This is a sentence that almost always pops up in the flow of a conversation whenever it turns out that I am a foreigner, more precisely, a Hungarian in Finland. That I am from another country is very easy to presume since the common language is English. I have to admit that no conversation takes place without the following exchange:
-So where are you from then?
-Hungary?????!!!! Oh, then you are our relative!!!
And as the talk progresses, we get more and more into language matters. There are two options as to how our conversation will continue:
Option A – when the conversation partner is a Finn
… we really try to find out something in common. We think hard, maybe spend long minutes with brainstorming and finally we end up with the following four words:
kala – hal veri – vér kesi – kéz vesi – víz
Clearly, that’s not much at all, especially if we are really relatives … (Nowadays some time is saved while brainstorming since I already have these four words in mind — just in case … ). Since we do not want to give up, we continue thinking. Suddenly, something comes to my mind, a memory that happened during my very first stay in Finland. I was sitting on a bus, travelling somewhere and looking out of the window. All at once, my attention was distracted from the beauties of the landscape to a conversation somewhere on the other side of the bus. To a conversation that made me smile although I could not figure out what the people were saying – but it sounded as if they were Hungarians, or at least talking in Hungarian. Because I wanted to find out, I moved closer and closer; when I was close enough (i.e. within hearing distance) I was “shocked”. No, they were neither Hungarians (or who knows?) nor were they talking in Hungarian. The language they used was Finnish, but it really sounded like Hungarian from a distance. So that was the moment when I realised that there is one more thing in common between Finnish and Hungarian and it is their rhythm.
When I tell this story, everybody involved in the conversation is relieved since we have a little bit more in common than just four words. (Something more on “related words” can be read under http://homepage.univie.ac.at/johanna.laakso/Hki/f-h-ety.html)
Option B – when the conversation partner is not a Finn (because the Finnish partner has already departed)
… it is always taken for granted by the other party that if Finnish and Hungarian are related languages, then it must be really easy for me to understand Finnish, and it might be also very easy to learn the language. Unfortunately, I have to free them of that misconception. No, I do not understand Finnish just because my mother tongue is Hungarian, and it is also very difficult for me to learn it. It might well be that these two languages are the only related languages whose learning is not facilitated by being a speaker of the other one, as is the case with, for instance, Germanic and Romance languages.
And what is the situation in Hungary in this question? Frankly, I have no personal experience, but I have met somebody who had an interesting story which had happened a few years before the Iron Curtain was lifted. That time there were all sorts of restrictions on foreigners who wanted to visit the country, especially from ”Capitalist” ones. But a big exception was always made for Finns. The Hungarians welcomed these far-flung “relatives” with open arms and without lots of red tape. For this reason one sometimes saw Volvos with Finnish number plates sharing the streets with the Hungarian Trabants and Wartburgs. There is, of course, doubt how much they actually understood from each other’s language.
Interestingly, a couple of weeks ago I started a conversation with a Hungarian friend of mine on the topic. He remembered that there is a sentence that is the same (i.e. mutually understandable) not only in Finnish and Hungarian but in Estonian as well. The sentence reads:
Finnish: Elävä kala ui veden alla.
Hungarian: Eleven hal úszik a víz alatt.
Estonian: Elav kala ujub vee all.
So thanks to my friend and to the website he gave me to consult, I have managed to extend my “Finnish-Hungarian repertoire” in preparation for the next time I am involved in a conversation about the relationship between the two languages.
This text is by no means a scientific one; it only shows some experiences as a language user of both languages.
Here I also wish to express my gratitude to Diana Metzner for her valuable contribution.
I exclude those words here that have the same orthography but carry different meanings, like isi = daddy (Fin) vs. school (Hun, coll.), hinta = price (Fin) vs. a swing (Hun) or kuka = who? (Fin) vs. rubbish/dust bin (Hun).