A reference guide to Hungarian grammar, designed with English-speakers in mind

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How to use a Hungarian dictionary


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This page will tell you how to use an English-Hungarian dictionary. It's not as easy as it sounds, so do take a moment to read this page. There are some important differences from, say, an English-French dictionary.

Noun case helpers for verbs and adverbs

Whenever a verb can take a "helper" object, the dictionary will often give information about which noun case the helper object must be placed into.

For example, in English we might say to trust somebody whereas in Hungarian they say bízni valakiben to trust in somebody

For another example, in English we might say to think about/of something whereas in Hungarian they say gondol valamire to think "onto" something

In full sentences these would be:

  • bízok Ágiban I trust Ági
  • gondolsz Danielre? do you think about Daniel?
  • gondolsz arra? do you think about that?

These cases are expressed in the dictionary in a 4-step process:

  1. abbreviating valami and valaki to vmi and vki respectively
  2. taking one of the characteristic endings (in these examples, one of -ban/ben and -ra/re respectively) (which to choose? see here)
  3. combing the above two into such acronyms as vkiben and vmire respectively
  4. Placing this abbreviation somewhere behine the main verb, often in square brackets.

Here are some examples:

  • bízni [vkiben] trust somebody
  • szomjazik [vmire] thirst, crave something
  • riaszt [vkit] frighten somebody
  • gondol [vmire] think about something
  • megmenekül [vmitől] flee from something figurative
  • szemben [vmivel] opposite, facing something (adverb)

Sometimes we see two helpers or helpers that are not noun cases (rather adverbs):

  • tulajdonít [vmit vkinek] attribute/assign something to somebody
  • megmenekül [vhonnan] flee from somewhere (adverb helper)

Which ending to choose?

Note that when the dictionary writes [vkiben], they have obviously chosen one of the two endings from the inessive case. They chose ben. Why did they do so?

The dictionary will usually choose whichever ending is used to make prepositional pronouns.

Since prepositional pronouns like benned, bennetek etc are formed using the front-vowel version, so do the dictionaries use this version too for -ban/ban helpers.

Of course we still apply vowel harmony as normal:
the dictionary might say bízik [vkiben], we still say bízik Ágiban because Ági is a back-vowel word.

Direct objects for transitive verbs

Verbs that (may or must) take a direct object, i.e. transitive verbs, must have their direct object placed into the accusative case. Often the dictionary will not bother to write [vmit] because it's obvious that a transitive verb must have its object in the accusative case.

The only time you will see [vmit] is when the usage differs between English and Hungarian.

Third-person verbs and -ik verbs

All verbs will be given in their third person singular form (he/she).

All -ik verbs will be given with their -ik ending still intact. Some dictionaries will use a bar to separate the stem from the -ik:

  • lak|ik reside
  • lakik reside

Fleeting and low vowel

Some words will contain fleeting or low vowels. These words may be indicated as such in the dictionary. [Rounds/Sólyom] mark them with flags, Whitney spells out the full examples.

Rounds/Sólyom mark ház as: ház (lv) house

Cases of nouns

Some glossaries, though very few dictionaries, will give three pieces of information for each noun: the third person singular possessor, the plural, and the accusative. This is simply to take away the guesswork about whether it should be háza or házja, etc.

Whitney marks ház house as:
ház - a - at - ak
which means
ház house - háza his house - házat house (accusative) - házak houses

Where there is a significant change, where the stem itself changes, such as pohár glass (where the last vowel loses length), this will be spelled-out: pohár - pohara - poharat - poharak

Conjugations of verbs

Some glossaries, though very few dictionaries, will give three pieces of information for each verb: the infinitive, the passed tense first person singular indefinite, and the passed tense third person singular indefinite. This shows use, respectively, where it should be -ni or -ani , whether it's -ottam or just -tam, and whether it's -ott or just -t.

Whitney marks fogyaszt consume as:
fogyaszt - ani - ottam - ott
which means
fogyaszt consume - fogyasztani to consume - fogyasztottam I consumed - fogyasztott he consumed

Where there is a significant change, where the stem itself changes, such as érez feel (where the last vowel may be dropped), this will be spelled-out: érez - ni - tem - érzett

TIP: Learn the words with their helpers!

It is crucial that you do not only memorise a word, but its helpers too!

When trying to learn a new word, learn it with its little friends. Do not teach yourself
bízni to trust (infinitive)
but
bíz|ik vkiben trust somebody.

This is where Before You Know It fails: it teaches the raw infinitives, which are very unhelpful.


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