Problems with Verbal Prefixes (or Coverbs)


GOOD ADVICE IN ADVANCE: knowing when to choose a verbal prefix and which to choose requires a knowledge of the shades of meanings Hungarian verbs can have.

1. In the present tense verbal prefixes (coverbs) can add shades to the verb. These shades can be direction and perfectivity in the future.

NOTE! The general rule is that Hungarian verbs without verbal prefixes have a continous aspect in any tense and mode.

– DIRECTION:

Megyek a pincébe. <> Lemegyek a pincébe.
I’m going to the cellar. <> I’m going down to the cellar.

Sétálunk a parkban. <> Kisétálunk a parkba.
We’re walking in the park. <> We’re walking out to the park.

Ugrál az ágyon. <> Felugrál az ágyra.
He’s jumping on the bed. <> He keeps jumping up to the bed.

– PERFECTIVITY IN THE FUTURE:

a)

Megyek a boltba. <> Elmegyek a boltba.
I’m going to the shop. <> I’m going to the shop./I’ll go to the shop.

Megyek a boltba expresses a continous aspect. I’m going to the shop right now as I’m talking. Elmegyek a boltba refers to the direction el-away because the shop is farther away from where I am now and to the perfectivity in the future because I expressed the wish of going to the shop. That’s where I will be sometime in the future. It can also express a promise (I’ll go).

Elmegyek a boltba > és mikor befejeztem az odamenetelt, vagyis megérkeztem, ott leszek.
I’m going to the shop > and when I stopped going to that place, that is I have arrived, I will be there.

You see there is no equivalent of the verbal prefix el in the English sentence because it simply expresses completion and in this case it does not have the meaning equivalent to away.

As you can see, if verbal prefixes indicating a direction are attached to verbs expressing motion, the indication of direction is implied even though the point is perfecitivity.

b)

Nézem a műsort. <> Megnézem a műsort.
I’m watching the show. <> I’ll watch the show.

Nézem a műsort expresses a continous aspect. I’m watching the show right now as I’m talking. Megnézem a műsort cannot refer to any direction as watching something has no direction. That’s why meg- is used and not el-. It definitely refers to the future because as you can see the English sentence changed, too. Hungarian uses present tense with the aspect of completion expressed by meg-, which is expressed in English by Simple Future Tense (I’ll watch).

2. What happens to this phenomenon in the past tense?

Well, it is clearer because the Hungarian past tense can only refer to the past tense (in contrast with the present tense with the sense of future actions). That is proved by the English sentences, too.

a)

Mentem a boltba. <> Elmentem a boltba.
I was going to the shop. <> I went to the shop.

Mentem a boltba expresses a continous aspect. I was going to the shop right at the moment as Iwas talking. Elmentem a boltba refers to the direction el-away because the shop was farther away from where I was then and to the perfectivity in the past because I stated the fact that I went to the shop. That’s where I was in the past. An action that happened once: I went to the shop and I was there. End of story.

b)

Néztem a műsort. <> Megnéztem a műsort.
I was watching the show. <> I watched the show.

Néztem a műsort expresses a continous aspect. I was watching the show right at the moment as I was talking. Megnéztem a műsort cannot refer to any direction as watching something has no direction. That’s why meg- is used and not el-. It definitely refers to the past because as you can see the English sentence changed, too. Hungarian uses past tense with the aspect of completion expressed by meg-, which is expressed in English by Simple Past Tense (I watched).

3. Generally speaking, any verbal prefix can be used to express completion if a certain direction is implied.

a)

Jövök a kirándulásról. <> Visszajövök a kirándulásról.
I’m coming from the excursion. <> I’m coming back/I’ll come back from the excursion.
Jöttem a kirándulásról. <> Visszajöttem a kirándulásról.
I was coming from the excursion. <> I came back from the excursion.

Mutatjuk a grafikont. <> mutatunk a grafikonra.
We’re showing the diagram. <> We’re pointing at the diagram.
Mutattuk a grafikont. <> mutattunk a grafikonra.
We were showing the diagram. <> We pointed at the diagram.

True enough, Rámutattunk a grafikonra can also mean We were pointing at the diagram as Hungarian does not have specifically a different time for continuous past tense. In this case it is the context that matters.

Rámutattunk a grafikonra és mindenki odanézett.
We pointed at the diagram and all looked at it.

Rámutattunk a grafikonra, miközben mindenki odanézett.
We were pointing at the diagram while all were looking at it.

And that’s where there can be a little bit more confusion because rámutattunk indicates a direction and completion at the same time. The form megmutat exist just as well, with no sense of direction. Let’s see the difference:

Mutattuk a grafikont. – We were showing the diagram.
Megmutattuk a grafikont. – We showed the diagram.
Rámutattunk a grafikonra. – We pointed at the diagram.

Not only a different verbal prefix, but a different meaning, too. That different meaning can be seen in English as it uses a different verb for it (point and not show). Plus, the English preposition at expresses the Hungarian rá- requiring the postposition -ra meaning onto. Literally: We pointed at onto the diagram.

b) Verbs that don’t express motion take meg-, el-. Despite the fact that el- means away, it has a neutral meaning of completion just like meg-. It is also a question of memorizing such verbs.

Verbs with no aspect of motion:

Megláttam a lányt az utcán. – I noticed the girl in the street.
Megérezte, hogy baj lesz. – He had a feeling that there would be trouble.
Megköszönték a vendéglátást. – They said thank you for the hospitality.

Elkezdett hadarni. – She started jabbering.
Elmondtuk, hogyan történt. – We told how it had happened.
Elvégeztem a feladatot. – I finished/completed the task.

c) There are verbs with no aspect of motion that can have both meg- and el- for expressing completion with apparently no change in the meaning.

Elmondtuk, hogyan történt. – We told how it has happened.
Megmondtuk, mit tegyél. – We told you what to do.

Elkezdtem írni. – I started writing.
Megkezdtem az írást. – I started writing.
>In this case both sentences mean the same, but take a different part of speech (first verb, second noun). The first sentence is used in 99% of the cases.

Sometimes it is a matter of choosing like above, other times it is about an idiomatic expression.

Megmondtuk az igazat. – We told the truth. (a while ago)

4. What if we separate the verbal prefix from the verb and make it follow the verb?

Let’s see an example:

Megyek a padlásra. – I’m going to the attic.
Felmegyek a padlásra. – I’m going up to the attic./I’ll go up to the attic.
Megyek fel a padlásra. – I’m going up the the attic.

So what’s the difference between Megyek a padlásra and Megyek fel a padlásra? The fundamental rule of continuity is definitely there. Verbs with no verbal prefixes have a continuous aspect. So why then Megyek fel is continuous? Because it is more the emphatic sense the speaker wants to express then a grammatical rule.

An example for present tense whe the action is more important:

-Mit csináltok? –Sétálunk ki a piacra.
-What are you doing? -We’re walking (out) to the market
-Azt hittem, kocsival mentek. -Nem. Mondom, hogy sétálunk ki a piacra.
-I thought you’d go by car. -No. I’m telling you we’re walking to the market.

Sometimes Hungarian uses present tense to tell a story that happened in the past.You can use this when you think the action is really important. Watch this:

“Úgy döntöttem, hogy szombaton rendet teszek a padláson. Végül is semmi dolgom nem volt. A pincét is ki kellett volna takarítani, de ahhoz két hétvége sem lenne elég. Na mindegy. Megyek fel a padlásra, amikor zajt hallok fentről. Kinyitom a padlásajtót. Hát nem egy rusnya macska rohangál fent!”

Here’s the translation:

“I decided to tidy the attic up on Saturday. After all, I had nothing to do. The cellar should’ve been done, too, but even two weekends wouldn’t be enough for that. Whatever. I’m going up to the attic when I hear some noise. I open the attic door. And, of course, it is an ugly cat running around up there!”

The speaker wanted to put emphasis on the action as he/she was going up to the attic. Some more examples:

Indulok ki a garázsból, amikor elém áll a szomszéd és…
I’m about to leave the garage when the neighbour stands in front of me and…

Mondom neki, hogy hallgasson, de ő csak kiabál vissza nekem.
I keep telling him to be quiet, but all he’s doing is shouting back to me.

Egy csomó autó várt a zöld lámpára, a pasas meg csak fordul be a kereszteződésbe.
There were lots of cars waiting for the green light, but the guy just keeps turning in the junction.

5. Change in the meaning.

Verbs with no aspect of motion can still be given a direction. The meaning may change or not. It is a matter of memorization.

A fiú virágot ad a lánynak.
The boy gives a flower to the girl.

A fiú odaadja a virágot a lánynak.
The boy gives the flower to the girl.
>It means the same, but oda- emphasizes the direction (to the girl).

A lány visszaadja a virágot.
The girl gives the flower back.

A fiú feladja.
The boy gives up.

Verbs with an aspect of motion can be given a direction, too. The meaning may change or not. It is a matter of memorization.

A fiú fut a lányhoz.
The boy is running to the girl.

A fiú odafut a lányhoz.
The boy is running up to the girl.

A lány elfut a fiútól és befut a házba.
The girl is running away from the boy and is running in the house.

A lány összefut egy másik fiúval a házban.
The girl runs into another boy in the house.

A lány visszafut, ahol még várja az első fiú.
The girl is running back where the first boy is still waiting for her.

A lány átfut a hídon, de a másik oldalon is mindenhol fiúkat lát.
The girl is running over the bridge, but all she can see on the other side is boys.

A lány már össze-vissza/oda-vissza fut az üldözői elől.
The girl is now running around/back and forth from her pursuers.

6. Everyday conversation.

– Hoznál tejfölt? (-Would you bring some sour cream?)
– Igen, hoznék. (-Yes, I would.)
– Akkor menj el a boltba. (-Then go to the shop.)

A fiú felöltözött és kilépett az ajtón, amikor visszakiabált:
(The boy put on his clothes and stepped outside when he shouted back:)

– Mentem! (-I’m gone.)

You don’t see elmentem. Because both members of this conversation knew the context. Obviously, the boy didn’t want to talk about the continuity while he was going somewhere.

Of course, the correct way of saying is Elmentem! It is just a quick note for you to be aware of this, too.

After all, everyday language doesn’t abide by the grammar book. Just think of writing on a piece of paper GONE SHOPPING. It has quite the same feeling.

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4 comments on “Problems with Verbal Prefixes (or Coverbs)

  1. Matt says:

    Sorry for not thanking you sooner. I’ve been away from the PC for a bit! This is absolutely fantastic. I cannot find any other teaching material on coverbs especially in relation to how they influence tense and aspect that even comes close to this. Naturally this has spawned more questions for me but I realise that my last posting was a bit of a diatribe so I will only ask more questions if you are happy for me to do so, as I realise you must busy with many other things.

    Many thanks again Matt

    • hunlang says:

      I was aware of the fact that my explanation raises even more questions, but sometimes it is about a way of thinking rather than following grammar rules.

      Go ahead and ask as many questions as you want to. 🙂 That is what this blog is for. I will answer them as soon as I can.

  2. Matt Howard-Jones says:

    Hi there sorry for not getting back sooner. I’ve been in the middle of a move to edinburgh.

    I will try to keep my further questions brief as I’m aware it was a bit of a monologue last time!

    1. Modes of future reference
    What would be the difference in the following?
    a. Elmegyek a boltba
    b. Fogok menni a boltba (and does reversing the fogok and menni convey any subtle difference in meaning?)
    c. El fogok menni a boltba
    I realise that in everyday speech one tends to use longer sentences and a lot is deduced by context as well.

    2. Does Hungarian have subtle ways of expressing future perfect, future perfect progressive, pluperfect, pluperfect progressive using coverbs, or is it more about knowing the entire sentence and deducing by context?

    3. My final question(s) is more to you personally about Hungarian teaching.
    a. Although in strict grammatical terms Hungarian is described as having 2 tenses (past and non-past), do you think it is fairer to say hungarian actually has more, but a better way of expressing this would be ‘tense equivalents’?
    b. If you agree with the above do you think Hungarian resources need to describe this better (like the way you do in this blog)? I ask this as coming from an English/Welsh speaking background, where both languages have a huge array of expressing tense/aspect it is quite a leap for a beginner in Hungarian to try to adapt to thinking in terms of these! (I guess this exemplifies the big difference in Indo-European linguistic psychology and Uralic/Ugric linguistic psychology!).
    Finally ……..
    c. Do you find that a lot of Hungarian language references seem to only briefly describe coverbs and their uses, yet given how crucial they are they should get a lot more chapters devoted to them?
    Personally I don’t think there is too much of a problem integrating coverbs with chapters on teaching past/non-past tenses as this would seem more logical for beginners grappling with tense/aspect who come from non-Uralic language backgrounds.

    Many thanks again for an excellent blog.

    Cheers Matt

    • hunlang says:

      I’ll sit down to write answers for you in a couple of days. This weekend or next week you’ll see a new entry about the stuff you’re asking for.

      Your questions give me more thinking than I’m used to. I like your monologues 🙂 So I’ll come up with some answers soon.

      Best wishes László

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