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Üdvözöljük to Hungarian, one of Europe’s most curious languages
"It’s like singing," says one fan who can’t speak a word of it
Arriving in Hungary one damp Easter Sunday a couple of years ago, I was greeted by a sign at the train station reading: “Üdvözöljük Miskolcon!”
Beneath it was the translation: “Welcome to Miskolc!”
Those were to be the last three recognizable words that I read or heard in the following 24 hours.
I quickly realized that the traveler's usual trick of listening out for familiar-sounding words wasn’t going to be very productive in Hungary.
Because while the Hungarian language does use Latin characters, that’s where its kinship to virtually any other European tongue ends.
Few words in Hungarian, including place names, are easily recognizable to foreigners.
All Greek to me?
“All Hungarian” might be a better expression for something truly incomprehensible.
"I'm headed for, um ... "
As a traveler, you know you have a problem when you can't even pronounce the name of the place you want to go to.
Looks straightforward -- although in fact Hungarians pronounce the “s” as a “sh,” so it's actually something like “Buda-pesht.”
Alright, not too tough.
Applying that first rule and another -- that “c” is pronounced like “ts” -- gives you “Mish-kolts.”
Excellent! You might actually end up at your destination.
But the city of Nyíregyháza?
And as for Székesfehérvár …
Hungarian is unrelated to any of its neighboring language groups -- Germanic, Slavic or Romance -- which between them encompass 95% of what the rest of Europe speaks.
There are various theories about Hungarian’s origins, but its grammar and vocabulary suggest links to Finnish (and its close cousin, Estonian) and a handful of languages spoken in Russia -- together known as the Finno-Ugric languages.
Yet Hungary is not, like Finland, on the edge of Europe but slap-bang in the middle of it.
For that reason it’s traded words with some of the continent’s big linguistic players.
Hungarian has provided English with a few notable words, for instance, coach, saber, paprika and, of course, goulash (though be warned this is normally a soup, rather than a stew, in Hungary).
And although it’s borrowed some English and other foreign words in turn, there are fewer than you might expect and you won’t come across them -- or recognize them when you do -- very often.
Sea of words
To visit Hungary is to immerse yourself in a melodic sea of unfamiliar and sometimes rather long words.
Dr. István Lanstyák is a professor of linguistics at Comenius University in Bratislava, Slovakia, and one of the millions of native Hungarian speakers living in the countries surrounding Hungary.
He says that all the long words in Hungarian are partly due to the historic influence of German, which loves to stick shorter words together to create enormously long ones.
Lebensabschnittpartner, for example, is a German word for “lover.”
As for Hungarian, numerous word endings defining things such as case, possession and number get stuck together to create some formidable tongue-twisters.
Even if you can’t understand the result, it can still sound rather pleasant -- one Hungarian I spoke to said her (non-Hungarian) boyfriend described her conversations with her mother as “singing.”
The melody of the language is actually formalized in a rule that requires different forms for each word ending depending on the length of the preceding syllables, in order to maintain “vowel harmony.”
It’s as if in English we were obliged to speak in rhyming couplets.
Young speak English
Dr. Lanstyák says that, as a rule, younger Hungarians will speak some English, while middle-aged people often have only their native tongue -- they might have refused to learn Russian under communism or have since forgotten it.
The older generation will often speak German as a second language.
Alas, many public transport, post office and even tourism sector employees fall into the middle category.
Don't despair: The consensus among visitors and foreign residents, at least in Budapest, seems to be that although you may not understand them, enough of them will still understand you.
Show map, point
A couple of post-grad students I spoke to who were studying in Budapest said that they survived there barely knowing any of the language -- one admitted she knew "about five words."
Their advice? Carry a map -- asking for directions can be difficult with the tricky pronunciation of Hungarian names.
Dr. Lanstyák has another suggestion.
Hungarian has more international words than it might first appear, he says.
Restaurants, for instance, normally carry the unguessable moniker “vendéglő” or “étterem,” but Hungarians also use the word “resti” (pronounced “resh-tee”).
So try pronouncing a few English, German or French words creatively, the professor says.
In Miskolc, I used impassioned gestures to board a tram in the city, find a room and order a meal.
But perhaps I was lucky with that sign.
Visitors to the city are now greeted with a new one -- in Old Hungarian.
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