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Dictionary Review: Hungarian Practical Dictionary

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Title: Hungarian Practical Dictionary
Compiled by: Éva Szabó
Publisher: Hippocrene Books, Inc. (softcover)
ISBN: 0-7818-X
No. of Pages: 695

Catherine Bokor photo When I picked up this small dictionary of 31,000 entries, I wondered 'Why do we need a small dictionary when we have the benchmark large Országh?' The title explains it one way: it is a practical dictionary. The Preface mentions the other reason: it is a contemporary dictionary. Indeed, we all know that no matter how comprehensive a dictionary might be, it becomes obsolete by the time it emerges from the printer. An interesting phenomenon can be illustrated through the term ATM, for example. When the above-mentioned benchmark dictionary was published, this term was not very well known in Hungary. As it was the case with many of the newly created or discovered terms, several until one 'took.' The Országh dictionary translates ATM as "bankjegykiadó automata" (literal translation: banknote issuing automutomatic machine). This dictionary calls it "pénzfelvevő automata" (lit. transl. money receiving automatic machine). When I google these terms, the former has 607 hits, the latter only 25. Yet, most people would use the latter in everyday, colloquial Hungarian.

The dictionary is aimed mostly at brave Americans who are interested in learning Hungarian, but would also help Hungarians learning English.

The author makes a valiant effort to explain the intricacies of the Hungarian language, some of which I am not sure the American reader, used to a simpler structure, will be able to follow without a live teacher. The bilingual list of abbreviations is very helpful. So is the extensive pronunciation guide with special attention paid to vowel harmony.

The Appendices at the end are quite useful. I would have moved the Hungarian irregular verbs to the beginning of the book where Hungarian grammar is discussed, but perhaps the author felt that the juxtaposition of both English and Hungarian irregular verbs might be more interesting. These are followed by a listing of numbers and measurements in both languages as well as the States and Territories of the USA, inccluding their abbreviations.

An oddity at the very end is that some of the authors listed among the Works Consulted have their names in the order as used in English, with given name first, followed by a comma and family name last, as e.g., Imre, Móra Gábor, Kiss, but Pusztai Ferenc has his name in the order used in Hungarian: family name first, followed by given name with no comma.

I had some doubts about some of the entries:

Kenyér n bread; livelihood, a living-may be somewhat confusing. It is appropriate in a large dictionary but, without examples of the way the word is used in the second meaning, it is beyond the scope of a small, practical dictionary.

The dictionary does little to explain the use of the intricate system of Hungarian suffixes, except for listing some of them and giving a few sentences as examples. This list is helpful to those interested in the Hungarian language who want know what the suffixes stand for, and it is easy to apply when the suffix is a simple addition to a word, as in "mi" (nominative case) v. "mit" (accusative case). However, it must be confusing when a vowel (and not always the same vowel) is inserted between the word and the suffix -t. E.g. "könyv" (book) becomes "könyvet" v. "óra" (hour), which becomes "órát," or when the final vowel of the root word changes with the addition of the suffix: konyha (kitchen)- konyhává ([transform] into a kitchen).

Neither does the dictionary explain the consonant harmony rules, whereby the first consonant of a suffix disappears and the last consonant of the root word is doubled instead; thus the resultative suffix -vá, -vé, as in konyha - konyhá, becomes : boldog - boldog ([make somebody] happy) instead of boldog.

But then again, a relatively small dictionary like this cannot be expected to be everything to all people. Perhaps the intention was to whet the appetite of the linguistically curious to venture further into the mysteries of the Hungarian language.

I perused this dictionary page after page and could barely find a typo here and there, which is a credit to the typesetter and proofreader. I also liked the simple, clear layout, and the easy-to-read type size. It is not the typesetter's fault that Hong Kong was spelled in the English way, and not the Hungarian way, which is Hongkong.

All in all, this practical dictionary is what it says it is: a practical companion for the American traveler. It is definitely an asset for second-generation Hungarians whose mother tongue may be Hungarian, but whose dominant language is English, who know to eat chicken paprikash in Hungarian but perhaps find it difficult to talk about weapons of mass destruction, sexual harassment, or cell phone (which they will find in the dictionary), or domestic violence (which they will not). It is of little use to the translator who is supposed to be beyond this stage.

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