How Similar Are Finnish and Hungarian?

When I was working my way up the Finnish ladder, I got comments from lots of people saying that it was similar to Hungarian, and interestingly when learning Hungarian now, I don’t get the reverse as often (or ever, actually, come to think of it).

So here comes the pieces you have all been waiting for, answering definitively once and for all how similar these two languages really are.

suomi magyar

My Gut Feeling:

I usually tell people that there are grammatical similarities and a handful of words in common between them (not also to mention the similarities in pronunciation and ESPECIALLY syllable stress), but that’s about it.

The Finno-Ugric Languages, which include Finnish, Estonian, Hungarian and the Sami Languages, do include a number of similarities:

  • A lot of cases (in the double digits in all of them, their dirty secret is that most of these cases are literally straight-up prepositions, which for some reason remains a secret to everyone except for those who actually, y’know, study these languages!)
  • No genuine future tense (use auxiliary verbs instead, much like English uses “I will” or “I shall” as opposed to verb alterations undertaken in a language like French. Some languages, like Estonian, use the present to indicate the future with no changes).
  • No he/she distinction (true in all of the Finno-Ugric Languages).
  • No verb indicate “to have” (a lot of languages in the world are like this, in Finnish you use “there is upon me a book” and in Hungarian you would use something like “there is my book” to indicate “I have a book”)
  • The syllable stress is on the first syllable. Always. This actually makes spoken comprehension LOADS easier!

There may be others that I forgot about.

But there are still a handful of words that resemble each other, not also to mention grammatical concepts that exist in one and not the other.

To say “I don’t know” in Hungarian, you would say “nem tudom”. The Finnish equivalent would be “en tiedä”. You can tell how similar these two phrases are just by looking at them.

But if you are expecting an advantage in one of these two languages because you know the other one, keep this in mind:

Finnish and Hungarian have a lot of grammatical similarities, but few words in common.

However, one odd trait that both of them actually do share is influence from Germanic Languages that rubbed off on both (Swedish idioms and loan-words in Finnish, German expressions translated literally into Hungarian. One such example of the later is that you would wish someone a “beautiful thanks” in both German and in Hungarian).

Interestingly Estonian AND Northern Sami ALSO have this trait (Estonian from German, Danish and Swedish and Northern Sami from Norwegian / Swedish). Your neighbors really do rub off on you, suffice it to say.

What’s more, Finnish and Hungarian also share a sense of vowel harmony as well.

What is vowel harmony, you ask?

Well, in Finnish there is a rule that states that all words (excluding a handful of loanwords and proper names from other languages) may contain vowels from one of the two sets of vowels:

There are front vowels: ä ö y

There are back vowels: a o u

And there are ones that can go in any word: e i

Words in Finnish that contain front vowel words MAY NOT contain back vowels (unless it is a compound word with multiple pieces in it). Likewise, back vowel words may not contain front vowels in them. Also, if a word contains only e’s or i’s in terms of vowels, it is a front vowel word.

This means that suffixes in Finnish take two forms, usually (unless these suffixes only contain e’s and i’s in their vowel makeup): you put the front vowel version at the end of a front-vowel word, and a back-vowel version at the end of a back-vowel word. The last noun determines which suffix you add (this is important with hyper-long compound words).

To turn a verb (or any non-question word) into a question, you put –ko or –kö at the end. Olet – you are. Oletko? – are you? En – I am not (or, more accurately I … not, where … is a verb stem put after the word en) enkö? – am I not?

In Hungarian, vowel harmony functions in the same way, and suffixes (including case endings, like in Finnish) will change their forms depending on the vowel makeup of the noun.

This is really funny to see in my Hungarian-translated Facebook, because the translation will determine the vowel harmony status of your name (and the names of your friends) and apply suffixes accordingly.(The Finnish translation worded things, last I checked, so as to avoid declining the names of people or places. Hungarian also avoids this when possible).

In the case of Hungarian (no pun intended), the same rules appear but with more instances of words that appear to violate vowel harmony.

Like in Finnish, suffixes appear in two (or sometimes THREE) forms, depending on the vowel makeup of the word. Like in Finnish, Hungarian has front and back vowels. Like in Finnish, Hungarian only factors in the last element in regards to what variety of suffixes go on the word as a whole.

So, now here comes a big question: If I know Hungarian or Finnish, how much will it help with the other one?

Answer: many of the grammatical concepts will align very, very well. In learning how to put words together, you’ll have déjà vu significantly often. You may even encounter words in common here and there.

But don’t expect to understand a significant amount of the other language, and concerning mutual intelligibility? Forget it. Because Finnish and Hungarian are as closely related as English and Albanian. Sure, there might be some occasional things in common, and they are distantly-related members of the same language family, as well as having similar influences  from nations that spoke similar languages, but aside from that, expect only the smallest fraction of a head-start in regards to vocabulary, and a significant head-start in understanding the grammar (even though the suffixes in their makeup have no resemblance to each other).

Have you had an experience learning any Finno-Ugric Language? Let me know in the comments!


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