Hungarian language rhapsody

Silk’s Post #53 – A short, pictureless post from my cabin on a cruise ship on the Danube River. This is day three in Budapest, a place that was never even on my bucket list. This only goes to show that, a) I knew nothing about Budapest or I would have always wanted to come here, and b) I need to rethink my bucket list overall.

I was so ignorant about Hungary when I landed here on Friday night that I literally had no coherent expectations. I’m only slightly less ignorant now, but my expectations have soared, and been exceeded. Without getting into the whole history of this many-times invaded and occupied nation, or its proud but unpretentious culture, or its lyrical creative spirit (none of which I’m really qualified to comment on at length), let me just talk a bit about the voluptuous and fascinating texture of its language.

If you’re a word fanatic like me, you experience language at multiple levels. You feast your eyes on the shapes of words on the page (maybe this is the designer in me), you roll words about in your mouth and wrap your tongue around them, and you listen to the music of the sounds words produce. So, for me, the Hungarian language is as rich and exotic a feast as their dishes are to a foodie.

We tend to value things for their rarity, it seems (with apologies to those with palates more refined than my own, how else could you explain the price of beluga caviar?). If you want to know the value of letters, for example, you need look no farther than the Scrabble™ score sheet. A “Z” is worth 10 points, a “J” fetches 8 points, a “K” or “Y” 5, and a “V” 4. I’ve always thought of these letters as special. Elevated above others. Exotic. Memorable.

There’s scarcely a word in the Hungarian (or Magyar) language that doesn’t include at least one of these letters. “How are you?” = Hogy van? “Very well thank you.” = Koszonom nagyon jol. “Call the fire department!” translates to Hivja a tuzoltokat! (which, by the way, translates to 42 Scrabble points).

How can you not love a language so full of rare, jaw-cracking letters?

Especially when it sounds like music when spoken? There’s nothing gutteral about it. More like wind through rushes, bees buzzing around flowers on a hot summer afternoon, the clink of glasses toasting your health, and the cadence of horses’ hoofbeats galloping along in the background.

I don’t know what value these observations might have for my writing friends or those following this blog, other than the reminder to look and listen for poetry and new perspectives in unexpected places. There’s nothing like dropping yourself into a different culture to get your eyes and ears working.

So, Orulok hogy megismerhettem, Budapest. Pleased to meet you.

3 thoughts on “Hungarian language rhapsody

  1. Oh I do know what you mean about languages. Whatever country we’re in I’m always listening, listening, not even trying to understand, just letting the sounds fill me. Hindi is a beautiful language! Who would have thought. On the metro in Delhi there was always an announcement prior to each station and there was one phrase said every time – I kept trying to memorise and repeat it. It was like music.

  2. The most useful word in Hungarian is ‘egészségedre’. Once you’ve mastered that, doors will open and you’ll get lots of Hungarian smiles. Thanks for a lovely post, and make sure to pop a bottle of Hárslevelű or Kékfrankos. Cheers!

  3. Pingback: Word of the Day Wednesday: Ügyeskedö | EF Foundation for Foreign Study Mid-Atlantic

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