Languages in Hungary

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Languages in Hungary

Hungarians are rightly proud of their unique, complex, sophisticated, richly expressive language, Hungarian (Magyar pronounced "mahdyar"). It is a Uralic language most closely related to Mansi and Khanty of western Siberia. It is further sub-classified into the Finno-Ugric languages which include Finnish and Estonian; it is not at all related to any of its neighbours: the Slavic, Germanic, and Romance languages belonging to the Indo-European language family. Although related to Finnish and Estonian, they are not mutually intelligible. Aside from Finnish, it is considered one of the most difficult languages for English speakers to learn with the vocabulary, complicated grammar, and pronunciation being radically different. So it is not surprising that an English speaker visiting Hungary understands nothing from written or spoken Hungarian. Hungary did adopt the Latin alphabet after becoming a Christian kingdom in the year 1000.

English-speakers tend to find most everything about the written language tough going, including a number of unusual sounds like gy (often pronounced like the d in "during" and ű (vaguely like a long English e as in me with rounded lips), as well as agglutinative grammar that leads to fearsome-looking words like eltéveszthetetlen (unmistakable) and viszontlátásra (goodbye). Also, the letters can very well be pronounced differently than in English: the "s" always has a "sh" sound, the "sz" has the "s" sound, and the "c" is pronounced like the English "ts", to name a few. On the upside, it is written with the familiar Roman alphabet (if adorned with lots of accents), and--unlike English--it has almost total phonemic orthography. This means that if you learn how to pronounce the 44 letters of the alphabet and the digraphs, you will be able to pronounce almost every Hungarian word properly. Just one difference in pronunciation, vowel length, or stress can lead to misinterpretation or total misunderstanding.

The stress always falls on the first syllable of any word, so all the goodies on top of the vowels are pronunciation cues, and not indicators of stress, as in Spanish. Diphthongs are almost-nonexistent in Hungarian (except adopted foreign words). Just one of many profound grammatical differences from most European languages is that Hungarian does not have, nor need to have the verb "to have" in the sense of possession - the indicator of possession is attached to the possessed noun and not the possessor, e.g. Kutya = dog, Kutyám = my dog, Van egy kutyám = I have a dog, or literally "Is one dog-my". Hungarian has a very specific case system, both grammatical, locative, oblique, and the less productive; for example a noun used as the subject has no suffix, while when used as an direct object, the letter "t" is attached as a suffix, with a vowel if necessary. One simplifying aspect of Hungarian is that there is NO grammatical gender, even with the pronouns "he" or "she", which are both "ő", so one does not have to worry about the random Der, Die, Das sort of thing that occurs in German, "the" is simply "a". In Hungarian, family name precedes given name, the same as with Asian languages. And the list of differences goes on and on, such as the definite and indefinite conjugational system, vowel harmony, etc.

Attempting anything beyond the very basics will gain you a great deal of respect since so few non-native Hungarians ever attempt to learn any of this small, seemingly difficult, but fascinating language. 

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