It’s not easy to learn a language that is not a sibling of your native tongue within the family of European languages. Learning a language which is a nephew or niece is even harder. Learning a language that is married to the far grandson of a great grandmother who died before you ever spoke with her is usually for geeks only. And then you can make an attempt to learning Hungarian.

Now Hungarian is not related to languages springing off the Italo-Keltic, Balto-Slavic, German, Iranian or whatever branch grows from the tree trunk of all European languages: Proto-Indo-European. To feel like I am taking part in Hungarian society I still want to try and learn. Armed with a travel dictionary Dutch-Hungarian and goodwill I take the tram to Buda, the more quiet side of town.

Family tree of European languages by the Finnish illustrator Minna Sundberg. The smaller tree on the right represents Uralic languages, to which Hungarian belongs.
The first man I accost is probably father. He pushes a pram and wears a wind cheater. For some reason I assume at that moment that all men with prams and wind cheaters are kind and capable people.

‘Bocsánat, kérdezhetek valamiet?’

(Meaning: excuse me, can I ask you something? Anyway, this sentence looks without a doubt more Hungarian than it was pronounced.)

Maybe this man is not so capable as his pram suggests. In his pale face his bulging eyes roll in their sockets.


‘Okay’, I say. To soften the rejection I just smile a little.

Next. Two ladies are walking towards me, the one a little older than the other. The one on the right has fluffy, auburn hair, the dark brown of the left one is streaked with grey. Ask now, don’t ask now. Come on.

‘Bocsánat, kérdezhetek valamiet?’ I’m using my flourishing opening sentence.

The younger woman stops talking.

‘Keshe?’, she asks.

I recognise that. During talks for practicing I had earlier I already created many awkward situations by not understanding this word. Now I learnt it means something like ‘yes?’.

‘Szupermarket kereshek’, I say.

‘Ah, you’re looking for a supermarket? Come with me, it’s only five minutes.’

Thus, five clumsy minutes go by whilst me and the two lady friends are silently walking to the supermarket. The woman holds the door open for me: she needs to go inside herself. To strike myself a pose I buy something I don’t really need before walking outside.

Attempt three. On a street corner in front of a park I hang around a little until I spot a decent person to speak up to. Again, an older lady. She looks nice.

‘Jó napot, szupermarket keresek.’

The woman looks at me surprised.

‘Du suchst ein supermarket? Das ist dort.’ She points to the left.

‘Danke schön’, I stammer.*

We understood each other still.


(*Translated from German: you’re looking for a supermarket? It’s over there. I replied: thanks a lot.)

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