The Hungarian dream

Flag - EngelskSo, last week something unexpected happened. I was at work, minding my own business, and in rather quick succession I received two pieces of news – one good, one bad. The good news was, that my boss had approved a proposal I had sent him, asking if we could be given time during work hours in our quieter periods to learn languages that we often find difficult to cover. The bad news was, that the language that had been chosen for me was Hungarian.

Those among you who are linguistically inclined will no doubt have already screamed in terror and thrown your computer out of the nearest window at the mere mention of Hungarian – and understandably so. But for those of you who are unaware of the tricks and treats that lie in store, allow me to try and enlighten you.

Hungarian is an Uralic language, and it’s only relatives are to be found far to the north – chiefly Finnish and Estonian, but also the Sámi languages and other lesser spoken languages around the Ural Mountains in eastern Russia. But even speaking one of those languages, the chances that you would understand anything in Hungarian is slight, as they’re not close enough to be mutually intelligible.

Those of you who were tortured with German (or even Latin) at school will know the pain of cases. Cases are assigned to nouns (and pronouns and adjectives) to define their role in a sentence. In English we only have this distinction in pronouns, and even then only in some: it’s the difference between ‘I’ and ‘me’, ‘he’ and ‘him’ and ‘she’ and ‘her’. Being the subject of the sentence versus the object of the sentence, or, to put it in more grammatical terms, belonging to the nominative case and the accusative case respectively. German has four cases, Latin has six and Hungarian has… wait for it… eighteen.Skærmbillede 2016-09-01 kl. 23.26.50 Just let that sink in for a second. Eighteen cases. Eighteen endings for every noun that have to be learned, and which you need to form even basic sentences in Hungarian. It’s actually more endings than that, because Hungarian has vowel harmony – which is a nightmare all on its own. You can see them all in the table to the right, and honestly… I wish I could tell you that this is the hardest part, but the pessimist in me fears that there’s something just as nasty lying in wait around the corner to bend my brain into all sorts of unnatural shapes.

There are also postpositions, which are a lot like prepositions except that they come after the noun (so instead of saying ‘next to the table’, you have to say ‘the table next to’) which completely confuse me, and I’m not even going to go into verbs because I’ve had a look at some verb tables and, frankly, that’s not somewhere I’m mentally prepared to go quite yet. But here I am, I’ve fallen down the Hungarian rabbit hole and I haven’t torn up my notes in frustration – so I’m going to take that as a positive sign. I’m more determined to conquer it, now that I have a reason to learn other than sheer fascination.

So this is my pledge to you. By the first of June next year, I pledge to be at a level with Hungarian that I can hold a conversation, and my blog post for that month will be written in Hungarian. That’s my goal, let’s see if I can manage to stick to it. You can expect more tidbits about Hungarian and its eccentricities throughout the coming year, and we’ll see if I can’t teach you a little something about this hulking great beast of a language that you didn’t already know.

And if I don’t? Well you’ll just have to hunt me down and throw a steaming hot bowl of paprikás in my face. As always, thanks for reading, and I’ll see you next time.

– J.

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