Word order I

Hungarian language is much more flexible in the sense of word order than the Indo-European languages, especially English. The reason is the suffixes; while in English the location of a word in a sentence determines its word class (part of speech), in Hungarian the suffixes determine it.

In English the word play can be subject, object or verb without any suffixes:

  • subject: The play starts at 5 o’lock in the National Theater.
  • object: The director presents the play.
  • verb: We play soccer every Friday.

In Hungarian the noun játék (game, play) is put to Accusative case (játékot) if its role in the sentence is object, and changes to játszik, if it’s a verb (to play). For this reason it doesn’t have that big importance which order we put the words inside a sentence. However this flexibility doesn’t mean that it doesn’t matter at all how we order the words; there are always orders which “sound well”, which is used by native people in converstions, while there are other orders which sound not that well, or sound well only in some situations when we want to emphasize a word, and also there are orders which sound very very weird. In Hungarian we can emphasize words or imply different things by changing the word order (bringing the word to be emphasized earlier in the sentence).

Let’s see the English word order:
Julia writes a letter in the living room afternoon.
1. subject 2. verb  3. object 4. adverb of place 5. time adverb

If we want to translate this sentence into Hungarian without emphasizing any of the word and without implying anything more that the English sentence says, then we should follow the following word order (let’s call it neutral word order):

Júlia délután levelet ír a nappaliban.
1. subject 2. time adverb 3. object 4. verb 5. adverb of place

ír write
levél letter
nappali living room
délután afternoon

Of course any of the parts of speech can be left out of the sentence. So if we miss the time adverb and adverb of place, then we get a simple sentence:

Júlia levelet ír. (= Julia writes a letter.)
1. subject 2. object 3. verb

Now let’s see how can we emphasize different words of the sentence, and imply things (the emphasized word is in bold). The word to be emphasized is brought to the first place in the sentence and/or before the verb.

emphasizing Hungarian sentence English translation comment
the object Levelet ír Júlia a nappaliban délután. Julia writes a letter (and not something else…) in the living room afternoon.
the subject Júlia ír levelet a nappaliban délután. Julia (and not someone else…) writes a letter in the living room afternoon. the subject is already the first in the sentence, so emphasizing it we have to bring the verb immediately after it
the time adverb Délután ír levelet Júlia a nappaliban. Afternoon (and not other time…) Julia writes a letter in the living room. In this case the English word afternoon can also be brought forward
the adverb of place A nappaliban ír levelet Júlia délután. Julia writes a letter in the living room (and not somewhere else…) both cases the adverb of place was brought earlier in the sentence which emphasizes it, however in the second case it wasn’t brought to the first place
Júlia a nappaliban ír levelet délután.
the place- and time adv. together Délután a nappaliban ír levelet Júlia. Afternoon Julia writes a letter in the living room (and in the morning or evening she might write the letter somewhere else…) in this case the time- and place adverbs were emphasized together
the place adv. and the subject Délután Júlia ír levelet a nappaliban. Afternoon Julia writes a letter in the living room (and in the morning or evening someone else might write the letter in the living room…)

And other orders can be suitable for different situations.

What are inflexible in Hungarian sentences

  • The Attributive Adjectives must stand before the noun what it applies to, just like in English (a szép lány = the beautiful girl). If an adjective stands after the noun then it’s predicative adjective ( a lány szép =the girl is beautiful).
  • The possessor has to stand before the possessed thing. (Péter felesége. = Peter’s wife.)

see Word order II (open questions, negative sentences)
see Word order III (coverbs, auxiliaries, etc. in the sentence)
see Word order IV (summary table)


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