Monday, March 1, 2010

*Draft* The Hungarian Language

So, I was in the elevator in my apartment today and as the elevator is the size of a small closet -- it's super awkward not to to strike up a conversation. There was this one guy in there that I never saw before and he had an accent and I asked him where he was from. "Hungary," he said.

And, I remember I had this one English conversational partner in Korea, who spoke Hungarian, Korean, and Japanese. He told me that there were similarities in the Hungarian language on one hand and Korean and Japanese on the other -- the latter two languages, for the most part -- can literally be translated character for character without any grammatical mistakes. Both languages are also characterized by having a complex set of verb conjugations that address the relative social rank of the listener, not to mention the formality of a situation. It's also been argued that people on the Korean Peninsula and Western Japan ("Wa Japan"/倭) spoke mutually intelligible languages until about the 7the century (about the time Silla unified the Korean peninsula). 

Note: I know I've been searching for this paper I read a while back with the title along the lines of "Japonic-Gorguyeo languages(?)" published in like 2002/03 or so by some academic in I think Pennsylvania. Please e-mail me this article if you come across it.

Note: After reading the article, I really got no better sense of how the Hungarian language is. I'll come back to this topic when I have something...
But, I do that know that some linguists classify all three languages under a single language family: Ural-Altaic languages. Yes, that's from Hungary (and even Finland ) all the way through Central Asia and to East Asia (skipping over areas that are now populated by only Mandarin speakers, but were not so a couple centuries back). Yes, you might think it's broad, but you should check out the Indo-European language family that not only includes the Romance Languages (French, Italian, Spanish, and Romanian), but also all of Europe minus the ancient Basque region, where I stopped by out of historical interest during a backpacking trip to Europe last summer. It also includes most of the languages found in Iran and India.

Anyways, as I told the guy in the elevator that I had heard Hungarian was actually related or similar to some languages in East Asia, I asked him if their were honorifics. Surprisingly, he said, yes, they address older people differently than they do younger people. So, as I write my midterm paper, I was curious to Google (or better yet, Wikipedia it). Now, I'm no linguist and I'm not sure if there is even a connection here (I'm not sure if there are even honorifics in Turkish or Mongolian, but I think perhaps that can be a talking point next time I randomly meet somebody from Turkey or Mongolia. I do know there is a store here that is owned by a Mongolian immigrant right down the street).

Hungarian has a four-tiered system for expressing levels of politeness.
Much like Japanese, the Korean language has complex gradations. It uses honorifics and no less than seven speech levels, each with a singular/plural distinction, making for fourteen basic verb stems. Nevertheless, most levels have all but disappeared from everyday language, so one can simplify this into the basic distinction between plain and polite conjugations of verbs and adjectives. In general, the plain form is used when speaking to family, close friends, and social inferiors, and the polite form otherwise. When two Korean-speaking strangers meet where none is the obvious social superior, both use the polite form; when it is determined that one or both can switch to the plain form, one often asks for permission for this switch. The phrase used to describe this is 말을 놓다 mareul nota (literally “to release language”). In Korean, the polite form is called 존댓말 jondaenmal and the plain form is called 예사말 yesanmal or 반말 banmal. In contrast to the neutral term 예사말 yesanmal, 반말 banmal (literally “half speech”) often has a rather negative connotation, referring for instance to the plain form that one may deliberately use to provoke someone who should be addressed in the polite form.

There is a similar phenomenon called 높임말 nopimmal, which is honorific speech triggered not by the addressee but by the content of an expression. It is used independently of the speech levels. For example, in -하십니다 -hasimnida “do(es) …”, the speaker uses the infix -si- to honour the subject of the sentence and the ending -mnida to express courtesy or politeness (or simply his distance) towards the addressee. As the subject of the sentence and the addressee do not have to be the same person both forms can be mixed. The speaker can honour a higher person he is talking about with the infix -si- while talking to a friend who is addressed in the informal banmal.
In Japanese, as in Vietnamese, kinship terms, titles, or names are commonly used instead of first-, second- or third-person pronouns; real personal pronouns do not exist in the language, and the words most closely corresponding to them are grammatically nouns. As in Korean, there are several levels of politeness regarding social hierarchy, and polite language encompasses not only pronouns but also verb endings and vocabulary as well. (See the articles Japanese pronouns and Honorific speech in Japanese for more information.)
On a side note: It's accepted that Vietnamese is not related to Japanese at least in terms of origins of the language. Vietnamese along with Chinese and Tibet are part of the Sino-Tibetan language family.

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