Wednesday 25 August 2010

Hungarian without Tears

It’s really rather strange how many Hungarian words I remember from 35 years ago. I never learnt the language properly, but picked up a considerable smattering as I grew up — a necessary task if I was to hack into the secret conversations my mother thought she was having with my aunt. Hungarian, friends, is a kind of good news bad news story.

The good news is that there's only a comaratively small vocabulary of Magyar words, and once mastered it’s amazing how they stick in the memory, even after 35 years. I probably acquired them at an impressinoable age, along with what some call a passable accent. Some words are amazingly easy to remember — a bar? “barás.” Easy!

The bad news is that the structure of the language, being Finno-Ugaric, ignores many customary Indo-European conveniences. Let me illustrate. I have been looking at grammatical notes extracted from some tome in the Cambridge Unversity Library as an earnest undergraduate in 1976, when, in the first flush of youth, I had illusions I would be able to master this lot someday.

My notes indicate there are in fact Eighteen Cases in Hungarian marked by enclitc particles (as aganst virtually none in English). So almost every noun declines as Nominative, Accusative, Dative-Genitive, and Ablative. Easy if you’ve done Latin. But then, according to my undergraduate notes, things hot up. You’ve got another fourteen cases to go — Instrumental, Causal-final, translative, terminative, essive-formal, essive-modal, inessive, superessive, adessive, illative, allative, sublative, elative and delative. Oh, and Labio-dental Fricative. No, actually I made that last one up becaue I am being silly, but if you think Hungaran is short of cses, it might be worth a whirl.

Got that? Let me illustrate (remember s = “sh” and zs = “s” — and remember how to pronounce “cs“ and “gy” which are separate letters from a now lost alphabet). This is our simple word for a bar, almost the same in Hungarian:
  1. barásThe Bar (subject)
  2. bartThe Bar (object)
  3. barásnakTo the Bar
  4. barástólFrom the Bar
  5. barássalWith the Bar
  6. barásértFor the Bar
  7. barássáInto the Bar
  8. barásigAs far as the Bar
  9. baráskéntas the Bar
  10. barásulby way of the Bar
  11. barásbanIn the Bar
  12. barásonOn the Bar
  13. barásnálAt the Bar
  14. barásbaIn the General Direction of the Bar
  15. barásraOnto the Bar
  16. baráshozTo the Bar
  17. barásbólOut of the Bar
  18. barásrólAbout the Bar
Now, remember, even very stupid Hungarians have to have this stuff off pat. No wonder they knock spots off us at Maths, and pack the Economists’ think-tanks, Dentists’ surgeries and Financial Capitals of the world. No wonder they follow you into revolving doors and come out ahead. Easy when you’ve mastered the case structure of their language.

Surveying the height of the grammatical mountain I failed to scale with any confidence in 1976, when I actually had a few spare brain cells, I retreated with the gang this evening to a delightful pavement restaurant in Pest, where they make paprikás csirke just like my late lamented Aunty Helene, with Gnocchi, and was transported. The summit remains elusive, and I fear I will not be jabbering away in Hungarian for a while yet, if ever. Budapest is still Divine.


Anonymous said...

As one who started learning at the age of 33, I can agree that it is a steep curve - but a beautiful language, and it's not all pain. There is no "grammatical gender", which blighted my French at school; and the tense structure is very straightforward :-)

I like the left-hand ad on your restaurant photo
"Csigaver autos-motoros iskola"
"Snail's-Blood Driving School"

Steve Hayes said...


I am reminded that when I struggled to master Latin cases at school, they told me "Latin is a logical language and will teach you to think logically."

I then discovered that Zulu is a far more logical language than Latin.

And when I went to university and struggled to master Greek cases they told me Greek is a philosophical language and will teach you to think philosophically.

Then a few weeks ago I encountered a hymn that translated some phrase into English as "the Divine Such", and I thought "I'll take your word for it."

Andrew Brown said...

I think you should have a competition, for a story in which all fourteen cases of the word appear.

Come to think of it, maybe I will.

David said...

Wow, and I thought I was churlish for complaining that Russian had 7 cases to learn for my degree (and I was already appreciating the beauty that German only has 4).

I will make a mental note not to learn Hungarian! At least not until I've mastered the Russian and German to fluency!

I blogged about your Hungarian lesson - thanks for giving some insight on another language

anchorhold said...

I shall never complain about NT Greek again!

Bob MacDonald said...

Delightful. Now I understand why my Hungarian Hebrew coach is so good at languages!

Tim Chesterton said...

Inuktitut is a bit like that too - very complex grammar. When I first started learning it, I thought in my arrogance that, being largely an unwritten language, it would be simple! said...

Bishop Alan,

I have enjoyed your blog for sometime but this article brought such a smile to my face as I read it that I felt it deserved a comment. For the past two years, my wife and I have been trying to cope with Czech. Whilst, with Slovak & Polish, it is a West Slavic language rather than a Finno-Ugaric one,Czech has seven cases which also cause nouns to decline. Therefore Prague where I now live, is 'Praha', but when I travel from Prague it is 'z Praze'.

Liturgy also gets complicated with even the name of Christ changing. The words of administration at Communion for the concescrated bread is 'Tělo Kristovo' - the body of Christ. But when administering the chalice it is 'Krev Kristova' because body & blood have different genders. At aged 58, the brain cells don't cope with such things very easily!

Steve Hayes said...

Tělo Kristovo... sounds familiar, yes, it's the communion hymn, "Tělo Kristovo priimite, istojnike besmert novovkusite" - Receive the body of Christ, taste the fountain of immortality.

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