Hungarian language: being formal

The easy part: Hungarian, like so many many many languages that aren’t English, has formal and informal ways of addressing someone. The informal you is te, and verbs conjugate in the second person. The formal you is ön or maga, and verbs conjugate in the third person.

It’s all downhill from there. First, did you catch that part that there are two different words for the formal you? You can choose ön or maga. They have different connotations, and even Hungarians don’t really agree on when to use which. I spend a couple weeks pestering everyone I could about it and reading about it online and here are some of the opinions I found. Please note how most of them totally contradict each other:

– ön is better because it’s more formal, more respectful
– use maga for people you want to respect because you like them (elderly family members, neighbors, your doctor) and use ön for people you have to respect because they are figures of authority
– using maga distances yourself from the person you’re addressing
– using maga is offensive and/or only peasants use maga
– using maga is nicer, more intimate than using ön. Would you address your aunt the same way you address a policeman?
– we shouldn’t use either; more people should just use the informal

Opinions seem to be heavily connected to locality. Once again, we have the conflict between the smooth-talking, snobby urbanites of Budapest and western Hungary versus the humble, ignorant peasants of eastern Hungary. Choose your side.

Luckily, you can avoid choosing between ön and maga altogether, because in many cases in Hungarian the pronoun is unnecessary. For example, to ask someone where they live, instead of maga hol lakik? or ön hol lakik? you can simply use hol lakik? But because this two-word sentence sounds a bit brusque, you would probably add either the name or the title of the person you’re addressing. This also helps to clear up confusion, because as I mentioned before, verbs in formal tenses are conjugated in the third person. So, hol lakik? means both “where do (You formal) live?” and “where does (he / she / it) live?” To an English speaker, speaking to someone while referring to them in the third person seems a bit strange, but it sounds perfectly normal in Hungarian: Doktor úr hol lakik? or Margó néni hol lakik? (Literally: “Doctor sir where lives[3rd person]?” and  “Margo aunt[word of respect used for women older than you] where lives[3rd person]?”)

If so far the whole thing seems like a muddy mess, hitch up your boots because there is still more. In addition to using the third person verb forms, there is another way of addressing someone formally called tetszikezés, which is by using the helping verb tetszik. It is another way of avoiding using ön or maga, because it is more formal than either. A few people do say that tetszikezés is too formal, too old-fashioned, and is going out of style.

Tetszik has two uses. First, in everyday speech it is just a verb meaning “to like”, and (just like gustar in Spanish) is usually used in the third person to say that something is liked by sometime. For example: neked tetszik a zene? “do you like the music?” (literally, “to-you is-pleasing the music?”). When using tetszik to make formal sentences, you use tetszik plus an infinitive verb, either with or without a name or title. So for “where do you live?” you could say hol tetszik lakni? or Margó néni hol tetszik lakni? Again to my English ears this sounds so strange, something like “Where does it please dear aunt Margo to live?” but it is perfectly natural in Hungarian.

The first time I ever heard someone use tetszikezés it just about melted my brain. It was after I had been in Hungary for a few months. I had mastered hogy vagy (“how are you?”) and could deal with hogy van? (“how are (you formal)?”). But it all fell apart when one of my students, trying so hard to be respectful and kind, threw a hogy tetszik lenni? at me (“how are (you super formal)”? literally: “how pleasing[third person] to be[infinitive]?”). The poor kid just wanted to be nice.

Whew. And I haven’t mentioned plural formal. Or anything other than present tense.

There’s just one more thing. Even if you learn all the grammar, all the rules, all the exceptions to the exceptions to the rules and every possible level of formality, you’re still left with one very basic question: when to use formal and when to use informal? In some cases it’s pretty clear. And when it’s not, there are ways around it. And when is it appropriate to change from formal to informal? Who gets to offer the invitation, tegezhetünk? (“Can we use te with each other?”) Of course it should be the person in the higher position who offers it, but who is that? This is the uncomfortable situation I am currently in with the mothers of some of my private students. On the one hand, I’m in the higher position because I’m the teacher. On the other hand, she is older than I am. So who should break the ice?

My final word on the subject can only be this image. Uncle Sam has got it right: let’s all use te and forget about formal altogether!

Tegezodni fogunk UncleSam graphicJMflagg Szia? Te? Ön? Maga?   Igyunk pertut és tegeződjünk inkább!

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1 Response to Hungarian language: being formal

  1. Great post Emily. Truly, the grammer of the language is so hard to nail down. Times like this I agree with those who suggest we all just switch to Esperanto or something easier to figure out!

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