest language that a diplomat had to learn.

It’s widely agreed that Hungarian is one of the hardest languages on Earth to learn. Even language professors agree. The British Diplomatic Corps did a study of the languages that its diplomats commonly had to learn and concluded that Hungarian was the hardest. For one thing, there are many different forms for a single word via word modification. This enables the speaker to make his intended meaning very precise. Looking at nouns, there are about 257 different forms per noun.

Hungarian is said to have from 24-35 different cases (there are charts available showing 31 cases), but the actual number may only be 18. Verbs change depending on whether the object is definite or indefinite. Nearly everything in Hungarian is inflected, similar to Lithuanian or Czech. Similar to Georgian and Basque, Hungarian has the polypersonal agreement, albeit to a lesser degree than those two languages. There are many irregularities in inflections, and even Hungarians have to learn how to spell all of these in school and have a hard time learning this.

The case distinctions alone can create many different words out of one base form. For the word house, we end up with 31 different words using case forms:

házbainto the house

házbanin the house

házból from [within] the house

házraonto the house

házonon the house

házróloff [from] the house

házhozto the house

házíguntil/up to the house

háználat the house

háztól [away] from the house

házzá – Translative case, where the house is the end product of a transformation, such as They turned the cave into a house.

házkéntas the house, which could be used if you acted in your capacity as a house or disguised yourself as one. He dressed up as a house for Halloween.

házértfor the house, specifically things done on its behalf or done to get the house. They spent a lot of time fixing things up (for the house).

házul – Essive-modal case. Something like “house-ly” or in the way/manner of a house. The tent served as a house (in a house-ly fashion).

And we do have some basic cases:

ház – Nominative. The house is down the street.

házat – Accusative. The ball hit the house.

háznak – Dative. The man gave the house to Mary.

házzal – Similar to instrumental, but more similar to English with. Refers to both instruments and companions.

The genitive takes 12 different declensions, depending on person and number:

házammy house

házaimmy houses

házadyour house

házaidyour houses

házahis/her/its house

házai his/her/its houses

házunk our house

házainkour houses

házatok your house

házaitok your house

házuk their house

házaik their houses

egyházchurch, as in the Catholic Church. (Literally one-house)

In addition, the genitive suffixes to the possession, which is not how the genitive works in IE.

emberman/person

házhouse

a(z)the

az ember házathe man’s house (Lit. the man house-his)

a házammy house (Lit. the house-my)

a házad

your house (Lit. the house-your)

There are also very long words such as this:

megszentségteleníthetetlenségeskedéseitekért…

for your (you all possessive) repeated pretensions at being impossible to desecrate

Being an agglutinative language, that word is made up of many small parts of words, or morphemes. That word means something like

The preposition is stuck onto the word in this language, and this will seem strange to speakers of languages with free prepositions.

Hungarian is full of synonyms, similar to English.

For instance, there are 78 different words that mean to move: halad, jár, megy, dülöngél, lépdel, botorkál, kódorog, sétál , andalog, rohan, csörtet, üget, lohol, fut, átvág, vágtat, tipeg, libeg, biceg, poroszkál, vágtázik, somfordál , bóklászik, szedi a lábát, kitér, elszökken, betér , botladozik, őgyeleg, slattyog, bandukol, lófrál, szalad, vánszorog, kószál, kullog, baktat, koslat, kaptat, császkál, totyog, suhan, robog, rohan, kocog, cselleng, csatangol, beslisszol, elinal, elillan, bitangol, lopakodik, sompolyog, lapul, elkotródik, settenkedik, sündörög, eltérül, elódalog, kóborol, lézeng, ődöng, csavarog, lődörög, elvándorol , tekereg, kóvályog, ténfereg, özönlik, tódul, vonul, hömpölyög, ömlik, surran, oson, lépeget, mozog and mozgolódik .

Only about five of those terms are archaic and seldom used, the rest are in current use. However, to be a fair, a Hungarian native speaker might only recognize half of those words. Another argument is that many of those words have subtly different meanings such as crawl, sulk, flow, rush, job, etc.

In addition, while most languages have names for countries that are pretty easy to figure out, in Hungarian even languages of nations are hard because they have changed the names so much. Italy becomes Olaszország, Germany becomes Németország, etc.

As in Russian and Serbo-Croatian, word order is relatively free in Hungarian. It is not completely free as some say but rather is it governed by a set of rules. The problem is that as you reorder the word order in a sentence, you say the same thing but the meaning changes slightly in terms of nuance. Further, there are quite a few dialects in Hungarian. Native speakers can pretty much understand them, but foreigners often have a lot of problems. Accent is very difficult in Hungarian due to the bewildering number of rules used to determine accent. In addition, there are exceptions to all of these rules. Nevertheless, Hungarian is probably more regular than Polish.

Hungarian spelling is also very strange for non-Hungarians, but at least the orthography is phonetic.

Hungarian phonetics is also strange. One of the problems with Hungarian phonetics is vowel harmony. Since you stick morphemes together to make a word, the vowels that you have used in the first part of the word will influence the vowels that you will use to make up the morphemes that occur later in the word. The vowel harmony gives Hungarian a singing effect” when it is spoken. The gy sound is hard for many foreigners to make.

Verbs are marked for object (indefinite, definite and person/number), subject (person and number) tense (past, present and future), mood (indicative, conditional and imperative), and aspect (frequency, potentiality, factitiveness, and reflexiveness.

As noted in the introduction to the Finno-Ugric section, you need to know quite a bit of Hungarian grammar to be able to express yourself on a basic level. For instance, in order to say:

I like your sister.

you will need to understand the following Hungarian forms:

  1. verb conjugation and definite or indefinite forms
  2. possessive suffixes
  3. case
  4. how to combine possessive suffixes with case
  5. word order
  6. explicit pronouns
  7. articles

It’s hard to say, but Hungarian is probably harder to learn than even the hardest Slavic languages like Czech, Serbo-Croatian and Polish. At any rate, it is generally agreed that Hungarian grammar is more complicated than Slavic grammar, which is pretty impressive as Slavic grammar is quite a beast.

Hungarian is rated 5, extremely hard.

10 Comments

Filed under Applied, Finno-Ugric Languages, Hungarian, Language Families, Language Learning, Linguistics, Ugric

10 responses to “A Look at the Hungarian Language

  1. James Schipper

    Dear Robert

    Some languages are more analytic and others are more synthetic. I’m not convinced that synthetic is intrinsically more difficult than analytic. Compare the following pairs:

    stronger – plus fort
    Paul’s house – la maison de Paul
    cantaré – I will sing
    chemistry teacher – professeur de chimie

    bilen – the car (bilen is Swedish, bil = car, -en = the)

    Mannen sågs av hunden = the man was seen by the dog (Swedish, sågs = was seen)

    On the left we have the synthetic cases. I don’t see why they are more difficult than the analytic ones on the right. Hungarian is very synthetic, but that only means that in Hungarian you have to add a suffix to a word when in English you put a separate word in front of a word. The important thing is consistency. The possessive case in English is easy because it is always ‘s, although the s can be pronounced s or z. Moreover, s is also the plural.

    Regards. James

  2. GG

    Let me comment on the “78 different words that mean to move”: these are covering a very wide range of meanings, e.g. crawl, skulk, rush, flow, jog etc. I will not go through them one by one but the overwhelming majority of the listed words have a direct equivalent in English.

  3. Jane

    háznak – Dative. The man gave the house to Mary.- it does not mean what you wanted to say.
    You mistyped the sentence.
    AZ ember Marynak adta a házat.

  4. Bálint

    “In addition, while most languages have names for countries that are pretty easy to figure out, in Hungarian even languages of nations are hard because they have changed the names so much. Italy becomes Olazorszag, Germany becomes Nemetzorsag, etc.”

    You’ve misspelled the names of the countries:
    ‘Italy’ becomes ‘Olaszország’
    ‘Germany’ becomes ‘Németország’.

    • Enna

      As a side note, “Németország” betrays some Slavic influence! In Serbo-Croatian, we call Germans “Nemci,” which literally means “mute ones,” since I guess our ancestors couldn’t understand what Germanic people were saying.🙂

  5. Vivi

    “However, to be a fair, a Hungarian native speaker might only recognize half of those words.”

    A Hungarian native speaker knows all these words.🙂 And more: ballag, sprintel, galoppol, nyargal, trappol, cammog, caplat, kutyagol, viharzik, ólálkodik, sunnyog, slattyog kolbászol, siet, iszkol, száguld, iramodik, mászkál, spurizik, jár-kel, kószál, tévelyeg, csámborog, sétafikál, kujtorog, barangol, kóricál, mendegél, flangál, mászkál, császkál, etc.

  6. Marta

    Sorry, but there is no Serbo-Croatian language 😉 There is Serbian and Croatian as two similar but different languages. Calling them the way you did is like saying Czechoslovakian language.

    • Enna

      Serbo-Croatian is a polycentric language, i.e., it is one language with several standard varieties: Bosnian, Serbian, Croatian, Montenegrin, etc.

      Unless if by “Croatian” you mean the Kajkavian and Cakavian dialects, in which case I would agree with you, with some reservations. Otherwise, both Standard Croatian and Standard Serbian (and Bosnian, and Montenegrin…) are based on the Stokavian dialect — meaning that Croatian and Serbian are more similar to each other than Croatian and its various dialects.

      You might be interested in Al Jazeera Balkan’s forum, where the host brought together a Bosnian, Croatian, and Serbian linguist professor for an intriguing discussion…

      Kontekst: Razlike između jezika u regiji: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VjHQKiBvQXE

      • I think there is Serbo-Croatian, one language, with Bosnian, Croatian, Montenegrin and Serbian dialects. However, I insist that Kajkavian and Chakavian are actually separate languages. I also believe that there is a language called Torlakian that can be split out of Serbian.

  7. Enna

    Hungarian doesn’t have cases, it has suffixes that add meaning to a word. Cases change the word, suffixes are attachments.

    Here are some cases in Serbo-Croatian…

    NOMINATIVE: Majka — mother
    DATIVE: Majci — to mother
    INSTRUMENTAL: Mamom — with mother
    VOCATIVE: Majko — O mother! (addressing your mother)

    …and there are three more🙂

    See how the word itself is changed? Hungarian doesn’t do this. And it isn’t coming from me: a Hungarian friend (who speaks Hungarian and Serbo-Croatian) explained this…

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