Saturday, September 7, 2013

Willy the Sparrow sums up academic education

So here is another cult scene from the collective Hungarian childhood.

The cartoon is called Vili a Veréb (Willy the Sparrow, not to be confused with Sparrows of other names). At the beginning of the story the Sparrow Fairy (not to be confused with her friend the Cat Fairy, for example) turns a boy named Vili into a sparrow as a punishment for shooting at sparrows from his window on his sick day off school. After the family cat chases him off the windowsill and out into the wilderness of an urban park, Vili is left to the good will of other (natural) sparrows to learn to survive, fly, avoid cats, get rid of lice, visit the horse race tracks, and other vital parts of bird life. An old and wise sparrow called Cipur takes him under his wings (quite literally) and offers to teach him all he needs to know. In exchange, he wants something only Vili possesses: the knowledge to read. Cipur collects shredded pieces of paper with letters on them, hoping to become more like humans by learning to decipher them on his own.
In the scene where Vili first attempts to demonstrate the skill of reading to his old mentor, the shredded piece reads as follows:

"Empirio-criticism, also called Machism, is a subjective idealist philosophical trend opposed to materialism, denying the existence of the material world independent of the human mind and..." Vili glances up "... the rest is torn off."

Cipur stares at him in awe and wonder:

"You can understand that?!"

Vili shurgs.

"Heck no. But I can read it."

For people like me who grew up watching this cartoon over and over again, this quote became the quintessential description of life in academia. Also, now we all know the first half of the definition of Machism. Philosophy degree, here I come.

(Full movie in Hungarian on the link above. Sadly, no English translation yet.)

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

The Name Game

One of the most obvious things that make Hungarians different from other people is the names that NO ONE CAN EVER SPELL RIGHT EVER. Actually, telling your name to someone abroad has been a pretty good tool for determining if that person is worth your time at all. Reactions range from the classic taxi dispatch's "ARE YOU ***ING KIDDING ME?" through "I'll just write it phonetically..." and "Can you write it down for me please?" all the way to "Repeat it please, I want to make sure I pronounce it right."
And spelling and pronunciation are the least of our troubles.

Names are one of those things I have never considered hungarikum until I came to the USA, and then suddenly there was a whole lot to explain. So, here we go,


1. We put the family name first. This is our ancient mystic tool of evil that we use to confuse foreigners into submission and conquer their lands. (Zalka Csenge)

2. Following the logic of reverse name order, the middle name comes last. (Zalka Csenge Virág)

3. A lot of us are Catholic. That means two extra names for baptism (patron saint) and confirmation (you get to pick a name when you are fourteen years old! Who came up with that?!) (Zalka Csenge Virág Anna Izabell)

4. We have name days. That's right, Game of Thrones got nothing on us! You get a birthday every year, and then a name day based on which day of the calendar is assigned to your name, and if you are very lucky, you have a middle name too, and your family remembers to celebrate it. The good thing about name days is that they are built into the calendar, which means a lot more people remember them than birthdays.

5. We have a Book of Names (Boy Names and Girl Names, respectively). Kid you not. Names in Hungary have to be approved by the Linguistic department of the Academy of Sciences, and then they get into the book. Every year they publish a list of newly approved names. Currently there are 1484 male and 1916 female names approved. The cost of registering a new name is 3000Ft (app. 13 dollars).

6. There is an urban legend going around claiming that the only names forbidden to ever be approved are God, Jesus, and Satan. I have not been able to confirm this, but pretty much everyone says it (would explain why we don't have a lot of Hispanic immigrants). Officially, reasons for not approving a name can be: they are spelled foreign (our spelling for Jennifer is Dzsenifer), can be male or female in other cultures (I KNOW RIGHT?!), are foreign last names (whuut?), too common nouns (Rainbow... there goes the Hungarian hippie movement), cartoon characters (seriously), or "too endearing" (?!). The official statement claims these rules are in position to protect the children (implied: from dumb parents).

7. The only exception to this rule are registered ethnic minorities, they can give whatever names they want. Hence, kids with names that range from Tarzan to Sandokan, and various classic South American soap opera characters (Isaura).

8. As of now, a lot of new names made their way to the Approved list. Hungarian parents now can have little Gandalfs, Frodos, Anakins, Amidalas, and other popular choices.

9. The most popular boy names in 2012 were (starting from the top): Bence (Ben), Máté (Matthew), Levente, Ádám (Adam), and Dávid (David). The most popular girl names were Hanna, Anna, Jázmin (Jasmine), Nóra (Nora) and Csenge.

10. In the past years there have been a huge movement for giving Hungarian children "good old" or in many cases "ancient traditional Hungarian" names. That is how my name, Csenge, made it to the top 5, even though when I was born no one even knew such a name existed. Fun fact: Csenge is Turkish in origin. Given the history of Hungarians and our language, it is pretty hard to tell what names are "ancient Hungarian" and what others we have picked up along the road in the past few thousand years.

+1: Popular "names of Hungarian origin" include (boys) Ákos, Álmos, Árpád, Bendegúz, Csaba, Csongor, Elek, Farkas (wolf, incidentally also means 'animal with a tail'), Gyula, Géza, Huba, Kolos, Levente, Szabolcs, Zsolt, Zsombor, Zoltán and (girls), Csenge, Emese, Hanga (heather), Ibolya, Piroska (also our name for Little Red), Réka, Sarolta, Tímea, Virág. And, of course, tons of others. See all the names under the links.