As the grandchild of TransCarpathian Ruthenian former subjects of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, who were born in what is now the Ukraine, learned their sums in Russian, spoke Hungarian among themselves and considered themselves Czech, I grew up knowing only the smallest and most confused details about where my maternal grandparents came from, or the language they spoke to each other. It was only after their deaths that I realised that the very few words I thought I knew – dressing-gown, central heating – were not spelt as I had assumed.
I also realised how little I knew about Central European history. When I began to write my fourth novel, which became Almost English, I flailed around briefly in the history of Hungary and the Carpathian mountains, before realising that what I wanted to write about was the lives of Central Europeans in England, and their silence about the past. But in order to describe their world, particularly from the viewpoint of my English-born protagonists, I would have to include the odd word of Hungarian and, as I only knew forty words, my choice was limited.
Hungarian isn't a language one picks up easily. To English-speakers, it is impenetrable, unconnected to anything one recognises, and the pronounciations are, frankly, hilarious. So, as a public service, from today I will be posting weekly in an attempt to educate my fellow Anglophones in such vital words and phrases as ‘I kiss your hand’ and ‘pancake’.
Good luck, my little dumplings.