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Hungarian language

The Hungarian language is a Finno-Ugric language spoken in Hungary and in adjacent areas of Romania, Slovakia, Ukraine, Serbia, Croatia, Austria, Slovenia (all territories lost after World War I). The Hungarian name for the language is Magyar.

There are about 14.5 million speakers, of whom 10 million live in Hungary.



Hungarian is generally believed to be a member of the Ugric languages, a sub-group of the Finno-Ugric language family, which in turn is a branch of the Uralic languages.

There are various alternative theories about the origins of Hungarian language, but these are dismissed by most linguists owing to a lack of evidence:

  • Hungarian has often been claimed to be closely related to Hunnish, since Hungarian legends and histories show close ties between the two peoples. Some people believe that the Székely, a part of the Hungarians living in Romania, are descended from the Huns. However, the link with Hunnish is uncertain, as are other theories (such as Hungarian being derived from the Sumerian language, which is also agglutinating).
  • For many years (from 1869), it was matter of dispute whether Hungarian was a Finno-Ugric language, or was more closely related to some Turkic languages, a controversy known as the "Ugric-Turkish war". It is only in the discipline of linguistics that the "victory" of the Finno-Ugrists can be described as more or less complete, due to a lot of evidence from the languages themselves. However, significant evidence in some other sciences, including genetics and mainly archeology, still clashes with this theory. Finno-Ugrist scientists explain this phenomenon by stating that the origin of the language is not necessarily equal with the origin of the people, genetically. Thus the language is Finno-Ugric, some scientists say, but according to genetics and anthropology, the Hungarian people show more similarity to others than to the Finns (who are like the Swedes on these criteria): to Germans and Slavs (as some Finno-Ugrists, e.g. I. M. Szabó, say), or to the Turks or other peoples (as other scientists, e.g. I. Kiszely, say). The lack of serious direct (e.g. archeological) evidence also leads to the questioning of Finno-Ugric theory time and time again.
  • However, the regular sound changes that can be shown in Hungarian and other Uralic languages provide enough evidence for the languages to be related. For this purpose no extra-linguistic evidence is needed. The Finno-Ugrian theory is supported by what linguistics knows about related languages in general and could only be refuted if all other established language relationships were refuted at the same time.

Geographic distribution

Hungarian is spoken in the following countries:

Country Speakers
Hungary 10,298,820
(mainly Transylvania)
1,700,000 - 3,000,000 (*)
Slovakia 597,400
Serbia and Montenegro 293,000
Ukraine 187,000
Israel 70,000
Austria 22,000
Croatia 16,500
Slovenia 9,240

(*) of whom, according to the 2002 census, 1,450,000 speak it as mother tongue.

Source: Ethnologue

Hungarian speakers are also found in Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, the Czech Republic, Finland, France, Germany, The Netherlands, Italy, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and the United States, and at other parts of the world, in number altogether about a million people.

Official status

Hungarian is the official language of Hungary, and thus an official language of the EU.

Besides, Hungarian is one of official languages of Vojvodina and an official language of three municipalities in Slovenia (Hodos , Dobranak and Lendva ), along with Slovene.

Hungarian is officially recognized as a minority or regional language in Austria, Croatia and Slovakia.


The dialects of Hungarian identified by Ethnologue are: Alföld, West Danube, Danube-Tisza, King's Pass Hungarian, Northeast Hungarian, Northwest Hungarian, Székely and West Hungarian. They are all mutually understandable to native Hungarians.


main article: Hungarian phonology

There are some sounds which do not exist in English, such as . For example the pronunciation of "Magyarország" (Hungary) is /ˈmɒɟɒrorsaːg/, with the stress on the first syllable.


The order of words in a sentence is determined not by syntactic roles, but rather by pragmatic - i.e., discourse-driven - factors. Words can be compound (as in German) and derived (with suffixes).

The passive voice is almost extinct, but can be found in old literary texts.

Vowel Harmony

see Hungarian phonology or vowel harmony for a more detailed explanation

Vowel harmony is typical for agglutinating languages like Sumerian, Hungarian and Turkish. Vowels can be high/front (eéiíöőüű) or deep/back (aáoóuú). Hungarian words can be classified from the point of view of vowel harmony into three groups:

  1. Words of deep sound order (Mély hangrendű szavak): These words contain only deep vowels - ablak, ajtó, hordár, búsul.
  2. Words of high sound order (Magas hangrendű szavak): These words contain only high vowels - kefél, zizzen, kézfej;
  3. Words of composite sound order (Vegyes hangrendű szavak): These words contain also deep and high vowels - ásít, papír, birtok, kazetta.
  4. The sound order of compound words (words divisible into two or more meaningful subwords) is the sound order of their last component (kalapács|vető is high-ordered, because vető is high-ordered, hang|kazetta is composit-ordered etc.).

Old Hungarian words typically contain either only front or only back vowels (malac: deep, egér: high).

(The law of vowel harmony): An ending must be the same type as the sound order of the word, so a word of high order gets high suffixes (szekrény - szekrények), and a word of deep order gets deep suffixes (ház - házak, ablak - ablakok ), but a word of composite order generally gets deep-ordered suffixes, except some unused archaisms and some loanwords from foreign languages (béká-val, farmer-ben = farmer-ban), or old but frequently used words containing neutral vowels (e,í) (híd-on, híd-ra; derék-ba).

Suffixes (containing vowels) generally have two or three variants, one with a high vowel and one with a deep vowel (in: -ban, or -ben; into: -ba, or -be).

So, for example, the word kartonpapír, because it is a compound word (karton-papír) with a composite ordered last component (papír), gets deep suffixes (kartonpapírral, kartonpapírhoz, etc.), even though its last vowel is high.


Many grammatical and syntactic functions, elements and constructions are based on suffixes. The mark for the plural of a noun is a suffix -k, preceded by a vowel if the word ends in a consonant. Usually, vowels are inserted between the word and its suffix to prevent a buildup of consonants (and hence to prevent unpronounceable words). The inserted vowels must follow the rules of vowel harmony.

Hungarian grammar uses endings to express the relation of things, which are in other languages usually called cases. For example: at the table = az asztalnál (space relation), at 5 o'clock = öt órakor (time relation).

The concept of grammatical cases was first used in Latin grammar. During the centuries the terminology was also applied to describe non-Indo-European grammars, with very different grammatical structures from Latin. This couldn't be done without reinterpreting to a certain extent the notion of what a case is for agglutinating languages, such as those in the Finno-Ugric language group. Nowadays the term "case" is less widely used among Hungarian linguists to describe Hungarian grammar compared to centuries ago. Several Hungarian linguists believe that the concept doesn't fit agglutinating languages very well, and they prefer to use the term "(case) suffixes" and "endings" instead. For students, the case system for Hungarian is only taught in higher education.

Most common of the cases in Hungarian are the nominative case, accusative case and dative case; some express location and placement (see the chart below); and some express other relations (terminative case, essive-formal case, instrumental-comitative case, translative case, causal-final case). There are further cases of restricted use (locative case, essive-modal case, distributive case, distributive-temporal case, sociative case). For examples of these cases, refer to the article List of grammatical cases.

ház - house
  interior surface adjacency
from házból
(Elative case)
(Delative case)
(Ablative case)
at házban
(Inessive case)
(Superessive case)
(Adessive case)
to házba
(Illative case)
(Sublative case)
(Allative case)

Hungarian uses the plural sparsely, i.e. only if quantity is not marked otherwise. Therefore the plural is not used with numerals or indefinite adjectives showing quantity. Examples: öt fiú five boys; sok fiú many boys; fiúk boys.

Main Hungarian cases (example : ház - house ): ház - nominative , házat - accusative , háznak - dative / genitive , házba - illative , házban - inessive , házból - elative , házért - causalis / finalis , házhoz - allative , házig - terminative , háznál - adessive , házra - sublative , házról - delative , háztól - ablative.

Another very characteristic feature of Hungarian is possessive endings. In English we say : my house, your house etc., indicating possession with special words. In Hungarian possession is expressed by suffixes : házam - my house, házad - your house, háza - his house , házunk - our house etc.


General information

Hungarian verbs have two conjugations: definite and indefinite. The definite conjugation is used when there is a definite direct object, present or implied. For example: várom a buszt "I am waiting for the bus", várom "I am waiting (for him/her)", várok "I am waiting". Látok (valamit) "I can see (something)", but látom a könyvet "I can see the book" and látom "I can see him/her/it" . The first person singular possesses an additional ending to indicate a second person object. For example: látlak "I see you", várlak "I am waiting for you".

Forms are presented in this order:

Singular Plural
I you (sg) he/she/it we you (pl) they
én te ő mi ti ők

These pronouns do not usually appear (since the suffix is enough by itself to mark the person), unless they are contrasted or emphasized.

Beside te and ti, which are used informally, there are polite forms for the second person pronouns: ön or maga. Ön is official and distancing, maga is personal and even intimate. (There are some older forms for you, like kend, which is still used in rural areas.) See also: T-V distinction.

Verbs with the polite 2nd person forms ön and maga take the suffixes of the 3rd person verb forms. For example te kérsz (second person, informal), but ön kér or maga kér (second person, formal), just like ő kér (third person).

As you can see, Hungarian does not have gender-specific pronouns.

The basic verb form for derivation is always the third person singular.

The infinitive of verbs is the radical suffixed by -ni.

A regular sample verb

Here is a regular verb, kér ("ask for something"). — The personal suffixes are marked in bold.

kér (ask for)
Indefinite Definite
Present kérek kérsz kér kérünk kértek kérnek kérem kéred kéri kérjük kéritek kérik
Past kértem kértél kért kértünk kértetek kértek kértem kérted kérte kértük kértétek kérték
Future kérni
Present kérnék kérnél kérne kérnénk kérnétek kérnének kérném kérnéd kérné kérnénk kérnétek kérnék
Past kértem
Present kérjek kérjél
or kérj
kérjen kérjünk kérjetek kérjenek kérjem kérjed
or kérd
kérje kérjük kérjétek kérjék

The substantive verb (to be)

The substantive verb "to be" in Hungarian is lenni. Like in most other languages of the world, this verb is irregular. In Hungarian it comes from three (or four) bases: vagy- (or van-), vol-, and len-. — As it cannot have an object, it doesn't have definite forms.

Present Tense vagyok vagy van vagyunk vagytok vannak
Past Tense voltam voltál volt voltunk voltatok voltak
Future Tense leszek leszel lesz leszünk lesztek lesznek
Present Tense lennék lennél lenne lennénk lennétek lennének
Past Tense lettem
Present Tense legyek legyél
or légy
legyen legyünk legyetek legyenek

Hungarian uses the verb "to be" much less frequently than English, because it is omitted in the present tense in the third person (singular/plural), if one speaks about what someone or something is (see copula). On the other hand, the substantive verb must be used in other tenses and other persons, and every time one speaks about where or how something is, or if one emphasizes the existence or availability of something. Examples:

  • Péter orvos Ř - Peter is a doctor. (present tense, third person, speaking about what someone is: no linking verb in Hungarian)
  • Péter jól van - Peter is well.
  • Péter itt van - Peter is here.
  • Péter orvos volt - Peter was a doctor.
  • Orvos vagyok - I am a doctor.
  • Van orvos a szobában - There is a doctor in the room.

Further information on verbs

Hungarian uses verbal prefixes which modify the meaning of the verbs and form separate verbs out of them. These prefixed verbs usually have meanings which are consistently build up from the basic meaning of the elements, and many of them have figurative, idiomatic meanings as well. For example: ír he writes, leír he writes down, kiír he writes out, beír he writes into etc. (basic meanings). On the other hand, leír may also mean "declare as useless" (cf. "write off"), and beír "give a written warning" (to a schoolchild).

There are also compund words using verbs which have their individual meanings, for example egyedülálló single (eg. person), whereas egyedül álló means something which stands alone.


Due to the existence of compound words, the lexicon of Hungarian could be considered to contain a virtually unlimited number of words. Giving an exact estimate for the total word count is difficult, since it is hard to define what to call "a word" in agglutinating languages . Hungarian words are built around so called word bushes, for example kör-köröz-körös-kering-kerge-kurta etc. Due to this feature words with similar meaning often arise from the same root. Compound words ("mesterségesintelligencia-kutatás" for "research on artificial intelligence"), which are quite unusual in Indo-European languages (except, for example, in German) make the situation even more complex and the definition of "word" even more difficult.

The lexicon of Hungarian contains words borrowed from various Turkic languages, including Turkish, as well as several loan words from German and Slavic.

The basic vocabulary shares about 1000 words from Uralic languages like Finnish and Estonian (e.g., the numbers egy ~ yksi ~ üks (1), kettő ~ kaksi ~ kaks (2), három ~ kolme ~ kolm (3), négy ~ neljä ~ neli (4); víz ~ vesi ~ vesi (water); kéz ~ käsi ~ käsi (hand); vér ~ veri ~ veri (blood); fej ~ pää ~ pea (head) which have systematic sound correspondences, so most linguists classify them as Finno-Ugric languages, a subgroup of the Uralic language family.

Writing system

Hungarian is written using a variant of the Latin alphabet, and has a phonemic orthography, i.e. pronunciation can generally be predicted from the written language. In addition to the standard letters of the Latin alphabet, Hungarian uses several additional letters. These include letters with acute accents (á,é,í,ó,ú) which represent long vowels, the diaereses ö and ü and their long counterparts ő (unicode Ő and ő) and ű (unicode Ű and ű). Sometimes ô or ő is used for ő and ű for ű, due to the limitations of the Latin-1 / ISO-8859-1 codepage. Hungarian can be properly represented with the Latin-2 / ISO-8859-2 codepage, but this codepage is not always available. (Hungarian is the only language using both ő and ű.) Of course, Unicode includes them, and they therefore can be used on the Internet.

For a complete table of the pronunciation of the Hungarian alphabet, see the X-SAMPA description in the Hungarian Wikipedia (in Hungarian, but the table is obvious), which transliterates Hungarian letters into IPA and X-SAMPA characters.

Additionally, the letter pairs <ny>, <ty>, and <gy> represent the palatal consonants /ń/, /tj/, and /dj/ (like the "dy" sound in British "duke" or American "would you"). Hungarian uses <s> for /S/ and <sz> for /s/, which is the reverse of Polish. <zs> is /Z/ and <cs> is /tS/. All these digraphs are considered single letters. <ly> is also a "single letter digraph", but is pronounced like <j> (English <y>), and mostly appears in old words. More exotic letters are <dz> and <dzs> /dZ/. They are hard to find even in a longer text. Two examples are madzag; edzeni (rope; to train) and dzsungel (jungle).

Single R's are tapped, like the Spanish "pero"; Double R's and initial R's are trilled, like the Spanish "perro" or "romper".

Hungarian distinguishes between long and short vowels, where the long vowels are written with acutes, and between long consonants and short consonants, where the long consonants are written double. The digraphs, when doubled, become trigraphs: <sz>+<sz>=<ssz>, but changing line:

... busz-

Usually a trigraph is a double digraph, but there are a few exceptions: tizennyolc "eighteen" is tizen + nyolc. There are doubling minimal pairs: tizenegyedik (eleventh) vs. tizennegyedik (fourteenth).

Primary stress is always on the first syllable of a word. There is sometimes secondary stress on other syllables, especially when two words have been combined (like "viszontlátásra" (see you later) pronounced "VEES-ohnt-LAH-tahsh-raw").

While it seems unusual to English speakers at first, once one learns the new orthography and pronunciations, written Hungarian is nearly totally phonemic.


  • Hungarian (person, language): magyar ['mAdyAr]
  • hello: szia ['sia] (informal) (sounds almost exactly like American "see ya") But you only say this to people that you know well. When you address a stranger you use the more formal "good day": jó napot (kívánok) (YOnahpot)
  • good-bye: viszontlátásra (formal) (see above), viszlát [vislAt] (semi informal)
  • please: kérem (szépen) [kayrrem saypen] (This literally means "I ask (it) well". See next for a more common form of the polite request)
  • I would like ____, please: Szeretnék ____ [seh-reht-neyk] (This example illustrates the use of the conditional tense, as a common form of a polite request)
  • sorry: bocsánat [BOchAnAt]
  • thank you: köszönöm [kYs-Yn-Ym] (pout your lips for a kiss and say "uh")
  • that/this: az [Az] ez [ez]
  • how much?: mennyi? ['mennyee]
  • how much does it cost?: mennyibe kerül? ['mennyee-be keh-rool]
  • yes: igen ['igen]
  • no: nem [nem]
  • I don't understand: nem értem ['nEm 'ayrtem]
  • I don't know: nem tudom [nem 'too-dohm]
  • where's the bathroom?: Hol van a vécé? ['hole vAn A 'vay-tsay], more polite (and word-to-word) version Hol van a mosdó? ['hole vAn A 'mosh-daw];
  • generic toast: egészségedre! [this is tough. Say it like this: EGG-ayss-shay-ged-rreh]
  • juice: gyümölcslé [dyu-mulch-lay]
  • water: víz [veez]
  • wine: bor [bohr]
  • beer: sör [shuhr]
  • tea: tea [teh-ah]
  • milk: tej [tay]
  • Do you speak English?: Beszél angolul? ['bes-ayl 'Ahn-go-lool?]
  • I love you: szeretlek ['seretlek]
  • Help!: Segítség! [sheg-eet-shayg]


Sir John Bowring, English linguist, political economist, and writer, was the author of the first Hungarian anthology in English. In the preface of Poetry of the Magyars (1830) he writes:

"The Magyar language stands afar off and alone. The study of other tongues will be found of exceedingly little use towards its right understanding. It is moulded in a form essentially its own, and its construction and composition may be safely referred to an epoch when most of the living tongues of Europe either had no existence, or no influence on the Hungarian region."

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