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Lesson Transcript

Michael: How many levels of formality does Hungarian have?
Krisztina: And how do they work?
Michael: At HungarianPod101.com, we hear these questions often. Imagine the following situation: Karen Lee is meeting Stefania Simon for the first time. She asks her,
"Where do you live, doctor?"
Karen Lee: Hol lakik a Doktornő?
Karen Lee: Hol lakik a Doktornő?
Simon Stefánia: Esztergomban lakom.
Michael: Once more with the English translation.
Karen Lee: Hol lakik a Doktornő?
Michael: "Where do you live, doctor?"
Simon Stefánia: Esztergomban lakom.
Michael: "I live in Esztergom."

Lesson focus

Michael: The questions we are going to be discussing in this lesson are: "How many levels of formality does Hungarian have?" and "How do they work?" Some of this material was covered in a previous lesson which focused more on the grammar related to formality in Hungarian. In this lesson, I will be discussing formality in a more general way, focusing mostly on the cultural aspects. But, before we do that, here's a quick refresher regarding the levels of formality.
There are four levels of formality, but I must point out that, because of the way the Hungarian language and culture have changed over time, it is not as simple as that. Still, as a starting point, let's look at what they mean when they talk about these four levels.
Let's start with the first and highest level of formality, which is used for business and official texts and in which a high degree of respect is implied. At this level, the formal pronoun
Krisztina: Ön
Michael: is used. It means "you."
The second-highest level of formality in Hungarian is used when you want to create a certain distance between yourself and the person you are addressing. A boss might use this when talking to an employee, for instance. Again, a formal pronoun is used here. This one is
Krisztina: maga.
Michael: The third level of formality is used to be respectful but in a less ‘cold' way. It can be used when talking to the elderly, for instance. Children might also use it to talk to older people with whom they are not familiar. At this level of formality, an auxiliary verb is used to convey the degree of politeness. It sounds like this:
Krisztina: tetszik,
Michael: and it means "like." The last level of formality is an interesting contradiction because, while it is the lowest level of formality, it uses pronouns that were once reserved for the king, or God. The pronoun
Krisztina: te
Michael: is, these days, used among family members, friends, colleagues, and young people. It's also used by adults to talk to children. This degree of formality is equivalent to using someone's first name in English.
As I mentioned earlier, these days, the levels of formality are not as clearly defined. Some Hungarians might feel insulted if you addressed them using the pronoun
Krisztina: maga,
Michael: for instance. Others might feel it is the preferred form of address. These opinions will also differ depending on where you are in Hungary. For someone new to the country, this might be a somewhat daunting feature of the culture. But, don't worry, there is a way around this quandary. If you are unsure whether to use
Krisztina: Ön
Michael: or
Krisztina: maga,
Michael: you can do what Karen Lee did in the dialogue you heard earlier. Let's listen to that again. She was talking to Stefania Simon who she was meeting for the first time, and, instead of using either of the formal pronouns, she used Stefania's title—"doctor." Have another quick listen to how Karen asked, "Where do you live, doctor?"
Krisztina: Hol lakik a Doktornő?
Michael: Note that there is not a pronoun to be heard. Karen could have asked, simply,
Krisztina: Hol lakik?
Michael: which translates directly to "Where do you live?" However, because this is such a short sentence and it contains no indication of the person she is talking to, it might seem a little rude, so it was better for Karen to use the doctor's title.
If Karen had been talking to a male doctor, she would have had to use the title
Krisztina: doktor úr
Michael: It is the same for other titles as well. For instance, if talking to a male teacher, one would say
Krisztina: tanár úr,
Michael: but, if talking to a female teacher,
Krisztina: tanárnő.
Michael: As you can hear, the distinction between male and female in titles is made with the words
Krisztina: úr
Michael: meaning "Mr." for the male, and
Krisztina: nő,
Michael: meaning "Ms." for the female. There are also the more general titles for men and women. For instance, if Karen were talking to a Mister Nagy, she would have used the title
Krisztina: Nagy úr
Michael: and, for Mister Nagy's wife, she would have used the title
Krisztina: Nagyné.
Michael: The suffix
Krisztina: -né
Michael: denotes Mrs. Nagy's marital status and identifies her as the wife of Mister Nagy. In other words, it is the equivalent of the English "Mrs."
Something else I want to point out is that, in the dialogue, if you were reading it, you would see that a capital letter was used at the beginning of the title
Krisztina: Doktornő
Michael: This is the rule when writing titles down, and it conveys respect to do so. Karen also used the formal conjugation of the Hungarian word for "to live" when she spoke to the doctor. If you recall, it sounded like this:
Krisztina: lakik.
Michael: While it's important to know how the levels of formality work, I must also add that, because of changing times, there is a trend, among modern Hungarians, to forget all the formal levels and use only the pronoun
Krisztina: te.
Michael: Hopefully, for the sake of learners of the language, like us, this will stick!
Generally, you will find that, if you are talking to strangers in Hungary, they will use one of the formal second-person pronouns with you. It's a traditional thing, in Hungary, to be quite formal when it comes to greetings, and to use surnames when you don't know someone well. Don't let this make you feel that the people you are talking to are being cold or unfriendly. It's just the way things are done, and they are showing you respect by doing so.
Fortunately, if you are dealing with a colleague or a customer, they will more than likely ask you to address them by their first name once they get to know you a little better. The way they will do this is probably by saying,
Krisztina: Tegeződjünk,
Michael: which is a suggestion that you both switch from the formal way of talking to the more informal way.
If the person is someone who is of a similar age to you or they are of a similar status, then you might find that the formal pronoun is dropped quite quickly in favor of the informal
Krisztina: te.
Michael: And, if the relationship between you and the other person grows into one of friendship, you might find yourself using their nickname
Krisztina: becenév.
Michael: Nicknames are used among friends and family and, if you want to win over the person you are speaking to, be sure to pronounce their nickname correctly! They will like that.
In Hungary, a certain level of gallantry or gentleman-like behavior is expected of men towards women. However, if you are male, be careful not to be patronizing! Hungarian is a modern culture and women are treated with respect and as equals.
In fact, treating others as equals and with respect is such a big deal in the culture that the imperative form is seldom used in instructional documents. For instance, even in recipes, it's common to swap imperative commands like "Mix the ingredients together" for more respectful suggestions such as "Let's mix all these ingredients together:"
Krisztina: Keverjük össze ezeket az összetevőket.
Michael: In the end, it really all comes down to your manner. If you are unsure what level of formality to use when addressing someone, try sticking to titles and surnames, but, most importantly, act in a respectful way. Most Hungarian people will understand that any lack of grammatical politeness on your part is because you are not a native speaker. An attitude of respect will practically guarantee this response.
Michael: In this lesson, you learned about the levels of formality in Hungarian. You learned that there are four official levels, but that these are slowly being phased out of the language, and that there is a tendency to use less formal language in general. If you are unsure what level to use, it's a good idea to forget about pronouns and use titles or surnames instead.
Practice Section
Michael: Let's review. Respond to the prompts by speaking aloud. Then, repeat after the native speaker focusing on pronunciation.
Do you remember how Karen Lee says "Where do you live, doctor?"
[Beep. Pause 5 seconds.]
Krisztina as Karen Lee: Hol lakik a Doktornő?
Michael: Listen again and repeat.
Krisztina as Karen Lee: Hol lakik a Doktornő?
[Beep. Pause 5 seconds.]
Krisztina as Karen Lee: Hol lakik a Doktornő?
Michael: And do you remember how Stefania Simon says "I live in Esztergom?"
[Beep. Pause 5 seconds.]
Krisztina as Stefania Simon: Esztergomban lakom.
Michael: Listen again and repeat.
Krisztina as Stefania Simon: Esztergomban lakom.
[Beep. Pause 5 seconds.]
Krisztina as Stefania Simon: Esztergomban lakom.
Cultural Insight/Expansion
Michael: While Hungarians may employ a lot of formality in their language, you would be wrong if you thought this meant that Hungarians in the workplace are subservient and eager to please. In fact, the opposite is true. Hungarian people will respect those who are higher up the hierarchy only if they know what they are doing and know what they are talking about. In other words, those in authority must earn the respect of those they are tasked to lead. Hungarians are actually quite suspicious of authority, and workers will expect to have their opinions heard and respected. They do not like to be simply told what to do. I must say, I can relate. I think I would like to live in Hungary.


Michael: Do you have any more questions? We're here to answer them!
Krisztina: Viszontlátásra!
Michael: See you soon!