As a Hungarian translation company, we often face the wide-spread opinion that Hungarian is one of the most difficult languages of the world. However, it has a lot of simplicity, too, compared to some Western European languages. And, as the humorous linguists often say, any language can be learned in 5 years, as 5-year-old kids speak their mother tongue fluently and correctly in every country of the world.
Let us see some of these ‘legendary’ difficulties and also some forgotten easy points! We leave it up to you to decide if you consider these peculiarities worth the ‘most difficult European language’ badge.
First of all, unlike German or French (but similarly to English), Hungarian has no genders for nouns (or adjectives). So when you learn a new noun, you don’t have to learn its gender, too. Moreover, Hungarian is very PC in this respect: we have one personal pronoun (ő) for ‘he’ and ‘she’; instead of brothers and sisters, we prefer to use the word testvér (meaning ‘sibling’) when referring to all of them. Also, profession names apply to both males and females, e.g. rendőr or igazgató (‘police officer’ or ‘director’), even if the suffix -nő (‘woman’) can be added for clarification.
Hungarian has no future tense (and only one past tense for expressing all kinds of past actions and events). For describing actions in the future, we use the present tense and occasionally add the word majd (circa ‘later on’).
No plural is necessary after numbers. Although this may seem strange for some foreign learners of Hungarian, as we DO have plural forms, still, it is easier not to add any suffixes to nouns. ‘One tree’ is egy fa in Hungarian, and ‘two trees’ is simply két fa.
You pronounce everything the way you spell it. Although we have a lot of sounds, including vowels that might be hard to learn, when you see a written word, there is only one way to pronounce it. No guessing, no exceptions.
Finally, there are no dialects which are very different from one another, nor accents. Of course, as in every language, there are minor geographical and sociolinguistic variations, but all speakers of Hungarian understand each other perfectly and easily. So if you learn the language, you hopefully won’t face Hungarians who speak it in an incomprehensible way (except if they are inebriated).
While the pronunciation of written texts is quite straightforward, it is not so easy to guess the right orthography of a given spoken word; especially if it contains the ‘Y’ sound (as in ‘Yankee’), because it can be represented by either the letters ‘j’ or ‘ly’. In this case, learners have to memorise the correct orthography and there are few rules help them – which also have exceptions.
There are two conjugations, the so-called definite and indefinite conjugation (sometimes called objective and subjective conjugation) for every verb. Without going into the juicy details (which are numerous), the definite is used when the object of the action is defined, and the indefinite is used when the action has no definite object or the verb is intransitive. To put it simply, the verb ‘see’ has different forms in Hungarian sentences for ‘I see’ and ‘I see the horse’ (Látok vs. Látom a lovat).
Hungarian is an agglutinative language, which means that it adds suffixes to the words in order to express the case, the number and other meanings; this way, extra-long words are created. Example: letter – levél; exchange letters – levelez; correspondence – levelezés; your correspondence with someone – levelezésetek; in your correspondence with someone – levelezésetekben; in your correspondences – levelezéseitekben, etc.
Vowel harmony is again something which means nothing to English natives or other Western Europeans – although it exists in Turkish and Finnish. There are so-called high (front) and low (back) vowels. The simplified version of the rule is that nouns containing only high vowels get high-vowel suffixes, while nouns containing only low or mixed vowels (although mixed vowels are not typical in original Hungarian words) get low-vowel suffixes. Example: -ban and -ben both express ‘in’. Bár (‘bar’) is low, so ‘in the bar’ becomes bárban, while étterem (‘restaurant’) is high, so ‘in the restaurant’ becomes étteremben. Of course, in reality, the rule is much more complex…
In any case, it is safe to say that like any other language, Hungarian also has some complicated, unusual or illogical traits, but it offers some very easy features in exchange. What do you think based on what you read above or based on your previous experience with the language? We would love to know – leave a comment in our blog or on our LinkedIn or Facebook page.