One of the very best aspects of Hungarian, for the ordinary
English person, is that it sounds hilarious.
So many words resemble something you might make up to talk to your cat, or
a particularly sweet baby who has not yet reached the age of reason: ongy
bongy. Gorrle borrle nogorogobot. Hoobedoobe! Dibbloblob.
Perhaps my polyglot grandparents were disappointed by my failure to learn Hungarian. Perhaps they were relieved; it meant not only that I was a child of twentieth-century Britain, not tied to their dark and complicated homeland, but also that they could discuss me in my presence. Unless they were saying that I was very sweet, or stupid, I couldn’t understand a word.
I did, however, learn to amuse them. They were extremely easily insulted, these proud and touchy former residents of the Austro-Hungarian empire but, oddly, they were prepared to laugh at their mother tongue – oh, how they laughed. I discovered that the few words I knew could be combined in a range of fairly meaningless sentences, as if I were ordering food, all of which made them weep tears of – I hope – hilarity. ‘Hello. Thank you. Three potatoes, central-heating. Good soup. Pancake. Four tomatoes. Thank you very much.’
Tomatoes figure heavily in Hungarian cookery, almost as much as paprika. Theirs is the only flag I know which reflects its country’s cookery – red, plus white (sour cream, curd cheese, icing-sugar) and green (dill, mainly. And the odd bit of parsley).
So – learn paradicsom. You won’t starve if you’re ever in rural Hungary. And, better still, you’ll have the power to amuse.