I’m starting to understand why reading comprehension in Hungarian is so hard for me.
The word eszem in Hungarian could either be the first person present tense definite* conjugation of to eat (as in “I eat”) or the first person possessive conjugation of mind (as in “my mind”).
The word kértek could either be the second person plural present tense indefinite conjugation of to ask for (as in “you all ask”) or the third person plural past tense indefinite conjugation of the same word (as in “they asked”). And sentences generally don’t specify the subject.
The word jártak, from the verb járni meaning “to walk”, could either be the second person plural present tense indefinite conjugation (“you all walk”) or the third person plural past tense indefinite conjugation (“they walk”). **
A word like apanak might trick you into thinking that it’s a verb in third person plural present tense indefinite conjugation, but actually, the -nak ending is the dative case, and the word means “to apa“, or to father.
So the only way to know which conjugation you’re dealing with is to understand the context of the words around it. And every sentence requires many on-the-fly calculations, of which I probably only know about half.
Though I have far more grammatical clues than I did when I first started studying the language, I still need a bigger vocabulary before I can start putting the conjugation rules and the meanings together to understand a single sentence. (And word order…let’s not even go there.)
Take the headline from this article from Cink.hu.
My thought process: Okay, Az elefánt is the elephant, obvi. I don’t know what száj is, but I know that the -jal ending means “with”. I don’t know what szopik is, but the -ik ending makes me think it’s a verb. Viszont is like the first part of visszontlatasra, which means goodbye. Nem lehet is can not. Úgy, not to be confused with új or ujj even though they have similar pronunciation, means “so”, I think. Megfejni is a verb of some sort, and I know the prefix meg- indicates completion, while the -ni ending indicates infinitive form. The , mint a is a subordinate conjunction equivalent to “as” or “than” and is used for comparison. The last word is a noun in object form, which I know because of the a before the word and the -t at the end of the word. But I don’t know what it is.
So I have:
The elephant ?? with possible verb, back? can not so infinitive verb than the noun object.
And that is all I got from that.
Google Translate tells me this sentence means:
The elephant mouth sucks, but it can not be milked like a cow.
And this is how I feel about that:
*Definite vs. Indefinite – When the verb does not apply to a specific object (I want a cup), you use the indefinite. When the verb applies to a specific object (I want the/that cup), you use the definite.
**My friend Eszpee points out that the second person plural present tense indefinite of járni is jártOk, not jártAk. But the rule works for front vowel harmonic verbs. Yes, you also have to worry about vowel harmonics.