The Ultimate Expat Guide to Budapest: Part 4 - Language & Customs

  • 21 Dec 2023 7:11 AM
The Ultimate Expat Guide to Budapest: Part 4 - Language & Customs
In the fourth part in our series aimed to help expats and potential expats orientate themselves, we focus on the key to a more enjoyable experience while you’re here: learning Hungarian and understanding local customs.

What makes Hungarian so special?

Related, structurally at least, to Finnish and Estonian, Hungarian is a Finno-Ugric language, with roots beyond the Ural mountains in deepest Russia. This means that it’s neither Germanic, Slavic nor Latin, the types of languages spoken in the countries surrounding Hungary. If you know Italian, you can probably get the gist of Romanian. If Russian, then Serbian isn’t such a big leap. Nothing prepares you for Hungarian.

Which doesn’t mean to say that it’s impossible – in fact, in many ways, it’s easier than any Germanic or Slavic language. Its grammar has no cases or genders, meaning you don’t have to learn tables of endings or remember if a noun is feminine or not. The verbs are pretty straightforward.

Pronunciation, too, in that Hungarian is phonetic, what you see on the page is what you say. It’s also spoken very clearly and reasonably slowly, not like the high-speed car chase of Spanish, say.

Hungarian is special for two main reasons, apart from the singularity of its locality: its vocabulary and its structure.

Vocab first. Much as the roots of Hungarian are exotic, so are many of its words. Seemingly universal ones such as police, university and passport come out as rendőrség, egyetem and útlevél.

But learning completely new words for everyday objects – window, shop, flower – is just a case of memorising them, the same as you know your pin code or a parent’s birthday. Ez nem rakétatudomány! It’s not rocket science.

The structure is trickier. Briefly speaking, Hungarian adds the prepositions – at, to, from – to the end of the word. So, instead of ‘to Budapest’, you say ‘Budapestto’. (There’s also a sneaky thing they do in that it’s a different ‘to’ for most Hungarian cities than foreign ones, but what’s a language without exceptions?)

And if you use the wrong one, you’ll probably be understood in any case. Word order is flexible and Hungarian uses Latin script – with a twist. This is the one final unique quality of Hungarian: two of its letters don’t appear in any other language, namely ő and ű. Yes, cs, ny, zs and a few others also make up the 44-letter alphabet, but these at least look familiar!

Why learn Hungarian?

These days, many people under the age of 50, certainly in Budapest and definitely in the service industries, speak some kind of English.

This doesn’t mean to say you shouldn’t learn even a modicum of Hungarian, if only to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ in shops. Delving deeper might help you integrate more effectively into Hungarian society. Depending on how long and why you’re planning to stay, by speaking Hungarian, you can build stronger relationships with your Hungarian colleagues and friends. It also makes it easier to navigate daily life, even just reading signs or asking the way.

Learning another language, particularly one as out there as Hungarian, is an excellent mental workout. It challenges your brain to think in new and different ways, improving cognitive function and memory retention. The complex grammar and vocabulary of Hungarian require concentration and focus, which can improve your attention span and problem-solving abilities. Research has also shown that learning a new language can stave off cognitive decline and delay the onset of dementia.

It may also give you a significant advantage in the job market. While many multinational companies in Hungary operate in English, there are sectors where Hungarian language skills are highly valued. By demonstrating your them, you show a commitment to the country and culture, which can be an attractive quality to potential employers.

You may even find that you develop a deeper appreciation for Hungarian culture and a greater sense of connection to your adopted country.

Where to study Hungarian?

There are many private schools, colleges and universities in Budapest that offer Hungarian lessons and courses, from beginner’s upwards. Alternatively, you can choose from one of the popular online language courses and learn Hungarian in your own time and at your own speed.

You could also exchange lessons with a local who would like to practise their English, always a fun and affordable way to learn.

Wherever you are, if you’re keen to learn, there’s no harm in building up your vocabulary by making your own memory cards, with the word in each language on each side. Set your own target, ten a day, say, and go back over the two or three that you can’t quite remember. Take them around with you, and do your daily quota during downtime, on the bus, say, or in your lunchbreak. You’ll be amazed how you can build up a lexicon of several hundred words in a relatively short time – which is all you need for basic, everyday conversation. 

What are the main Hungarian customs?

Language is tied with certain customs, of course. Hungarians use their surname first, and then their Christian name – Smith John, if you like, Kovács János.

Hungarians are inveterate greeters – not just friends and neighbours, but anyone you pass on the staircase in a building, in a lift, in the doctor’s waiting room, should probably be greeted with a ‘Jó napot kívánok!’, a ‘Good Day!’

There are variations, of course, the more familiar szia (‘Hi’) acting like ciao in Italian, for hello and goodbye.

Hungarians are also old-school polite, letting people off metro carriages first, giving up their seat for an ageing passenger and holding the door open for the person behind if entering or leaving a building.

Other customs are more obscure. Not clinking glasses when drinking beer relates to a tragic event from 1849 when the Austrians hung revolutionary Hungarians and celebrated afterwards.

Hungarian days of celebration and remembrance

As for local celebrations, every Hungarian has a name day. Those with the most popular names can even choose between two or three days in the year, usually the one furthest from their birthday. Christmas is spent at home, behind closed doors, with present giving on 24 December. New Year is for revelry. Easter coincides with spring rites, when the menfolk sprinkle, perhaps shower, women with cheap perfume and water on Easter Monday.

Of the more solemn public holidays, 23 October is the memorial of the 1956 Uprising, 1 November is All Saints’ Day, when departed family members and friends are remembered in cemeteries across the land. On 20 August, the nation’s founding father, St Stephen, is celebrated with a huge fireworks display, while 15 March marks another Hungarian uprising, that of 1848.

This article is part of a series of guides for expats in Hungary published by, the leading media portal serving the international community here since January 2001.

Xpatloop seeks to facilitate a better understanding, appreciation and enjoyment of life in Hungary for expats and locals alike. We are a trusted source for news, views and information, aimed at enhancing co-operation between people, companies and organisations operating in expat-related circles.

Words by Peterjon Cresswell for
Peterjon has been researching the byways of Budapest for 30 years, extending his expertise across Europe to produce guidebooks for Time Out and his own website

Related links

The Ultimate Expat Guide to Budapest: Part 3 - Getting Around

The Ultimate Expat Guide to Budapest: 2 - Getting Here

The Ultimate Expat Guide to Budapest: 1 - Why Budapest?

  • How does this content make you feel?

Explore More Reports

  • Xpat Explainer: Bálint Nap in Hungary - Valentine's Day

    Xpat Explainer: Bálint Nap in Hungary - Valentine's Day

    • 7 Feb 2024 6:52 AM

    As we all know, Valentine's Day is a day to celebrate with your significant other, perhaps a time to revisit memorable places and enjoy a romantic dinner. It has only been celebrated in Hungary since 1990 however, and the equivalent of Valentine here is the name Bálint, whose name day falls on 14 February.

  • Insiders Guide: Busójárás Fest in Hungary – Say Goodbye to Winter & Welcome Spring

    Insiders Guide: Busójárás Fest in Hungary – Say Goodbye to Winter & Welcome Spring

    • 1 Feb 2024 11:43 AM

    Like in many other countries around the world, Hungary has a rich tradition of saying farewell to winter and welcoming spring, replete with special customs and beliefs. Busójárás festival in Mohács stands out as one of the most significant and widely recognised traditions here, earning it a coveted spot on the UNESCO World Heritage List. This year more than seventy Busó groups will mark the winter solstice in Hungary, with a record number of 2500 masked individuals celebrating between 8 -13 February.