Extract from the Picador Book of 40

To celebrate Picador's fortieth birthday, their authors were asked to contribute a piece of writing on the (impossible) theme of 'Forty'.  I spent weeks wondering what on earth to write about, before realising that my forthcoming novel, ALMOST ENGLISH, was inspired partly by the fact that, although my grandparents spoke Hungarian, I only ever acquired forty words of the language.  What's more, they weren't Hungarian.  This is what I wrote:

Hungarian in Forty Words and Phrases

Magyar – mog-yor (Hungarian)

My maternal grandparents were Hungarians. Or so we thought.

They spoke Hungarian, impenetrably, to each other. When speaking English, even after fifty years in London, their Hungarian accents were so strong that kindly strangers would recommend tourist attractions to them. To us, their grandchildren, they seemed entirely, comically Hungarian, whatever that meant: a combination of daring, pride and humour; eaters of food composed largely of paprika and garlic; the touchy and ferocious heirs of Dracula and Attila the Hun. We were proud to be temperamentally Magyar; it explained us. 

I was in my thirties when I noticed something. My grandmother claimed to be Czech. 

Of course I couldn’t ask her about it. A central tenet of Hungarianness, or at least Grandparentness, was the protection of young relatives from any reference to death or sadness and her family history involved too much of both. I knew the name of the nearest town to her village but not how to spell it; there was nothing even close in my school atlas. Years later, I asked a cousin, one of my grandmother’s seven sisters’ children, who drew me a map on a napkin, although the best match I could find seemed to be in the Ukraine. 

Old people make mistakes. The young know best. I continued to refer to her as Hungarian, and to consider myself at least half, although I and my parents were born in England and I have most of the rest of Central Europe in my blood.

But she was growing old. I decided it was my duty to preserve her memories, and solemnly recorded her voice onto audio tape, which I no longer have the means to play. Oddly, she still insisted she was Czech. She spelled the name of her village for me. I decided not to probe.

Then the Internet was invented. I found the napkin, half-remembered the tape and, slowly, with one eye closed to avoid the horrible details, I discovered the extraordinary complexities of her and my grandfather’s nationality: born in Czech towns in the Trans-Carpathian mountain region of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, educated in Russian, citizens of extinct Ruthenia, cooking and talking and sounding entirely Magyar but considering themselves simultaneously Hungarian Czechs, grateful Labour-voting English citizens and loyal subjects of the Kveen.

Boldog születésnap – ‘bull-dog soo-lertaishnop’ (happy birthday); hogy vagy – hodge vodge (how are you?); paradiscsom – porodi-chom (tomato); krumpli – croom-pli (potato); microhulam – mee-cróhulam (microwave)

To infantile English ears, Hungarian sounds ridiculous. Gradually, to amuse our grandparents and ourselves, I evolved a speciality, a sort of tribute act: I would pretend to order a meal, using as many of my forty words as possible – ‘Hello. How are you? Good potatoes! Three tomatoes! No, five! Thank you very much!’ – until tears of (I think) laughter ran down my grandmother’s cheeks. 

On the rare occasions when I meet other children and grandchildren of Hungarians, it is our disbelief in our absurd ancestral language which unites us. We take it in turns to offer our favourite examples of silliness – what sounds like ‘ra-gogoomi’ for chewing-gum, or ‘boo-jigo’, meaning knickers – and, because all Hungarian grandparents must be as fierce and easily insulted as mine were, it feels excitingly iconoclastic. 

For the record, all the passing acquaintances are wrong. The best Hungarian word by far does not mean cherry or perpendicular or deck-chair. It is kers-pontifutaysh, technically ‘központifűtés’: central heating.

Nez – nayz (look!); minden jól – meen-den yol (very good); természetesen – tair-meseteshen (naturally); szeretlek – sair-etleck (I love you); nodgyon édes! – nodj-yon ey-esh! (very sweet); yoy de édes! – yoy de eydesh! (oh, so sweet!); yoy (multipurpose exclamation for use particularly when delighted, or surprised, or worried, or relieved, or sad, or exhausted, or in pain)

Hungarian, as everybody knows, is extraordinarily difficult. No other language will help you understand it; its sole linguistic link is to the Finno-Ugric family, and even this ismerely to the extent that if someone is speaking Finnish in another room with the door shut, the inflections will, apparently, sound faintly Hungarian. 

Although my grandparents spoke Hungarian to each other and my mother, at its peak my vocabulary never encompassed more than forty words and phrases, none of which I ever learned to spell. Indeed, it barely occurred to me that they could be spelled. Finding them in Hungarian dictionaries has proved difficult: to me they are simply sounds, the background commentary during their weekly visits and our holidays together. I am as astonished as you are by the spellings.

Igen – ee-gen (yes); nem – nem (no); egy – edj (one); kettő – ker-ter (two); három – ha-rom (three); négy – nedj (four); öt – ert (five); hat – hot (six); hét – hate (seven); nyolc – nyolts (eight); kilenc – kee-lents (nine); tíz – tees (ten)

As a determined and conscientious child, I persuaded my grandparents to teach me the numbers one to ten, which I mastered with colossal effort; they seemed proud of my triumph but oddly reluctant to tell me more. Some of their peers forced Hungarian classes and folk-dance lessons on their own grandchildren; not mine. They were ambivalent about Hungary, for reasons they did not discuss. Yet, because I miss them and the sound of their voices, I have once or twice heard a tourist or pensioner speaking in that inimitable accent and have rushed to impress them with my knowledge. ‘Listen!’ I say. ‘I can do numbers!’

They never seemed quite as impressed as I had hoped.

Macska – motch-ko (cat) 

Despite my linguistic ignorance I am, at least in one word, bilingual, even actively Hungarian. Whenever I see a cat, I think ‘motchko’, although my grandparents lived in a flat and did not, as far as I know, like cats.

Köszönöm szépen – kers-enem say-pen (thank you very much) 

My grandmother was fantastically generous: not only with money, or accommodation, or food but also in other, more complicated, ways. She went nowhere without multi-purpose presents: handkerchiefs; glasses cases; chocolates and ‘sweeties’; small Czech crystal animals. ‘I just give little necklet to Mr X for his vife,’ she would say; she left a brooch or a bracelet ‘for chambermaid’ beside every hotel bed.

When she died we found a vast supply of individually-wrapped tights and gloves and horrible souvenirs, still waiting to be distributed. We also discovered stolen ashtrays, crockery from restaurants she liked and hundreds of biros from neighbouring banks, some with their weighted pen-holder still chained to them.

Popsi – pop-shi (bum); popó – po-po (diminutive; little bum) 

As the only grandchildren of an elderly Hungarian woman, our bottoms were not our own. Our grandmother and great-aunts were obsessed with them, pinching and patting them at every opportunity; we would go upstairs protecting them with our hands, usually in vain. They wanted flesh, the old ladies; it was how they measured our health and youth and, I suspect, the passing of their own.

Yet, while startlingly forthright on this and other physical matters – ‘vy do you hide your lovely bosom?’; ‘still your period do not start?’; ‘don’t you vant to look pretty?’ – on most physical matters they were silent. Hungarians, at least my Hungarians, if that is what they were, do not swear, or argue in public, or ever, in any circumstance, refer to lavatorial or sexual issues. Ever. My grandmother once became completely hysterical with laughter and embarrassment when I asked her the word for ‘buttocks’. 


‘No, that’s a baby word. There must be another.’

‘No! There is not. Really!’

But I insisted, until at last, quite beside herself, she spluttered, ‘Popó’; the rudest word I ever heard her say.

Kavitchka – kaa-vitchkó (little coffee); pongyola – pon-dyuló (dressing gown) 

My Hungarian is domestic. I do not know the words for ‘sea’ or ‘train’ or ‘England’, although I have recently discovered that walesi herceg means ‘Prince of Wales’. If I overheard Hungarians having a sensible conversation, I would understand not a word. All I do know emerged during evenings in the grandparental flat, finding their slippers, fetching orange juice from their minuscule kitchen with the fridge on legs and the persistent scent of paprika. Consequently I have absorbed their bedtime routine to the point where ‘to pondula’ has become a normal-seeming verb.

Palsascinta – pol-oshintó (pancake); paprika – pup-rikosh (paprika); m’ad artej – mod-arté (îles flottantes or floating islands, literally bird’s milk)

Most of my vocabulary refers to food. My grandmother cooked like someone in a fairy story. Well into her eighties she would work a six-day week, buy food, drive sixty miles to our house and cook, for example, sour-cherry soup, stuffed peppers, pancakes filled with cream cheese and lemon rind and raisins, and chicken paprikás to heat up for tomorrow, and then drive home again, while I moaned about having to clean out the guinea pig. She had a nokedli machine, a box with a grater base and a handle into which she would pour batter and extrude little dumplings or noodles into a pan of boiling water below. She had a mincer, and it’s her meatloaf and stuffed cabbage I long for now, like grandchildren the world over: hungering for the cheap and labour-intensive food they believe themselves too busy to recreate.

Szervusz – sare-vus (hello); kezét csókolom – kez-et choc-olom (children’s greeting to older people, literally ‘I kiss your hand’)

As pensioners, as befits a people whose greeting means ‘I am at your service’, my grandparents retained a heartbreaking level of formality. They dressed up to go anywhere: the dentist, or the cinema; they ate fruit, including bananas, with a knife and fork. In rare circumstances of extreme relaxation, such as the seaside, my grandfather would wear a vest under his shirt and a cardigan on top, lest chest hair should be revealed. But whereas the English are, or were, merely polite, my grandparents’ standards of grooming and manners, even applied to small children, were exhausting. Young people were expected to show their elders the greatest respect, well beyond the courtliness men had to show to women. I still offer my seat to anyone who will let me but, not having grown up in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, other rules remain hazy: should I stand to greet people my age? When an older man approaches a doorway, who lets whom through?

Buta – boo-tó (stupid); csúnya – choon-yó (ugly); gyenge – jen-ge (weak)

This is not to say that they were always polite. Under cover of Hungarian, they would comment insultingly on the outfits and characters of relatives, friends and passers-by until they wept with laughter; it was their favourite sport. This went disastrously wrong at the Hungarian Bazaar, an annual event at Porchester Baths in West London, when my grandmother forgot that she could be overheard and understood. Many grudges must have been born that day; not one will have been forgotten.


Hungarian inflections, once absorbed, cannot be forgotten. Mogadon, for example, sounds so silly that I assumed it was a Hungarian word well into adulthood. Now, although my grandfather has been dead for twenty years and my grandmother for six, I still hear, and want to say, certain words in their accent: mog-nólyó; mim-ósó; com-putair; Vosh-ington; rid-iculos; Vort-a-loo; Coll-edonió Road, and, most of all, von-darefool and tair-ible, which was their response to everything, from an unflattering hair cut to regicide. 

When asked ‘where are you from?’ which happens surprisingly often, I hesitate. Despite my strange pre-war BBC accent, my passport, how can I claim to be English when my grandparents spoke as they did? And what do I call them, if not Hungarian?