Friday, August 9, 2013

So, How's My Hungarian Coming?

I've been living in Budapest, Hungary for almost five months now. I'm a bit of a language fanatic with a solid background in linguistics and an above-average understanding of syntax and morphology. So, many friends back home casually ask me how my Hungarian is coming. Well... it isn't.

Why not? How can you live somewhere for months and not be able to speak the language, at least a little bit? Ok, depending on what you mean by a little bit, I can. Certainly more than you can, unless you're a Hungarian reading this, but not enough to matter. I still don't understand 98% of what I read or hear all around me. There are, however, good reasons for this, and they're not all entirely my fault.

First of all, I work for a language school, and I teach English. This means I'm surrounded by people who either speak English quite well already or are trying to learn to speak English better. Consequently, much of my communication with other Hungarians is, by necessity, in English. Secondly, a fairly large number of people in Budapest speak English. While it's certainly not safe to assume that, for example, the clerks behind the counter at the T-Mobile store will speak English, the odds are better than 50-50 that they will, at least well enough to answer any questions. It's not uncommon for someone to say something to me in Hungarian, note my blank stare, and then repeat in perfect English.

The single most important factor limiting my acquisition of Hungarian is, well... Hungarian. It's a bitch of a whore of a bugger of a language. It's not the sort of thing you pick up casually. I've actually met expats who have been living in Budapest for several years and still neither comprehend nor speak the language with any real proficiency. I'd like to try to point out to all of you exactly how ridiculous of a language it is, if I can, based solely on what I've already learned so far.

First of all, as I've mentioned in another blog post, second language acquisition difficulty is relative, based largely on the similarities of the new language to one's native language. If you already speak a language which behaves like, or shares some common ancestry with Hungarian, then it won't be such an impossible task. Hungarian is a member of the Finno-Ugric branch of the Uralic language family. It's the Ugric part. The Finno part is, as perhaps you've guessed, Finnish. The only other language with any appreciable number of speakers in this family besides Hungarian and Finnish is Estonian. Taken all together, there are about 25 million native speakers of Finno-Ugric languages in the entire world. For comparison, there 38 million people living in the US state of Texas.

Hungary is bordered by seven countries: Slovakia, Slovenia, Ukraine, Romania, Serbia, Austria, and Croatia. None of these countries speaks a language related to Hungarian. In fact, every single one of them speaks a language from the Indo-European family, of which English is a part. This means I could move a few hundred miles in any direction and instantly make my life simpler.

So, how is Hungarian different from English? Well... maybe it would just be easier to list the ways in which it's similar to English:

1. Hungarian uses the Roman alphabet (mercifully).
2. In Hungarian, adjectives generally come before the nouns they modify, not after.
3. Hungarian nouns don't have gender (mercifully).

That's pretty much it. Hungarian has no common ancestry with English whatsoever, so the roots of basically every word imaginable are completely different. Take, for example, the words for the numbers 1-10 in Hungarian and some neighboring tongues:

English Hungarian Serbian Romanian
one egy jedan una
two kettő dva doi
three három tri trei
four négy pet patru
five öt četiri cinci
six hat šest şase
seven hét sedam şapte
eight nyolc osam opt
nine kilenc devet nouă
ten tíz deset zece

Even if you don't know anything about Romanian or Serbian, I think that if you were shown this list of words, you would surmise that you're looking at 1 to 10. If you were shown the Hungarian, you'd perhaps surmise that someone had pounded his head on a keyboard ten times.

Then there's the inherent difficulty in pronunciation. Hungarian has several sounds which we in English simply do not, both vowels and consonants. Not only are there rounded vowels (the ones with the dots), but they also occur in long and short versions (ö/ü, ő/ű), AND there are minimal word pairs in which the only difference is the length: compare öt "five" and őt "him/her."

The Hungarian alphabet has 44 (not a typo) letters, including many digraphs (two letters that count as one) and one trigraph (dzs). My least favorite Hungarian letter is gy. I dislike it for two reasons. First, it's not a sound I can make with my stubborn Anglican mouth. (To give you a vague approximation of how it sounds, imagine a British person saying during, where they kind of put a y in it - dyuring - and this gy sound is the dy part of that word.) Secondly, this stupid letter IS EVERYWHERE. As you have already seen, it's in the word for one, which also doubles as the indefinite article (a/an). It's also found extensively in forms of the verb to be, and in extremely common words like big, or, and how (nagy, vagy, hogy). It's difficult to say almost anything without needing to make this cursed sound come out of one's face.

In English, we really like prepositions. We say things like "I'll see you at the game after lunch with Bob." Hungarians do not like prepositions. Instead, they just like to have one word with the preposition part stuck onto the end, for example: iskola, "school" iskolaban "at school." This wouldn't be so terrible, except that it's not that simple. For you see, Hungarian displays a relatively rare linguistic feature known as vowel harmony. This basically means that they really only like their words to have one kind of vowel in them, either back vowels (a, u, o) or front vowels (e, i, ö, ü). Mixing them up in the same word is not ok. So, iskolaban, "at school," but étteremben, "at (a) restaurant."

Here's my favorite (by which I mean absolute least favorite) head-scratching bit of Hungarian grammar so far: the language distinguishes between sentences which are "definite" and "indefinite" with respect to the direct object of the sentence, if there is one. That is to say that Hungarian finds the statements "I see a house" and "I see the house" (in which the latter refers to a specific house and the former does not) to be different in a significant way, and this difference must be noted by a change in the grammar of the language. The unfortunate task of marking the distinction falls to the verb, and as such, all (transitive) Hungarian verbs have two conjugations: definite and indefinite. Quite annoyingly, Hungarians are generally not aware that they do this, nor are they able to explain it when confronted with the awkward reality that the verb "I see" in the aforementioned sentences is different: Látok egy házat, "I see a house." Látom a házat, "I see the house." This difference between definite and indefinite persists throughout the entire conjugation of the Hungarian verb.

My real gripe with this odd distinction is that it is totally meaningless and serves no ostensible purpose other than to complicate the language needlessly. To speak incorrectly and say Látok a házat will certainly betray your non-native proficiency, but in reality there is no lost information, no difference in actual meaning. It's simply that the language wants látom there, not látok, for reasons which are beyond my comprehension. [If a scholar of Hungarian has an explanation for this otherwise baffling grammatical anomaly, please do comment below.]

Although my understanding of the language is still quite rudimentary, I nevertheless could cite several more examples demonstrating the utter chaos which is the Hungarian language. Every time I open my Hungarian grammar book, I'm immediately greeted with a new reason to close it. Still, it is quite an extraordinary way of communicating, and to me nothing short of a miracle that Hungary has held on to this unique language for so long. It would certainly be a shame if we ever lost it.

If you're curious as to what Hungarian sounds like, here's a random news broadcast. What do you think? To me it's sort of a mix of German and Slavic languages, although at the same time sounding distinctly like neither. It's definitely unique. So, how's my Hungarian coming? Not well, but I swear it's not my fault!

1 comment:

  1. I can imagine with your proficiency in language all stemming from a central source, that a language outside that realm would already be frustrating. To me it might as well be mermish. I read all the words on the page and I'm not quite sure I absorbed any of the information, other than: not going to bother with that nonsense language.