További paprika kérjük

by Oliver

When I think of the Hungarian language, I think of the word paprika. More specifically, I think of its pronunciation in Hungarian. As a kid, I couldn’t get around the spelling or pronunciation of paprikaEnglish’s nonstandardized vowel sounds and the prevalent use of the schwa (the uh sound) mean that puh ‘pree kuh pah ‘preek uh isn’t the most melodious word you’ll hear said.

The word paprika is borrowed from Hungarian (and German). One of my oldest friends is Hungarian, and in spending time with him and his family it is mentioned a lot, as it is central to Hungarian cuisine. I also was struck by the pronunciation in Hungarian—think of the a sound in jaw or awl, and put the emphasis at the beginning of the word (instead of the second syllable as in English)—‘pap ri ka.

I’m going to Budapest this summer, and I’m eager to learn as much Hungarian as I can. I know some phrases and words, and I once made Hungarian–English flash cards in college to learn some more (word retention = 0%). I’ve always wanted to learn a non-Romance language, and have been previously interested in Swedish (thanks, Ingmar Bergman films) and Icelandic (thanks, Sigur Rós), but for a variety of reasons (all logical) I never followed through. Visiting Hungary is the perfect occasion to better acquaint myself with Hungarian.

Hungarian (or Magyar) is a non–Indo-European language, which means that it’s not related to any other European languages (special exceptions for Finnish and Estonian). Finnish and Hungarian are Uralic languages, and  because they are so different from well-known Western languages they are often mentioned together. How much Hungarian and Finnish share in terms of grammar, words, spelling, and so on has long been a controversial topic. What it means to be in the same language family is different for different people, and some assume that Hungarians and Finns should be able to understand each other. There’s a great essay on the topic from 1935, written by a Hungarian linguist by the name of Gyula Weöres, who clarifies that Finnish and Hungarian are related just as English is to other Germanic languages—they share distant roots, but it’s not as if speakers of English and German can really carry on a conversation. I found an interesting graphic of a Uralic language tree, which shows that the two languages are really quite far apart: the supposed closest relatives to Hungarian, Khanty and Mansi, spoken in Siberia, are threatened by extinction (Russian census data claims that there were only ~13,600 and ~2,700 speakers of Khanty and Mansi in 2002, respectively).

Hungarian is an inflected language, which means that it has cases. A case is a rule that dictates the spelling of a noun, adjective, or pronoun based on how it is used in a sentence. One goal I have is to better understand cases; English and Spanish, the two languages I know best, do not have cases. (Of note, Lindley Murray in the 19th century claimed that English grammar employs a case system dissimilar to that of Greek and Latin.) However, many languages do have cases: Greek and German have four, Latin has seven, Finnish has ~15, and Hungarian has ~18.

By having up to 18 different cases, paprika may appear in any one of the following forms based on its use in a sentence:

The depth of Hungarian grammar and language is fascinating—to think, that paprika is so many other words and yet the same word all at once.