02. 27. 2012. 14:28

The ten most beautiful words and where they came from

Perhaps in a language as enchantingly beautiful—fully admitting to an extreme bias in this case—as Hungarian, it should come as no surprise that poets are forever compiling lists of the ten most beautiful words.

Why, one might ask, ten? In all likelihood, three would be too few; and it would be utterly impossible, conceptually and logistically, to narrow the selection down to just one. And, of course, the enumeration could continue: the ten most beautiful lists of the ten most beautiful words, and so on, expanding ever outwards into infinity, so as to ultimately embrace the entire Magyar tongue itself, although we would do well to heed the words of Kosztolányi's immortal protagonist, Kornél Esti, as he states in Seashell and Sea:

Kornél Esti held a dictionary in his hand, and then said: "You claim that every single Hungarian word is in here? Well, let's have a look. Pezsgő [sparkling, fizzy, champagne], pezsgőbor [a variant of pezsgő], pezsgőpor [soda bicarbonate] ... Really. But pezsgőszín [champagne-coloured] isn't here, and neither is pezsgőz [to drink champagne, to enjoy drinking champagne]. Similarly, all the secondary verbal formations are not listed. I don't see, for example, this verb: pezsgőzget [to sip champagne]. If what you are doing is pezsgőz, it is not the same thing at all as pezsgőzget. The  fundamental difference between the two—in shades of meaning—is enormous. Let's go on. Átpezsgőz ([to spend] an evening [drinking champagne]), bepezsgőz (to be a little tipsy from champagne), lepezsgőz ([to spill champagne onto] a tablecloth or clothes): all of these are absent. In vain do I search for the substantives as well: pezsgőzés [a verbal noun created from pezsgőz, 'the drinking of champagne'], pezsgőzgetés ['the sipping of champagne'], bepezsgőzés ['the state of being a little tipsy from champagne'], lepezsgőzés [spilling champagne], and so on. I can instantly scrape together twenty or thirty words for you, simply from the lexical sphere of the word pezsgő—all nearly identical in their outward form, but contradictory in terms of their meaning—which the dictionary-writer forgot to include. I do not repute him. His goal was something else. It is impossible to render an account of every word in a language, particularly in our richly elastic tongue, where the formation of verbs and substantives can be expanded without restriction, making the inventory of words virtually endless. All I wanted to do just now was to call your attention to just how much there is not, and can never be, anything like a 'complete' dictionary. The dictionary is merely a seashell, with which we simply take stock of the sea of language. Language itself, however, is the sea, the sea.

Kosztolányi's own list of his 'ten most beautiful words', which, he admits, 'may say as much about me as the Hungarian language' is linguistically ravishing:

Láng [flame], gyöngy [pearl], anya [mother], ősz [Autumn], szűz [virgin], kard [sword], csók [kiss], vér [blood], szív [heart], sír [grave; to weep].

In fact, he even demonstrates that the translation of Paul Valéry's list (pur, jour, or, lac, pic, seul, onde, feuille, mouille, flûte) sounds pretty good in Hungarian as well:

Tiszta [pure, clean], nap [day, sun], arany [gold], [lake], hegyfok [promonitory, headland],  egyedül [alone], hullám [wave], levél [leaf, letter], csermely [rivulet], fuvola [flute].

Any student of the Hungarian language who grew up speaking an Indo-European tongue is immediately struck by the sheer otherness of the Hungarian lexical stock: to take one of the most basic words in any language, across the Indo-European spectrum we find maison, Haus, house, domus, dom, casa, ..... and then suddenly ház, with that long a-vowel and exotic z- silibant final consonant.

Of course, due to the large number of Slavic loanwords present in Hungarian, speakers of these languages do get something of a 'break': words such as péntek (Friday), ablak (window), galamb (pigeon, dove) all hail from various layers of Slavic loans. The oldest layer, especially in words such as péntek and galamb, preserve a nasalized vowel that was present in Old Church Slavonic, which itself has long since disappeared from certain modern Slavic languages (compare Czech pátek and Hungarian péntek.)

Still, it isn't as if it's just one never-ending uphill slog for us English speakers: Hungarian has a goodly share of German and Latinate loans. Many of these, however, it has to be said, were summarily evicted during the language reforms of the early 19th century, which themselves were an integral component of the awakening of many national consciousnesses preceeding the era known as the Springtime of Nations.

Hungarian Latinate loans are usually formed with only one or two suffixes (perhaps the most famous of all being Unikum), so that you end up with words such as patetikus, fantasztikus, katolikus, and so on. After a while, though, it may begin to seem too facile to rely on this Magyarized 'Latin Connection' while conversing with a native speaker, so you find yourself casting about for more 'Hungarian' sounding equivalents. At times this may elicit the admiration or wonderment of your interlocuteur as, for example, in the instance of one dear friend who once marvelled that I insisted on using the word elszigetelt, as opposed to izolált. (The word elszigetelt is a good example of the exquisite logic of Hungarian: the basic noun, sziget, means island, el is a prefix meaning 'away, off', the second el at the end forms an intransitive verb in this case, and the final t makes it a kind of intransitive past tense, so that all together you have something like 'islanded off', that is to say: 'isolated'.)

To return, however, to the question of what sounds 'Hungarian': debate rages, has been raging for centuries, and is quite likely to keep on doing so, as to the 'true' nature of the 'deepest' layer of the Magyar lexical stock. Is it really so that at least 90% of all Hungarian words are of 'pure' Finno-Ugric origin, or is the reality a little more complex than that? Are there really only 300 words of Turkish origin, as is so frequently stated (see as well Kosztolányi's charming tale in which Kornél Esti kisses a young Turkish maid on a train 300 times, one for each word that has been bequeathed to the Hungarian language.)

The fact of the matter is that the utterly intriguing lexical mosaic of the language that we designate as Hungarian will probably never be able to be fully unravelled. What is certain, however, is that while all languages are inherently syncretic in their lexical composition, Hungarian may be one of the most marvellously syncretic of all. This renders it 'cosmopolitan' in the very best sense of the word: a language that seems to draw its lifeblood, its energy from such variegated and rich sources, endlessly discovering within itself new founts of inspiration.

Of course, the inherent syncreticism of Hungarian vocabulary has much to do with that initial journey of thousands of kilometres, over the vast steppes, from the distant Ural mountains to Etelköz and Levedia and finally to the Carpathian Basin, well over 1000 years ago. The Magyars may well have started out with a 'pure' Uralic vocabulary, but many many layers were added along the way. This includes more than one infusion from the Turkic tongues (of which at least two occured once they were settled in their new home), and Persian as well, which bequeathed to Hungarian much of its trading vocabulary as well as quite a few numbers. The later infusions came from the Slavic tongues, as mentioned above, Latin, German, and now, of course, globalized English.

The question of defining or locating a language is, of course, inevitably tied up with that of identity. 'Family ties' which can be linguistically 'proven' or 'disproven' (no such thing as a DNA test for language!) are perhaps the most revealing of all in that inevitably something is betrayed about the deep-seated desires of the one who defines. One only need to look at virtually any Turkic-language or Mongolian folk song on a shared media website to find the inevitable comments profusely expressing fervent solidarity with these presumably linguistic and/or ethnic 'brethren' (a professed solidarity which very often extends all the way back to the Xiong-nu, more commonly known as the Huns). Then there are too the little pamphlets one always comes across in provincial train-station newstands or out-of-the-way bookshops that create a unique admixture of Christo-shamanistic mythology: fabricating a past and a language where the bulk of the real evidence has more or less vanished. As if the sense of deep yearning that emanates from these publications, their strange and facile mysticism, could shroud the fact that they have no scholarly basis whatsoever. (Not to mention the fact that Altaic specialists themselves, be they Turkic, Mongolian or Western, have never even reached a decision as to whether Turkish and Mongolian belong to the same linguistic group, and if something like an Altaic language family even exists.)

And yet on the other extreme, there are scholars and linguists who deny the clear influence of the Turkic-Altaic lexica to such a degree—winnowing down even these mere 300 words to a much more meagre number—that one has to wonder, can this actually be the case? To cite one example, I have encountered dictionary entries where a Western European or even Latin etymology is accorded to a word that is simultaneously attested as a Chuvash or Turkic loan by none other than that great Hungarian Altaist, Lajos Ligeti. One lexicographer who compiled an 'alternative' etymological dictionary of Hungarian has stated something to the effect that the Turkish language is clearly the 'black sheep' of the family, while Finno-Ugric is the favoured son.

I, in any event, would like to engage in my own kind of fantasy and imagine a beauty pagent: a beauty pagent of words. Each word, wishing to present itself as a candidate for the honour of being designated the 'most beautiful', would have to, as in a traditional beauty pagent, step out before the admiring public. Yet instead of the usual geographical designation ('Miss California', 'Miss Maine', etc) on the broad sash each word proudly wears, there would be inscribed instead its presumed place of origin. So there would be the 'immigrants', i.e., the words wearing a sash emblazoned with the abbreviated designation vsz:, or vándorszó, literally a 'wandering word'—a word, therefore, which theoretically of course could be just 'stopping off' for a while in its travels before moving onto another linguistic domain. The word tűz ('fire') would bear the emblem fgr, for Finno-Ugric, whereas táj ('region, land') could possibly be suffering something of an identity crisis with its designation of ?fgr ('Finno-Ugric?'). Tanú ('witness') has no such problems: the ribbon bears the unequivocal inscription tör, for Turkic. Some words, however, such as ('woman') seem doomed to perpetual uncertainty, their origin defined by literally one single question mark: ?

It has been well-documented by psychologists that when a parent simply disappears from the life of their progeny, whether through death or abandonment, that parent in question almost inevitably turns into a source of nearly endless fantasizing on the part of the child: Maybe my father is/would have been in the French Foreign Legion, maybe living in the next town over with a new wife and family, maybe drilling for oil in Kazakhstan... Maybe my mother is/would have been a famous actress, a waitress, a politician... And so it appears with all of the extremely difficult questions surrounding so much of the lexica of Hungarian: a vast cloud of uncertainty, pushed here and there by the force of polemic of the one side or the other, perpetually hovers above the dictionary, so that in the meantime, perhaps the best thing to do is just to keep on making those lists.

The list of the Ten Most Beautiful Words.

Ottilie Mulzet

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