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Én nem beszélni Magyar

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I didn’t inherit the language gene. At least that is the excuse I give myself for being linguistically challenged. I struggled through college French and circumvented languages in graduate school, arguing successfully that neurophysiology was a more important “language” for my dissertation than German. It was the 1960s after all. We’ve just completed our week of survival Hungarian and it was humbling. Maygar is a Finno-Ugric language – unconnected to the romance languages and even only remotely connected to Finnish or Estonian. It is a marvel that the language has survived given the long history of occupations — Mongols, Turks, Austrians, Nazis, Soviets — and the many times when occupiers criminalized speaking Maygar. Nothing about the language strikes me as familiar. Angela’s four years of Latin allows her to tease out meaning in most romance languages but she is just as stumped by Maygar as me. We are reduced to rote memorization of vocabulary and I feel like a two-year old struggling to match sounds with things. Many words are short, pronounceable, and memorable; but then many are not. For example the days of the week go along nicely Monday through Wednesday – Hétfő, Kedd, Szerda – but then you come to Thursday: Csütörtök! What is that??? Where did that come from? I’ve mastered high motivation words – mostly food and drink vocabulary – and can greet, thank, and apologize. I can even string a few words together: egy pohár vörösbor (one glass of red wine) But beyond that, needs and wants are stripped down to what I can point at. Fortunately Hungarians, unlike the French, are grateful for any attempt at their language, however meager or mangled. Young people generally speak some English and German, and university students speak it quite well. Shop keeps and waiters speak enough to transact business. But everyone seems to want to understand and is willing to participate in the attempt.

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