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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

China – First Impressions

I have recently had the privilege to visit a country that is most famous for its ancient history, the only man-made structure visible from outer space and its huge population, which − even after 35 years of strictly controlled one-child policy − exceeds 1.35 billion.

I was invited by Nationalities University in Dalian in the North-East of China to deliver lectures on business and leadership to its students of International Trade in May this year. On my way there, I decided to spend four days in Beijing, as it would have been a shame to pass through this ancient city without visiting some of its famous sights.

Beijing road

Beijing road

I had been warned to expect large buildings and great distances in the ‘Northern Capital’, but I could hardly believe my eyes when, having taken the ‘Sky Train’ from the airport to the city centre, I stepped out of the railway station in search of a taxi to the hotel. The road in front of me was the size of a large European motorway with five lanes on each side and a barrier in the middle acting as central reservation. I was hoping to hail a taxi from the pavement, but there was also a metal barrier separating pedestrians and cyclists from the road and I could not see an opening in it anywhere. I even ventured down into the subway hoping to be able to cross underground to the other side of the vast avenue but only ended up back at the metro station that I had come from.

Seeing my despair (and it is not easy for a European visitor with a large suitcase to blend into the local crowd), an octogenarian rickshaw driver in slippers approached me and asked if I wanted a lift. When I showed him the address of the hotel, which I had very smartly printed out in Mandarin before I left home, he shook his head and waved me to a taxi that had miraculously appeared between the pavement and the roadside barrier. I couldn’t have been more grateful! I didn’t even mind the fare he was going to charge me which, for a relatively short journey, turned out to be twice the cost of an airport transfer.

It was just as well that I hadn’t contemplated making my way to the hotel by public transport, as there was no way I could have carried my heavy suitcase up and down the numerous stairs that seem to be inherent to any underground journey in Beijing. Public transport in China seems to have been designed solely for able-bodied athletes. If you wonder why most Chinese are so slim and fit, this is one reason: in order to get from A to B without a chauffeur-driven car or a taxi you have to walk for miles and climb hundreds of stairs every time.

I was relieved to eventually arrive at my lovely hotel and to be greeted by English-speaking staff and a comfortable bed to sleep off some of my jet lag. In the evening, refreshed, I ventured out for a walk to discover my immediate surroundings. I was pleasantly surprised that, despite the hotel being near Beijing Railway Station, the area was far from dodgy or run down. In fact, it was very modern with tall office buildings and shopping malls, and also very clean and free from any rough sleepers or beggars you would normally expect in such a location in most other countries. The roads, however, were still vast.

On my first evening stroll, I decided to walk across the zebra crossing in front of the station, the memory of which still sends shivers down my spine. I obviously waited for the lights to turn green for pedestrians before starting my long walk across the ten lanes that this particular road consisted of, luckily in the company of some brave and experienced locals. However, once on the crossing, I was astonished to see cars turning from both left and right onto the zebra crossing and expecting the pedestrians to somehow vanish from their paths. I didn’t know which way to look and whether to keep walking or to start sprinting, so I simply decided to stick with the small group of determined locals and kept walking while trying to ignore the cyclists and rickshaw drivers who, at that point, also joined in the commotion. In a situation like this, having only two eyes is simply not enough! Since I’m only blessed with the usual one pair, and this was not an experience I wanted to repeat any time soon, on subsequent trips out, I insisted on using the subway nearby to get from one side of the road to the other. Where this wasn’t an option, i.e. on smaller roads only consisting of four lanes, I would check both ways, check again and then run for it, hoping no local driver would want to get involved with foreign insurance firms over injuring a European visitor.

On this first outing of mine, I decided to pop into the local supermarket. The layout of the shop was very similar to that of many supermarket chains in Europe where you can find everything from clothes and household appliances to fresh fruit, meat and fish under the same roof. It didn’t surprise me too much that approximately 70% of all the food on sale was unrecognisable to me either due to its appearance or its Mandarin labelling, or both.

I wasn’t on a mission to try some exotic Chinese delicacies on my first evening, though; I was actually hoping to find some bread. I know that in Oriental countries bread isn’t part of the essential diet like it is in Europe, but I thought a large supermarket in the centre of Beijing would surely cater for more unusual tastes. Having spent about half an hour looking at various shelves and walking up and down numerous isles, I decided to ask someone for help. I thought I was very well prepared for this adventure as I had downloaded a couple of Chinese translator apps to my phone at home and this was the time to put my new gadget to the test. I quickly discovered, however, that both my apps were completely useless without Wi-Fi and I wasn’t desperate enough to use mobile internet 5,000 miles away from home at rates of about 1 ounce of gold per megabyte, so I resorted to approaching young, professional looking women (assuming that they might speak some basic English) with my ‘Do you speak English?’ pronounced as slowly and clearly as humanly possible. The reactions to this ranged from sheer panic followed by a swift move away from the stranger to giggles or simply saying ‘no way’ in Mandarin.

Working for a translation agency and having great passion for foreign languages, I do appreciate the importance of speaking the local language when visiting other countries. I also normally try to learn a few local phrases before travelling somewhere new, but in this case I felt completely unprepared: I could not communicate with a single person in that shop. The fact that I did eventually find something that looked like sliced bread but tasted more like brioche (an added bonus?) was not thanks to my verbal abilities but rather to my determination of not leaving the supermarket empty handed.

If lessons are to be learned from our experiences in life, then my first evening in Beijing taught me to avoid road traffic in Chinese cities at all costs and it made me realise that one must not assume that English is the international language of our globalized world. China is very happy with its own language and culture and is in no hurry to give it up or adjust it to our convenience.

Written by: Erika Arvai

Hotel in Beijing

Outside my hotel with the bell boys

Business In Spain

An Insight Into Doing Business In Spain

Anyone who flies regularly between England and Spain will be aware of the many business passengers travelling between the two countries. The last decade has seen significant market expansion of Spanish companies into the UK, now numbering more than 400, including some which have become a familiar presence. High street clothing stores Mango, Massimo Dutti and Zara (Inditex), FCC Environment Ltd. (industrial waste contracts for two UK local authorities), aviation company Iberia, banking giant Santander, Ferrovial airport management, O2 (Telefónica) and Scottish Power (Iberdrola) have all established themselves in Britain in recent years. Despite the economic downturn, expansion is continuing and companies are consolidating their positions: Zara has just opened a new (4th!) store on Oxford Street in London with considerable fanfare. The latest news is that a Spanish hotel developer has purchased the emblematic Admiralty Arch in the heart of London and intends to turn it into a luxury hotel.

UK counterparts with a substantial presence in Spain include Aviva, Barclays, BT, KPMG, Lloyds, Vodaphone, Burberry, British Airways, drinks company Diageo, BP and Bupa, in addition to the many small companies which have been set up in the wake of the popularity of Spain as a tourist destination and the boom of second home ownership. As many as 900 UK businesses operate in Spain, according to official reports. Companies have been affected by the recession and the eurozone crisis, but Spain continues to be an important UK business partner, ranking 8th in the UK’s main export markets, whilst the UK is Spain’s fifth largest supplier.

As the world economy has become increasingly globalised, and an ever growing number of businesses have expanded beyond their borders into other countries, particularly in the EEC, it is perhaps tempting to think that business practice has also taken on a universal character, and that the business person will encounter no surprises when he or she visits suppliers or clients abroad.

However cultural attributes evolve slowly, and are often resistant to methods and frameworks brought in from outside. Cultural differences can be more or less pronounced depending on the sector of operations and the degree of previous international contact.

Regional variation and diversity: 
Doing business in London can be very different to doing business in Norfolk or in Scotland. Differences between the seventeen Autonomous Regions in Spain are even more marked, ranging from the flamboyant southern region of Andalusia to the more industrial northern Basque Provinces or wealthy Catalonia. Six areas including the Basque, Galician and Catalan Autonomous Regions have their own official languages alongside Spanish, and cultural identity is often a politically sensitive issue. All the regions run their own budgets and development programmes.

English is now widely taught in Spanish schools and younger Spanish business people may well have spent a period of time studying or working abroad. However many older company bosses do not have a good command of English and may rely on younger members of staff for communication. Publicity material and correspondence is not always well translated into the target language. In many cases an interpreter is essential for high level discussions to avoid misunderstandings.

Dress code:
This will depend on the sector. Professional people in Spain dress very smartly; men normally wear dark, well-cut business suits whilst women favour neat tailored outfits and designer clothing. Dress code in industrial and agricultural sectors is more relaxed, but still conservative. Even casual clothing tends to be smart.

Meeting and greeting:
Normal procedure when people have not met before is to shake hands, but in a less formal context it is standard for women to “air kiss” on both cheeks.

A standard joke in business circles revolves around “la puntualidad inglesa” – fabled English punctuality, and a Spanish businessman may stipulate “hora inglesa” if he particularly wants a meeting to start on time. Whilst you cannot assume that events will not run to time, in general, particularly in the south of Spain, there is a more relaxed attitude to timekeeping. Meetings may start late, may extend way beyond schedule, and may be interrupted by other business and by mobile phone calls. Spaniards like to talk around the subject under discussion, feeling their way, rather than dealing briskly with a series of agenda points.

Working hours:
Traditionally the working day in Spain has involved a long lunch break between 2 and 4 or 5pm, followed by work late into the evening. More recently, practices have changed in some sectors. In summer, some companies and offices may work a “jornada intensiva”, starting early and working through to a 3pm finish. Banks and government departments are usually open to the public between about 9am and 2pm. Many businesses close down completely for the standard August holiday. When a public holiday falls on a Thursday or a Tuesday, the intervening day is often taken off as part of a long weekend or “puente”.

The establishment of good personal relations is fundamental in Spanish business culture. Spaniards value personal contact and prefer meeting and talking for developing understandings and reaching agreements.
It is normal for a visiting business associate to be invited to a meal, usually after the more formal deliberations have been successfully concluded, and this can also be a lengthy affair. Not to accept the invitation as part of the process of establishing good commercial relations may be misconstrued. Spanish company representatives would expect the hospitality to be reciprocated on their visits abroad.

It is common practice for small appropriate gifts such as branded merchandise to be exchanged when a successful commercial relationship has been established. Gifts such as food hampers or bottles of wine are often given at Christmas to employees and to favoured clients.

Company hierarchy:
Spanish companies are usually hierarchical in structure. Top executives have high status: the boss, particularly if he is the owner or larger stakeholder in the company, will expect deference and respect. Qualified members of staff also enjoy high status and may be dogmatic about processes and methodology in their area of competence. However, once persuaded of the potential of a new project they will carry it through with enthusiasm.

Assertiveness and decisiveness may come across as autocratic, but this may be just a question of style. It is common during meetings in Spain for opinions to be expressed forcefully, with a lot of hand gestures, and speakers may interrupt each other during lively discussions without this causing offence.

Dealing with the administration in Spain can be complex, time-consuming and frustrating. It is best to seek local advice and help from others with experience of the system.

Written by: Sarah Wright


Linguamax attended a B2B exhibition at the Norwich City Football Club

Opportunities 2013 eventLinguamax was exhibiting at the Norfolk Chamber of Commerce ‘Opportunities 2013’ event in Norwich on Thursday 14 March. The event was a wonderful opportunity to meet other business leaders in Norfolk and discover how we could help them enhance their global business.

It was a lively exhibition with 500 people in attendance, some eye-catching stands and good atmosphere to network and plenty of opportunities to do business. We had a great day and made some useful contacts.

NCC ‘Opportunities 2013’ 14 March: Norwich City Football Club, Carrow Road, Norwich NR1 1JE.