1 57 That Awful Hungarian Language Enzensberger, the globetrotting German poet, once complained that Hungary was the only country with Latin script that he had ever visited where he couldn t make out even a pharmacy sign. He was right: pharmacy is gyógyszertár in Hungarian. This monster of a word was coined, together with hundreds of others, to save the country from permanently becoming Germanspeaking, as it almost did during the first two decades of the 19th century. And miraculously, Hungary did manage not to become another Ireland a small country with old lively arts and literature, but without its own language. By the way, the official language of Hungary until 1844 was not German, but Latin. Literacy in Latin was widespread in the educated classes and lingered on for another hundred years until the otherwise beautiful Russian language was forced on Hungarian schools. One can learn how to read Hungarian in half an hour (its spelling is logical), but a lifetime is too short to understand it, let alone speak it. It is not an Indo-European tongue: it belongs to the Finno-Ugric family of languages. Finnish is a distant relative, but is totally incomprehensible to us. If you look at a Hungarian book you will see lots of diacritical marks, two of which, ő and ű was, for many years missing from the IBM standard character set, which made life hell for Hungarian computer users. On average, every sixth Hungarian letter is accented in some way or other though only the vowels (which can be long or short). Consequently it is still possible to write metric poetry, or hexameters, in Hungarian. In English, or Modern Greek, for instance, it is not. Hungarian poets are well aware of this. Though there are only three tenses present, past and future Hungarian conjugation is incredibly tricky. There are two separate sets in each of the three tenses: the transitive set and the intransitive set. So when I want to say I read a lot or I am reading, I use one set. I use the other set when I read something
2 58 That awful hungarian language György Tibor Szántó, historian, publisher, translator, godfather When you tire of the constant traffic noise and the window shopping which is inevitable on Erzsébet körút, you might want to find some peaceful island nearby with benches for tired walkers. Rescue is at hand! Please turn to the right at either Barcsay or Wesselényi utca (with your back to Blaha Lujza tér) and go one or two blocks. You cannot miss Almássy tér, a triangular square that serves as a playground for the young and the youthful, and as a green park for the elderly. The parkgoers must all live in the picturesque surrounding late-19th/ early-20th century apartment blocks that were built in styles ranging from mock-gothic to art deco. The man who gave his name to this surprisingly colourful and well-proportioned, small-town-like square is Pál Almássy ( ), who was a hero typical of the 19th-century landed gentry. The statue in the middle of the square, however, is of Antal Csengery (János Csiszér, ), another hero of that same ardent period. He is regarded as the father of public schooling in Hungary. He brought education to the lower-middle-class, that is, the young people who had to start work at the age of 18. Take your time looking around Almássy tér. Note the houses once designed for petty bourgeois families in this definitely working-class neighbourhood. If you happen to find an open gateway, take a peek at the pretty, hundred-year-old staircases with wrought iron railings and amazingly shaped floor tiles (even on the circular foyers popularly referred to as gangs ). Each house is subtly different from the next. The smell that comes from the kitchens, though, is identical throughout and must also be a hundred years old. The southern part of the square is, in fact, a short pedestrian street (Almássy utca) with wooden benches and some thirsty-looking greenery in graffiti-covered containers. The pavement here is for children to draw on. BUDAPEST BESTS in particular. Students with an English background will find it strange that the imperative is the most complicated business to put together. For most foreigners, Hungarian is intriguing, if not barbaric in sound. Eva Hoffmann, an American author, talks about the utterly perplexing sounds of the Hungarian language, with its Bartókian syncopations and sensuousness. She continues: Even when they speak English, Hungarians manage to transport some of the off-rhythms and softness of their own
3 That awful hungarian language 59 language into that flatter tongue, English, and give it strange, lunar resonances. Do we? The only good news for the very obstinate is that there is no gender for nouns and that word order is quite free (or, as experts say, fluid ). A word will carry slightly different meanings in different positions, however. This freedom, needless to say, is due to the unusually rich morphology of the language. If you take a closer look at any Hungarian book you will see very long words, most of them divided at the end of lines. Believe me, Hungarian is not an ugly language. Here is the list a great Hungarian poet, Dezső Kosztolányi ( ), made of what he thought are the most beautiful words in our language: láng (flame), gyöngy (pearl), anya (mother), ősz (autumn), szűz (maiden), kard (sword), csók (kiss), vér (blood), szív (heart), sír (grave). Interestingly his favourite words were the short ones in this language where words tend to be three syllables long. The Most Important Hungarian Words Yes No Thanks Hungarian Nice (in most sentences) Can I Have a Glass of Water? Red Wine White Wine Naff Igen Nem Köszönöm Magyar Szép Kérek egy pohár vizet Vörösbor Fehérbor Ciki
4 60 That awful hungarian language Twelve Commonplace Sentences You Can Make Us Happy With A mai napig jól emlékszem arra, amikor az önök arany csapata 6:3-ra legyőzte az angolokat a Wembley-stadionban I clearly remember when your Golden Team beat England 6 3 at Wembley. (This only applies to senior citizens, since it happened in 1953.) Szeretnék Szentendrére elmenni, hogy megnézzem a világhírű Kovács Margit Múzeumot. I want to get to Szentendre, to visit the world famous museum devoted to the art of the late Margit Kovács. (Kovács was a ceramist practically unknown abroad.) Mihály Ráday, former television anchorman, landmark preservationist, crusader. BUDAPEST BESTS At Least Adopt a Horse! that was our slogan in We were trying to raise funds to give a facelift to the Városligeti körhinta with a four-page colour brochure. We managed to find some old pictures, so a remake of the almost entirely stripped façade and the dome (which had been pulled down after World War Two) was well underway. We also had plans to reproduce the carved gates which had been replaced by hideous aluminum ones: an act worthy of a prison sentence for the perpetrator. It was the British ambassador at the time, Sir John Birch, who gave the campaign its first push. My mission in Hungary will be over in six months. Before I leave I would gladly contribute five or six hundred pounds to the restoration of something of value in Budapest, he had once told me. If you have an idea, don t hesitate to tell me. Not much later I called him and asked if we could meet in the Amusement Park. The ambassador climbed on the körhinta. We had a great ride. I told him that the old name of our amusement park had been the English Park until the Communist coup in the late 1940s. Then I made my pitch. With the help of his one million forints, we could
5 That awful hungarian language 61 Maga sokkal jobban tud angolul, mint én magyarul. Your English is far better than my Hungarian. Úgy hallottam, hogy a magyar diákok szokták megnyerni a matematikai diákolimpiát. I ve heard that Hungarian students tend to win the Mathematical Olympics. (It used to happen, but recently education experts have been rather preoccupied with declining average standards.) A magyar nők nagyon csinosak. Hungarian women are very pretty. Budapest rengeteget fejlődött, mióta itt jártam. Budapest has developed a lot since I was here. start planning the real work, I told him. Thanks to Sir John Birch and all the other generous donors, today the old körhinta is just as beautiful as in It was he who taught me the charming British word merry-go-round. Hungarian anglophiles tend to use the word carousel, since that was the title of the American musical version of the celebrated play by Ferenc Molnár. Originally entitled Liliom, it s a sentimental comedy about the love of a merry-goround operator and a servant girl. Have you inspected the comely frescos of the körhinta? Have you noticed the hand-carved and hand-painted torch-bearing angels, the chariots, the ships and the magic steeds? Have you noticed that every single horse has a distinctive face and features and that their leather saddles were made by craftsmen 100 years ago? You haven t? It s high time you went to look. Otherwise, if I m asked what to see in Budapest, I tend to suggest two things not available to the west of us: Turkish baths and Hungarian art nouveau. Visit the Király Baths, Rác Baths or the Rudas. Then off you should go to Pest, where you can admire Ödön Lechner s yellow ceramic bees heading for their hives on the walls of the former Post Office Savings Bank (which is today s State Tresury, see Walk Two).
6 62 That awful hungarian language Nagyon szép ország Magyarország. Hungary is a very pretty country. Hogyan tudott a kis Magyarország ennyi Nobel-díjast és nagy tudóst adni a világnak? How could little Hungary have given so many Nobel Prize winners and other great scientists to the world? (Most of them were Jewish Hungarians who emigrated to America because of the anti-semitic and anti-intellectual climate in the 1920s.) A magyar boroknak alig van párja a világon. Hungarian wines have hardly any rivals anywhere in the world. (Unfortunately they do however. Wines from Chile and Australia are the most obvious ones.) Az 1920-as trianoni békeszerződés tényleg nagyon igazság talan volt, de most, hogy bent vannak az Európai unióban, egész Európa az önöké lett, az összes tengerekkel. The Versailles Peace Treaty of 1920, which made Hungary much smaller, was really very unjust. But now you are in the Union, and all of Europe has become your own, with all of her seas. (Hungary in the Middle Ages was even bigger than it was in It is difficult for Hungarians to accept the small country status even if her neighbours are getting smaller and smaller.) Fantasztikus, hogy Budapest megint a kávéházak városa lett! It is great that Budapest has become a city of cafés, again! (True, no doubt.) Szépek a magyar bankjegyek! How nice Hungarian banknotes are! (This is a downright lie. They are to disappear in the mid 2010s.)
7 That awful hungarian language 63 Budapest is a great and remarkable city, with many uniquely and singularly naff things. However, the author is well aware of the fact that over-using the word naff is naff in itself. A Budapest guest of his, a great Australian professor advised to drop the word naff altogether. Unfortunately, the author could not. A serious description of early 21st century Budapest needs that term.