Intricacies of Hungarian linguistic etiquette

I'm not kidding. Only ten years ago three socio-linguists wrote a lengthy monograph entitled Nyelvi illemtan (Linguistic etiquette). I haven't read it and if today I would like to take a look at it, I would have to order it from Libri, an online bookstore that would try to find a copy for me. It seems that this linguistic etiquette book filled a gap. I'm not surprised. The intricacies of when to use the familiar and when to use the formal in Hungarian can try the soul.

I am always amused when I hear radio or TV interviews. "Linguistic etiquette" demands the use of the formal between the reporter and the person being interviewed. But there are exceptions. If both are journalists, then with a huge sigh of relief they can use the informal "te." If not, even if they know each other outside the studio (and most of them do) they have to force themselves to use the formal. Of course, it often happens that they forget that Pista is not really Pista and "te" but "professzor úr," and in the middle of the conversation they inadvertently make a mistake. I talked to some of my journalist friends about this problem and I was told that they hate it too but, you know, there is "the linguistic etiquette" which I'm sure is forced upon them by the stations.

The whole topic cropped up again about a week ago. György Bolgár is on vacation and he asked several well known personalities to host the show. On the very first day two singers with a great sense of humor and self-deprecation replaced him. Oh, they said, this is going to be terrible; we have to use the formal here. We don't know how we are going to survive two hours. Well, what the heck, just please call us "ti" and we too will use the informal if you don't mind! They didn't mind but not all went smoothly. The more timid callers had some difficulty getting into the swing of things.

Kati Marton, the American author who was only about eight years old when she left Hungary, once told a reporter that since she learned Hungarian from her parents she doesn't even know how to use the formal–which is, by the way, not easy. In fact, it is horribly awkward, most likely because the use of the formal is a relatively late development in the Hungarian language. In the fifteenth century everybody called everybody "te" and in the seventeenth century all the nobles used the informal with each other. And there were a lot of nobles in Hungary. Almost ten percent of the population.

The fact is that the informal has been steady spreading for at least the last hundred and fifty years. It was in the 1950s that it became practically compulsory to use the informal with all colleagues, whether you knew the person or not. That meant, for example, all college students; even twenty-five years later if they met on the street they called each other informally. The same was true about all people working in the same factory. However, at that time it wasn't customary to go to a store or a restaurant and call the salesperson "te" and vice versa. Today it can easily happen. Some linguists  bemoan this development because they consider it an impoverishment of the language. This may be, but it would certainly simplify the lives of children or teenagers. The poor things haven't gotten a clue whom to call what. Children and even young adults are supposed to use the formal with their parents' friends coupled with "I kiss your hand" and adding "néni" or "bácsi," that is aunt and uncle. By the time I first returned to Hungary some of my friends already had small children and I made it clear that there was no "néni" and no formal. One should have seen the relief on the faces of these children. An encounter with a little boy was especially funny. He said to his parents that he wanted to speak with me in private. Parents left the room. He told me that he would like to call his father Feri and his mother Ica! Hmm, I said, did you try to discuss this with them? The answer was no, but he would be awfully grateful if I did!

I heard from a friend that in Sweden the formal pronoun ni (you) has now been replaced by the informal du in everyday conversation. Not just among colleagues. This is the trend in Hungarian too, which in an artificial way through the media the "authorities" (whoever they may be) are trying to stop. I'm not quite sure why. One argument might be that it is more difficult to be vulgar using the formal address. However, somehow I can't believe that the ever spreading vulgarity in Hungarian society has much to do with the wider use of the informal. The artificiality of the present situation borders on the ludicrous.  

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Ida Kiss
Guest

The language used in Hungary lately is neither formal, nor informal. It’s simply brutal. I don’t know what would say Freud about it, because there are no tabues to destroy, ni limitations.
This language which is used both by males and many females, doesn’t respect anything. There are no values to keep to. It’s infernal.

Christian Taylor
Guest

Yes, this is a problem I always face in Hungary. I’m Australian by birth, but both my parents are 1st and 2nd generation Hungarians, so I learnt Hungarian at home and am only familiar with the ‘te’ form. I know a lot of older Hungarians who are relatives of my grandparents who are ’56ers and they all exclusively use the ‘te’ form with each other and other Hungarians who emigrate to Australia. This might, however, be a corruption borrowed from the relaxed way Australians use English?
I thought I had mastered the ‘Ön’ form only to find another disaster lurking around the corner with this ‘tetszik’ and ‘maga’ business.

Sandor
Guest
As a disciple of the good doctor, Doctor Johnnson, I urge every self-respecting and aspiring Hungarian to practice (both sense of the word) the respectful form. The Johnsonian admonishment says that the art of being able to do this is nothing more than the art of paying attention. Your interlocutor will be honored by your attention. But I have another couple of reasons to recommend this. You would be one of the diminishing few to preserve civilized language, so sorely needed nowdays. Also, there are many forms the simple familiar doesn’t lend itself to express. The early Hungarian speech, by the way, wasn’t as simple as the article claims. Saints, god and underlings were indeed addressed in the plain familiar. However, in “normal” circumstances although the pronoun was the “te” followed by an honorific, like “kegyelmed,” which was followed by the polite third person flow of speech. A short summary of the language’s development is found here: http://vmek.oszk.hu/01900/01949/html/index10.html Alas, it is almost impossible to find samples of early Hungarian dialog. (Too bad that Shakespeare was not born in Hungary, although the case may turn out to be so later) Nonetheless, those lucky ones with access can peruse late eighteenth century… Read more »
Katalin
Guest

“I thought I had mastered the ‘Ön’ form only to find another disaster lurking around the corner with this ‘tetszik’ and ‘maga’ business.”
Oh yes, same here. (I’m German with one Hungarian parent and had to learn Hungarian from scratch as an adult.) Reading the post I realized that among my Hungarian friends we sometimes do address each other formally with “tetszik” and “maga” (never Ön) – for fun. Whatever the content of the sentence is, the formal way signalises we’re not being serious. Also, it’s a way of taking the edge of things that otherwise might come out too harshly.

Odin's lost eye
Guest
Oh how I hate this. Why call a thing an elevator when what you mean is a lift. I call a spade a spade and not a ‘manually operated humus moving utensil’. Some of the worst I have collected from ‘Formal speak’ used by a local authority include ‘’Unit of domiciliary accommodation’ –a home, ‘a person of restricted growth’ -a dwarf, a ‘hydraulically cleansed human waste product disposal unit’ -a water closet (or sometimes called a ‘crapper’ which is wrongly said to refer to a London plumber one Thos Crapper). This ‘official jargon’ is designed to intimidate those whom the officials are supposed and are paid to serve and not to ‘manage them’. Mr Sandor you say “Your interlocutor will be honoured by your attention.” The only time I have ever come across this word was in the context of the great Kentucky Minstrels where “Mr Interlocutor sar” was always in conversation with one ‘Mr Bones’. For example “ Mr Interlocutor. What are you thinking about, Mr. Bones? What is there on your mind this evening? Mr Bones. I was jis’ thinking ’bout dat business I was in some time ago. I started in de — what you call dat… Read more »
Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Ida Kiss: “The language used in Hungary lately is neither formal, nor informal. It’s simply brutal. I don’t know what would say Freud about it…”
Unbelievable and we are not talking about somebody with grade eight education who spent half his life in the pubs. These are educated people. Four-letter words are used in every blessed sentence. People who were ouraged at the language Gyurcsány used in his speech (and indeed it was bad) use the most vulgar language themselves. The whole country, children, women, men, old and young. Looking at the whole thing from the outside one doesn’t really know what to think. How did that happen? Why?

Sophist
Guest

Eva,
“How did that happen? Why?”
Part of the problem has been, I think, the celebration of Hungarian obscenity:
“Yiddish has created the most inventive curses, but Hungarian the most complicated and coarsest ones” Géza Balázs, “The story of Hungarian” pg 158. Complication is an end in itself in Hungary. However, complex obscenity is a custom “More honour’d in the breach than the observance” and the sad result is coarseness not complication.
Many of my colleagues – university educated English teachers are proud are this preceived strength in the Hungarian language, and usage in the staffroom is usually pitched at working men’s (Communism?) pub level.
I recently had an argument with a 15yo boy whose response to a 5(an ‘A’) I had given him was “jó faszi”. When I objected to this usage, he was suprised; “Yes” he agreed ‘fasz’ does mean penis, but ‘jó faszi’ simply means ‘good’. My colleagues agreed that faszi isn’t offensive but shouldn’t be said to a teacher. A very fine grained ettiquette, I suppose.
Mind you this may well be an international issue, I still flinch when ‘fuck’ is used on the BBC. Richard Curtis has a lot to answer for.

Eva S. Balogh
Guest
Sophist: “Many of my colleagues – university educated English teachers are proud are this preceived strength in the Hungarian language, and usage in the staffroom is usually pitched at working men’s (Communism?) pub level.” Well put! Your “faszi” story reminds me of something. I was doing a bit of research for one of my blogs and I happened upon a website put out by a small town’s “általános iskola” (grade 1 to 8). On the first page the “webmaster” (obviously a youngster under age of fourteen) tells the kids who write letters that “ugly words” (four-letter words) are not permissible. The same “webmaster” says on the same page “kurva jó.” I was astonished, but I was told that “fucking good” actually just means “very, very good.” That’s not a bad word for a really young child! Outlandish, if you ask me and I’m not a prude. However I was brought up in a family where four-letter words were not used by adults. The first time I heard my father to say something off color was when I was thirty years old and he was telling me a story about what he had said to the salesman of a store, state… Read more »
Sophist
Guest

Eva,
“Where are we going to go from here, tell me?”
What your original post alludes to but doesn’t make explicit is that language forms are closely related to socio-economic developments.
This was brought home quite forcibly to me this semester when – for the first time – I asked my new intake what jobs their parents had. I was surprised to discover the number of lorry drivers, waitresses and shop assistants who were sending their kids to a Economics high school. I was also surprised that my graduating class this year is no longer swearing in my lessons. What is happening is that they are no longer using the language of the home but of their peer group, and their peer group, heading to college and university, is a different socio-economic group to that of their parents.
However, there is no equation between higher socio-economic status and refinement of language. Richard Curtis’s film “four weddings and a funeral” had the very posh Hugh Grant repeatedly saying ‘fuck’ and now ‘fuck’ is aspirational in the UK. Likewise, the spread of Estuary English, I’m confident it will replace Received Pronounciation as the elite form of speech in the UK.

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Sophist: “What your original post alludes to but doesn’t make explicit is that language forms are closely related to socio-economic developments.”
If you mean that lower-class people’s usage is different from that of the higher classes, I think you’re wrong. I’m not talking on Skype with truck drivers, and oh my, the language!

Sophist
Guest
“If you mean that lower-class people’s usage is different from that of the higher classes” I meant more broadly than obscenity: ” In the fifteenth century everybody called everybody “te” and in the seventeenth century all the nobles used the informal with each other. And there were a lot of nobles in Hungary. Almost ten percent of the population. The fact is that the informal has been steady spreading for at least the last hundred and fifty years. It was in the 1950s that it became practically compulsory to use the informal with all colleagues, whether you knew the person or not.” There is a general theory (Labov, I think) that the language styles of “elites” trickle down through society, as people try to improve their status through imitation. Changes in the elite therefore lead to changes in language style. For example, the Thou/You distinction in English became a poltical issue during the civil war period. Similarly, the change in Hungarian usage can be linked to changes in the elite under Communism. It’s interesting that you report the continued existence of a public media form of Hungarian. In the UK, BBC English has been completely “democratised”. Mr. Blair (call me… Read more »
John Moxford
Guest

Hungarian is a very beautiful language and it is real fun to learn hungarian

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