The Hungarian Language Test

OK, so I’m trying to learn Hungarian at the moment, and may I say, it’s bloody hard. There are various reasons for this and one of them is that Magyar is very definitely not in the huge Indo-European language family. Pretty much all the other languages of Europe are in that family, with the exception of Basque and Finnish – and Hungarian. Its family is Finno-Ugric which means that there are some tribes around Lake Uigher in Siberia and the Finns who speak something similar, though not very.

The Hungarians are quite proud of this, of course, and have an unfortunate tendency to laugh if you tell them you’re trying to learn it. They then shake their heads and say “Magyarúl nagyon nehéz” which means that Hungarian is very heavy, meaning difficult. Thank you, I know.

But this uniqueness means that Hungarian is perfect for a little test I am going to recommend to all language theorists.

If you’re talking about the original mother tongue, the ancestor to all living and dead human languages – yes, New Scientist 6 February2016 “The Eloquent Ape”, I’m looking at you – then you need a quick and easy test to make sure you’re not talking nonsense. Hungarian is a quick and easy test.

So, let’s say you’re searching for common sounds and similar-sounding words in languages all over the world. You find common sounds in all the languages you know like German and French and maybe even Sanskrit, and there it is. You proudly announce that this particular sound or word is universal, across all human languages and therefore part of the original ur-language.

You’re just being provincial. You haven’t ventured out of the comfortable branches of the Indo-European language group. That means you’re leaving out all sorts of languages like Mandarin or Qechua. But it’s hard to learn non-Indo-European languages and you need that test for non-Indo-European languages so you don’t waste time. Ta da! Hungarian is perfect. It’s indisputably spoken by humans and most of its words are very different. If you find your favourite candidate in Hungarian – well, maybe you’ve really found a proto-word. If you don’t, maybe you haven’t. Plus there are Hungarians everywhere and the educated ones seem to speak three or four languages. Every language lab needs at least one Hungarian, if only so there’ll be someone there who’s rock-solid on transitive and intransitive verbs (don’t ask).

There’s this researcher called Meritt Ruhlen at Stanford University, California, who contends that sounds like tik, tok, dik and tak mean “toe” in lots of languages and so must be from the ur-language.

Hungarian? The word for finger is “ujj” (ooee) and toes are “labujj” or leg-fingers. Ujj. Not very like toe, is it? You could argue even the concept of toe is sort of weak.

Numbers? Sure, in most Indo-European languages they all sound a bit similar up to ten. In Hungarian they go “egy, kettő, harom, négy, öt, hat, hét, nyolc, kilenc, tíz”. OK, so ten is similar. Oh and in Japan they apparently have different counting systems for people, long thin things and round things. So which one do you choose?

Ruhlen says social communication words like “who, what and where” and “he, she, it” are thought to be ur-words too.

Guess what you use for “he, she or it” in Hungarian? “Ő” That’s right. Just the one. “Ő” means “he,” “she” and “it”.

And that old favourite, Mama? Contentious. In Hungarian the word for mother is “anyu” – no “m”.

So Hungarian is a very special language, simple in some ways, fiendishly difficult in others. It’s quite young, having arrived in Europe with the fierce Magyar raiders only in the 9th century AD. Unlike Indo-European which reaches back to Persian, Hittite and Saskrit. Hungarian has an ancestry that’s lost in the roiling chaos of the nomad tribes on the eastern steppes. Also it got tidied up in the 19th century.

So if you’re looking for putative ur-words in Hungarian, and they’re totally different, maybe they’re not ur-words. Maybe you’re wasting your time looking for an ur-language before the Tower of Babel?

Personally I don’t think there was any such thing. Languages spoken by so-called primitive tribesmen aren’t simple, they’re complicated, even if they lack numbers after 5 or the idea of left and right. Simple is what you get when two languages like Anglo-Saxon and Old French crash into each other on an off-shore island and rub all the case-endings off (a sort of linguistic mating called a Creole which is what English is).

I think that the tribes that walked out of Africa all started with complicated languages of their own that had been evolving and developing since before we were human. The amazing social technology of language has continued to evolve and encourage sex between its enormous number of varieties right down to the present.

And when we get into space, languages will continue to flower and seed and change. Possibly something like a lingua franca will evolve from English or Spanish or Chinese but I bet that every habitat, every country on every planet will have its own complicated and irregular language. It’s a wonderful thought.