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.

photo by Lennart Guillet

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.”

42 thoughts on “Magyar

  1. Great post! All I could do was laugh, because I have had these experiences as well. I am married to a Hungarian-10 yrs in January- and have been learning Hungarian since the beginning. I have made many mistakes just like this along the way. My Mother-in-law has to be the most patient person in the world for putting up with many of my public blunders over the years. Hungarian is truly a hard language to conquer, even just the basics. :)

  2. haha yeah, hungarian is not the easiest language… if i were a foreigner id never start learning it because it is truly_very_hard.

    all respect to those who try it though :)

  3. Good one !!!…My experience with Hungarian is the same…I was able to learn one whole sentence after many glasses of whiskey…and if you know my teachers it wasn’t the most polite sentence ;)

  4. I want to see you translate, “I’m taking the car to the mall. Bye!”

    I hope English is easier for the Hungarians to learn. I can see your theatre background coming in handy! This was so interesting, Phil!! You know how to educate in such a fun, engaging way!

    • Hi! I’m Hungarian, I can assure you that it is easier for us to learn English then for anyone to learn hungarian. Here is your sentence in hungarian: Elviszem a személygépkocsit a bevásárlóközpontba. Viszontlátásra! But a Hungarian would never say it like that, I would say: Elviszem a kocsit/autót a plázába. Szia! It means the same, just with shorter words.

      • Rita, I live in the USA for 25 years now, back in they days the word “plaza” didn’t exist. I noticed that Hungarians adapted a lot of English words (with hungarian spelling) to make it easier to say….. Even we Hungarians had enough of spelling them or saying them! lol Phil, this was a great article, made me laugh. I have dated an American for 7 years and even the word “szeretlek” took him almost that much to learn! :-)

      • So it is more likely ‘Elmegyek a személygépkocsival a bevásárlóközpontba’ :) I am trying to teach my husband Hungarian since 3 years now, I have to say during this time I’ve learned dutch from him, and he can say paprikáskrumpli, jóétvágyat, teknősbéka and hupikék törpikék. I’m not sure how far he gets with these :)

  5. Szia~ We are an American family that has been in Papa, Hungary for about 2 months now. (I was in Budapest yesterday!) It is SUCH a hard language, but it has been fun to learn…. I’m glad I stumbled onto your blog~ Cant wait to read more!

  6. Hey! Nice to read about these experiences. I’m Hungarian, living in Budapest since I was born, and I have some American friends now. It’s really interesting to see my home from another view, can’t wait to read more!

    “I’m taking the car to the mall. Bye!”
    How we should say it: “Elviszem a személgépkocsit a bevásárlóközpontba. Viszontlátásra!”
    How we really say it: “Elviszem a kocsit a plázába. Szia!”

  7. Hi, I liked a lot your story. I grow up in a small town in Romania called Targu Mures where half of the population are Hungarian and half Romanians. My dad speaks fluently Hungarian but my mom not. He didn’t bother to teach us to much the language but I learn the basics, was hard. I know how to count, to ask how much it costs and ask for water. Its a hard language. I am impressed that you are trying so hard to learn it.

  8. I am so happy to find this page. I had a very hard time to learn English. I still can’t say “Th” and the “W”. My children were born in Canada & have lots of fun with my words like : vat, vere, vhy. So you are very brave to learn our hard but beautiful language. From now on I will looking for your funny stories. :-)

  9. It’s hard, yes, it’s probably not the most useful either, unless you have Hungarian relative, friend or businesses. Still, there are (and were) people who learned to speak Hungarian, and never regretted it. Here are some nice quotes:

    George Bernard Shaw : “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.”

    Berglund : „Today, that I have some idea about the structure of language, it is my opinion, that the Hungarian language is the summary product of human logic.”

    Jakob Grimm the fabulist said that “Hungarian language is logical and has a perfect structure and surpasses every other language”.

    So if you have too much free time to kill, just learn Hungarian, it’s pure fun! :)

  10. I am hungarian and living in the states. My learning language experience was with the words of ‘puszi’ . I was taking care of a little half Hungarian boy and I often asked him to give me a puszi in public. I guess you know what English word I am thinking about. It took me 3 months when I realized I shouldn’t use that Hungarian word in public. lol

    • Ha Ha. My Hungarian girlfriend would say it to her Mother on the phone. Very funny the first few times. I think an “n” added to it is the other one.

  11. Hi Phil, You have made my day! I save the best for last: at the end of every working day I read one of Your posts as treats. I wish it doesn’t end!

  12. “Viszontlátásra” is not a long word. It about means that: “I wish that we will meet each other in the future” or “I would like to see you in the future.” It’s a short expression isn’t it?

  13. hi phil!
    i’ve been attempting to learn magyar for about 3 years now via the Pimsleur method. although i have learned a lot i have to say that you are in the best situation to learn the language because you are living there. you are immersed in the culture. i think you are very fortunate to be there.

  14. Your posts are cracking me up. Just to feel a bit better, the same things happen to me when I go to the US. Since V-s sounds totally the same for us, It gets me in all sorts of troubles. Like once, when I had to invite some people for a cookie, that we had for snack, but some found out and had some already, so I went back and asked, if I should still invite them, somehow they heard that I wanna wipe them. But the best is actually the words that mean different things in British English and American English. Best story even when I wanted to cheer up one of my little campers and distract her a bit from what happened. When I was little we collected all sorts of things, like napkins, ERASERS, pencils and other fun stuff. Now insted of eraser, according to the British English we teach the word rubber in schools, so that is what I used, when I was talking with my camper. Now I know that in the US they use this word for something totally different. :) and as an art teacher I could crack up even more people when I couldnt find one, and had to ask someone and of course forgot about it… So no worries :)

  15. My father emigrated from Hungary to the US in the late 70′s and struggled with learning English, partly due to it’s illogical structure and slang. :)

  16. Thanks, for this. It took me forever to learn to say ‘Viszontlatasra”. Then, there was the time I told an old man in Cora’s that he didn’t speak Hungarian – beszel instead of beszlek. My husband – who speaks fluently and would correct every sound I made, didn’t correct that, got a kick out of it. The one thing that would make me shudder a bit was when leaving an establishment the staff would say “Hello” ;-)

  17. Hi, Phil
    Your writing is so much fun! You must be a very open-minded person to deal with all those changes with so much fun! It was more difficult to me to get over culture shock when I came to the US. My husband is American, we are living in Alaska right now, but we met and lived in Palo Alto, CA before. He is studying hard Hungarian but he often gets lost in the web of grammar! :) It would be fun to meet you in Budapest when we go home! :) Have a good time there!

  18. Big Like!!!…for post….and for me it s difficult to speak maghyar nyelve..but…I have …one big smile and two hands…for mim…of course!…:))))))))))))))))

  19. I grew up in a Hungarian neighborhood, but had many friends that only spoke English. A form of discipline my mother used was to threaten to beat us with a wooden spoon, which she never did- she just waved it in the air. But the word for that is fa -kanal- and that first a is pronounced like a u in up. It was awfully embarrasing.

  20. My university English teacher’s story: when he asked for half a kilo of “mellbimbó” in the shop, instead of “kelbimbó”. I think that must have been the best story of the shop assistant’s life. (mellbimbó meaning nipple, kelbimbó meaning brussels sprouts)

  21. I love reading your blog. I am a Hungarian living in the UK and married to an Indian. My brother takes my husband out when we are in Hungary and although they don’t speak the same language when they get drunk they understand each other properly lol.. (the words hussar and coach were from Hungarian – goulash is more of a stew for Brits than the actual soup, coach comes from kocsi as the first one was made in the village Kocs some decades ago).

    My kids are still small but my 3 year old son is trying to speak Hungarian but it sounds like swearing in English (pok, fogkrem)

  22. Better be careful. Some English words are actually “bad” words in Hungarian. I experienced the same issue you have in reverse. I had to learn English as a second language.

  23. I can thoroughly recommend the novel ‘Budapest’ by Chico Buarque (Brazil). His description of a linguist being drawn to the mysteries of Hungarian is utterly glorious.

  24. Hi Phil! Actually the best and easiest words (or expression) in the crystal store (or anywhere else when shopping) is:Ezt szeretném! I would like to get this! Instead of saying ‘szeretlek’ or ‘szeretnék’ you can always say: Szeretném ezt! or Ezt szeretném ! The letter ‘m’ at the end of verbs usually mean ….it in English! :) Attila, the Canadian-Hungarian school teacher

  25. Do you know the meanings of:szeretem, szeretek, szeretném, szeretnék, szerettem, szerettem volna, szeretlek ??? This is really mind buggling! I had a lots of fun when my nice…American friend tried to understand the difference between: Roma (gypsy), Róma (Rome) and Román (Romanian)! :)

      • And there is also szerelo, which means mechanic, but szereto that means lover. My sons spent some summers in Budapest and my mother begged them not to call the autobus a bus.

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