This week in the fascinating world of the Hungarian language: informal and formal you.

I know I’ve said that Hungarian is actually simple. And it is.

Except for formal you. Aargh. The most exasperating issue in the Hungarian language.

Be glad you’re not Hungarian teenagers learning to navigate this in real life. *That’s* a distressing situation to be in.

As a Twitter lesson, however, it might be an interesting topic. One that will require multiple threads…

But let’s start.

Using separate pronouns for informal and formal “you” is not unique to Hungarian. If you speak German or French, you will be familiar with the duality of du/Sie or tu/vous.

Duality. Oh, if we just had two. Oh, I wish.

Now, Hungarian does have something that resembles the duality of du/Sie: te/Ön. “Te” is followed by second person singular, while “Ön”, like the German Sie, requires third person singular.

The thing is: “Ön” is not an old, organic development in the Hungarian language.

Invented in the late 18th c, it was popularised by Count István Széchenyi, a liberal reformer who believed that in order for society to progress the nobility and the middle class had to talk to each other as equals. Ön was a polite way to address anyone regardless of class.

This was necessary because, before Ön, people addressed each other using a range of terms that expressed the social standing of the person.

“nagyságod” = ‘your greatness’
“kegyelmességed” = ‘your grace’

These corresponded to different noble titles.

As they were used in the place of pronouns, these forms of address also show why the informal “you” requires 3rd person singular. I’m not talking to “you” directly, I’m talking to “your grace” – hence the 3rd person.

Of course, these were only used “upwards” or “horizontally” in terms of social status. “Downwards” his grace would use a less polite pronoun, “maga”, or – addressing a servant – the informal “te”.

Széchenyi’s Ön was definitely a good idea. It stuck. We still use it.

However, it is not universal. There are a range of situations where it can't be used.

Forms like “your grace” exist(ed) in every language. But in Hungarian they seem to cast a particularly long shadow.

Thankfully, we don’t say “your grace” anymore, but the principle lives on. A range of people are politely addressed through their professions, rather than as “Ön”.

Doctors: “Doktor Úr / Doktornő” = ‘Mr / Ms Doctor’

Teachers: “Tanár úr / Tanárnő” = ‘Mr / Mrs Teacher’

These are not just used to address them, but repeatedly in conversation, in place of pronouns. Linguists call this “pronoun avoidance.”

With other professions, e. g.:

“Szerkesztő Úr / Szerkesztő Asszony” = ‘Mr / Mrs Editor’

you could also sprinkle in some Öns.

But sparingly. I’d say, the number of Öns would be inversely proportional to the level of deference you want to show.

Pronoun avoidance is a weird feudal remnant, if you ask me. But it is a feature of the language as it works today. And, no doubt, a reflection of society.

And this is not all. You call the teacher “Tanárnő”, Ms Teacher, but what does she call you?

The answer is hidden in this thread. The “maga” pronoun.

Tune in to the next thread tomorrow to find out more.

Correction to 4/13: the German Sie comes with third person *plural* of course. Tweeted that too fast, sorry.

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More from @NVeszpremi

18 Oct
Part Two of our exploration of the formal and informal you in Hungarian: maga

No, this hasn’t got anything to do with Trump. “Maga” is a Hungarian pronoun. A form of formal you.

The less polite one.

The previous thread – linked here – showed how formal forms of address can still reflect asymmetrical social relations in Hungarian.

One of these is the teacher–student relationship. As we have seen, teachers, in school and at university, ...


…are addressed as “Tanár Úr / Tanárnő” = ‘Mr/Ms Teacher’. This form of address is used in place of the “you” pronoun (followed by a verb in 3rd pers sing), even if you have to repeat it multiple times in a conversation.

The teacher, however, just calls the student “maga”.

Read 12 tweets
9 Oct
Back to Hungarian linguistics. Today: All a word can say

The Hungarian language is frugal with words. The Hungarian translation of an English text is sure to have a lower word count than the original. That is because Hungarian tends to pack as much into a word as it can.

The classic example is the sentence: “He uttered three words: I love you!”

If you translate this into Hungarian word for word, hilarity ensues.

The Hungarian for “I love you” is “szeretlek”. One word.

“He uttered three words: szeretlek!” Nah, that doesn’t work.

How to pack so much into one word? First of all – this is the less unique part – Hungarian conjugates verbs in a more differentiated manner. In English the verb in “I love” and “you love” is the same, so you need pronouns. Hungarian verbs look different in every person.

Read 11 tweets

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