Hungarian language

This is the second part of a series of articles on Hungary, where Liemur has its offshore software development center. (The previous article, introducing Hungary, its history and famous Hungarians).

When outsourcing your software development offshore, you suddenly become more interested in understanding the people on the remote side of the project. Language is one of the barriers that are the most obvious between two nations. It is far from the only one but clearly the one under your nose.

In Europe, there are three main families of languages: the Romance languages derived from Latin of the Roman Empire, the Germanic languages coming from Scandinavia and the Slavic languages. Hungarian, is not coming from any of these. It is part of a very small family: Finno-Ugric. And in this family, Hungarian belongs to the Ugric branch, …and is the only member of the branch. In short, it is unique!

Hungarian is widely considered as the most difficult language to learn in Europe. Hungarians are well aware of that. It has two consequences:

  1. They often repeat that Hungarian is an awfully difficult language
  2. Hungarians are pretty nice with foreigners who actually made the effort to learn it.

If you have read my previous article on Hungary, you must remember the Austrian-Hungarian Empire part. In Hungary, there is one historical person who is still well regarded in the Austrian side: Elisabeth of Austria (1837-1898). She was the wife of Franz Joseph I and therefore Empress of Austria and Queen of Hungary. She did one thing that remains mentioned in her biographies: she started to learn Hungarian! The Hungarian people liked her even more for that.

Back to the language, Hungarian’s reputation is to be awfully difficult to learn. Why is that? And is this true? I will talk from experience as I have learned Hungarian myself.

In order to not bore the reader, I will mostly cover aspects of the language that a foreigner would care about before deciding to learn or not. This does not pretend to be a crash course in Hungarian! Our objective is only to inform the reader, not teach anything.

Why is Hungarian perceived as terrible to learn?

If I summarize, I would say that the only common element between Hungarian and English, French, German, etc. is the use of the Latin alphabet. Beyond that, almost everything is different. And I believe that this is where relies its reputation. If you want to learn Hungarian, you have to be ready to put aside all the habits you have.

I see another reason for calling Hungarian difficult to learn: as we have seen above, Hungarian is related to almost no other language. So, if you speak Hungarian, you cannot travel anywhere and be able to read the newspapers’ titles or order a drink. It will not help you to learn any neighbors’ languages. It might help you to learn Finnish, but I have not heard of any Hungarian traveling to Finland and saying they made any sense of Finnish.

So, in short: Hungarian is definitely isolated and different.

Is Hungarian really difficult to learn?

Well, I’ll cut the chase short. I’ve been there myself and yes Hungarian is difficult to learn. But is it a difficult language? I would say not. Let me explain the difference.

Hungarian is hard to learn because

  1. It requires to adopt brand new habits, reflex and mental structure
  2. There is no way, when a new word is in front of you to guess what it means from its spelling. No way! Every word you encounter is a world apart from other languages you may know.

Hungarian is not intrinsically difficult!

After learning Hungarian myself, I would not say that Hungarian is intrinsically difficult. In fact, it has a very clean and logical set of grammar rules and exceptions to rules are few. There are no genders to nouns, unlike in French or German. There is only one past tense, unlike in English or French; and the future is seldom used.

Okay, verbs speaking, there is little trick that requires attention: the double conjugation – Objective and Subjective. That means that you say differently: “I see a glass” and “I see this glass”. In the first case, the glass is unknown, in the second we know which glass is seen. You also say differently “I see” for “I see what you mean” (defined) compared to a general “I see” (undefined). A mistake I often made.

But the worst part of it is that Hungarian is commonly adding prefixes and suffixes to words in order to precise the meaning. So, when you read a text and find a new word, unless you are able to identify the root (i.e. the word without the added elements at he beginning and the end), then you have no chance to find it in a dictionary. So, there is an “entry price” for being able to use a Hungarian dictionary.

On the other hand, Hungarian is a kind of Wysiwyg language. You read it as you write it. Compare that to English for instance and any foreigner learning English will get why this is a nice feature. The typical example I use in English is the following: How do you read “Life” “live” “Alive” “Mean” “Meant”, etc. There is absolutely no way to find out! One must know. There is no such problem in Hungarian.

Otherwise, I find Hungarian to be very efficient and it also allows quite some creativity as creating new verbs is easy and common. Actually verbs in Hungarian are so precise that I am often unable to find the equivalent in French or English. The prefixe-suffixe system is also the source of efficient new words you can create on the fly.

There are many studies about how language is having an impact on your thinking. This is not the place for debating this but I would be bold and say that I would not be surprised if the Hungarian language had something to do with the quality of Hungarian scientists. Check the previous article with the famous Hungarians and Nobel prices to see what I mean. And the actual quality of software workers is recognized as outstanding! Our experience confirms it.

Hungarian language

Hungarians speak English

Nowadays, a lot of Hungarians are speaking English. I found out that they are rather modest about their English level and they often speak better than they claim. This is especially true, of course, for IT workers. You will have no problem conversing with your Hungarian Software Development team. Hungarians travel a lot and they know that there is no way they can be understood by trying Hungarian outside of the country. You could do that with English, Spanish or even French, but Hungarian?… Forget it!


Liemur provides Software Development Services within UK and with its nearshore branch in Budapest.

Contact us for more information.