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Genders in Hungarian

[Versão em português do Brasil por Murilo Ricci]

There are no genders in Hungarian. Period. You know everything, thanks for reading, bye!

Still here? Well then, let me show some details. Let’s compare Hungarian with two languages where there are genders in different ways: English and French.
  In French, every noun has a gender, either masculine or feminine. For example, house, soul and street are girls (une maison, une âme, une rue) but day, lamb and gold are boys (un jour, un agneau, un or). This requires all articles to be agreed with the gender of the noun (un – une, le – la), and the attributes change their ending or form to agree (vieux jour – vieille maison). French has a rich vocabulary of pronouns and determiners reflecting the gender of objects (il – elle, mon – ma, cet – cette, du – de la), and since common nouns are ordered to be preceded by a determiner each, you have to keep the gender of things in your mind all the time.
  In English, the situation was very similar (just there were three genders, masculine, feminine and neutral) until the thirteenth century when the gender distinction was dropped from the language. Only the personal and possessive pronouns in the third person singular (he – she, his – her, him – her) were kept. Some nouns have male and female variants, all referring to living beings: animals like bull – cow, cock – hen, stallion – mare, and professions like stewardess or mailman. Some professions have words for both genders, like actor – actress and waiter – waitress.

Hungarian is genderless. This means there is only one pronoun, ő, meaning both he and she. The possessive is övé, meaning both his and her, but possessive pronouns are in most cases substituted by suffixes, and there is only one for both genders: kutyája means both his dog and her dog.
  This way, Hungarian avoids the English gender problem. In English, when you’re referring to an unknown person or a member of a group, you have to choose forms like “he or she”, “s/he”, “they” (referring to a single person), “that person” and other complicated methods. Hungarian simply says: ő.
  The question arises how to distinguish who is of what gender. In most cases, we needn’t to. For example: “How is Leslie?” “I don’t know, I didn’t see him for a long time.” Do you really need to use a gender reference in this dialog? Obviously not, however, a Leslie may be either a man or a woman, but both partners know this Leslie personally and know he is, actually, a man. Now let’s rephrase it. “How is Leslie?” “I don’t know, we didn’t meet for a long time.” Look, in this case, neither English needs to explicitly specify the gender of Leslie.
  Hungarian works similarly. If somebody doesn’t know what gender is Leslie of, we can tell him or her several ways: there are words like férfi (man), nő (woman), fiú (boy), lány (girl), but if everybody knows it or it isn’t important, we aren’t required to mention his manliness repeatedly. And there is an additional word, ember, meaning the same as Latin and Esperanto homo: human being, no matter what gender or what age, adult or child, anybody.
  The situation is a bit harder when translating text from a language where a single pronoun is enough to distinguish between two persons, like English.
  She looked at him, her eyes wandering along his body. “Tie me”, she said in a soft voice, “tie me strongly and do anything you want.” He nodded, took a strong rope and tied her to the bed, and he did what he wanted: he went off to the pub.
  Well, it’s impossible to translate this to Hungarian with using only pronouns to identify the characters. Just like in English if everybody is of the same gender.
  She told her to come in, so she went in to her office and sat down. She wanted to discuss her daughter’s wedding with her. She said she would like a big wedding with at least two hundred guests but she prefers a small one, with only the members of the family. But they asked her sister, too, and she said she doesn’t know what does she want really, she must discuss it with her.
  Do you understand a single word of this? Me neither. Did she go in to somebody else’s office or to her own? Who wanted to discuss the wedding, whose daughter that was, and with whom she wanted to talk, with the other woman or with the daughter herself? Whose sister is the sister? The bride’s, the mother’s or the third woman’s? Who doesn’t know what she (herself or somebody else?) wants really?
  So, calling people only by personal pronouns work only in love stories, where just a man and a woman are present. A waiter ringing at the hotel room, a visiting relative or even a puppy would ruin the entire story, leaving the reader in doubt if who kissed whom.

There is a great problem in English about professions: should we still say chairman, when referring to Mr. Doe, or is chairperson better? What about words like mankind? Should we use personkind instead, really?
  Hungarian does have a similar problem, just it works a little different. Mankind, for example, is emberiség in Hungarian, created very similarly to the word humanity. So this word is no problem. But there are enough of them.

Let’s start it with Mr., Mrs. and Miss. In English, a problem arose about the two female titles, referring to the marital status of ladies, while gentlemen’s marital status isn’t revealed. This problem led to reinventing an old forgotten form, Ms.
  In Hungarian, either Mrs. and Miss in themselves are enough to generate a problem. There is simply no correct form to call ladies politely.
  This isn’t an old problem. For centuries, we had forms like
  Kovács úr – Mr. Kovács;
  Kovácsné – Mrs. Kovács;
  Kovács kisasszony – Miss Kovács.
  But these were enough only for lower class people. For upper class people, you had to add some honorifics depending on the rank. There was a lot of them, and you had to know both the rank of the person you were talking with and the appropriate title for that rank.
  From 1949, the communist regime introduced a general form of addressing: elvtárs for men and elvtársnő for women. It means comrade, literally “principle peer (woman)”. It quickly became an official term, only used by and towards prominent members of the communist party. The Kovács úr form was soon reinstated unofficially, and after the fall of the communist regime in 1989, it became the only polite calling for an adult man. The honorifics weren’t reinstated.
  For ladies, it happened a different way. For centuries, women were required to take their husband’s name upon marriage, appending a -né suffix: if Kovács Péter and Szabó Mária married, she became Kovács Péterné, or for short, Kovácsné, as shown above. (Remember that Hungarians wear their family name first.) This was exactly the same as Mrs. Peter Smith or Mrs. Smith in English, but there was a difference: in English, she would be allowed to become Mrs. Mary Smith, too. In Hungarian, this was officially forbidden. Around 1960, some famous actresses started to keep their maiden name, because they became famous with that name, and they achieved the right to keep it officially. Most ladies marrying in our time either keep their maiden name, with no marking of the marital status (Szabó Mária), or take their husband’s family name without -né (Kovács Mária), sometimes adding their own family name (Kovács-Szabó Mária). The form Kovács Péterné is becoming old-fashioned.
  But these changes ruined the old way of calling the ladies, and no new one was invented. Nowadays, if you want to call politely a woman, knowing her full name, you’re in trouble.
  a) If she wears the name Kovács Péterné, this is unappropriate for addressing her. You must shorten it to Kovácsné, but this is acceptable only if she has a lower social rank. For example, the cleaning lady may be called Kovácsné, but calling the CEO in this name is rude.
  b) If her name doesn’t contain the -né suffix, but she has a valued profession or title, you should address her by her title, without her name. These include: doktornő (doctor woman), tanárnő (teacher woman), igazgatónő (director woman), művésznő (artist woman – for actresses, musicians, dancers etc.), and for higher ranks: professzorasszony (professor lady), miniszterasszony (minister lady [member of the cabinet]), képviselő asszony (representative lady). When referring to her, you add these honorifics after her family name.
  c) If her name doesn’t contain the -né suffix and she doesn’t have such a title, you’re out of luck. There is no commonly accepted polite form. Once there was the word asszonyom (madam – first person singular possessive of asszony, married woman), but it’s now outdated, maybe because many adult women aren’t married. The newer form is hölgyem (first person singular possessive of hölgy, lady), but I don’t like it, it’s too stand off. I can recommend it to address only younger adult ladies. For older ones, the outdated asszonyom may be still better.
  But both asszonyom and hölgyem are used without her name. If you know her name, using either of these invokes a feeling that you forgot her name…


Láng Attila D., 2013.8.2.

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