A Flexible Medium for Techno Talk

Analysis

It has been a busy time for us: We are running two deadlines this week (this issue of the Budapest Business Journal, plus our “Invented in Hungary” special publication), in addition to working on the annual – and always much anticipated – Book of Lists in the background.

What particularly caught my eye amid the deluge of text editing was a seemingly throwaway line from AI Coalition head Roland Jakab (whose daytime job is as managing director at Ericsson Hungary) in an interview for that “Invented in Hungary” publication. In listing fields that will be given special attention under the AI Strategy, Jakab says, “Developing trustworthy AI and making the Hungarian language ready for the age of AI are also part of the project.”

It’s the second part of that sentence that grabbed my attention. Lovers of Hungarian literature – my wife, for example – are always telling me how expressive the Hungarian language is, how you can say things in Hungarian you can in no other language. I don’t doubt that for one moment, although I am pretty sure there are things you can say in most languages which you cannot translate into another.  

Put another way, it must be apparent that there are also things you cannot say in Hungarian which you can say in other languages, and that is particularly true when it comes to technobabble. One of my earliest memories of how impenetrable Hungarian can be when you don’t speak the language was hearing two Hungarian IT guys talking to each other, the continuous flow of the magnificent Magyar nyelv broken only by references to “Vindows” and “Vinchester.”

That was 20 years ago (I doubt many people today even know that a Winchester, in this context, is an external hard drive, and not a repeating rifle), but there is still plenty of tech-buzz that does not get translated in the 2020s. I was discussing podcasts in English the other day with our bilingual eldest child when my wife asked her what “podcast” was in Hungarian. Our daughter started to answer but then stopped, looked at both of us and said, “I have no idea what that would be in Hungarian. We don’t have a word for that.” She seemed genuinely bemused and a little disappointed by that, more so when she remembered that there isn’t a phrase for “social media” either.  

It seems faintly ridiculous that a language as emotive as Hungarian cannot get to grips with “social media”, which is, after all, composed of two words, both of which have Hungarian alternatives. I guess the problem lies with getting at the concept behind “social media”, but to be honest that is equally missing in the English; but we know what we mean and just plow on anyway.  

To be clear, I do not think it is worth expending any legislative manhours on artificially forcing the adoption of Hungarian words over foreign (mostly English) borrow words, but I do think Hungarians should be able to discuss “social media”, and perhaps even “podcasts” in their own language.

In any case, I am pretty sure the AI Coalition doesn’t have in mind the sort of language reform – although I am told nyelvújítás literally means “language renewal” – that Hungarian went through in the 19th century thanks to the likes of the scholar Ferenc Kazinczy. He, as Britannica.com puts it, “fought to improve the language: he initiated reforms of grammar, spelling, and style that made Hungarian a more flexible medium for literary expression.” What is required today may not be “reform” or “renewal”, but a “flexible medium” certainly sounds like a very good idea.

Robin Marshall

Editor-in-chief

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