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Finnish and Hungarian: Language Similarities and Differences

Finnish and Hungarian come from the same family of languages: the Uralic languages. This sets them apart from most languages that are spoken in Europe.

The vast majority of languages spoken in Europe come from the Indo-European family of languages, which does not include Uralic languages such as Hungarian and Finnish.

For instance, out of the 24 official languages of the European Union, 20 belong to the Indo-European family of languages. The 4 others are Finnish, Hungarian, Estonian, and Maltese.

Finnish and Hungarian vocabulary is quite different (we'll see examples of this), but there are many interesting similarities between the grammatical structures of these two languages. For instance:

There are fewer resources for learning Finnish and Hungarian than some other languages, like Spanish and French —but Finnish and Hungarian are among the languages available in the Pimsleur Language Program.

Finnish and Hungarian: a common origin but substantial differences.

Romance languages (French, Italian, Spanish, etc..) share many similarities because they all originate from Latin. They started to diverge from Latin at the fall of the Roman empire about 1500 years ago.

In contrast, Finnish and Hungarian diverged from their common ancestor language (the Proto-Uralic language) over 4000 years ago. This is why Hungarian is much less similar to Finnish than French is to Italian.

diagram showing the relationship between Finnish and Hungarian within the Uralic family of languages

Hungarian and Finnish are on two separate branches of the Uralic language tree. Hungarian is on the “Ugric” branch, while Finnish is on the “Finnic” branch (together with Estonian).

As a result, the similarity between Finnish and Hungarian is much smaller than the similarity between Finnish and Estonian.

Finnish vs. Hungarian vocabulary words

Although Hungarian and Finnish both belong to the same family of languages, their vocabulary is not as close as one might imagine.

Here are some examples of basic vocabulary words in Hungarian and Finnish:

Table: Examples of basic vocabulary words in Finnish and Hungarian
English Hungarian Finnish
love szerelem rakkaus
snow lumi
freedom szabadság vapautta
happiness boldogság onnellisuus
mother anya äiti
soft puha pehmeä
moon hold kuu
peace béke rauhaa
dog kutya koira
friend barátja ystävä
tree fa puu
forest erdő metsä
beautiful szép kaunis
bird madár lintu
water víz vettä

These pairs of words were selected somewhat randomly. This means that we did not try to pick words that are particularly similar between finishing Hungarian, nor did we try to pick words that are particularly different between Hungarian and Finnish.

We did pay attention to select vocabulary words that represent concepts that have been around for ages.

Looking at these pairs of words and how the similarities between them are far from obvious, we can understand why it wasn't until the 17th century that linguists realized that Hungarian and Finnish had a common ancestor language.

This is in contrast to Finnish and Estonian which share many obvious similarities in their vocabulary.

The similarities between Hungarian and Finnish are less visible in their vocabulary, and more visible in the grammatical structures which are shared between these languages.

Finnish and Hungarian are both genderless languages

It is rare for topics related to linguistics to make the news, but gender-neutral pronouns are one of them.

Finnish and Hungarian are both languages that do not have gendered pronouns. They only have gender-neutral pronouns.

Finnish and Hungarian both use many grammatical cases

Finnish and Hungarian are among the languages with the most grammatical cases. Finnish has 15 grammatical cases and Hungarian has 18.

To put this in perspective, compare it with German which has 4 cases, and Russian which has 6 cases.

Languages that have grammatical case systems use inflections (typically adding suffixes to words) to indicate the grammatical relationship between the different words in a sentence.

The use of these inflections to indicate grammatical cases is not very familiar to many English speakers because English has mostly lost its grammatical case system over time.

The English language now mostly relies on prepositions to indicate the relationships between nouns in a phrase. English prepositions are words such as “in”, “on”, “to”, etc...

Because of their extensive grammatical case system languages such as Finnish and Hungarian have sentences with fewer words than their English equivalents (which make use of many articles and prepositions)

Below is the same sentence in English, Hungarian, and Finnish. Notice how fewer words are in the Hungarian and Finnish sentences compared to the English sentence.

English I left the key in the house 8 words
Hungarian A kulcsot a házban hagytam 5 words
Finnish Jätin avaimen taloon 3 words

Here is another example:

English my brother gave me the book 7 words
Hungarian a bátyám adta a könyvet 6 words
Finnish veljeni antoi minulle kirjan 4 words

Finnish and Hungarian are languages that distinguish vowel lengths

Finnish and Hungarian are both languages that distinguish vowel length. In these languages, there is a distinction between short vowels and long vowels.

In most languages, the length of a vowel does not change the meaning of a word, but in Finnish and Hungarian it does.

Finnish and Hungarian differ in the way that they indicate long vowels:

Short Vowel Long Vowel
Finnish tuli (fire) tuuli (wind)
Hungarian fel (up) fél (half)

Although they distinguish vowel length, Finnish and Hungarian are not tonal languages. In tonal languages (such as Chinese, Vietnamese and Thai), different tonal inflections such as a rising voice or a falling voice while pronouncing a vowel can lead to different words.

How difficult is it to learn Finnish or Hungarian

Of the languages spoken in Europe, Hungarian, and Finnish are certainly among the most difficult for English speakers to learn.

The foreign service Institute which has substantial experience teaching languages to diplomats has observed the average time for students to become proficient in various languages. From these observations, they have created a ranking of languages in terms of how difficult they are for English speakers to learn.

They have classified both Hungarian and Finnish as category 3 languages. These are known as the “hard languages” which have significant differences compared to English.

This means that learning Hungarian or Finnish is going to be harder than learning a category 1 language such as Spanish or Norwegian. But it is going to be easier than learning a category 4 language (“super-hard languages”) such as Chinese or Japanese.

Many factors affect the difficulty of learning a particular language, for instance, one's affinity for that language and its culture.

To continue learning about the similarities and differences between Hungarian and Finnish, have a look at these lists of the 1000 most common Hungarian words, and the 1000 most common Finnish words.