I finished my second Hungarian class just before the holidays. The finale was fun with a trip to Vörösmarty tér to put my fledgling magyar mumblings to use in the midst of the bustling Christmas market. Stumbling over double-letter letters (gy and ny ain’t easy) and creatively applying my limited vocabulary, my classmate and I successfully ordered a lángos and forralt bor, asked for prices and made small talk with patient, pleasant Hungarian vendors. With my head brimming with newly found knowledge and Hungarian wine, I wanted to share some of my favourite Hungarian language phrases.
This language is notoriously difficult to learn. Many people use this as an excuse not to, and in Budapest, you can generally get along fine without it. I can’t say I’ve reached the level of learning where I see this tremendous complication, though I can see it in the distance. For anyone considering learning it, go for it! For a beginner, don’t get scared off – basic Hungarian it’s no more complicated than any other language, and its full of verbal delights.
The language has an interesting history, and the Magyars are fiercely proud of their difficult nyelv. This video provides the best summary of Hungarian I’ve heard yet, as well as a handy dose of Magyar history:
Yet, they are among the most generous, patient and encouraging people to language learners. Nearly every Hungarian has met my bumbling efforts with a kind smile, surprised eyes and a reply. A friend recently told me that when foreigners learn Hungarian, it’s as though we’re stroking the soul of the country. If that’s not encouragement to learn, I don’t know what is.
Hungarians have quite a wit. I wish I could understand the wild wordplay, to which the language lends itself so well. Here is part of my collection of clever phrases that I have been able to tease out:
This is currently my favourite Hungarian phrase (thanks, Akos & Eszter!). Fekvő is the adjective lying, and rendőr is the noun policeman. Put together, the ‘lying policeman’ is the poetic version of the English speedbump. Yes, a speedbump. That piece of asphalt that lies low on the road and effectively regulates traffic: playing the role of the lying policeman. So imaginative!
I translate this roughly as ‘to internet’. A great, needed term in the modern age. Who says “I’m surfing the internet”? It sounds so… 1994. There’s no English equivalent to say ‘I’m interneting’, yet the Hungarians have figured it out.
Hét and hétfő
Hét is both the word for the number 7 and week. Simple and clever. Equally as clever is the word hétfő, which combines the words hét/week and fő/head, meaning the head of the week: Monday. To the English ear, it’s a near-homonym to hateful, which is equally appropriate for that day of the week.
Piros and vörös
The Hungarians have two words for red. A colour so full of vibrancy, passion, and meaning, let alone shades, has been acknowledged with two colour names. This is not the fancy crimson and rust, the kinds of colours that only come in the 64 packs of crayons. No, in Hungarian, these are as basic as green and blue (as a reference, this study argues otherwise but it also provides a very interesting and thorough overview of cultural colour history). Let me present:
Now, we dive into the Hungarian phrases that will make you do a double-take on the streets of Budapest. The words with English homonyms that make the anglophone giggle or furrow.
The Hungarian word for cheese is, of course, very common. The British find this word particularly amusing as its pronunciation matches the slang version of shit: shite. If you’d like to hear it for yourself, click the speaker in the dictionaries to compare sajt and shite.
At first, I thought Hungarians had a strong affection for Japan as they exclaimed Tokyo! when something was agreeable. After I asked a very puzzled friend about this urban connection, he explained the phrase means very good or cool, and is a combination of tök/pumpkin or very and jó/good. As to what pumpkins have to with it, you’ve got me.
[Update: Thanks to some great feedback, my Hungarian understanding has grown and tök doesn’t stand for pumpking, but it’s short for tökéletes/perfectly, so tök jó means perfectly good. Makes sense!]
I share this one as I know many visitors who misunderstood this polite Hungarian phrase for a less polite English one. Bocsi is the short form of bocsánat, which means excuse me. Not excuse me as in “Excuse me, can you please repeat that?” (that’s elnézést), but as in “Excuse me, may I pass by?”. Bocsi is a very handy term in busy grocery aisles and metro stops. Unfortunately, to the English ear, it sounds an awful lot like ‘Watch it!”, used by the impolite in those exact same scenarios. D was surprised and slightly miffed as to how to the little old ladies seemed to know just enough English to be rude as they moved past.
Last but not least: Puszi!
When friends part ways or as a conversation wraps up on the phone, you’ll often hear the parting words “Puszi! Puszi!”. Puszi translates to kiss or peck, which is the verbal form of the physical greeting, one kiss on each cheek (left then right, for your reference). It’s a warm greeting, and yet, even after living here for over a year, I still can help but smile.
I hope you feel inspired by the magyar language. If you want to join in the fun, you can get a daily dosage on Duolingo, as the beta version is now available. I also recommend Daily Magyar’s website as a funny and useful resource and their Insta for further giggles. Happy Hungarian learning!