GW Expat: Hungary in Translation


We were late. Thanks to our reliance on a single cell phone with a faulty battery, my flatmates and I slept in for far too long and had to skip breakfast in our rush to get out the door to make the boat to Visegrad, a historical town north of Budapest. Sprinting by ABC, a Hungarian convenience store, my friend Claire announced that she needed to grab something to tide her over until lunch.

She grabbed a pastry covered and filled with chocolate and a Dannon container labeled “Tejfol” with a smiling child on the front spooning what looked like yogurt into his mouth. She hurriedly slapped a 500-forint note down on the counter and shoved the food into her purse. Waving at the clerk to keep the change, she sprinted up the steps and out the door. It was not until we were on the boat that we discovered the truth about her purchases.

“Ugh, I thought Hungarian chocolate was supposed to be good. I mean, I know we’re not in Belgium or anything but this tastes like old cardboard mixed with basements. I don’t know if I can eat anymore,” she said, already halfway through.

Alex, a fellow traveler, grabbed the pastry from her hand and took a big bite. “Claire, this is stuffed with a paste made of poppy seeds,” he said.

The rest of us had a good laugh at her expense. Blushing and silent, she surrendered the remainder of the poppy pastry to Alex, a native Russian who grew up on poppy seeds and borscht. Aiming to recover from the initial failure of her attempt at breakfast, she pulled the Tejfol and a spoon out from her purse.

Now, you wouldn’t think you could get a six-year-old kid in any country to smile for a picture while he was eating an enormous bowl full of sour cream, but I guess the Dannon company must have paid a lot of money to be able to play this sick and elaborate joke on Americans. By the time Claire realized that this wasn’t something you could even possibly make a parfait from, she was livid.

Perhaps this goes without saying, but one of the biggest obstacles to studying in a foreign country is the language barrier. In truth most of us who recognize this fact still place it in the category of “things to be addressed after arrival” rather than “things to be prepared for prior to departure.” This is true in all of Europe, but the adjustment to Hungary is especially difficult.

This is because Hungarian is part of the Finno-Ugic language group. This linguistic set originated in Central Asia between the Caspian and Aral seas. The division between Finnish and Hungarian came at the end of the eighth century when the Magyars, or ethnic Hungarians, migrated west to the Carpathian Basin and the Finns and other, smaller groups migrated north to the Baltic Sea. This means, then, that unlike the other languages of Europe, Hungarian is almost completely unrelated to any other; it has only 10 million speakers worldwide and its connections to Finnish and Estonian can only be distinguished by experts in the field.

What does this mean for me and other visitors like me? It means that when I go into a grocery store, or a restaurant, or the phone book, I’m basically illiterate. I have taken two years of Spanish and two years of Russian. When I’ve lived in and visited other countries before, I can usually find a way to muddle through since most of Europe’s languages are Romantic, Anglo-Germanic or Slavic.

Here, though, my first impression was that Hungarian was an impossible language to learn. I looked through the guidebooks to figure out the alphabet and the appropriate sounds for everything. I thought, “Maybe when I can read this language, I’ll be able to find words that are hopefully like something in English. Thanks to Hungarian being “a language apart,” most of the cognates are false but for a small handful of words like disko and sekszy (to quote my travel guide).

The false similarities are usually pretty funny however; sajt, pronounced “shite,” means cheese – I got some weird looks at Burger King for laughing while I ordered a sajtburger with fries. There’s also ifjusag, which is pronounced “if-you-shag,” but really means youth; sitting in a city park, my ears perked up when I heard some kids talking about the “ifjusag hostel,” thinking it sounded like an interesting club.

Living in Hungary, I have reverted to childhood, learning by attaching pictures to words, like “tej” to milk bottles, and trying to keep from poisoning myself by confusing the dish soap my flat mates bought with raspberries on the label for some sort of tasty pancake syrup.

Junior Daneil Doty, an international affairs major, is spending the fall semester in Budapest, Hungary.

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