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Lesson Transcript

Michael: Is it common to omit the subject in Hungarian sentences?
Boglárka: And why?
Michael: At HungarianPod101.com, we hear these questions often. Consider the following situation. Orsolya Olah is in a bookstore with her friend, Sasha Lee. She points at a book and says,
"[Do you] see that book?"
Oláh Orsolya: Látod azt a könyvet?
Oláh Orsolya: Látod azt a könyvet?
Sasha Lee: Érdekes?
Michael: Once more with the English translation.
Oláh Orsolya: Látod azt a könyvet?
Michael: "[Do you] see that book?"
Sasha Lee: Érdekes?
Michael: "[Is it] interesting?"

Lesson focus

Michael: In this lesson, we are going to talk about a very common characteristic of Hungarian. As a student learning this language, you probably noticed that Hungarian often omits both the pronoun and the verb. This way, Hungarian is one of the so-called "pro-drop languages." The common trait of such pro-drop-languages is that omitting a pronoun, or the subject, or even a verb, doesn't affect the information conveyed by the sentence. In many languages, such as English, this is extremely rare, basically non-existent. However, in Hungarian, this is a very common phenomenon.
[Recall 1]
Michael: Let's take a closer look at the dialogue.
Do you remember how Orsolya Olah says "[Do you] see that book?"
(pause 4 seconds)
Boglárka as Orsolya Olah: Látod azt a könyvet?
Michael: This sentence literally means: "See that book?" while in English we would say this as "Do you see that book?" In this sentence, we can already see that, in the Hungarian sentence, the word for "you," or
Boglárka: te
Michael: is not included. In fact, Hungarian very rarely uses personal pronouns, except for cases when the use of the personal pronoun, or subject, is absolutely necessary to know who the sentence is referring to, or even more commonly, when the speaker wants to emphasize who the subject is. In general, however, expressing the subject is not necessary, as the conjugated form of the verb in the sentence makes it all obvious. In this sentence, for example, Orsolya uses the conjugated verb
Boglárka: látod,
Michael: which means "you see." This is the second person singular conjugated form of the verb
Boglárka: lát
Michael: or "to see." Therefore, instead of saying:
Boglárka: Te látod azt a könyvet?
Michael: the subject meaning "you" is omitted, resulting in:
Boglárka: Látod azt a könyvet?
Michael: as there is no need to convey the same information—in this case, the subject of the sentence—twice. The conjugated form of the verb "to see":
Boglárka: látod
Michael: ensures that both parties in the conversation understand perfectly who the question is referring to.
[Recall 2]
Michael: Now, let's take a look at our second sentence.
Do you remember how Sasha Lee says "[Is it] interesting?"
(pause 4 seconds)
Boglárka as Sasha Lee: Érdekes?
Michael: This one-word question literally translates to "Interesting?." We have already seen that Hungaran omits the subject from a sentence very often, so it is no surprise that the Hungarian equivalent of "it":
Boglárka: az
Michael: doesn't appear in the reply. However, there is one more characteristic of Hungarian, namely that the conjugated forms of "to be" which correspond to the English words "(he/she/it) is" and "(they) are" are also omitted whenever possible. So, in this case, the equivalent of English "he/she/it is" is:
Boglárka: van.
Michael: We will cover this phenomenon more in-depth in another lesson; however, now let's focus on omitting the subjects only. In this sentence, the word for "it" is unnecessary as it is already obvious that the word "interesting" refers to the book in question. Therefore, instead of adding the word "it," Hungarian only asks about the quality of an object by using the adjective only. The Hungarian adjective
Boglárka: érdekes
Michael: means "interesting," but as a question
Boglárka: Érdekes?
Michael: means "Is something/this/that interesting?"
Michael: Now, let's look at some more examples. Our first example is
Boglárka: Milyen az új autó? Gyors?
Michael: This translates to "How is the new car? Is it fast?." Here, the second sentence is a question that refers back to the subject mentioned in the first sentence: the car, or in Hungarian:
Boglárka: autó.
Michael: The second question literally translates to "Fast?" while in proper English we would say it as "Is it fast?" Again, as we can see, Hungarian omits the subject, and there is no need to put
Boglárka: az
Michael: or "it" or "that" in the sentence because this one-word sentence consisting of only an adjective is enough in the context to know that the adjective "fast," or
Boglárka: gyors
Michael: refers to the car in question.
This subject omission, of course, doesn't only happen in questions. Let's look at the following sentence:
Boglárka: Ma étteremben ebédeltem. Nagyon finom volt.
Michael: This translates to "Today, I have had lunch in a restaurant. It was very delicious." Let's hear the second sentence again.
Boglárka: Nagyon finom volt.
Michael: This sentence, if translated word-for-word, translates to "Very delicious was." Again, there is no "it" or "that" in the sentence because it is obvious that the speaker refers to the lunch she has had in the restaurant today.
Michael: Imagine that someone asks you if you have read the news:
Boglárka: Olvastad a híreket?
Michael: meaning "Did you read the news?" to which you respond "I have read them," or:
Boglárka: Olvastam.
Michael: This one-word sentence literally translates to "I read. (past tense!)" however, again, the subject "I" or in Hungarian:
Boglárka: én
Michael: doesn't appear in the sentence as it is obvious from the conjugated form of the verb that it refers to me, myself. Also, the object "it" or "them" is omitted, resulting in only a conjugated form of the verb.
Michael: Now, let's see one last example. When omitting a subject, it is not necessarily required to have a preceding question or a statement that already refers to the subject. The previous examples we have covered all had a first sentence that introduced the subject and, indeed, this is the most common usage. However, there are situations when it is not necessary to include the subject because, even without a preceding sentence that would introduce the subject, the subject is clear for both speakers. Imagine you are watching TV late at night with your partner who is very tired and is about to fall asleep, so they ask you:
Boglárka: Kikapcsolod?
Michael: This one-word question translates to "Do you switch it off?"—however, since it is a request, we would rather say it as "Will you switch it off?" or "Would you switch it off?" in English. However, the sentence is just a verb, the verb for "to switch off," or
Boglárka: kikapcsol
Michael: conjugated in second person singular, "you switch off," or
Boglárka: kikapcsolod.
Cultural Insight/Expansion
Michael: As we mentioned in the introduction of this lesson, a typical example when a subject should grammatically be omitted but people might not omit it is when the speaker wants to specifically emphasize who the object is. For example, let's imagine two people talking and one is asking about the other person's neighbor:
Boglárka: Hogy van a szomszédod?
Michael: meaning "How is your neighbor doing?" Now, let's suppose this neighbor is angry. Angry in Hungarian is
Boglárka: mérges.
Michael: We already learned in this lesson that it is perfectly possible to reply to this question simply by replying with the adjective:
Boglárka: Mérges,
Michael: which means: "He is angry" or "She is angry"—or, in the case of animals, it could equally mean "It is angry," though neither the personal pronoun nor the conjugated verb form appears in the Hungarian sentence. However, the subjects "he," "she," and "it" might be added in certain cases if the speaker really wants to emphasize who is angry.
Let's imagine that this neighbor has a dog that had a fun time playing around the whole afternoon in the living room, creating a large mess there, and that is the cause of the neighbor's anger. However, the dog is very happy. In this case, the answer to the earlier question could be "He is angry, but his dog is very happy," or in Hungarian:
Boglárka: Ő mérges, ám a kutyája nagyon boldog.
Michael: Here, as we can see, the personal pronoun
Boglárka: ő
Michael: that could mean both "he" or "she" is attached to the beginning of the sentence.
Boglárka: Ő mérges,
Michael: means "He is the one who is angry.," and not someone else—in this case, not his dog.


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