Hungarian – A Strange Cake on the Menu

You can be proud of anything, if you really want to be proud. 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 “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 such languages in Europe are Estonian and 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 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? – Away.” Nowadays nobody would seriously connect language with national character, but this was widely done in the Romantic period 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 no ties. 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, not like German to Danish, or French to Italian, where the relations are easy to see. This was received with disbelief and disappointment, since people had expected something more spectacular: for another hundred years amateur (and not-so-amateur) linguists were busy proving that Hungarian was related to Turkish, Japanese, Hebrew, Sumerian, or what you will.

Not all Hungarians are happy with this language: some can never learn it, either because they go away early or they come here late. Franz Liszt was proud of being Hungarian, but didn’t speak the language because he came from a German-speaking family and spent most of his life outside Hungary. My grandfather, Eduard Ritter von Hübner, was born in Prague in 1883 and came to Hungary in 1920, but comfortably managed here with very little Hungarian till well into the 60s, when the last generation of German-speakers began to disappear. I remember the national census of 1960. Since Grandpa didn’t understand the questions, I filled in the questionnaire for him, translating into Hungarian: Place of birth, Occupation, till it came to “Anyanyelve” on the sheet. “Muttersprache? (Mother tongue)” said I. “Ungarisch (Hungarian)”, said he, in German, of course. “But Grandpa, you can’t speak Hungarian, can you?” I protested, preparing to write “német” (=German) into the rubric. I was thirteen. “Stupid child!” he shouted, “what do you know about life? Write“magyar” and shut up!”

Hungarian, in one way or another, has always been a minority language. First, when its earliest speakers, the Magyars split off from the Finno-Ugric language area (east of the Ural mountains) around 1000 BC, and joined the alliance of semi-independent Turkish tribes in southern Russia, who all spoke Turkic languages like Chuvash, Bashkir or Tartar. The Magyars, for some mysterious reason, did not abandon their Finno-Ugric mother tongue, even though they must have been bilingual (Hungarian–Turkish), as is shown by plenty of loan-words from Ancient Turkish, including basic ones like kék ‘blue’, gyárt ‘to manufacture’, and even baszik ‘to fuck’. Their names (e.g. Árpád, Gyula for men, Emese, Sarolt for women) were also Turkish, as were their clothes, weapons, kitchen utensils and burial rites. Thus it 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 1920), but they never became numerous enough to fill it: there were large numbers of Slavs, later also Rumanians and Germans living there. True, the Hungarians were the largest single group in the area, but there were always more non-Hungarians than Hungarians living in historical 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 bourgeoisie were mostly German-speaking, as was printing, correspondence, even theatres, also 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 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 ‘nodoby’, 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 is quite different. In both Hungarian and German one can say that someone “cuts up” to mean that he boasts (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 World War I 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 % 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 % living in Hungary and 25 % 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 Brasov (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 Papa¬dimitriu (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 required a law to forbid using foreignisms in public, but thank God it was realized by decision-makers that this is 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 sérthetetlenségünktõl “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 “their houses”.  



 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 non-Hungarian-reading public.     



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 traditional Gaelic Irish 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, military, etc. life). Hungarian was in a very similar situation vis-á-vis German as Irish 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 neighbouring 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.



(originally for Die Zeit, Hamburg, October 1999 – republished for PLOTKI with courtesy of the author)


Photos by Justin Hyatt

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