Hungarian is often thought to be particularly unique among European languages. And, to an extent, it is, especially among the languages which are commonly learned. Although there is much truth to the claims about Hungarian, there are also some misconceptions. In either case, it is definitely an interesting language to study, and, even after setting the misconceptions aside, it isn’t quite like any European language.
Many reasons are given for why Hungarian is especially an outlier. You may have heard that it is agglutinative, that it has Asian origins, or even that it’s a language isolate, meaning, that it is not part of any language family.
First, it’s important to get the misconceptions out of the way.
As of 2023, the idea of Hungarian being a language isolate is not seriously debated by linguists. Language families are, indeed, not as clear as it may seem at first. A language’s membership in a particular language family can, in fact, be debated, and there are ways to prove it. It is not a matter of opinion. And, in the case of Hungarian, there is enough evidence to list at least some languages that it is related to.
Most linguists agree that Hungarian is part of the Uralic language family, along with Finnish, Estonian, and other languages, mostly spoken in Russia. Within the Uralic family, the classification is a bit more up for debate. It is generally classified in the Ob-Ugric branch of the Finno-Ugric branch of the Uralic family, along with Khanty and Mansi in Siberia. There are, however, other theories as to how Uralic languages should be classified. There are competing theories which claim that Hungarian should not be classified as Uralic. These include classifying it with Turkic, or, as discussed earlier, as a language isolate. These theories currently are generally not accepted by mainstream linguists.
Another theory does accept the Uralic grouping, however, proposes a further expanded grouping. This is the Ural-Altaic theory, which proposes a language family which combines Uralic languages with Altaic languages, also a theoretical family, which includes Turkic, Mongolic, and Tungusic. Expanded versions of Altaic include Korean, Japanese, and sometimes Ainu.
This theory used to have more backing in the linguistic community, however, has since largely fallen out of favor. Languages within the Ural-Altaic group do have undeniable similarities in grammar and vocabulary. However, linguists have generally come to the conclusion that these are due to contact between the languages rather than a common origin. Even the Altaic family itself has generally fallen out of favor for the same reasons.
Now, for the true parts.
Hungarian definitely does have much in common with languages that have left much less influence in most other European languages. As discussed earlier, Ural-Altaic languages do have striking similarities. Some of them have very high overlap in vocabulary, as anyone who has studied both Hungarian and Turkish can see easily. The languages have similar structures, for example, they all tend to be agglutinative, meaning, in simple terms, words are made by stacking pieces which generally have precisely one meaning each. A single word in, for example, Hungarian or Turkish, is often equivalent to two or more words in an Indo-European language, which rely more on prepositions and auxiliary verbs.
Hungarian is, indeed, not in the Indo-European family. However, neither are Finnish or Estonian. This does make Hungarian somewhat unique, however, it is not accurate to say that Hungarian is the only language that stands out in Europe. Europe does actually have a true language isolate, as far as linguists can tell based on current data, and this is Basque, spoken in Spain. Even though Basque is thought to be a true isolate and Hungarian is not, it is still accurate to say that Hungarian is unique in its own way due to its parallels with Turkic languages while still being European.
Hungarian does have much more in common with Turkic languages than its family members, Finnish and Estonian, do. So, we can definitely say that it is unique in this aspect.
Although Hungarian is not an isolate, it is definitely a language which is unique in many aspects among European languages. It is important not to underestimate the unique aspects that other languages have, however, Hungarian is an interesting language for learners looking for somewhat different and is not quite like any other language in Europe.
If you are interested in learning Hungarian, we recommend trying out Mondly.