the language

 
 
 

If you are used to getting by in foreign countries by relying on hearing familiar roots in words because you speak French or Spanish or German or Russian; or if you can follow mood and content from intonation and gestures and body language; that won’t happen here.  Hungarians sound like they are speaking in one long run-on sentence, maybe one long word, and they always seem to be in the midst of one of three intense emotions: anger, amusement, or (among those 15-25 years old) infatuation.


Hungarian is actually part of a nominally Indo-European language group called Finno-Ugric; the only other member is Finnish.  But if you happen to speak Finnish all that you will find familiar, perhaps, is a bit of the sound and the rhythm...the words share no common roots.  Perhaps if you speak Turkish you may hear some familiar syllables or words, the Turks conquered Hungary for long enough to leave some of their words behind when they left in a hurry.  But that’s about it.


On the other hand, in Budapest at least, I have had no trouble getting by with a Hungarian lexicon that consists entirely of about half a dozen vitriolic curses learned at my father’s knee plus two dozen construction terms learned from the contractor who renovated our apartment and spoke no English.  I can say "sheetrock" but I can't say, "You're welcome."  It is mortifying.  But everyone speaks a little bit of English, menus almost always have English translations, even off the beaten path, and hand gestures can usually get me pretty far when all else fails.  I have had long conversations, conveying complex abstract concepts, without either of us knowing a word of the other's language.


The key is to press on, politely and apologetically if appropriate, but if the person you are speaking to says they speak no English, ask your question anyway, in as simple words as you can find.  Half the time it will turn out they know enough English to answer at least partly (and were simply afraid you wanted to conduct an oral exam and give them a grade).  90% of the rest of the time someone within earshot will speak both English and Hungarian fluently and assist or interpret.


I speak no Hungarian still, and it’s been more than half a dozen years that I have been spending a lot of time in Budapest and I have never once found myself stranded because I couldn’t communicate.  You will be fine.




 

Hungarians sound like they are speaking in one long run-on sentence, maybe one long word, and they always seem to be in the midst of one of three intense emotions, anger, amusement, or (among those 15-25 years old) infatuation.

Perhaps someone has mentioned that Hungarian is not similar to any other language in the world.