Hungarian - A Strange Cake on the Menu
- by Ádám Nádasdy
You can be proud of anything, if you
really want to be. Ostriches, I suppose,
are proud of not being able to fly - this
would be an embarrassment to most
birds, but oh how fast an ostrich can run!
Hungarians are proud of their language,
just because it is so different from all
European languages, unable to express
things like masculine and feminine,
having no word for "to have", but being
able to express (with a separate verb
conjugation!) whether the object is
indefinite or definite.
Thus Látok! means "I see" (generally, or
something indefinite), while Látom!
means "I see it".
Hungarian does not belong to the
Indo-European family of languages: the
only other languages in Europe which
do not are Finnish (with which Hungarian is distantly related), Basque and Turkish.
The Hungarian language is extreme, and so (they say) is the Hungarian temperament.
Attractive but unreliable.
It accompanies you like a faithful friend, then at one point you turn around and it's gone,
abandoning you to struggle with expressing yourself. Especially if you translate from or into
Hungarian. Nothing is the same. "Music" is zene or muzsika, and the two have different
connotations. "I have a fever" is Lázam van, that is, "Fever-my is". The exchange "Has the
doctor gone away?" - Yes" would be Elment az orvos? - El, that is, "Away-went the doctor? -
Nowadays nobody would seriously connect language with national character, but this was
widely done in the Romantic Age and after, all through the 19th century. The Hungarians
realized they were "alone": when all other nations established their linguistic family ties,
Slavic, Germanic, Celtic and so on, Hungarians found none. Then scholars discovered
around 1800 that the relatives of Hungarian were Finnish, Lappish, plus some little-known
languages in Siberia. And they were very distant relatives.
Their names (e.g. Árpád, Gyula for men, Emese, Sarolta for women) were also Turkish, as
were their clothes, weapons, kitchen utensils and burial rites. Thus it is not surprising that
the Byzantine chronicles which first mention the Hungarians (around 950 AD), call them
"Turks". Actually, the Hungarians themselves had lost all memory of their Finno-Ugric
origins. They thought they were a far-off branch of the Turks and/or Mongolians, and that
ultimately they derived from the Huns. For many centuries this was the accepted theory
taught in schools and, even after being ousted from serious scholarship by the Finno-Ugric
discovery, it survived as a neo-romantic and neo-nationalist legend, so much so that Attila
is now one of the most frequent Christian names among Hungarian men. Other nations
look at us in puzzlement: how can you name a little boy after the scourge of God?
In 896, the Hungarians settled in their present homeland, the Carpathian Basin (later
organized into the Kingdom of Hungary, which existed until 1945), but they never became
numerous enough to fill it: there were large
numbers of Slavs, later also Romanians and Germans living there. True, the Hungarians
were the largest single group in the area, but there were always more non-Hungarians
than Hungarians in historic Hungary. Many words were adopted from Slav (asztal "table",
szabad "free"), from Latin (templom "church", pásztor "shepherd", sors "destiny"), and even
Italian (piac "market" from piazza, pojáca "clown" from pagliaccio).
Naturally, the language which was felt to endanger Hungarian most was German: cities
and their burghers were mostly German-speaking, as was printing, correspondence, even
theatres, all this reinforced by the Habsburg
administration. All educated Hungarians spoke German, and those who wrote in
Hungarian constantly felt the attraction to import "Germanisms" and at the same time the
desire to avoid them. This is why, paradoxically, Hungarian is very similar to German. I am
not only thinking of the many German loan-words that Hungarian has adopted, such as
példa "example" from German Bild, sógor "brother-in-law" from Schwager, krumpli "potato"
from Grundbirn(e) "ground pear", nímand "insignificant person" from niemand "nobody",
verkli "hurdygurdy" from Werkel ("little mechanism"). Much more importantly, it is the
common stock of figures of speech ("mirror translations") that have made Hungarian
similar to German, just like a dolphin is similar to a fish, even though its origin and internal
structure are quite different. In both Hungarian and German one can say that someone
"cuts up" to mean that heboasts (schneidet auf = felvág), or that he has "inside images" to
mean that he is conceited (eingebildet = beképzelt). The words, the endings, the sounds
are different, yet the discourse is parallel. Once in Berlin I read in the paper about some
political event: "wie sich das der kleine Moritz vorstellt". I grinned: this is exactly what we say
in Hungarian (ahogy azt a Móricka elképzeli "as little Maurice imagines to himself").
After the First World War new borders were drawn and present-day Hungary was formed,
where for the first time Hungarian was an absolute majority language (Hungary is now
about 98 per cent Hungarian-speaking). In the newly formed neighbour states, on the other
hand, Hungarians found themselves in a very pronouncedly minority situation. There are
altogether roughly 13 million Hungarian speakers, about 75 per cent living in Hungary and
25 per cent in the neighbouring countries. This should explain why the language is such
an important, even hallowed, symbol of cultural and national identity. When speaking of
"Hungarian literature", for example, one constantly hovers between meaning literature in
Hungary or literature written in the Hungarian language. Incidentally, the language itself
has always shown little variation: there are only negligible dialectal differences. Hungarian
speakers - and literature (or literatures?) produced by them - display few differences from
Bratislava (Slovakia) through Budapest (Hungary) to Brassov (Romania).
The ingrained minority feeling has had interesting effects even in Hungary, where it no
longer has any justification: for example, as late as the 1960s actors felt obliged to
"Hungarianize" their non-Hungarian-sounding names.
This has now changed, and we have actors proudly bearing the names Hirtling (of German
origin), Kolovratnik (Slav) or Papadimitriu (Greek). But the feeling that the language has to
be defended like a rare plant remains.
Purists - some of them too radical, others more tactful and considerate - continue to
grumble against the influx of foreignisms, except that the great influencer is no longer
German but English. (A couple of years ago some voices even demanded a law to forbid
using foreignisms in public, but thank God it was realized by decision-makers that this
would not bring the required results.) Not only do technical terms like szkenner (scanner)
or lízing (leasing) come in, but many words related to current lifestyle and sensibility, such
as mainstream, fíling (feeling), retró (nostalgic revival) or badis (someone into
bodybuilding, i.e. well worked-out, muscular).
Hungarian is not only different because of its word-stock. Its structure, as the standard
technical term goes, is agglutinative. This means that endings are attached to words in a
neat and prescribed order, and words can grow to stunning lengths. There are no
prepositions, and very few auxiliary verbs. For example, hajthatatlanságunktól means "from
our inflexibility", and is structured hajt-hat-atlan-ság-unk-tól, each element in turn
expressing the verb, the possibility, the negativity, the possession, the preposition ("bend-
can-not-ness-our-from"). And all this happens very regularly, indeed mechanically. Every
noun has to have -k as its plural, without exception, even if it is new or foreign, thus les
Tuileries becomes a Tuileriák. Even verbs end in -k in the plural (in the "we-you-they"
forms). However, the vowels of the endings will change ("harmonize") in accordance with
the stem. If, in the above long example, the stem is sért "to hurt", the word will be
sérthetetlenségünktől "from our invulnerability", with all the vowels harmonically changing
to suit the stem. (This is a phenomenon also found in Turkish.)
As we have said, there is no grammatical gender, thus no difference between "he" and
"she", "his eyes" and "her eyes". This makes it possible for writers (and especially poets) to
express things in a more abstract or more unspecified way, while in translation it often
becomes a problem since in other languages the gender has to be specified, and it is the
translator's responsibility to decide how and when to do so.
There is only one past tense, thus no difference between "learnt, has learnt, had learnt". On
the other hand, a single word expresses whether the possession or the owner is singular
or plural: háza "his (or her!) house", házuk "their house", házai "his/her houses", házaik
Hungarian poetry can use very old-fashioned, even classical metrical schemes, because
all vowels exist in long or short form: the long vowels are shown in spelling by acute
accents (as in Czech), thus á, í, and even ő, ű (the famous double accent or "Hungarian
Umlaut", the horror of all computer fonts). Thus tör is "to break" but tőr is "dagger". This play
of long and short makes it possible to write perfect hexameters, and many twentieth-
century poets have done so, producing good contemporary poems. Rhyming is also
surprisingly popular, and not only for humorous or satirical purposes (as in most Western
poetry today), but for serious matters too. The fact that poetry is always much more
dependent on (and is more nurtured by) the idiosyncrasies of its language may explain
why poetry is still said to be the strongest branch of Hungarian literature: obviously such a
language, like an unusual block of marble for the sculptor, inspires the poets. But it may
also explain why Hungarian poetry is so hard to translate, and why Hungarian prose
(which, admittedly, also has its masterpieces) is much more widely acclaimed with the
For Hungarian may be a golden cage for its speakers. It is worth comparing the recent
history of Hungarian and its speakers with that of the Irish and their language. Around the
middle of the 19th century the Irish (so to speak) agreed among themselves to abandon
the Gaelic language and to go over to English. Today almost all Irish people living in the
world are native speakers of English, and can no longer read or understand Irish. This may
be a sad fact for the loss of a rich and ancient language, but - let's be frank - a great bonus
for the nation, since they possess an international language, and hundreds of millions can
easily read anything written by Irish writers (not speaking of the advantages in commercial,
etc. life). Hungarian was in a very similar situation vis-a-vis German as Gaelic was with
English; however, the opposite happened. In the mid-nineteenth century masses of people
living in the Kingdom of Hungary, whatever their mother tongue, agreed to switch over to
Hungarian, and indeed, in a few generations much of the country (certainly what was to
become present-day Hungary) became monolingual Hungarian-speaking.
Hungarian has become a full-fledged European language, with science, law, business,
leisure, crime and literature all being conducted in Hungarian. Open (perhaps too open,
some would say) to foreign influence, it shows no signs of decay or destabilization. But
when Hungarians cross the border to Vienna, Paris, London, or the non-Hungarian-
speaking areas of the neighboring countries, they are lost, unless with years of hard work
they learn a foreign language, by definition very different from theirs. The knowledge of
foreign languages is pathetically low, compared to Holland, Portugal, Greece, or Finland.
The Irish have eaten their cake; the Hungarians have it.
Author Ádám Nádasdy has published several volumes of poetry, translated Shakespeare,
and teaches linguistics at the School of English & American Studies of Eötvös Loránd
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