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The Hungarian past tense


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The past tense in Hungarian is certainly not particularly easy, but it is nothing to be scared of. You'll see it presented in text books quite late in their chapters because it is fiddly (but not as fiddly as the conjunctive-imperative).

Hungairan has only one past tense, the nominative past tense, which corresponds to all English forms. For example, the past tense word mentem corresponds to the tenses I went, I was going, I had gone, I have gone.

The characteristic letter for the past tense is -t-. A verb with a -t- in its ending is of the past tense (ingoring the 2nd person pl -tok- that we saw in the present tense). The base ending is applied before the personal endings, but the base ending comes in two different flavours. The main question of conjugation surrounds the form that this -t- must take. You must ask yourself:

  • should the base ending be -t- or -ott/ett/ött-?

We will therefore look at three groups of verb that have different rules applied. Having selected the group that our verb falls into, the personal endings are then very easy and familiar if you have studied possession. But first let us work out which group a verb falls into.

Groups of verbs for forming the past tense

These are the three groups of verbs that have different rules applied when forming the past tense in Hungarian.

  • Group A.
    Verbs that take the long form of the suffix in all persons. The form that the base suffix takes before any personal forms is -ott-, -ett- or -ött-.
  • Group B.
    Verbs that take the short form of the suffix in all persons. The form that the base suffix takes before any personal forms is -t-.
  • Group C.
    Verbs that take the short form of the suffix -t- in most persons except in the third person singular which then takes -ott, -ett or -ött.

Group A - always long bases: -ott-

Remember that this group of verbs will always form the past tense base with -ott-, -ett- or -ött- before we add the personal suffixes.

Verbs that fall into this group are defined by these rules:

  1. Verbs that end in two consonants (except --d).
  2. Verbs that end in -ít.
  3. Monosyllabic verbs that end in -t except lát.

Let's look at some example verbs that fall into Group A and see the reason why they fall into this group.

  • játsz|ik becomes játsz-ott (rule 1)
  • tekint becomes tekint-ett (1)
  • épít becomes épít-ett (2)
  • takarít becomes takarít-ott (2)
  • fűt becomes fűt-ött (3)
  • jut becomes jut-ott (3)

Group B - always short bases: -t-

Remember that this group of verbs will always form the past tense base with -t- before we add the personal suffixes.

Verbs that fall into this group are defined by these rules:

  1. Verbs that end in the "Summering Johnny" consonants, which are the same consonants that force the accusative case ending to be directly appied, too:
    • -s -l -r -n -ny -j -ly
  2. Di-syllabic verbs that end in -ad or -ed.

Let's look at some example verbs that fall into Group B and see the reason why they fall into this group.

  • beszél becomes beszél-t- (rule 1)
  • vár becomes vár-t- (1)
  • kíván becomes kíván-t- (1)
  • foly becomes foly-t- (1)
  • fáj becomes fáj-t- (1)
  • marad becomes marad-t (2)
  • ébred becomes ébred-t (2)

Group C - short bases except for third person singular  - indefinite only

Remember that this group of verbs will usually form the past tense base with the short base -t- except for the third person singular when they use -ott-, -ett- or -ött-. Then we add the personal suffixes.  The definite does not have this third group and it's the same as Group B.

Verbs that fall into this group are defined by these "rules":

  1. All other verbs that are not in Group A or B. This include those that would normally fall into Group A according to Rule 1, i.e. ending in two consonants, but that end in -d.
  2. The following exceptions.

Here are some example of Group C verbs that are here due to them simply not fitting A or B - that is, they are in Group C because of rule 1..

  • ad becomes ad-t and ad-ott
  • szeret becomes szeret-t- and szeret-ett
  • köhög becomes köhög-t- and köhög-ött
  • olvas becomes olvas-t- and olvas-ott
  • hív becomes hív-t- and hív-ott

Here are some examples of -d verbs that ordinarily would be Group A but that are actually Group C because of their final -d

  • mond becomes mond-t- and mond-ott
  • küld becomes küld-t- and küld-ött
  • kezd becomes kezd-t- and kezd-ett

Now let us see the exceptions that are in Group C because of idiosyncractic behavior let's be fair - Hungarian has hardly any, especially compared to English.

  • lát becomes lát-t- and lát-ott. This is not in Group A as might be guessed.
  • fogad becomes fogad-t- and fogad-ott. This is not Group B as might be guessed.
  • tagad becomes tagad-t- and tagad-ott. This is not Group B as might be guessed.
  • enged becomes enged-t- and enged-ett. This is not Group B as might be guessed.

Personal endings for the past tense in Hungarian

The personal ending for the past tense in Hungarian are very similar to those of possession. Let's look at spome examples from all three groups. I have pilfered these examples from Zoltan Bánhidi's book.

Definite

Person Characteristic ending Endings Group A e.g. Group B and C e.g.
én -m -am, -em tartottam, építettem vártam, kértem adtam, győztem
te -d -ad, -ed tartottad, építetted vártad, kérted adtad, győzted
ő -a -a, -e tartotta, építette várte, kérte adta, győzte
mi -uk -uk, -ük tartottuk, építettük vártuk, kértük adtuk, győztük
ti -'tok -átok, -étek tartottátok, építettétek vártátok, kértétek adtátok, győztétek
ők -'k -ék, -ék tartották, építették  vártták, kérták adták, győzték

Indefinite

Person Characteristic ending Endings Group A e.g. Group B e.g. Group C e.g.
én -m -am, -em tartottam, építettem vártam, kértem adtam, győztem
te -l -ál, -él tartottál, építettél vártál, kértél adtál, győztél
ő (nothing)  (nothing) tartott, épített várt, kért adott, győzött
mi -unk -unk, -ünk tartottunk, építettünk vártunk, kértünk adtunk, győztünk
ti -tok -atok, -etek tartottatok, építettetek vártatok, kértetek adtatok, győztetek
ők -k -ak, -ek tartottak, építettek  vártak, kértek adtak, győztek
én/téged -alak -alak, -elek tartottalak, építettelek  vártalak, kértelek adtalak, győztelek

You may note that, in comparing these two tables, you see only minimal differences. Those differences are noteably the following:

  • (te) - the -l becomes -d and the vowel shortens
  • (ő) - the (nothing) becomes -a
  • (mi) - the -unk becomes -uk
  • (ti) - the first vowel lengthens to become -átok
  • (ők) - the vowel lengthens to become -ák

Irregular verbs

Just like in many languages, Hungarian has some irregular verbs, particularly those very basic human functions such as "be", "go", "come", etc. These are listed here in a form that shows, essentially, the third person singular past stem. That is, the past tense stem to which the personal ending can be immediately applied. When there is an irregularity in the stem, this will be highlighted.

Present tense stem Infinitive Past tense stem Irregularities or example Meaning
megy men(ni) ment mentem I went
jön jön(ni) jött jöttem I came
esz|ik en(ni) ett, evett ettem, evett I ate, he ate
isz|ik in(ni) itt, ivott ittam, ivott I drank, he drank
tesz|ik ten(ni) tett tettem I do
vesz|ik ven(ni) vett vettem I take
visz|ik vin(ni) vittem vittem I carry
hisz|ik hin(ni) hitt hittem I believe
van len(ni) volt voltam I was
lesz len(ni) lett lettem I became

There are other irregular verbs, but these are the "big guns".


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