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Confessions Of A Native Hungarian Speaker (Who Now Speaks & Writes In English)

As Hungarian is my mother tongue, it has been the number one language of communication for me, the natural choice when writing or reading something. Although being the curious philosopher that I am, I’ve sometimes wondered why a certain collection of letters is used to describe something – like, why does t-r-e-e mean a tree? – but I’d never really questioned its grammatical structure. That is, until I started learning other languages.

Article by Réka B.

When I was learning English and German – both West Germanic languages – simultaneously, my inner critical linguist awoke and made a simple, yet very straightforward statement: Hungarian is a very weird language. I’m reminded of this every day since I’ve started uni in England.

Gruesome Grammar

In fact, Hungarian is so weird that it’s among the ten hardest languages to learn according to an article on O, Pish Posh! Other tough languages include Mandarin Chinese, Arabic, and Finnish.

Linguistically, Hungarian is in the Finno-Ugric language family, so the very basic grammatical structures in Hungarian and Finnish are similar. However, both evolved in different ways over time and now they bear almost no resemblance to each other. While Hungary is in the heart of Europe and not at all isolated geographically, it very much is linguistically: the most closely related languages are Mansi and Khanty, spoken by about 1.5 million people in Western Siberia.

Without getting into too many linguistic details, let’s take a look at the grammatical background. Hungarian is an agglutinative language, which means that suffixes are used to change a word’s meaning. But just adding a suffix to a word is a very complicated act; you have to stick to the rules of vowel harmony, meaning that suffixes have two or three forms and the choice between them depends on the vowel. For example, the suffix for ‘in the chair’ is székben but the suffix for ‘in the house’ is házban.

Feeling confused already? Wait until you’re trying to read something out loud!

Puzzles in Pronunciation

Pronunciation is another very difficult aspect of the language, even for native speakers sometimes. For foreigners, the difference between the ‘short’ and ‘long’ vowels (a-á, e-é, i-í, o-ó, ö-ő, u-ú, ü-ű) takes a while to grasp, while some consonants look downright intimidating (cs, dzs, sz, zs, gy, ty, etc). In my experience, the consonant ‘gy’ is particularly alien to English-speakers, the pronunciation of which provides laughter to all girls named Gyöngyi (meaning pearl) and results in tongue-twisted tourists.

The longest word in Hungarian is actually shorter than the Welsh equivalent of Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwll-llantysiliogogogoch – just looking at it makes me dizzy. Its Hungarian counterpart is megszentségteleníthetetlenségeskedéseitekért, which doesn’t actually mean much. Luckily it’s not used in everyday speech, but it is a good demonstration of how many suffixes can still make sense when be attached to a single word

Literary Trivia

 If you’re wondering how spoken Hungarian sounds, I’d recommend you to listen to Hajnali részegség (Daybreak Drunkenness), one of the most beautiful poems written in 1933 by Dezső Kosztolányi, one of the greatest poets in Hungarian literature. It’s about insomnia and there’s an English version available here.

So, how much of a struggle is writing in English, which is obviously a big departure from Hungarian? To be honest, it’s not a struggle at all. It can be challenging when I’m trying to express something humorously, though. Irony and sarcasm are often expressed subtly and aren’t always easy to get across. Moreover, there are some topics that are hilarious in Hungarian but simply would not translate into English humour and vice versa due to cultural differences.

Be that as it may, since I’ve been living in England I’ve found the saying “as many languages you know, as many times you are a human being” to be true. When expressing my thoughts in a different language, I actually express them from a different point of view. When debating about something in English, I think of ideas I wouldn’t have thought of in Hungarian. Essentially, writing in a different language opens up formerly closed doors in the writer’s mind.

All in all, I think that learning a language is one of the most inspiring things you can do in your life. Not only does doing so allow you to get closer to a new culture deeply but it also lets you grow into a greater person.

If there are any multi-lingual people reading this, what have your experiences been when it comes to expressing yourself in different languages? Or are you embarking on learning a new language at the moment? Let me know in the comments below!

[Image by Till Westermayer]


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