The Martians’ Language

You may have heard of Enrico Fermi. If you haven’t, let me introduce him: he’s the genius who created the world’s first working nuclear reactor. He also lent his name to a paradox that, in 1950, put into words a question that’s vexed mankind for centuries (if not longer). The Fermi paradox runs thusly: How can it be that, in a universe such as ours – one of infinite size, scope, and potential – humanity hasn’t encountered any evidence of otherworldly civilization? A more succinct variation, coined by Fermi himself, goes: “Where are they?” Now, it turns out that this famous query has an answer, courtesy of Fermi’s contemporary Leo Szilard, a fellow physicist: “They are among us – but they call themselves Hungarians.”

Two weeks into my study abroad experience in Budapest, I can report with confidence that Hungarians are not, in fact, aliens. Their language, on the other hand, sounds positively extraterrestrial. I’m not the only one who thinks so. A group of eminent Hungarian scientists (including Szilard and Edward Teller, a key player in the Manhattan Project) who emigrated to America in the early 20th century were dubbed “The Martians” on account of their imported vernacular.

All this is to say that Hungarian is an intimidating language. The Foreign Service Institute of the State Department gives it “4*” out of “5” on its ease-of-learning scale (a language rated “5” is the hardest for an English speaker to pick up). The asterisk, I think, is meant to indicate that Hungarian is harder to learn than other languages with a “4” rating. I don’t know why they didn’t just bump it up to a “5” – but, hey, such is bureaucracy.

Magyar (“Hungarian” in Hungarian) isn’t related to any of the languages spoken by Hungary’s neighbors. In fact, it isn’t related to any language spoken in Europe, save for Estonian and Finnish – and the three tongues are about as close as second cousins once removed. Magyar is not even a member of the very expansive Indo-European family of languages, which means that it technically has less in common with English than Hindi does. If you’re still not convinced that it’s tough out there for an English speaker in Budapest, consider that Hollywood has used Magyar as the basis for gibberish in Blade RunnerStar Wars: The Clone Wars, and other titles. Also, there are two letters in Hungarian – “ő” and “ű” – which, as far as I can ascertain, don’t exist in any other alphabet.

I’d characterize my experience with Hungarian as overwhelming but rewarding. Just about everyone under the age of 30 in Budapest speaks English, so it’s possible to get by without knowing a word of Hungarian. I’m certainly guilty of relying on Hungarians’ knowledge of my native tongue to see me through many an interaction, but I am trying to sprinkle in mispronounced Magyar when I can. There’s so much to gain by trying out a few hesitant words in everyday conservation – a drink order placed in Hungarian, for example, can bring a smile to the lips of your taciturn server. (Trust me, coaxing a smile out of a Hungarian is no easy feat; while I’ve found the residents of Budapest to be a friendly bunch, their body language is much more frosty than Americans’ and even New Yorkers’).

Moreover, I think there’s something disrespectful about unreservedly relying on Anglo-American cultural imperialism to get along. Sure, it’s great to have English as a backup, but to foist it on every interaction is to diminish the local mode of life. To use an imperfect analogy, speaking only English in Hungary is like rearranging the furniture in a friend’s house to your suit your tastes. It’s rude and sort of weird. So in the interest of not being rude or sort of weird, I’m going to continue to stumble through phrases like hol van a fürdőszoba kérjük. Wish me luck.

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