The curious case of Hungarian: Europe’s most complex language?
Hungary might sit in Europe’s geographical heart, but its language bears little resemblance to its Indo-European neighbours. Originating from the Ugric subgroup from the Uralic group of languages, Hungarian, along with its far-flung distant cousins Finnish and Estonian, has little in common with other European languages. It’s an agglutinative language, in which complex words are made up of countless grammar prefixes and suffixes that serve very specific functions within each word, sometimes allowing a single word to translate into English (or related languages) as a relatively long sentence. Being such a lawless language for most Europeans, Hungarian is said to be one of the hardest languages to learn.
My history with Hungarian
Growing up with a Hungarian mother and an English father in the UK, people assume I grew up bilingual. But after about five minutes of conversation in Hungarian, the cracks begin to appear. A misused case or misplaced word will tarnish my deceptively well-pronounced Hungarian, prompting the surprised question: “Where are you from?”
I was a late talker, and a popular misconception held among child psychologists my parents took me to at the time caused them to blame my bilingual surroundings for the delay. Hence, before I even said my first words, we reverted to being a monolingual, English-speaking household. The concept of correlating bilingualism with language delay has since been widely disproven. But eventually, I finally said my first English words and I haven’t shut up since. Sadly, my Hungarian acquisition stopped until the age of eight.
My mother tried to communicate in Hungarian sometimes, only to be confronted with “Mummy, why do you speak to me funny and everyone else normally?” from a sassy toddler. I was stubborn, but my mother wouldn’t give up, so we moved to Budapest and she put me in a local school where no one spoke English.
I sat alone and listened to this strange, yet oddly familiar, language echoing around the classroom for three months without uttering a word. Hungarian, unlike French and even German, has virtually no words that someone with an English vocabulary can hook onto as a crutch.
Why is Hungarian so unusual?
Hungarian may use a Latin alphabet, adopted since the 13th century to replace the original runic script, but that’s where the similarity with other European languages ends. And even with its northern Finno-Ugric cousins Finnish and Estonian, the languages have little in common with each other. I can say that being a Hungarian speaker gave me little to no advantage when I travelled through rural Estonia earlier this year.
As Hungarian evolved away from what became the Baltic branch of the Finno-Ugric languages, it has infused itself with various linguistic influences that have left the language such a curiosity. Ugric languages can be found as far as Western Siberia, east of the Ural Mountains, where Mansi and Khanty are spoken and are perhaps Hungarian’s closest living relatives. But, with a geographical separation of 2000 miles, estimates place the linguistic distance of those Ob-Ugric languages from modern day Hungarian at about 2500-3000 years.
Making its way to Europe, Hungarian became a language moulded by its migration. Hungarian acquired many words with Iranian, Turkic, and Caucasian origin offering a linguistic breadcrumb trail towards its roots in the Urals. Later it also became influenced by its European neighbours, with words being picked up from languages from the Slavic, Latin, and Germanic families, and even its Turkish influences could be traced to the Ottoman occupation of the country which lasted for almost 200 years.
But while there may be the odd identifiable German or Slavic word, the language is still virtually indecipherable to its neighbours. Even though the language evolved over time, its grammar and phonology stays loyal to its Uralic origin. One of the greatest challenges for non-Hungarian speakers are its pronunciation, where you have three groups of vowels (totalling about 14 vowels) and groups of consonants clustered together, some of which make unique sounds, such as Ny (/ɲ/ – think the ñ in Spanish), Sz (/s/ – that’s a normal S to most of us), S (/ʃ/ – which sounds like Sh), Dzs (/dʒ/ – that takes on a J sound), or Gy (/ɟ/ – I have no idea how to explain this one to English speakers, but I can tell you the Hungarian surname Nagy is not pronounced “Naggy” as in your naggy relative).
This can prove to be a landmine when it comes to pronouncing certain words, where a carefully placed accent changes the meaning of the word, such as cheers, Egészségedre [ˈɛɡeːʃːeːɡɛdrɛ], which becomes a toast ‘to your whole posterior’, when missing an accent in the case of Egészsegedre [ˈɛɡeːʃːɛɡɛdrɛ].
A grammatical headache
Beyond that, Hungarian grammar offers learners an intellectual headache with its elaborate case system, where you have 18-35 cases depending on who you ask, that are used to express prepositional meaning. Tense, noun, adverb, adjective, person, number, and case are expressed through a complex directory of hundreds suffixes (along with prefixes), where an incorrectly used suffix will change the entire meaning of the word or sentence, for example the verb hív (call) changes to Jánossal hívathatnál egy taxit (you could have János call a taxi) in another sentence, where you have the stem, hív, followed by causative (+at), may (+hat), and conditional you (+nál).
Today, I feel lucky enough I still fell in the catchment period of learning the language. I was still young enough to learn a language like a sponge while being immersed in a Hungarian-speaking school, and after three months of silence, I spoke the language fluently. Returning to the UK for my studies put an end to my acquisition, and as a lazy teenager being bullied for having picked up a Bela-Lugosiesque accent, my Hungarian became a time capsule for the age I left, which was 11.
When I moved back to Budapest years later at 28, my Hungarian was rusty and stunted at the language abilities of a child in an adult’s body. Over the years, I grew up linguistically, but even so, I will still be far from a native speaker.
But when I look at the other English speakers living here, struggling to understand this difficult language, I can only be grateful that for me that I bypassed learning all the rules by picking up the language from my exposure to it as a child.
Hungarian is certainly a language that will offer an intellectual challenge to any daring language learner, so if you decide to learn this fascinating language as an adult then I wish you good luck on this linguistic Odyssey!