Hungary – A brief guide to the quirkiness of the Hungarian language and social etiquette

Whether you are visiting Hungary for work or pleasure (or both), this insight into the beauties of our unusual language and some of its quaint social aspects should help you understand and impress your Hungarian hosts.

As Hungary is surrounded by Slavic nations (with the exception of Austria and Romania), many assume that Hungarian belongs to the Slavic group of languages. This is not the case. Hungarian is a Finno-Ugrian (or Finno-Ugric) language, which is related to Finnish and Estonian, although it would be difficult to identify any similarities without in-depth research into the history of this linguistic group.

The main difference between the structure of the Hungarian language and that of English is the lack of prepositions. Hungarian is an inflecting language, which means that the relationship between one word and another in a sentence is expressed by the use of various prefixes and suffixes. In theory, any number of suffixes can be added to the end of each word, but in practice, most words will only have between one and three. Morphology, therefore, is a vital part of Hungarian grammar. The best way to decipher a text is by identifying the root of each word and then adding the meaning of each prefix and suffix.

Let’s take the very commonly used word ‘egészségedre’ as an example (it means ‘Cheers!’ as well as ‘Bless you!’). The stem of this word is ‘egész’, which means ’whole, complete’. The suffix ‘ség’ turns this adjective into the noun ‘egészség’ meaning ’health’ (literally ’wholeness’). The next suffix ’ed’ is the equivalent of the possessive pronoun ’your’, so ’egészséged’ means ’your health’. Finally, the last suffix, ’re’ is (in this case) the equivalent of the preposition ’to’ in English. ’Egészségedre’, therefore, literally means ’to your health’. If you want to learn one word to impress your Hungarian friends, this one will work every time, as having a drink with your Hungarian host will most likely be a regular occurrence.

You should not be put off by the complicated appearance of written Hungarian. The strange accents you see over the vowels form an essential part of each vowel and change the way it is pronounced. In fact, they are separate letters in the alphabet and, therefore, the Hungarian alphabet comprises an astonishing 44 letters. Most accents simply make the vowel sound longer, e.g. ‘í’ is an elongated ‘i’, ‘ó’ is an elongated ‘o’, and the same goes for ‘ú’ and ‘u’, ‘ő’ and ‘ö’, as well as ‘ű’ and ‘ü’. The letter ‘a’, however, is pronounced very differently (as the vowel in ‘cut’) to ‘á’ (as the vowel in ‘baa’) and ‘e’ (as in ‘get’) sounds very different to ‘é’ (as in ‘cake’).  These accents are not optional or inter-changeable. If a word is spelt with a long ‘ú’ and you write it with a ‘u’, you’ll have made a simple spelling mistake. However, if a word is spelt with an ‘ü’ or an ‘ű’ and you spell it with a ‘u’, this will change the meaning of the word or render it meaningless, e.g. ‘fűt’ (pronounced as the French ‘sur’) means ‘he’s heating’ and ‘fut’ (pronounced as ‘foot’) means ‘he’s running’, but ‘füt’ or ‘fút’ have no meaning at all.

The other contributors to the large number of letters in the Hungarian alphabet are the digraphs, which are the combination of two (in one case three) letters that represent a single speech sound, such as ‘cs’, ‘sz’, ‘zs’ or ‘gy’. Because they are pronounced as one sound, they are considered separate letters in the alphabet. The letter combination ‘cs’ is not pronounced like ‘cs’ in the English word ‘crocs’, but rather like ‘ch’ in the word ‘chimney’. ‘Sz’ is pronounced like the English ‘s’ in ‘seven’, while the letter ‘s’ on its own sounds like ‘sh’ in ‘shoes’. The letter combination ‘zs’ sounds like ‘measure’ and ‘gy’ is similar to the first sound in the word ‘due’.

Names and introductions

Meeting and greeting can be a bit of a minefield when you are in a foreign country and unfamiliar with its customs. Luckily, in Europe, a trusty old handshake will solve most tricky situations, but it might be helpful to know that in Hungary people tend to shake hands a lot more often than they do in England. It is customary for both men and women to shake hands when introducing themselves, but men also tend to shake hands every subsequent time they meet and part, even if they meet again on the same day. Friends and relatives (especially if the group includes women) usually greet each other with a kiss on each cheek. If you are going for a one-peck approach, you might find the other person hanging mid-air waiting for the other cheek to be kissed, otherwise the greeting gesture feels incomplete.

When addressing people in formal situations, you must always use a polite form of greeting, such as ‘Jó napot kívánok’, which literally means ’Good day to you’ and can be used all day. If you are a man and truly want to impress your female host or colleague, you could use the greeting ‘Kezét csókolom’, which literally means ‘I kiss your hand’ and should only ever be used to address women (although children also use this phrase to greet both male and female adults). In fact, if you are a female visitor being introduced to a Hungarian man (especially if it is an older gentleman), you shouldn’t be surprised to receive an actual peck on the back of your hand, as in the olden days this form of greeting was considered the height of sophistication. While on a cultural note, I ought to mention that in Hungary even the most ardent feminist will expect a man to hold the door open for them while they walk through and will consider any male pushing in front of them to be extremely rude. A real gentleman will also pay the bill at the restaurant and might even help the lady put on her coat before leaving.

There is one area where the Hungarian language is very similar to most other languages spoken on the Continent (but very different to English), which is the use of the formal/polite and informal/familiar personal pronouns when addressing people. In Hungary, it is customary to use the polite form (‘ön’ or ‘maga’ – the equivalent of the formal ‘you’ or ‘vous’ in French, although it is used with the verb in the 3rd personal singular) until the other party (usually the one who is older or more senior in the organisation) suggests that you switch to ‘te’ (the equivalent of the informal ‘you’ or ‘tu’ in French). Until this point, you should stick to addressing the other party by his/her surname, but once you have agreed to use the familiar form (‘tegeződni’), you are safe using first names.

You should also be aware that in Hungary the surname comes before the given name. English-speaking Hungarians will frequently introduce themselves by putting their given names first and surnames second, but anyone who does not speak English will use the Hungarian order, e.g. Magyar Lajos. Unfortunately, addressing ladies formally can be a tricky social puzzle. It can be considered polite to use their first name, but to be on the safe side, you should check how they want to be addressed. After marriage, a women can lose her maiden name completely if she decides to take her husband’s name. The traditional married name for a woman in Hungary is her husband’s full name with the suffix ‘né’ added to the end of the husband’s given name, e.g. a lady married to Magyar Lajos becomes ‘Magyar Lajosné’. This means that when you are introduced to someone with such a married name, you won’t have any idea what her given name is. If you address her as ‘Magyar Lajosné’, it will sound extremely official. You must not address her as ‘Lajosné’ as the second part of such a married name cannot be used on its own. ‘Magyarné’ is a possibility, but it has an official and slightly condescending feel to it, so the safest thing to do is ask the lady how she would like to be addressed.

Luckily for foreign visitors, it has become very common among the younger generation of women to adopt more user-friendly versions of married names, such as adding the suffix ‘né’ to the husband’s surname and keeping the woman’s full maiden name, e.g. ‘Magyarné Nagy Katalin’, or even combining the husband’s surname and the wife’s given name, just like in England, e.g. ‘Magyar Lajos’ + ‘Nagy Katalin’ = ‘Magyar Katalin’. It is also very common for professional women to retain their full maiden name, which makes life much easier for everyone. Well, at least until such a woman tries to travel abroad without her husband but with her young child who bears the father’s surname and she is accused by the immigration officer of trying to kidnap the youngster because their surnames are different. The only way to get out of a sticky situation like this without being arrested is by producing the child’s birth certificate, which clearly states both parents’ names.

Erika Arvai, Project Manager

Erika Arvai, Project Manager

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