Magyar (MAHD-yar): n. Hungarian. The official language of Hungary. Like the Rubik’s cube, has 50 gazillion permutations. Synonym: mind-boggling.
In Hungary when something seems impossible they say it’s “an iron ring made out of wood.” I’m convinced that the Hungarian language is an iron ring made out of a redwood forest. Forget the term “language barrier.” The difference between English and Hungarian is more like the Grand Canyon. Rosetta Stone doesn’t even offer Hungarian. If they did, they’d have to give their money back.
One reason Hungarian is so difficult is that few Hungarian words have made their way into English. In fact, besides paprika and goulash, the English language has “borrowed” little from Hungarian. When words do sound the same in English and Hungarian, they rarely mean the same thing. Linguists call these “false friends.” Take sure and sör, for example. In Hungarian, sör (beer) sounds just like sure. No difference. When I go out with my Hungarian friend Imre to a pub, he says, “Sör?” and I answer, “Sure.” It makes us laugh.
Some Hungarian words are so long they look like grand prize winners in a tongue twister tournament. “Bye” is viszontlátásra, “plane” is repülőgép, “car” is személygépkocsi, and “mall” is bevásárlóközpont. Apparently in the 19th- century, there was a movement to reform the Magyar tongue. One of the big reformers shortened many of the words. I’d hate to guess what they were originally.
After years of living in Budapest, I’ve gotten used to waiters and store clerks laughing at me when I attempt to speak the language. Not long after I moved to Budapest I walked into a crystal store with my friend Eszter. I found some water glasses that I liked and took them to the cashier.
“Szeretlek,” I said, placing the glasses on the counter. I would like these.
The woman started giggling.
I must have said it incorrectly. I tried again, repeating it slower. “Szer-et-lek.”
The woman’s giggles turned to laughter. She called to another lady behind the curtain who came out smiling. The first woman explained what happened. Then they both started cracking up.
As my face turned red, Eszter came on over. Through her snickers, the first sales lady explained to her what happened.
I looked at Eszter. “Bad?” I said, cringing.
“No,” she replied. “You just said the wrong word. Szeretnék means I would like. You said szeretlek.”
“What does that mean?”
“I love you.”