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ISMLA Bulletin — April 2021

Reflections on learning Hungarian

Author: Holly Murphy

As someone who hasn’t looked at a language textbook since I studied French GCSE, it’s safe to say that I was a little hesitant I was given the opportunity to learn a language that I had never considered studying: Hungarian.

Most people in Britain have been exposed to romance languages because of their prevalence in most curricula and in general culture. Whereas my knowledge of Hungarian was next to nothing. I had never heard the language spoken, could name any famous Hungarians or even recall what the flag looks like. My ignorance of this country and its culture was quickly realised. Of course this is not entirely my own fault. Hungarian isn’t taught in secondary schools and the only time I remember Hungary being mentioned was simply as a small pawn in the fight between American democracy and Soviet communism in the twentieth century. However, knowing that I would be learning a language completely from scratch actually fuelled my interest and so I agreed to take part in weekly Hungarian classes.

To claim that for a native English speaker Hungarian is challenging is an understatement. Once I got over the initial shock at just how long words can be and the generous number of ‘z’s and ‘v’s I was faced with, I familiarised myself with the unique letters and sounds not found in English. While pronunciation remains difficult, I enjoy composition exercises due to the importance of vowel harmony. The vowel sounds must remain consistent throughout words and phrases within a sentence. Alongside the fact that there are no silent letters, vowel harmony gives the language a rhythmic quality that is absent in every-day spoken English.

Hungarian is not only interesting linguistically, but also from an historical perspective. Belonging to a group of languages known as Uralic languages, including Finnish and Estonian, Hungarian has influences from many languages such as Slavic, Turkish and German. In the 19th century scholars led by Ferenc Kazinczy embarked on a project of standardizing and revitalizing the language. New expressions and words were created, while German and Latin loanwords were discarded. Language wasn’t the only aspect of society that was undergoing reform in this period. Indeed, in the year of 1848 – ‘the year of revolutions’ – countries all over Europe were facing upheaval as old, feudal government systems were abolished to make way for a new era of nationalism. Therefore, the desire to consolidate the Hungarian language can be seen as an effort to strengthen a distinct Hungarian identity.

This would prove to continue to be a precarious issue when the Austria-Hungarian Empire was formed. Both countries were melting pots of Eastern European influences. Czech, Slovak, Serbian, Polish and Romanian (to name a few) were widely spoken, with German being the most common language. After decades of world wars, rebellions and numerous treaties, today Hungarian now has the status of the nation’s official language. There are over 13 million native speakers, with 9.8 million (99% of the population) living in Hungary.

Hungary has a long and fascinating history which should not be reduced to a single incident in the context of another country’s war. In a time where our news cycles, films and other media outlets are saturated with Anglo-American content, it is important to learn about other countries. My short time studying Hungarian has shown me how linguistics, history and contemporary politics are all deeply interlinked. I certainly did not envision myself becoming so interested in all of these elements when given the chance to study a language that is so different from my own.