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:
házba – into the house
házban – in the house
házból – from [within] the house
házra – onto the house
házon – on the house
házról – off [from] the house
házhoz – to the house
házíg – until/up to the house
háznál – at 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.
házként – as 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.
házért – for 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:
házam – my house
házaim – my houses
házad – your house
házaid – your houses
háza – his/her/its house
házai – his/her/its houses
házunk – our house
házaink – our houses
házatok – your house
házaitok – your house
házuk – their house
házaik – their houses
egyház – church, 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.
ház – house
a(z) – the
az ember háza – the man’s house (Lit. the man house-his)
a házam – my house (Lit. the house-my)
– your house (Lit. the house-your)
There are also very long words such as this:
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:
- verb conjugation and definite or indefinite forms
- possessive suffixes
- how to combine possessive suffixes with case
- word order
- explicit pronouns
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.