Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Encounters with Futility

Despite making an effort to put aside at least ten to fifteen minutes of every day to study the Hungarian language, I seem to have got worse at speaking the bloody thing, rather than better. I've stuffed my head with all sorts of big, impressive looking bits of vocabulary, but they seem to have shoved out the words and phrases that are the building blocks of daily commonplace interchange. It's very disheartening.

Which is why I was amused when I came across a passage about Hungarian in Patrick Leigh Fermor's wonderful book Between the Woods and the Water (if you haven't read it and its forerunner, A Time of Gifts, I highly recommend them both. I think he was one of the greatest descriptive writers of modern times and the story he tells of his walk across Europe is wonderful).

In this extract he has just arrived in Budapest and is trying to get to grips with the local tongue:

'Coming from a great distance and wholly unrelated to the Teutonic, Latin and Slav languages that fence it in, Hungarian has remained miraculously intact. Everything about the language is different, not only the words themselves, but the way they are formed, the syntax and grammar and above all the cast of mind that brought them into being. I knew that Magyar belonged to the Ugro-Finnic group, part of the great Ural-Altaic family. "Just", one of my new friends told me, "as English belongs to the Indo-European." He followed this up by saying that the language closest to Hungarian was Finnish.
"How close?"
"Oh very!"
"What, like Italian and Spanish?"
"Well no, not quite as close as that ..."
"How close then?"
Finally after a thoughtful pause, he said, "About like English and Persian."'


  1. I'm very impressed that you've persisted in the face of overwhelming odds. I hope that the Hungarians appreciate it.

    The English-Persian comment is interesting. In the days of Encarta, I used to compare Hungarian and Finnish words and could never see the connection. It makes more sense now.

    1. Encarta, blimey, that's a blast from the past. Totally forgotten it existed.

  2. Very funny. And doesn't he have a rather nice line about polysyllabic Hungarian words with their accented vowels e.g. Hódmezővásárhely or Székesfehérvár looking like wheat in the wind?

    1. He does, how brilliant of you to remember.

  3. In learning Bengali I have always held to the theory that you just learn nouns and the bits in between them will fill themselves in somehow. This can work, though sadly not always in the way I hoped.