“The Hungarian language is at one and the same time our softest cradle and our most solid coffin.”- Gyula Illés, Hungarian poet.
If you know anything about the Hungarian language, you know it’s notoriously difficult. Most experts peg Magyarul (Hungarian) as being somewhere between the 3rd-7th hardest language to learn. Much of this difficulty comes from the fact that Hungarian has no connection to Indo-European languages. But that’s a story for another day.
Long words with letter combinations like sz, ny, gy, ty, cs, and dsz combined with vowel harmony rules are only the start of your frustrations. Suffixes also change forms based on their case: location, tense, number, possession, etc. And then of course there are exceptions too, just to make things interesting.
Regardless of its seemingly cryptic barriers, Hungarian is a beautiful language that I’ve come to love. I often find myself using it while driving. Things like Mit csinálsz! (What are you doing?), Kurva anyád! (Your whore mother!) Az nem jó! (That’s not good!), Te hülye (You stupid!) and Hát, jól van (Well, O.K. then.) come out of my mouth during morning commutes.
These are not the phrases you should learn first, though. Try these to begin with:
1. Sajnálom, de én nem beszélek magyarul (Shoy-naa-lawm de ayn nem bes-aa-lek mod-yar-ool) : “Sorry, but I don’t speak Hungarian.”
A hard one but good to know. I sometimes use it when people are trying to sell me things, even when I know what they’re saying. Or when I’m lazy to speak Hungarian. It’s terrible, I know.
2. Köszönöm szépen or Köszi szépen (keu-seu-neum say-pan or keu-sy say-pan): “Thank you very much.” or “Thanks very much.”
Politeness never goes out of style. And if someone thanks you, the correct response would be Szívesen (see-ve-shen).
3. Szervusz, Szia or Héllo (ser-vus, see-ya or he-llo): “Hello.”(formal), “Hi.” and, you guessed it, “Hello.”
This is where things get a bit complicated (and you thought it was getting easier). Hungarians address each other differently depending on the relationship and person’s age. With young people in an informal situation, szia is the common greeting. If you’re greeting multiple people it changes to sziastok (see-ya-stalk). When it comes to saying goodbye you use the same words as for greeting. Easy. So how do you greet older people or strangers?
4. Jó napot kívánok (yo nawp-awt key-vaa-knock) or Csókolom (choke-a-lowm): “Good day to you.” or “I kiss thee.”
Entering a shop or public place it’s customary to say Jó napot kívánok and also when greeting older strangers on the street. When it comes to formal farewells, Viszontlátásra (vee-sont-laa-taash-rah) is the correct phrase. For ladies who are,well, over the hill, Csókolom is the polite greeting. Some children will also greet older men this way. A few months ago a kid said it to me. A bit strange but I couldn’t help smiling. After sunset replace the “napot” in Jó napot kívánok with estét (esh-tayt). In early morning replace it with reggelt (rregg-elt).
5. Hol van a vécé? (Hawl-vawn aw vay-tsay): “Where’s the toilet?”
Because when you gotta go, you gotta go. Remember that most light switches are outside the bathroom in Hungary.
6. Mennyibe kerül (men-yi-be ke-rewl): “How much is this/it?”
Getting used to the big numbers using Forints, the Hungarian currency, can take some time. Currently (November 28th, 2015) $1.00 is just under 300 Forints. So when your bill says 5,000 FT don’t freak out, that’s $17.00.
7. Két kávét kérek (Kayt-kaa-vayt kay-rrek): “I’d like two coffees.”
If you want milk say tejjel (tay-yell). Sugar, say cukorral (tsu-corral). Presszó kávé is espresso and hosszú kávé is a long coffee. Exchange kávét with sört (shurt) if you’d like two beers. I suggest ordering two because even if you’re travelling alone, buying a coffee or beer for that lonesome guy/girl across the bar is almost never a bad idea.
Oh, and a little bonus phrase which happens to be my favorite: