"Beautiful, white birds are flying across the sea."

Translation:Szép, fehér madarak repülnek át a tengeren.

February 3, 2017

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Why is the order "repülnek át" obligatory here?


The reason is that there is no article at the beginning. We talk about Szép, fehér madarak and not A szép, fehér madarak.

These are possible:

  1. A szép, fehér madarak átrepülnek a tengeren. "The beautiful, white birds are flying across the sea." (quite neutral word order)

  2. A szép, fehér madarak repülnek át a tengeren. "It is the beautiful, white birds that are flying across the sea." (not neutral word order, the white birds are emphasized )

  3. Szép, fehér madarak repülnek át a tengeren. It is like: Some beautiful, white birds are flying across the sea. (again, the word order is quite neutral. )

But why the difference?

The word order is usually Topic, focus, verb, others. In 1: topic: the birds. focus: they are flying. In 2: topic: (empty) focus: the birds . In 3: topic: (empty) focus: some birds.

The topic of the sentence generally should not be without an article. We like if the topic is definite, or at least known.

If the verb+preverb is in one peace, átrepülnek, then the verb is in the focus. Therefore what comes before should be the topic. But the topic should not be without an article.

Note: "Kati bemegy a házba." is good. No article here, but a proper name, Kati, is definite by itself.

  • 1385

To add a little bit to jzsuzsi's answer, it's crucial that the topic and the focus have different properties. Since the topic expresses what the sentence is about or some known information, we can associate with something we have in mind (a referent). For the focus, this need not be the case, it can express new information, something that we haven't discussed yet.

In Hungarian, as in English, the definite article expresses that something is identifiable and unique in a given context: if I say the beautiful, white birds I expect that my addressees can identify the group of birds I am talking about. In this sense, they are known in the context and identifiable.

In this sentence, there is no definite article, and the most salient reading of szép, fehér madarak is that this is any group of beautiful, white birds — if I say this, I don't expect my addressee to know which particular group of birds I'm referring to, I'm giving a description of what I see in general. In other words, the subject of the sentence is indefinite and not identifiable.

Such indefinite phrases providing new information have to be in focus. And when a verb with a particle like át (átrepül) has a focus preceding it, the át flips to the other side of the verb and the focus takes its place. For preverb+verb phrases, we can think of the preverb or particle being the focus when it appears just before the verb.


Topics have to be identifiable: they have to refer to something and don't express new information. Therefore, when the subject of a sentence is new and not identifiable, it is more likely to be a focus. For verbs with preverbs (or particles), this means that the preverb moves to behind the verb.


Thank you both for the brilliant explanation!


...and how do we know when to use which word order?


I thought "repülnek át" is used in a QUESTION and where there is a NEGATION (...nem repülnek át...)
and that "átrepülnek" is used in a STATEMENT, as in the above sentence "Beautiful, white birds are flying across the sea". Therefore "Szép, fehér madarak átrepülnek a téren" can surely be accepted?

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Very good point about the question. One reason you might associate this order with a question is that in questions, the question word (for example ki ‘who’ or mi ‘what’) is the focus, that is the new information we want to find out something about. That's why the preverb (át in this case) which is otherwise in focus moves to behind the verb.

But this doesn't just happen in questions — the new information in a declarative sentence (a statement) is also a focus and thus appears in the same position as the preverb or particle. And just like in questions, the preverb moves to behind the verb.


This is the question which avoids the use of folott. I used it but it wasn't accepted and yet it appears in the model answer to other very similar questions. Now, like the others, I'm troubled by word order. We see that, sometimes, (not often), the preverb becomes a post verb and in this case it's repulnek at instead of atrepulnek. Why? If it's to do with emphasis, I'm still lost. I can see no reason why the fact of flying or the fact that the direction is across the sea should be more important than the other.


Szép, fehér madarak repülnek át a tenger fölött/felett. is also correct.


I get that but why repulnek at ? sorry about lack of accents in these posts

  • 1385

át provides what across provides in English. Szép, fehér madarak repülnek a tenger fölött. is a fine sentence, but it means ‘Beautiful, white birds are flying over the sea.’ With át, we get ‘Beautiful, white birds are flying across the sea.’ or maybe ‘Beautiful, white birds are crossing above the sea.’


yes, I get that but..why not atrepulnek, as in previous sentences ?


Could anyone explsin please. What is the difference between "átrepülnek" and "repülnek át"?


why o why is atrepulnek not accepted ? I note that others have asked the same but no explanation has been forthcoming !

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