As a native Polish speaker who teaches the Polish language, I sometimes get asked if Polish and Hungarian are similar languages.
The question makes sense: Hungary and Poland, though not neighboring countries, are geographically very close. They are less than 200 miles away from each other.
They are separated by another central European country, Slovakia which is right between them. Slovakia shares its northern border with Poland, and its southern border with Hungary.
Perhaps surprisingly given the geographic proximity between Hungary and Poland, their languages (Hungarian and Polish) are linguistically very far apart.
In fact, Polish and Hungarian belong to two entirely different language families:
Despite being very different languages, Polish and Hungarian do surprisingly have some things in common.
In the world of linguistics, there is no such thing as a perfectly isolated language. All languages in the world have evolved and have been influenced by other languages.
Both Polish and Hungarian are among the 24 official languages of the European Union.
Both the Hungarian alphabet and the Polish alphabet are based on the same Latin alphabet (a,b,c.. ) that we use in English, but each of these languages has additional letters which are not found in English.
Some of the additional letters in the Polish alphabet are:
Unlike Hungarian, Polish has many consonant clusters. These series of many consonants which are not separated by vowels make the pronunciation of some Polish words quite challenging for non-native speakers. For example:
For more examples of Polish words and their pronunciation, see this article on Polish expressions and phrases.
Some of the additional letters in the Hungarian alphabet are:
Just because there are few consonant clusters in Hungarian, doesn't mean that it is a language with an easy pronunciation. Here some basic Hungarian phrases with audio:
For more Hungarian words and their pronunciation, see this article on Budapest.
One similarity between Polish and Hungarian is that they both feature among the languages with the most grammatical cases.
As anglophones, many of us are not very familiar with the concept of grammatical cases. This is because grammatical cases are not a big topic in English, due to the fact that English has largely done away with markers of grammatical cases.
English grammatical cases are still visible in some places, for example in the way that pronouns change forms according to their grammatical function in the sentence:
In both Polish and Hungarian, grammatical cases are very much present, unlike in English. Polish has 7 grammatical cases, and Hungarian has 18.
To put that in perspective, consider how many language learners find it challenging to deal with the 4 grammatical cases in German.
To understand the origin of the Hungarian language, it helps to know a little bit about the history of the Hungarians and their ancestors.
The Ugric people (the Hungarian ancestors) separated from the Finno-Ugric tribes in the second millennium BC. The term "Ugric" comes from the Russian term "у́гры" (úgry), denoting indigenous people dwelling east of the Urals (the Urals are a mountain range in western Russia)
This explains why among the languages most closely related to Hungarian are the Khanity and Mansi languages, which are the languages of people inhabiting Siberia.
The Hungarian language has been heavily influenced by the Turkish, Slavic, and Germanic languages over the centuries. Around the 7th century CE, the Ugric people found themselves at the Sea of Azov, where they came in contact with the Khazars.
As a result, many words of Turkish origin made their way into the Hungarian language. After the settlement of the Carpathian basin in 895, the Hungarians took over a lot of words from the Slavs. In addition, after adopting Christianity, many words from Latin passed into Hungarian.
The German language has had a strong influence on the Hungarian language. This influence intensified after the Habsburgs ascended to the Hungarian throne in the 16th century. At the same time, more than half of the country was occupied by the Turks, causing a new influx of Turkish words.
At the beginning of the 19th century, Hungarian underwent a considerable linguistic reform. Nearly 10,000 new words based on the traditional Finno-Ugric stems were added to the language, with the purpose of preserving the original and "uncontaminated" character of the language.
In addition, a special institution was established at that time, whose task was to keep the language clean by constantly creating Hungarian equivalents of international words such as “rendőrség” (police), “szálloda” (hotel), “számítógép” (computer), or “étterem” (restaurant).
This is one of the reasons for the incomprehensibility of the Hungarian language to speakers of languages from different language families.
The Polish language derives from the Proto-Indo-European language, spoken by the people inhabiting the steppes of the lower Volga approximately 3000 years BC.
As a result of internal fragmentation and expansion to the West, separate linguistic families began to form. At the beginning of our era, the Polish language originated from the western variant of the Proto-Slavic language and the Lechite dialect.
Of course, the Polish language was not uniform in the beginning. Christianization and the creation of statehood played a significant role in the integration of the languages of the tribes of Polans, Vistulans, and Mazovians.
Moreover, organized state and religion required precise communication, particularly the development of previously nonexistent writing.
Since its birth, the Polish language has constantly been evolving. The historians distinguish four periods in the development of the Polish language:
In relation to modern languages from the Slavic family, Polish is closest to Czech and farthest from Bulgarian.
Both Polish and Hungarian languages are spoken in Central Europe, and both use the Latin alphabet. Since Hungarian has been influenced by many languages in the past, the main similarity between these two languages are loanwords. However, there are also some similarities in their grammar and structure.
After the settlement of the Carpathian basin in 895, the Hungarians adopted a lot of words from the Slavs. Because of that, there are words in Hungarian that are similar to Polish words, such as:
Overall, there are around 650 cognates shared between Polish and Hungarian. In addition, Hungarian provides some loanwords to some of the mountain dialects from the South of Poland, with words such as baca (fleece worker), gazda (shepherd), and hejnał (bugle).
There are also some cognate words between Polish and Hungarian that are recognizable in numerous languages. These are mainly loanwords from different languages that Hungarian and Polish both adopted as their own:
Although overall, the grammar and structure of Polish and Hungarian are very different, they have some aspects in common. For example, both are to a point word-order flexible, although there are more rules in place for this in Polish than in Hungarian.
What’s more, both Polish and Hungarian have declension cases - however, Polish only has seven while Hungarian has eighteen (or more, depending on how you define cases)!
Hungarian is a unique language that doesn’t share many similarities even with languages from its own language group. So let’s take a closer look at what makes it so different from Polish.
Although Polish and Hungarian both use the Latin alphabet, they use letters that do not exist in English. Hungarian phonology is highly influenced by the phonology of the Uralic languages.
As a result, Hungarian has many vowel phonemes, generally more consonants than found in languages similar to Hungarian and fewer consonant clusters than English, Dutch, or German. Here are a few phonetic differences between Polish and Hungarian:
There are many differences in the grammar and structure of the Hungarian and Polish languages. Let’s analyze them:
In short: no. Polish and Hungarian are not mutually intelligible at all. In fact, Hungarian is incomprehensible to Poles who have never studied this language, and vice versa. This is the result of various differences in the linguistic structure, mainly when it comes to grammar and pronunciation.
Although there are a few similar words between these languages, the overwhelming majority of Hungarian words are not associated with any other European language.
Furthermore, Hungarian also has many sounds that do not exist in Polish and visa-versa, even though Polish pronunciation is more complicated. Thus, the chances of a Pole and a Hungarian understanding each other without speaking each other’s languages are close to none.
Native English speakers with no previous knowledge of any of the Central European languages may find both Polish and Hungarian very difficult to learn.
According to the Foreign Service Institute Language Ranking, Polish is classified in the IV category of “languages with significant linguistic and/or cultural differences from English.” According to this category, learning Polish takes about 44 weeks or 1100 hours of practice.
Hungarian, however, is classified as an even more difficult language to learn in a special category with an asterisk - category IV* - which means that it is “more difficult than other languages in the same category.” In fact, Hungarian may be one of the most challenging languages to learn for English speakers.
However, if you already speak some of the Uralic languages, learning Hungarian won’t be so challenging for you. The same goes for Polish - if you’re already a Czech, Slovak, or Russian speaker, learning Polish will be very easy.Conclusion
Although Polish and Hungarian may seem similar to someone who doesn’t speak either, they are entirely different, with only a few minor similarities, mainly due to the influences from other languages.
Polish and Hungarian are recognized as some of the most difficult European languages to learn, based on their grammar, structure, and pronunciation. Moreover, according to the FSI (Foreign Service Institute), Hungarian is even more difficult to learn than Polish.
However, it is worth noting that our individual predispositions also affect whether a given language turns out to be easy or difficult. What’s more, problems with mastering a given language can be solved in almost every case - by persistence, patience, and, above all, with the appropriate selection of a learning method.
Editor's note: You can use our free language tool to make your own vocabulary lists, and record your own phrases.