Once more on Hungarian Word Order?

This is another attempt at getting English-thinking minds around the apparent chaos that is the Hungarian word order. Here are my previous attempts:
On Emphasis and Word Order in Hungarian
Structure and word order of a Hungarian sentence

Please note, I am trying to keep it simple this time.

Let’s start with a simple sentence:

  • Peter is reading a book at the library.

That is a normal English word order. Subject-Verb-DirectObject-Location(WhateverItIs).

So, how do we ask about specific elements of this sentence? We have specific question words, aimed at different elements. Who, what, where, etc. And there are elements that need more complicated phrases: what is he doing, etc.

So, for example, how do we ask about the direct object?

Very simple: we take our sentence above, and replace the direct object with the corresponding question word. And, of course, we replace the period with a question mark:

  • Peter is reading a WHAT at the library?


Noooo, this is not right. We also have to change the word order:

  • WHAT is Peter reading at the library?

Now, that’s better.

How about asking about the location?

  • Peter is reading a book WHERE?

No, we need to change the word order:

  • WHERE is Peter reading a book?

Yes, that's it.

But what did I just do?

I picked the part of the sentence that I am most interested in, and placed it at the front. Moreover, I placed a verb right after the question word. Or I placed the question word in front of a verb.
In other words, my question word, the word that I focus on, the word that gets the most emphasis in the sentence, is placed right in front of the verb, and these two are placed at the front of the sentence.
So, we have the topic of the question at the front of the sentence, in a very well emphasized position, right in front of the verb.

But.... But, hey! Isn’t that just exactly what the Hungarian word order is all about???

Well, not quite exactly, but yes, that is the basic idea. Only Hungarian takes it further. Much further. About a hundred steps further. Hungarian can use this concept anywhere, not only in questions. And not only at the front of a sentence. The verb can be anywhere in the sentence and have the same effect on the word in front of it. And there are many other factors, as well, which I do not want to go into here.

But the basic idea is the same.

And that is probably why I have found it very useful to pose questions to the sentences in this course when trying to explain the weird word order. Because a question will easily point out the focus in the sentence, both in Hungarian and in English. That is why I would say, for example:

“Peter a könyvtárban olvas egy könyvet.” is a good answer to the question:
"Where is Peter reading a book?"

"Peter egy könyvet olvas a könyvtárban." is a good answer to the question:
"What is Peter reading in the library?"

See, the answer to the question word lies in the word that is placed in front of the verb in the Hungarian sentence. And the question word in the English question is also in front of a verb.

Of course, life is not that simple. I am just trying to point out some basic similarities between question sentences in English and the general idea of word order in Hungarian. If you think a little bit about how English question sentences are formed, and why, that may help you on the long way of fully understanding Hungarian word order.

Good luck!

August 8, 2017

  • 1044

Very good simple explanation. I'll have to think about this question method and practice it a bit, thx.

August 8, 2017

I've been working with a tutor once a week, to practice actually speaking Hungarian, which is the only part of language learning that I don't get at all in online courses. Anyway, she is trying to get me to pay better attention to word order. I know how to find the focal part of a Hungarian sentence when reading it (at least when it comes to Duolingo sentences), but as yet I haven't been able to create a sentence that has the right order for the emphasis I want it to have. Anyway, she tells me that the most important part of a sentence comes at the beginning. Nothing about it coming right before the main verb, as I've been learning for the past year here on Duo. If I want to emphasize something, I put it at the beginning of the sentence, this is what she's telling me. She's a native speaker, btw, grew up in Hungary, etc. So I don't know how to reconcile those two concepts.

August 8, 2017

Well, the Hungarian word order is topic first, then everything else. But that topic is not necessarily specially emphasized. The most emphasized position is, usually, definitely in front of the verb. The topic of the sentence and the focal point is not necessarily the same thing. I am not the only one saying this, many people are saying this, I came to this conclusion on my own while trying to help people in this course. So that was my learning I got from this course. But actual language professionals will back me up, rest assured.
I am not aware of the qualifications of your tutor. She may or may not realize this emphasis thing. This is not something that is taught in school in Hungary, as far as I am aware. It is such a natural part of the language, it comes all too naturally for native speakers. One can spend all his/her native Hungarian life without ever realizing this. I was not aware of this, at all, whatsoever, until I started answering questions here in this course. Yes, one has to actually think about it to realize that that is what is going on "behind the scenes". Feel free to show these comments to your tutor, she will surely recognize and realize what is going on here.
Just one example:

"Holnap az iskolában én fogok verset mondani."

Emphasis on me, "én". The first part, "holnap az iskolában", just sets the scene, the topic. Of course, it has some emphasis, but the main emphasis is on what is in front of the verb.

Btw, if you re-read my first link, On Emphasis and Word Order in Hungarian, the first point I mention there is that words at the beginning have emphasis. That was my natural instinct. Then came the realization about the verbs and their effect on the words in front of them. And then the preverbs and all the other crazy stuff. All of which comes naturally, subconsciously, to a native speaker.
My other suggestion is checking out Wikipedia on Hungarian, and Hungarian Grammar. There is lots of useful stuff there.

Anyway, good luck with your speaking exercises, that is certainly the best way to learn.

August 8, 2017

If I may, for my two cents, I think I have come to the same conclusion (with your help! thanks:) ). "Topic" and "focus" are two parts of the sentence which themselves both receive emphasis of some kind.

The "topic", the beginning of the sentence, receives emphasis because you are telling the listener what the sentence is about. As if the listener must first go retrieve some file in storage so they can understand what's coming next. So I think it's acceptable to say the "most important" part of the sentence goes first.

The "focus" tells the listener what is "new information" to them. This can be different than the "topic" because typically the listener already knows something about the topic; the "focus" before the verb, is what the listener doesn't know about the topic. So you can also call this the "most important" part of the sentence. It's not inconsistent. It depends on what you consider to be important.

I do not think it is even that different in English: we can put the "focus" first in the sentence if we choose to:

  • Peter is reading a book in the library.
  • A book is read in the library by Peter.
  • In the library is Peter reading a book.

Although this is not the "recommended" way to add emphasis in English.

August 9, 2017

Yes, thank you, I totally agree. :)
There are certainly similar ways in English where the topic is placed first in a sentence. The one I see most often has to do with time:

  • Tomorrow we are going to the library.

It is as if somebody had asked

"What about tomorrow? Tell us about tomorrow.".

And the answer would be

"As for tomorrow, well, let me tell you about tomorrow... What I can tell you about tomorrow is that we are going to the library (to study more Hungarian, of course)."

So, clearly, "tomorrow" is kind of the topic of the sentence, but the focus is on the new information that we learn about tomorrow.

The difference, again, is that Hungarian takes this concept much further, with much more freedom.

"And what about the beach? You promised us to take us to the beach!"

"The beach? We are going there the day after tomorrow!"

I don't feel comfortable putting "beach" at the front of the sentence. But Hungarian has no problem with it:

"A strandra holnapután megyünk!" - To the beach we are going the day after tomorrow.

The topic is the beach, and the focus is on the new information: when we are going.

Thanks, Joeintheory, for your pocket change! :) I will try to piggy-back on your continued very useful comments on those relative clauses soon. In my mind, the same concept of emphasis and word order is working there, behind the scenes. My theory is forming... stay tuned.

August 9, 2017

Well, you have a point. Native speakers of a language aren't always aware of the grammar rules that govern their speech, and wouldn't be able to articulate them. As a speaker of American English, I know this well. :) I don't know what my tutor's background is as far as formal training in Hungarian. Also, we are working with very, very simple sentences - much simpler than the ones we have on Duo. This is because, while I can read a more complicated sentence if I know the vocabulary, I can't produce a spoken sentence off the top of my head that has more than a few words. So maybe it's just that because the sentences are so short and simple, there aren't many slots for the main verb or the coveted position in front of it. :)

August 8, 2017

Yes, exactly. :) The sentences in this course are waaaaay too complicated and sometimes excruciatingly painful, even for Hungarians. This is not how people usually talk.
If you start from the very basics, you will slowly learn the simplest word orders and can actually start to speak simple sentences. And when you are ready to move on to more complicated sentences, you can expect a few aha moments as all the things you have learned here suddenly fall into place. :)

August 9, 2017

Hi Bastette

I am struggling with the same problems that you are. I just got into trouble with moving a sentence around for emphasis and incidentally changed the conjugation from definite to indefinite which changed the verb ending, as vvsey pointed out when I asked about when why my sentence was wrong.

So my problem is not just grammar, But like you, a lack of adult vocabulary at my immediate disposal.

One thing that is really helping me, because I have rare opportunities to speak Hungarian, is reading to text in Hungarian using the Hungarian keyboard.

Apparently my accent is pretty good because Google understands it in Magyar with correct spellings and accent marks most of the time. It is important to speak to Google carefully and slowly, enunciating the words. (It is the same in English).Afterwards I go back to check what was written and correct the mistakes if I know what they are. LOL

Because I was not a native speaker I had to learn English in school and spend a lot of time with grammar. I don’t know about now but in the old days we had to learn to parse sentences. In high school I joined the school newspaper and my teacher was very big on making all of us increase our vocabularies. By the time I started college I was exempted from freshman English. I majored in English and got a postgraduate degree. So I feel very confident that English is really my adopted native language which I know better than many native speakers.

The reason I mentioning this is because in my trips to Hungary I have found that there are so many different accents and speech, just like here in the states, and that many people don’t speak correctly. So it’s very important who you talk to if they are teaching you Hungarian grammar.

I think vvsey is brilliant in his analysis and and understanding of Hungarian grammar and is great at explaining the rules. There are others here who are doing a great job as well: peter kristoff, Andreas305. RyagonIV, jzsuzsi and others who are not always active here.

March 19, 2018

So if the rule of thumb is that the thing to be emphasized should be placed right before the verb...

  • do you emphasize the verb itself? e.g. "Peter is READING a book in the library" (as opposed to, say, burning it)?

  • ...what's the most natural order in a sentence without a verb, such as a sentence which exhibits copula dropping with the third-person? I assume that if the subject is a pronoun or a proper noun, then the subject would always come first (so Péter okos not Okos Péter, and Ő okos not Okos ő), but otherwise is there a preferred order? For example, are A fiúk okosok? and Okosok a fiúk? interchangeable, or is there a subtle difference? (EDIT: Now that I think about it, I'm guessing the first emphasizes A fiúk and the second emphasizes okosok - right?)

  • there a completely neutral order that doesn't emphasize anything?

August 11, 2017

Well, if you read my other articles (links above), including the comments, most of these questions are answered there.

Everything is not coded in the word order. Stress and intonation have a role. You can read the same sentence several ways, emphasizing different parts of it. Just like in English. But there are some things that come directly from the word order. And there usually is a most likely intonation.

The most visible sign of an emphasized verb is when it has a preverb attached. You can be positive that it is emphasized.
If it does not have a preverb at all, then there is room for interpretation.
"PÉTER olvassa a könyvet."
"Péter OLVASSA a könyvet."
Both alternatives are possible. In the latter case, the potential emphasized position in front of the verb is not utilized. It is blank. That is possible. You can also place the verb at the very front of the sentence:
"Olvassa Péter a könyvet."
There are always options.

The very basic natural word order is SVO. But it gets complicated very early on, because Hungarian also loves to place the topic first. Read here for an excellent discussion:
You can also check wikipedia for the same.

Whether the predicate is a verb or not, it does not make much of a difference in Hungarian. It would be more accurate to describe the word order as SPO - Subject-Predicate-Object.
The only major difference I can see between a verb and a non-verb predicate is that a non-verb predicate can not have a direct object, quite naturally. But that does not affect the word order.

From another perspective, it is topic first, then comment, ie. information about the topic. Well, very often, the topic is the subject itself. And the predicate (verb) usually tells us something about the subject. That is when we are back to the basic SVO.

"A fiúk okosak" vs. "Okosak a fiúk" - these are pretty much the same. Yes, there is a difference in emphasis. Or you could say the topic is different. But the rest is up to interpretation and stressing the sentences in various ways.
"A fiúk okosak" - seems to be the most neutral and natural word order. The subject is, by default, in front of the predicate (we say verb everywhere but we could more precisely say predicate instead). But we may choose to put a special emphasis on "fiúk", and then it would mean that the boys are the ones who are smart, not some other people. Or, if we wanted to definitely express this special emphasis in writing, we would need to re-phrase the sentence:
"A fiúk azok, akik okosak." - or something like this.
Or, if we included this simple sentence in a contrasting two-clause sentence, then the emphasis would be immediately obvious:
"A fiúk okosak, nem a férfiak."
"It is the boys who are smart, not the men."

The most basic, neutral word order is SVO (SPO). But you can always mis-emphasize even the most neutral sentence - just like in English.

The beauty of it all is that, when you have a simple-looking SVO sentence, you can keep wondering whether the word in front of the verb is there because:

  • it is the topic, hence first position
  • it is placed in front of the verb for emphasis
  • it is only there because of the neutral word order
  • or any combination thereof. :)

Btw, you guys have been dropped in deeeeep water with this course. This whole word order and emphasis thing should have been introduced with very simple S-V sentences like "A kutya ugat", "A macska nyávog", "Az ég kék", a "A fű zöld", etc., and then, gradually, new elements could have been brought in. Well, take this course as but one special tool in your toolbox. Hopefully you have other resources available to learn this amazing language.

August 11, 2017

"Peter is reading a WHAT in the library?!"

"A kindle."

So, clearly "what" can go in the middle. Of course that wasn't what you meant but it was the first thing that came to mind. :)

August 28, 2017

Sadly Duo (and occasional google searches) are my only resources for Hungarian.

August 28, 2017

You can find books on-line, even in google, I have found a few myself. Also, there are various resources, here is a collection:

August 28, 2017

Yes, of course. :) As I said, I was trying to keep it simple, and to the point. :)

August 28, 2017

Genius teaching, vvsey! I had not seen this before.

March 19, 2018
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