Those brave souls who undertake to study the Hungarian language are often confused by what they mistakenly term ”accents”. They refer, of course, to the slashes and double dots they encounter in the Hungarian alphabet. However, these are not accents, because accents indicate emphasis, and Magyar does not need to have a special indication for that because the emphasis in any word ALWAYS falls on the first syllable.
So what are they? They are officially called ”diacritical marks” which actually change the pronunciation of a letter. And that most often changes the meaning of a word.
So diacritical marks are exteremely important. Because it matters whether you are speaking of a ”hal” – fish – or saying ”hál” – he/she/it sleeps. Or whether you say ”faj” – race – or ”fáj” – it hurts. Or ”harmat” – dew – or ”hármat” – three in the objective case (Hány sört kérnek? Hármat.”)
See whether you can spot the pitfalls of diacritical marks, or the lack thereof, in the following text:
Ma Marika a soros/sörös - it’s Marika’s turn today – (or is she the beer girl today?)
Megmosta a haját/háját – she washed her hair – or her fat.
Ez az asztal kerek, és a kerék is kerek. This table is round, and the wheel is round too.
Kérek egy kereket. I would like to have a round one (or a wheel).
Vágja a gazt (nem a gázt!). He/she cuts the weeds (NOT the gas!)
Jancsinak két bal lába van... Johnny has two left feet ...
...ami nem jó amikor bálba megy. ...which is not good when he goes to a ball.
Már ez a kutya is mar. Already this dog too bites.
You don’t want to accuse someone of being out of his/her mind (őrült), when you really want to say that that person was very glad (örült). (This also illustrates how much easier Hungarian is, because there are NO GENDER PRONOUNS!)
And it does make a difference, to which vowel you add that mark: is it a veréb (sparrow) – or a véreb ( a bloodhound)???
But don’t let these examples discourage you! The Hungarian alphabet is not difficult to master. And unlike English, once you know it, you’ll be able to read EVERYTHING! Isn’t that worth a bit of effort?
Just remember always to put the accent on the first syllable!
Erika Papp Faber is Editor of Magyar News Online.