Existential Perfect in Hungarian

Hungarian uses only stress and a change in word order to express a meaning sometimes called the existential perfect. This meaning refers to an event that occurred at least once in the past or will occur at least once in the future. The number of times the event occurred (or will occur) is indefinite).

Background: existential perfect

Researchers have identified 4 main uses of the perfect:

  1. Perfect of persistent situation / universal perfect:
    (Kati has lived in Budapest since last year [and still lives there])
  2. Perfect of result / stative perfect.
    (Kati has already arrived [and is still here])
  3. Perfect of recent news / hot news perfect
    (the president has just been assassinated)
  4. Experiential perfect / existential perfect
    (the use discussed in this post)

Background: Hungarian

In typical Hungarian sentences, the verb immediately follows a verbal modifier. Various types of verbal modifier exist, including: a verbal prefix (rather like separable prefixes in German); bare nominal objects; bare nominal oblique complements; predicative nouns and adjectives; and bare infinitives. Here are examples of the first 3 types:


Each example gives a literal English translation (with a full stop used to link components that are part of the same written word) and also a more natural English translation.

  1. Felmentem a toronyba
    up.went.I the tower.into
    I went up into the tower
  2. Kati ebédet fözzött
    Kati lunch cooked
    Kati cooked lunch
  3. Kati Budapesten lakott
    Kati Budapest.in lived
    Kati lived in Budapest

In example 1, the verbal modifier is fel and the verb is mentem. The two are are customarily written as a single word, though this type of prefix behaves in exactly the same way as other modifiers that are customarily written as two words (ebédet in 2 and Budapesten in 3).


Form of existential perfect

The existential perfect is formed by placing the verbal modifier immediately after the verb and typically also placing the adverb már (already) between them, though már is typically optional, except as noted below. In addition, the verb bears a strong stress, shown in the 3 examples by bold type:

  1. Mentem (már) fel a toronyba
    went.I (already) up the tower.into
    I have (already) been up at least once into the tower
  2. Kati fözzött (már) ebédet
    Kati cooked (already) lunch
    Kati has (already) cooked lunch at least once
  3. Kati lakott (már) Budapesten
    Kati lived (already) Budapest.in
    Katie had (already) lived in Budapest at least once [and no longer lives there]

Negative and focus

If a Hungarian sentence contains a negative particle or a focussed element, the verb must immediately follow that negative particle or focussed element:

  1. Nem mentem fel a toronyba
    not went.I up the tower.into
    I didn’t go up into the tower
  2. KATI fözzött ebédett
    Kati.focus cooked lunch
    It was Kati [and not someone else] who cooked lunch
  3. KATI lakott Budapesten
    Kati.focus lived Budapest.in
    It was Kati [and not someone else] who lived in Budapest

Existential sentences can also be formed from the above 3 examples, but must include már as this is the only unambiguous signal that the sentence is the existential form and not just a normal past tense:

  1. Nem mentem már fel a toronyba
  2. KATI fözzött már ebédett
  3. KATI lakott már Budapesten

Repeatability

Piñón argues that the existential perfect can only be used to describe an event that is repeatable. He gives the following examples of sentences that are unacceptable because they are not repeatable:

  1. * Kati születt (már) Budapesten
    Kati was.born (already) Budapest.in
    * Kati has been born in Budapest before
  2. * Kati ette (már) meg az almát
    Kati ate (already) previously the apple
    * Kati has eaten the apple before
  3. * Kati ment (már) férjhez Tomáshoz
    Kati went (already) husband.to Tomás.to
    * Kati has already married Tomás before.

These examples are unacceptable because Kati can only have been born once, can only have eaten the same apple once and (typically) can only have married Tomás once. But similar acceptable examples can be made using indefinite nouns, thus allowing repetition. For example:

  • Születtek (már) Budapesten hires emberek
    Were born (already) Budapest.in famous people
    Famous people have been born in Budapest before
  • Kati evett (már) almát
    Kati ate (already) apple
    Kati has eaten an apple before
    [the verb is evett here because the object is indefinite, but ette in the earlier example, where the object is definite]
  • Tomáshoz mentek (már) férjhez gazdag nök
    Tomás.to went (already) husband.to wealthy women
    Wealthy women have (already) married Tomás before.

Future existential

All examples above focus on past tenses, but the existential can also be used to refer to the future. The future existential is formed in the same way as the past existential, but using the present tense of the verb (not the past tense) and using the (optional) adverb még (still) instead of már. Example:

  1. Kati megy (még) fel a toronyba
    Kati goes (still) up the tower.into
    Kati will (still) go up into the tower at least once

Sources

The effects summarised in this post are subtle, and I haven’t seen them mentioned in learning materials, so it would be easy to miss them in reading or listening. I found out about them only from linguistics books.

The Existential Tense in Hungarian by Christophe Piñón, in The Nature of the Word: studies in honor of Paul Kiparsky (2009)

The Syntax of Hungarian (2002), by Katalin É. Kiss

Perfect Tense and Aspect (Marie-Evitz Ritz) in The Oxford Handbook of Tense and Aspect (2012)

One comment

  1. This reminds me of the Finnish (a related language) that I encountered when I worked at Nokia. We were offered free Finnish lessons, but I was one of the few people who accepted. I fondly recall the delights of nouns with 15 cases, verbs with four different infinitives, and the “fourth person”: a sentence with no subject.

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