I am smarter than a high schooler, or, at least, better at some types of quizzes. I ran across a mention of the North American Computational Linguistics Olympiad, and amused myself by taking the first-round test given in February. Depending on whether you count two of my answers as correct, I either scored 97.95 out of 100, beating all of the high schoolers who took the test; 95.97, placing second; or 95.18, placing third. (In one case, the question asked which verb was irregular, I wrote down the verb stem, and the solution book gave the conjugated form. In the other, my answer is correct, but the answer in the solution book is wrong. I count both as moral victories, but for the purpose of competition, I have to take into account how the tests are actually graded. And, to be completely fair, I should note I allowed myself a break while taking the test, although my total time was twenty minutes under the limit and I didn’t let myself revisit any questions I’d done before the break.)
To give you an idea of what the test was like, one question gave eight sentences in a Native American dialect, with the English translations in random order, and you had to work out which sentences were the same. Another gave two articles on the same subject, one in English and one in Indonesian, which were not translations of each other, and challenged you to figure out what various Indonesian words meant. The test designers deliberately chose obscure languages from distant language families to test your ability to tease out principles and correspondences. It’s a fun challenge, and my experience with Hungarian probably served me in good stead, by giving me a more flexible notion of what grammar can be like.
I also ran across a quick and easy vocabulary quiz which estimates how many English words you know. I got an estimated English vocabulary of 39,200 words. Then I retook the test and only checked the boxes when I knew the Hungarian translation of a word, and got an estimate of 4,280 words. Interestingly, if you look at the graph of results for non-native speakers, I’m right at the peak—4.7% of non-native speakers had a vocabulary between 4,250 and 4,749 words, although the median was higher, at 7,826 words. Taking the test the way I did isn’t really a valid measurement of anything, and comparing the results to a self-selected sample of non-native English speakers is even less valid, but it’s still kind of interesting.
I often upload books to Project Gutenberg, and I make a special effort to work on Hungarian literature in translation. King Matthias and the Beggar Boy by Miklós Jósika is the latest of these.
King Matthias is quite literally a legendary figure in Hungarian history. Like Haroun al-Rashid, he’s supposed to have wandered the kingdom in disguise, punishing wicked nobles and rewarding virtuous commoners, and he’s still known in Hungary as igazságos Mátyás király (Just King Mátyás). In real life, he was more just and more learned than his predecessors or his successors, but far from the paragon that was destined to inhabit folklore. Jósika’s portrayal is firmly in the folkloric mode. For a more historic approach, I recommend Marcus Tanner’s The Raven King: Matthias Corvinus and the Fate of His Lost Library. It’s worth comparing the two.
I started reading Tell Sally… by Magda Szabo today, a translation of Mondják meg Zsófikának. The title, for once, is accurately translated, something that’s rarer than most people probably imagine. And the English, you notice, is far shorter than the Hungarian.
The reverse can also happen, of course. “Yes, we have no bananas, we have no bananas today” becomes “Igen, nincs banánunk, nincs banánunk ma”, which is a trifle more compact, and “I’m waiting for you” in Hungarian is “várlak”.
It’s partly that words which are short in one language are long in the other. Sally is a diminutive of Sophie, and shorter than the original; Zsófika is a diminutive of Zsófi, and longer than the original. In general, Hungarian forms diminutives by adding -ka or -ke to the root, but even in English diminutive forms can be longer than the original, as with Anne and Annie.
But most of the difference comes from grammatical features of the language, and from what is implied and what must be explicit. In English, “Tell Sally” and “You, tell it to Sally” are essentially the same, and the extra words can be left out. But Hungarian grammatically demands specificity: Mondják is the third person plural imperative form of the verb mond. From the verb’s conjugation, we know that the speaker is addressing more than one person, who aren’t close friends or relatives, and that he’s requesting they tell Sally something particular, something specific and definite. This level of precision may be unnecessary, but in Hungarian, unlike English, it simply isn’t possible to omit it.
And there’s one part of the verb I left out. The verb is actually megmond, and the prefix meg indicates that an action is completed. The speaker not only is commanding his listeners to tell Sally something particular, he’s telling them not to leave anything out.
So the Hungarian mondják meg is much more specific than the English tell. I tell, you tell, we tell, they tell: it’s all the same. With this title, though, Tell Sally tells us enough. We don’t happen to care about the extra information in the Hungarian verb.
On the other hand, “Várlak” is impressively concise. The -lak and -lek endings are a Hungarian peculiarity, a verb conjugation that’s only used when the speaker is the subject of the sentence, and the person (or people) he’s speaking to is the object of the verb. A Hungarian could grammatically say “Én várlak téged”, “I am waiting for you”, but he seldom would: “én” and “téged” are implicit in “Várlak”. In this case, the extra information in the Hungarian verb “várlak” is actually useful, and Hungarians are accustomed to making use of what is useful. Unlike English: even though only “I” can be the subject of the conjugated verb “am waiting”, we can’t leave it out.