After studying the Hungarian language for years, I can confidently conclude that had Hungarian been my mother tongue, it would have been more precious…

Simply because through this extraordinary, ancient and powerful language it is possible to precisely describe the tiniest differences and the most secretive tremors of emotions." Such a compliment by the Irish noble-prize winner writer, George Bernard Shaw elegantly points out the uniqueness of the Hungarian (or as the Hungarians call it, Magyar) language. It is unique, for that Hungarian is an isolated language, having no relatives in Europe. Where are the roots of this weird and wonderful language then?

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Hungarian belongs to the Finno-Ugric branch of the Uralic language family. Finnish and Estonian are also members of this group. To prove their common origin, Estonian philologists discovered a sentence which shows sings of similarities among these three languages:

• ‘The living fish swims under water.’

• Estonian: Elav kala ujub vee all.
• Finnish: Elävä kala ui veden alla.
• Hungarian: Eleven hal úszik a víz alatt.

Despite these visible links, Hungarians do not understand any Finnish or Estonian and vice-versa. This then suggests that Finnish and Estonian are not the closest relatives of Hungarian.

Following deeper investigation, it was concluded that Hungarian is much more strongly related to the Mansi and Khanty languages, which originate from Siberia and the Ural Mountains. Predictions are that Hungarian broke its bonds with these Ob-Ural languages about 2500-3000 years ago when Hungary’s ancestors settled down in the Carpathian Basin. Even before this, Hungarian was influenced by Iranian and Turkic as a result of the ancestors’ interaction with these nations during their quest for a homeland.

Throughout the following centuries, due to historical consequences, it picked up words from other languages such as from German, Italian, French or English as well. The 152 years of Turkish rule between 1544 and 1686 further expanded the Hungarian vocabulary to include Turkish words. For example, the sentence ‘I have a lot of small apples in my pocket’ is very similar in these two languages:

• Turkish: Cebimde cok kücük elma var
• Hungarian: Zsebemben sok kicsi alma van.

Moreover, Hungary’s geographical position means that it gathered several words of Slavic origin. However, these neighbouring countries have also been influenced by Hungarian. There is evidence for this in Croatian and in Serbian:

• Boots-in Croatian it is cizma whereas in Hungarian it is csizma
• Spade-in Serbian it is asov while in Hungarian it is aso.

The most important English word from Hungarian origin is ‘coach’ after the Hungarian village of Kocs where coaches were invented and first used.

The very first piece of written Hungarian was composed in 1190. It consists of a 26-line speech written for a funeral and a 6-line prayer for the dead. The first evidence of Hungarian poetry is dated from 1300 which is also the oldest remaining Finno-Ugric poem.

Since both the funeral speech and the poem were translated from Latin using the Latin alphabet that only consists of 26 letters, reading these pieces is very difficult for modern Hungarians. The first book written entirely in Hungarian was printed in Kracow in 1533 and it contains the translations of the letters of Saint Paul. (Nevertheless, these facts do not necessarily prove that Hungarian literature did not exist before the 12th Century.)

It is claimed that by the 17th Century, the Hungarian language reached the form that more or less resembles the one spoken today. However, in the following century, due to a major reformation movement by writers, it further developed and modernized. During this phase Hungarian vocabulary was significantly expanded, many of the already existing words were altered and some of the ancient and unknown words were brought back into use.

Hungarian is the official language of Hungary, a small country in the heart of Europe with a population of approximately 10 million. However, it is also spoken in Romania, Slovakia, Ukraine, Austria, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia and, due to a significant amount of immigrants, in North America. Overall it is estimated that only 15 million people in the whole world have the ability to communicate in Hungarian, considered by foreigners to be one of the hardest languages. This is because of its complex grammar and unusual letters that can be difficult to pronounce.

Neil Payne is a writer for the translation agency Kwintessential. For more info on their online services please visit:

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