Culinary Anthropologist

Beer, wine and vowel harmony

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Smborozosorozo0001.JPGThe Hungarian language is fascinating, and nowhere is this better reflected (for me at least) than in the words for ‘bar’: a borozó is a wine bar, and a söröző is a beer bar. 

At first sight, perhaps, you might not agree that these words are particularly fascinating.

But you’d be wrong. And here’s why.

  1. Come on, you’d be hard pushed to find a better-looking word than söröző.  Look at all those dots!  Look at that ő!  Lovely.

  2. They’re so unlike any other European language you care to mention.  A borozó is a place you drink bor, and a söröző is a place you drink sör.  Fair enough.  But hands up – how many of you guessed that bor meant ‘wine’ rather than ‘beer’?  I thought not.  Pretty much everywhere else in Europe, the word for wine sounds a bit like ‘wine’, be it vin or Wein or vino.  And the word for beer usually sounds a bit like ‘beer’, even if it’s spelt μπύρα.  Even when Slavs call it pivo and Scandinavians call it øl, you’d still pick ‘beer’ and ‘wine’ the right way round.  Well, not in Hungary.

  3. Smborozo0001.jpgIt’s not just the words you wouldn’t recognize.  In the English-speaking world, at least, you’d expect the beer-bar to be the down-at-heel one (possibly some peeling paint, sawdust on the floor and so on) while the wine-bar would be the one full of pretentious art and the aspirational middle classes.  Again, not in Hungary.  Show me a borozó and I’ll show you a dingy smoky cellar full of taxi drivers and students, selling wine out of plastic bottles and Slush Puppy machines.  Show me a söröző and I’ll show you somewhere you might consider taking your girlfriend, and that might even have windows.

    (That’s not to say you can’t get good wine in Hungary, of course – we’ll be updating you on the excellent stuff in Eger and Tokaj soon.)

  4. Here’s the clincher: it’s all about the vowel harmony in Hungarian.  Both words work the same way – take the drink of interest (bor or sör) and add a -zó suffix, meaning, oh, I don’t know, ‘place’ or something.  You can do this with anything: a coffeehouse is a kávézó; a pancake house is a palacsintázó.  But here comes the excitement: in general, the vowels in a word have to harmonize.  Either they’re all sounds made at the back of the mouth (a/o/u) or at the front (ä/ö/ü) – although you’re allowed to sprinkle in some neutral middle-of-the-road e/i sounds too.  So when adding -zó to bor, everything’s fine: ó is just a long o, so we’re working with back vowels: borozó.  But with sör, we’re in front vowel country: the short o has to become the short front ö, and the long ó becomes the long front ő.

Deep breath: söröző.  Aaah.

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