Is Hungarian similar to the German language

Ádám Nádasdy
Hungarian - a golden cage?

Ádám Nádasdy among statues of Hungarian poets in Oradea | Photo: © Várady Szabolcs

Hungarians are proud of their language, precisely because it is so different from all other European languages: it cannot express the difference between the masculine and the feminine, it does not contain a word for “have”, but it can (through a special conjugation of the verb) indicate whether the object is definite or indefinite:látok"I see something",látom "I see it".

Almost all European languages ​​belong to the Indo-European language family - Hungarian does not; it is the exception, along with Finnish and Estonian (to which it is distantly related), Basque, Maltese, and Turkish.

The Hungarian language is extreme, as is (supposedly) the Hungarian temperament. Attractive but unreliable. It accompanies you like a loyal friend, but as soon as you turn your back, it is gone and leaves you alone to struggle for words. “Music” is called zene ormuzsika, and the two words have different connotations. "I have a fever" meanslázamvan, literally: "Fever-mine is". The exchange of words: "Has the doctor gone away?" - "Yes." One would translate: "Elment az orvos?""El." Literally: "Did the doctor go away?" "-" Away. "There is no grammatical gender, so no difference between" he "and" she "," his "eyes and" her "eyes. That gives authors (especially poets) that Ability to express oneself in a more abstract or vague way; this often becomes a problem in translation because other languages ​​have to determine gender and translators have to take responsibility for how and when to do it.

Today nobody would seriously associate language and national character, but in the 19th century the two were largely seen in connection. The Hungarians realized that they were standing "alone". Since 1800, linguists suspected that Finnish, Lapland and some little-known languages ​​in Siberia could be related to Hungarian. This “Finnish idea” was greeted with disbelief and disappointment in Hungary: they had expected something more glamorous. Even today amateur linguists try to prove that Hungarian is related to Turkish, Japanese, Hebrew, Sumerian and who knows which languages.

All educated Hungarians spoke German

Around 1000 BC the Magyars, i.e. the oldest Hungarian speakers, left the Finno-Ugric language area (on the east side of the Urals) and joined the Turkish nomadic tribes in southern Russia, and had gradually forgotten their Finno-Ugric origins, thinking themselves to be distant relatives of the Turks or Mongols and believed to be descended from the Huns. This legend continued so well that "Attila" is one of the most common male given names in Hungary today.

Later, even here in the Carpathian Basin, German was felt to be the greatest threat to the Hungarian language. All educated Hungarians spoke German, and those who wrote Hungarian were constantly torn between the temptation to introduce “Germanisms” and the urge to avoid them. The result: Hungarian bears a paradoxical resemblance to German. I am not only thinking of the many German loanwords in Hungarian (cel"Aim",krumpli "Basic pear = potato",masíroz "march"). Much more important is the high commonality in idioms: they make Hungarian resemble German like a dolphin a fish, even if the origin and internal structure are very different in both. In Hungarian as in German you can say: Somebody cuts (felvág), or: He is conceited (boned). In Berlin I once read the saying in a newspaper comment: “How little Moritz imagines it” and I had to laugh: We say exactly the same thing in Hungarian (ahogy azt a Móricka elképzeli).

Purists continue to grumble against the foreign infiltration of the language, only that now it is no longer German, but English that exerts the greatest influence. Not just technical terms likeszkenner (Scanner) orlízing (Leasing) penetrate, but also many words that characterize today's lifestyle and attitude to life are adopted:mainstreamfilling (Feeling),retró (Nostalgia) orbadis (one who is into bodybuilding).

Why the Hungarians are not like the Irish

Hungarian is a special treasure; but it could be a golden cage for those who speak this language. It is worth comparing the recent history of Hungarian with the course of the struggle that the Irish waged against their overpowering neighbor. Around the middle of the 19th century, the Irish abolished traditional Irish Gaelic. Today English is the mother tongue of almost all Irish; Few can understand Irish Gaelic. With that, a rich, venerable language has been lost - it may be a sad loss, but frankly, it is also a great gain for the nation now that it has an international language. Billions of people can easily read the works of Irish authors, not to mention the benefits in the commercial, military, et cetera spheres of life.

Hungarian was in a comparable position to German as Irish was to English; but the opposite happened. In the middle of the 19th century, many residents of what was then Hungary, whose mother tongue was not Hungarian, decided to switch to Hungarian, and in fact in large parts of the kingdom (certainly in the areas that make up today's Hungary) people spoke after two or three generations only Hungarian. But as soon as citizens of today's Hungary cross the borders and travel to Vienna, Paris, London, or just those parts of neighboring countries where Hungarian is not spoken, then they are lost, unless they have long years of hard work on learning uses a foreign language which, by definition, must be very different from their mother tongue. Compared to Holland, Portugal, Greece or Finland, Hungary scores poorly in terms of foreign language skills. The Irish have freed themselves from their golden cage, the Hungarians still own it - or are they sitting in it?

A longer version of the article was created in 1999 for Die Zeit.