I’m sure many of us, finding ourselves in a foreign-language environment, and using the elementary knowledge we have of the language – which to our mind ‘isn’t bad’ – have been able to get a pretty good idea of what those around us are talking about. At the level preceding this, the foreign language is so new to us we are extremely surprised at how similar it is to our own native language! They use so many of our words, and the names of objects and people are so familiar… Our languages must be related somehow, even if they belong to completely different language families!
This is how my brother Peter must have felt many years ago when he was still at pre-elementary level in his Hungarian. Peter and his family were staying with us at our home in Martfű, a pleasant little town in the Great Hungarian Plain beside the River Tisza. You can imagine the bustle and excitement in a house full of four- to fourteen-year-olds, with animated interaction between adults and children, and everyone wanting to be heard and understood in their own language. The irate mother (me) is trying desperately to keep discipline and order among her Hungarian-speaking sons and daughter and her English-speaking nieces. Likewise Peter and Miranda, who are attempting the same with their daughters, niece and nephews. “Téboly!” – a Hungarian speaker would cry; “It’s a madhouse!” – so the Englishman.
Knowing little of the mysteries of Hungarian grammar, Peter was still oblivious of the ‘roppant érdekes’ (extremely interesting) way in which the infinitive tenni (to put) takes its form in the imperative. Nor was he quite clear on the meaning of the word vissza (adverb, means ‘back’ in Hungarian) – although it certainly sounded familiar to him! Finally, no longer able to suppress his curiosity, and with Hungarian-English words and expressions whistling past his ears, Peter asked, “Who’s that bloke Ted Vissza you keep mentioning?” All I could do was laugh and say:”He’s a friend of that guy Ted Le!” *
For Theodore, who did so well preparing for his citizenship interview, so he knows why I laughed when he said I could call him Ted.
* Julia’s comments: ‘Tedd vissza!’ means ‘Put (it) back!’ in Hungarian. ‘Tedd le!’ means ‘Put (it) down!’.