Is Hungarian A Slavic Language? (No, And Here's Why)
- Mille Larsen •9 mins read
The Hungarian language is a very special European language. It's spoken almost exclusively in Hungary by some 13 million people and its closest European relative, Finnish Estonian are quite distant both geographically and linguistically.
Hungary is located in Central Europe. It borders no less than 7 different countries who speak 7 different languages from both the Germanic, Romance, and Slavic branches of the Indo European language tree. But Hungarian is related to none of them.
In fact, Hungarian is not even Indo-European. It's a Finno-Ugric language that originally came from a region in Northern Siberia close to the Ural mountains from where the original people who spoke the Hungarian language's ancestor emigrated several centuries back. Their language eventually developed into modern Hungarian on one hand, whereas other people of the same group came to speak Finnish and Estonian.
Hungarian is not a Slavic language. It is, in fact, completely unrelated to both the Slavic languages, but also every other Indo-European language spoken in Europe, rather, Hungarian is a Finno-Ugric language. Except for some minor similarities in pronunciation, as well as some Slavic loan-words, the Hungarian language is completely different from Slavic languages.
Things That Are Typically Slavic, But Don't Fit Hungarian
The Slavic languages are known for being relatively close among themselves, which makes it easy to identify them. There's no doubt that Russian is a Slavic language, for instance. Its strongly inflected, meaning that it uses prefixes and suffixes to convey meaning to a higher degree than adding individual words. That's typically Slavic.
Interestingly, Hungarian is also a strongly inflected language, but inflection works very differently in Hungarian. Russian (and other Slavic languages) are "synthetic" languages, whereas Hungarian is an "agglutinative" language.
To understand what "agglutinative" languages are, think of them as "gluing" individual words together in order to form a single word with a more elaborated meaning. In principle, you could easily pull long, Hungarian words apart and still be able to understand the meaning of each morpheme individually.
In Synthetic languages like the Slavic ones, it's not just a question of gluing new morphemes side-by-side. Each added flection can have multiple meanings depending on the rest of the word, meaning that you can't just break the word apart and understand the individual parts.
Czech is a typically Slavic language. One feature that's typically Slavic about it is "consonant palatalization" which is when consonants can be pronounced in both as a "soft" and as a "hard" variant. Palatalization exists in other languages too. Notice the difference in how you position your tongue when pronouncing the "n" in "night" versus in "new". The first one is a hard sound, where the tip of your tongue touches your front teeth whereas in "new" it touches the roof of your mouth (or palate) and makes a softer sound.
In Hungarian, there are hard and soft consonants as well, but palatalization is not a generalized principle that can be applied to most consonants like it's the case for Slavic languages.
And these are just a couple of typical Slavic features that don't correspond with Hungarian. There are numerous differences in terms of grammar, pronunciation, syntax, vocabulary, and so on, but mentioning everything wouldn't serve much of a purpose because, basically, everything is different!
Why Hungarian Might Seem Slavic
So there's obviously a reason why people assume Hungarian to be a Slavic language. One is the geographic location of the country where it's spoken, but let's look into a few of the other features of Hungarian that might confuse people.
Hungarian words are often pronounced with a lot of consonant clusters. This is also a typical feature of Slavic languages. As an example, Polish is a Slavic language with many consonant clusters like "cz", "trz", "dz", and "drz". In Hungarian, too, consonant clusters are common, and you see letter combinations such as "zs", "cs", "dz", and "dzs".
The Hungarian language also has a tendency to always put stress on the first syllable of a word, which is something that it shares with Slavic languages.
This doesn't mean that the two languages are related, though, and there are many other aspects of Hungarian pronunciation that are quite different from Polish and other Slavic languages.
In Hungarian, as many as 20% of words are said to be of Slavic origin, which is a lot!
An important reason for this is, that Hungary is surrounded by Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Slovakia, and Ukraine. Out of the 7 countries that it shares its borders with, 5 of them speak Slavic languages, and throughout the centuries, all of these have had their impact on the Hungarian language.
Most of the Slavic loan-words in Hungarian have undergone a transformation, though that makes them quite different from how they were in their original languages.
Something else that might lead people to think that Hungarian is a Slavic language is its case-system.
Both Slavic languages like Russian and Finno-Ugric languages such as Hungarian has grammatical cases that serves the function of placing "roles" on nouns in a sentence. "Who's doing what to whom" is expressed with word-changes which follow specific patterns.
An example of this is the "genitive" case in English, where we add "'s" to a noun or a name in order to show ownership. (It's "Bobby's boxing-gloves" when you're trying to communicate that "Bobby is the owner of the boxing-gloves" whereas "Bobby boxing-gloves" sounds more like a nickname for someone who easily gets into problems).
Now imagine that a similar pattern was used, not only for ownership but also for "who's doing something", "who's it being done to" "what's being used as an instrument for doing it" and so on and so forth.
Both Slavic languages (like Russian) and Hungarian have complicated case-systems. While Russian (for example) is known for having 6 cases, Hungarian has a whopping 18.
But cases are quite different between the two languages. As a matter of fact, Hungarians don't really think of them as cases at all, but more as a set of affixes (suffixes and prefixes) that are added to words depending on situations.
In many cases, Hungarian "cases" are merely prepositions who've fused with the noun, and these are a lot simpler to grasp than the complicated mechanism that goes on in Slavic languages.
So it's different!
Comparison Between Hungarian And Slavic Languages
If you're still not convinced that Hungarian is a different beast from the likes of Polish, Russian and Bulgarian, let try and compare them!
They're all different languages, but the three of them are Slavic, and do have a couple of things in common, whereas Hungarian is completely different.
To clearly see the difference, let's try and come up with a silly story and run it through Google Translate. To make things easier, I'll convert the Russian and Bulgarian text, so it'll be written with the Latin script like the others.
So here's our story in English:
Paul's mother sent him to the baker's to buy bread, but on the way, he fell into a hole dug by over-sized mice bred by a mad scientist. In the hole, he met a couple of other people, an old lady, a young man, and a businessman who'd also fallen into the hole. He shared his biscuits with them.
And now in Polish:
Matka Paula wysłała go do piekarza, żeby kupił chleb, ale po drodze wpadł do dziury wykopanej przez zbyt duże myszy wyhodowane przez szalonego naukowca. W dziurze poznał kilka innych osób, starszą panią, młodego mężczyznę i biznesmena, który również wpadł do dziury. Podzielił się z nimi swoimi ciasteczkami.
And in Russian: (transliterated into the Latin script)
Mat' Pola otpravila yego v pekarnyu kupit' khleba, no po doroge on upal v yamu, vyrytuyu ogromnymi myshami, vyvedennymi bezumnym uchenym. V yame on vstretil yeshche paru chelovek, pozhiluyu zhenshchinu, molodogo cheloveka i biznesmena, kotoryye tozhe upali v yamu. On podelilsya s nimi svoim pechen'yem.
And in Bulgarian: (also in the Latin script)
Maĭkata na Poul go izprati pri pekarya da kupi khlyab, no po pŭtya toĭ padna v dupka, izkopana ot golemi mishki, otgledani ot lud uchen. V dupkata toĭ sreshtna oshte nyakolko dushi, vŭzrastna dama, mladezh i biznesmen, koito sŭshto byakha padnali v dupkata. Toĭ spodeli biskvitite si s tyakh.
And finally, in Hungarian:
Poul anyja elküldte a pékhöz kenyeret vásárolni, de útközben egy őrült tudós által tenyésztett, túl nagy méretű egerek által ásott lyukba esett. A lyukban találkozott még néhány emberrel, egy idős hölggyel, egy fiatalemberrel és egy üzletemberrel, akik szintén beleestek a lyukba. Megosztotta velük a kekszét.
Okay, if you're not already seeing it, let's try and compare a few words from the story:
I think five different words do the trick. Look at the three middle-columns and compare them to Hungarian on the right. The English translation on the left is for reference.
So Is Hungarian A Slavic Language?
You've gotten through this article, and I congratulate you. As you might have figured out, the answer to the question in an emphatic NO.
Hungarian is most definitely not a Slavic language. Not even close. English, French, and even Hindi is closer to being a Slavic language than Hungarian is, because they, at least, belong to the same language family.
Hungarian is very different in terms of grammar, vocabulary, morphology, and everything in between, and even where Hungarian might show features similar to some Slavic languages, they're still quite different.
It's a cool language though. If you'd like to try your hand on learning Hungarian, I recommend that you go read my article "How To Learn Hungarian By Yourself".