Hungary, a country smack dab in the middle of Europe. Surrounded by countries like Ukraine, Serbia, Romania and Austria. The influence of these neighboring countries on the Hungarian culture is abundantly clear when you visit Budapest. Logically you might think this influence would extend to their language as well. That is far from the case—you’re in for a nightmare if you want to learn Hungarian.
Hungarian is an isolated language with its origins tracing back to parts of Siberia in Russia. The closest modern language like it is Finnish, and even that is a stretch. The locals love to brag that Hungarian is often regarded as one of the most difficult languages to learn. Partly because it does not resemble any other language, and partly because it is what is known as an agglutinative language. An agglutinative language adds prefixes and suffixes to the beginning and end of a base word to alter its meaning. This makes for some extremely long and difficult words to learn.
To understand more about why Hungarian is an isolated language we have to look at the geography of Hungary. It’s situated on what is now known as The Great Hungarian Plain. It is also surrounded by mountains in all four directions. Isolated from outsiders. Many historians credit this to be the reason why the Hungarian language survived and developed over thousands of years.
Hungarian is the official language of Hungary with about 12 million speakers. The majority of speakers reside in Hungary, but residents of Transylvania in Romania, where it used to be the official language, still speak it.
As a native English speaker the first thing you will notice when attempting to learn Hungarian is the length of the words. Hungarian has some of the longest words of any language. This again stems from the fact that it is an agglutinative language. For example here is an English sentence translated to one of the longest Hungarian words.
Which translates in English to:
“for your continued behavior as if you could not be desecrated”
Now this is an extreme example, but it gives you an idea of just how difficult this language is to learn. Even the capital city of Budapest is a combination word from the two cities “Buda” and “Pest”.
Now you might think, “Okay, no big deal, the words are longer. At least they use the Latin Alphabet and not Cyrillic like those crazy Russians to the east.”
But, you would only be partially correct.
They use an expanded Latin alphabet. This means they have the same 26 characters as the English alphabet but with 18 additional modified characters. These come in the form of combined letters like “Ly” and letters with two dots, a single dash or a double dash over them.
This adds up to a total of 44 characters in the Hungarian alphabet.
If the long words and 44 characters weren’t a big enough hurdle to learning Hungarian, throw in pronunciation. After studying and hearing natives speak this language, it sounds to me (a native English speaker) like a cross between Italian and Japanese—with a Slavic accent. That’s one hell of a mix. Not to mention, you can’t pronounce many of the words by sounding them out due to the 44 character alphabet.
Still want to learn Hungarian?
These are the main hurdles if you are trying to get a basic grasp on the language. If you are going to master the language their are a host of additional things to tackle. One being the four-tiered system for showing politeness. Here is a basic run down of the different forms.
Ön: This is a formal way of addressing people.
Maga: This is similar to Ön but gives distance to the speaker and whom they are addressing
Néni: This is mainly used when addressing elders, also an affectionate form of politeness.
Te: This is the most informal and commonly used when addressing family and friends.
Word order and intonation of words also have a huge impact on the meaning of certain words and phrases. The main focus of the sentence moves to the front to show that it is new information. Basically giving it context within the sentence itself. Where as in English we might have to explain a sentence with an additional sentence if you didn’t understand the context of the original sentence. Confused yet? 😉
If you still want to learn Hungarian well then you’re going to have to study your butt off. However, there is one small glimmer of hope for a newbie taking on this mammoth of a task. That hope lies in the friendliness of the Hungarian people.
Hungarians are proud of their native tongue, but they also recognize its difficulty to learn. As an outsider in Budapest many of the locals are anxious to help you if they see you making an effort to learn Hungarian. It’s not much, but it’s something. If you find yourself on a date with a Hungarian girl she will probably get a laugh out of your attempts but be good-natured about it.
It can be a great way to connect with people and form friendships. Another great reason I would encourage any new travel to at least learn a few words in the language of the country they are visiting.
With only about 12 million speakers and the fact that Hungarian is an incredibly difficult language to learn it has a relatively low bang for its buck. I would encourage travelers to look at other Languages to become fluent in like Russian, Spanish, Italian, or Romanian first.
I wouldn’t wish learning Hungarian (fluently) on my worst enemy. If you are still set on learning Hungarian, visit Budapest or find a native speaker online to learn from. Even understanding the basic structure of the language is difficult.
Having someone who knows the language can help speed up the process. Hungary’s younger population is fluent in English, and you should be just fine with using English around Budapest. Its probably unrealistic a casual traveler will become fluent in Hungarian, but I’d still recommend you learn a few common phrases before visiting Hungary.
Sok szerencsét [good luck],
PS: Benny Lewis’ Fluent in 3 Months is a great program to master a language. Plus, he spent a couple months living in Budapest—so he knows what he’s talking about!