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”.

Unlike the more polite “Ön”, “maga” is an older, organic development in the language. It literally means “own self”, and probably developed from “maga kegyelmed” - ‘your own grace’ (remember these from the previous thread?)

But it developed into a less polite form.

Indeed, like in the teacher–student relationship, the earliest uses of "maga" were already directed “downwards” in social hierarchy.

“Your highness” vs “maga” would be used between two people of very unequal rank.

It could also express difference in gender. A hundred years ago, men would have called women “kegyed” (shorter form of “your grace”), while women would have called them maga.

Today it would be maga or Ön both ways.

Due to this history, to many people’s ears “maga” has a condescending, impolite undertone.

So why do we use it? Because, as I’ve said, formality in Hungarian is exasperating.

We have the polite Ön. But in many situations it's just too formal. It comes across as stiff.

The teacher–student relationship is an example. When I taught at university in Hungary, I was uncomfortable with my own “maga”-ing of the polite students who called me Tanárnő. But I knew calling them Ön would be weird and make us both uncomfortable. It just doesn’t work.

Then there are situations where it’s difficult to decide.

Take two colleagues who are not close – hence not using the informal “te” –, but see each other every day. "Ön" would be too formal. "Maga" would probably be used more often, but has its own baggage. So…

…I think most people would try to avoid pronouns as much as possible and perhaps use a first name + third person singular combo.

People conducting your professional lives in English: you don’t know how easy you have it!

There are also generational differences. As this interesting sociolinguistical study tells us, young people are increasingly dropping “maga”, because they see it as unquestionably rude, and they are shifting towards “Ön”.…

More power to them, I say!

So far your impression might be that most problems with Hu formal language stem not from the grammar but from the difficulty of deciding which form to use.

You are not wrong.

But you haven’t seen everything.

Tune in next time for the overly complicated “tetszik” form!


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More from @NVeszpremi

17 Oct
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.

Read 14 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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