A road sign in both the current (Roman) and ancient Hungarian scripts welcomes visitors to the town of Vonyarcvashegy near Keszthely—the latter of which, also known as rovásrás or “Hungarian runes,” is only used ceremonially or as a symbol of national pride.
Hungarians are justifiably proud of their language, which is distinctive, deep, nuanced, and highly expressive (Magyar pronounced “mahdyar”). It is a Uralic language related to the Mansi and Khanty of western Siberia. It is further subdivided into the Finno-Ugric languages, which include Finnish and Estonian; it is not linked to any of its Indo-European language family neighbors, which include Slavic, Germanic, and Romance languages. Although they are related to Finnish and Estonian, they are not mutually understandable. Aside from Finnish, it is regarded as one of the most difficult languages for English speakers to learn due to the drastically diverse vocabulary, complex syntax, and pronunciation. As a result, it is not unexpected that an English speaker visiting Hungary understands none of what is written or said in Hungarian. After becoming a Christian country in the year 1000, Hungary did adopt the Latin alphabet.
Most English-speakers find most aspects of the written language difficult to understand, including a number of unusual sounds like gy (often pronounced like the d in “during” in British English) and (vaguely like a long English e as in me with rounded lips), as well as agglutinative grammar that results in frightening-sounding words like eltéveszthetetlen(unmistakable) and viszontlátá (goodbye). Furthermore, the letters may be pronounced differently than in English: the “s” always has a “sh” sound, the “sz” always has the “s” sound, and the “c” is pronounced like the English “ts,” to mention a few. On the plus side, it uses the familiar Roman alphabet (although with many accents) and, unlike English, has almost complete phonemic spelling. This implies that if you learn how to pronounce the 44 letters of the alphabet as well as the digraphs, you will be able to correctly pronounce nearly every Hungarian phrase. Misinterpretation or complete misunderstanding may result from a single change in pronunciation, vowel length, or emphasis. Because the emphasis is always on the first syllable of each word, all the goodies on top of the vowels are pronunciation signals rather than stress indications, like in Spanish. Diphthongs are almost non-existent in Hungarian (except adopted foreign words). One of the many profound grammatical differences between Hungarian and most European languages is that the verb “to have” in the sense of possession does not exist or is not required – the indicator of possession is attached to the possessed noun rather than the possessor, e.g. Kutya = dog, Kutyám = my dog, Van egy kutyám = I have a dog, or literally “Is one dog-my”. Hungarian has a highly precise case system, including grammatical, locative, oblique, and less productive cases; for example, a noun used as a subject has no suffix, but when used as a direct object, the letter “t” is added as a suffix, with a vowel if required. One advantage of Hungarian is that there is no grammatical gender, even with the pronouns “he” or “she,” which are both “”, so there is no need to worry about the random Der, Die, Das kind of stuff that happens in German; “the” is just “a.” In Hungarian, like in Asian languages, the family name comes before the given name. The list of distinctions is endless, including the definite and indefinite conjugational systems, vowel harmony, and so on. Attempting anything beyond the fundamentals will win you a lot of respect since so few non-native Hungarians bother to study any of this tiny, apparently tough, yet interesting language.
Because English is increasingly required in schools, addressing individuals in their teens, twenties, or lower thirties increases the likelihood that they will speak English well enough to assist you.
However, because of Hungary’s history, the older generation had less access to foreign language instruction, thus your odds are lower, and very low for those over 60. A handful of Hungarians know Russian, which was mandatory during the Communist period, but most Hungarians want to forget it, thus use it only as a last option. German is also extremely helpful in Hungary: it is nearly as commonly spoken as English, and almost universally so near the Austrian border, particularly in Sopron, which is legally bilingual and has extensive connections with Vienna owing to its proximity to the Vienna suburban trains. In these situations, and with elderly people in general, German will almost always go you far further than English.
In Hungary, bigger towns with universities, such as Budapest, Debrecen, Miskolc, and Szeged, have a far higher chance of finding someone speaking a foreign language (mainly English and German). In remote regions, the chances are much lower, especially among young individuals.