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Hungarians and Their Names

Being a Hungarian and having a name, often I have to discuss it with people coming from other languages. The problem has, or may have, several stages. First, they call me “dear Láng”, and I answer: “Attila is my name.” Second, they learn that and call another Hungarian this way, say, Pál Kovács “dear Kovács”, and he answers “call me Pali.” Third, they get confused and look at us, asking, “well then, which is which?”
  So, let’s make a clean breast of it.


The rule is easy. Hungarians (using the same scheme as Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese and some other nations) wear the family name first, and the given name second. Period. There’s no exception.
  Except in foreign language context.
  Probably you never heard about Kurosawa Akira in English, only about Akira Kurosawa. However, Kurosawa is his family name, and in native Japanese, he is always referred to as Kurosawa Akira. It’s swapped only in translation. This is the case for Hungarian, too. Szabó István becomes István Szabó in English, in French, in German, so, in all Western languages. The rule is easy: put the family name last. Period. There’s no exception.
  Except when the foreign language context is not a foreign language context.
  Facebook makes it a total mess. When you sign up for Facebook, using English, it asks for “First Name” and “Last Name”. When you sign up using Hungarian, it asks for “Keresztnév” (Christian name) and “Vezetéknév” (family name, literally “leading name”). So it’s obvious which name to put where, the problem isn’t that some Hungarians (including myself) can’t read or don’t know which name of theirs is which. The problem is that many Hungarians (including myself) want to read their names in the original order. Many of them (not including myself) are using Facebook in Hungarian and spending most or all of their facebooking time among fellow Hungarians, so seeing their name in the Western order in a totally Hungarian context is weird and annoying. Therefore, they enter their names the opposite way of it’s required, to receive proper rendering.
  I have a different reason. I’m a writer and a linguist and I love languages, especially my mother tongue. As I don’t make grammar errors on purpose (except for wordplays), I don’t swap the order of names. I don’t turn John Smith to Smith John when speaking in Hungarian (nobody else does), and I don’t turn my name to Attila D. Láng when speaking in English (as everybody else does). It is Láng Attila D., nothing else. D. stands for Dávid, my second name, but I’m used to shorten it.
  Yes, Facebook’s status update box asks me “What’s on your mind, Láng?”, and I don’t like it, but I can’t help it.
  I’m kept from signing up for a service called Quora.com because it wanted my name, I entered it, and it insisted on entering my real name. This is my real name. I won’t rename myself for its sake. It is a stubborn piece of software but I’m more stubborn and won’t use it by an alias. Aljas means villainous in Hungarian.


I made some statistics. I listed my friends on Facebook and counted them. I didn’t count non-Hungarians and Hungarians living abroad, supposing the latter are using their names swapped to Western order in real life, too. So, Hungarians living in Hungary are using their names
  – in the Hungarian order: 66 (37%)
  – in the Western order: 114 (63%)
  Well, people like me may be a minority, but there’s enough of us to mess it up. Now, the question is: which name to call Hungarians by? The easiest answer may be “ask them”, but you can be more clever and make a guess instead.
   Here is a list of the most frequent Hungarian surnames (the numbers tell how many people were wearing the name in 2009), and here are the most frequent given names. (Left: male, right: female. “Első utónévként”: for first given name, “második utónévként”: for second given name.)
  Looking at these lists, you may have some chance to reckon which name is which. Of course, people are often using nicknames on Facebook, Laci instead of László or Pista instead of István. There are too many of them to list here, but as a rule of thumb, if you can find one of the names among the family names, then the other one is probably the given name.
  Except if not, of course. Given names can be used as family names, too. English prefers to append a -son to given names used for family names, like Jackson, Robinson, Johnson, and many Hungarian names are created this way, too: -fi is the same as -son in English, with archaic variants -ffi, -fy, -ffy. Pálfi (Pálfy, Pálffi, Pálffy) is the same as Paulson. But many given names (mostly male) are used with no suffix for family names: Péter, László, Jakab, György, Miklós, Mihály, Sándor etc. can be both a family name and a male given name. (Even at the same time, rarely: there is a known television sound engineer called Miklós Miklós, and there was a known telenovel character called Gábor Gábor.)
  If somebody is called László Gyula or Sándor Károly you cannot be sure which order to read the names in (in Hungarian order for all examples mentioned here) but at least you can be sure they are men. This isn’t always the case. Sára Sándor and Rózsa János are men who wear female given names as their surnames: Sára is the same as English Sarah and Rózsa is English Rose. Both the name and the flower. And I know at least one example when two people of different gender wear the same names in the opposite order: Péter Rózsa was a lady and Rózsa Péter is a man (no English Wikipedia article about him yet; a contemporary journalist, television anchor, university professor).


What to do if somebody wears a family name as a given name, and both their names belong to the same gender, so the person’s real gender gives no hint? Or what to do if the names belong to different genders and the person doesn’t reveal his or her real gender on Facebook? How to decide which name to use?
  My best advice is that be happy you aren’t trying to make friends with this gentleman.

Láng Attila D., 2013.3.20.

! Hungarian in English magyar nyelvek nyelvészet



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