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Postpositions (prepositions) in Hungarian

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We are familiar with the concept of a preposition, in which a small helper word or phrase is placed in front of the main word: for you, to him, in front of the house, between us, according to me, before dinner, after death, etc. In Hungarian, we do not use prepositions, rather we use postpositions. They perform pretty much the same role, but they sit after the word that they modify; except in the case of pronouns where we create personal forms of the postpositions and abandon the pronoun.

Key points

The key points:

  • Postpositions come after the modifiee (the phrase they modify), not before
  • Postpositions cannot modify pronouns, rather you must use a personal form of the postposition
  • Postpositions can come in three flavours - normal, to(wards) the modifiee, (away) from the modifiee.
  • Postpositions mainly apply to noun phrases, and they must change form and position when they modify verbs.

Introduction to postpostions

Let's look at some simple examples before explaining them:

  • az auto a ház előtt van the car is in front of the house
  • a fiú a fa alatt ül the boy sits under the tree
  • a macska a lány mellett van the cat is next to the girl

In each of these, the postposition follows the word (and any article) that it modifies.

In the phrase, a macska a lány mellett van , the postposition is mellett (beside, next to) and the noun phrase that it modifes is a lány (the girl). Literally this sentence means, "the cat the girl beside is."

Sometimes the modifiee might have two parts, but the whole phrase still sits in front of the postposition. In this sentence, "the boy is sitting between the dog and the cat", the phrase "the dog and the cat" that the preposition modifes sits entirely behind the preposition. Similarly in Hungarian the postposition között (between) sits after the entire phrase that it modifies (a kutya és a macska között), like this: a fiú ül a kutya és a macska között.

Postpositions of relative position

Here are some postpositions that relate to where something is.

  • között between
  • előtt afore, in front of
  • alatt under
  • mellett next to, beside
  • mögött behind
  • fölött above

I like to remember these using a cube and the following mnemonic: Imagine a cube, where a little man is standing normal (perpendicular) to each of the six surfaces, each of which may be described using the six above postpositions. He could be under the bottom surface, above the top one, afore or behind the entire cube, or beside the cube. With some imaginative thinking we can add "between" to the left hand face. Now apply the six Hungarian postpositions (shown in red: között, előtt, alatt, mellett, mögött, and fölött ), and make a little mnemonic uising their initial letters. I use this: keep eating all meats more frequently, which is shown in blue.

Postpositions that are not for physical location

Note that postpositions do not just apply to physical postion or movement. Here are some others:

  • szerint according to. Daniel szerint, Ági szép according to Daniel, Ági is pretty.
  • miatt because of. Ági miatt Magyarul tanultam I studied Hungarian because of Ági.
  • helyett instead of. Tea helyett, akarok kávét instead of tea, I want coffee (weirdo).
  • nélkül without. Tea cukor nélkül akarok I want tea without sugar.

Postpositions of time

For nouns

Here are some postpositions that relate to when something happened (applies to noun arguments only).

  • előtt before
  • után after

These words apply only to nouns. They do not apply to verbs.

For example:

  • a hétvége előtt megyek haza. before the weekend I will go home.
  • az ebéd után megyek haza. after dinner I will go home.

Note carefully that the arguments in each of these are nouns.

Postpostions of time - for verbs

When we want to apply "before" and "after" to verbs, we must use mielőtt and miután respectivly, and we use them before the verb:

  • mielőtt jöttem ide, én otthon voltam before I came (to) here, I was at home.
  • mielőtt hazamentem, a boltban voltam before I went home, I was in the shop.
  • miután jöttem ide, hazamentem after I came (to) here, I went home.
  • miután hazamentem, vacsorát ettem after I went home, I ate dinner.

Personal (pronomial) postpositions

It's very important to note the following: postpositions do not apply to pronouns. We cannot say, "az auto én előtt van" - the car is in front of me.

Instead we make new forms of the postposition that contain the stem and a personal ending, and mean "next to me", "according to him", "instead of you", etc; and then we ditch the pronoun.

Each postposition has its own set of endings, but here are the personal endings for the postpositions we have encountered already.

Here is an example. For a complete list of Hungarian postpositions, see below.

  • ...szerint according to...
  • szerintem according to me
  • szerinted according to you
  • szerinte according to him
  • szerintünk according to us
  • szerinttek according to you (pl)
  • szerintük according to them

Example: szerintem Ági szép according to me, Ági is pretty

A good way of remembering not to use "én szerint" is that in English we must not put pronouns in the nominative form when they follow a preposition - when you remember that "according to" turns "I" into "me", so should you remember that "én" turns "szerint" into "szerintem".

Triads of postpositions - towards, static, from

Just like adverbs of motion and the corresponding noun cases for the triads of movement, postpositions come in three flavours. The express a static postposition, one meaning "from...", and one meaning "to(wards)...."

Let us look at the "from" version first.

If we wanted to say, "of the two cats, I prefer the brown one", another way of expressing this is "from between the two cats, I like the brown one." This latter construction is what we will examine: from between. Between is translated as között. This postposition comes in three impersonal forms, and között simply happens to be one of them, referring to a static postion.

We would then say: a két macska közül, akarom a barnát.

These are used in the following type of construction:

  • vettem a csontot a kutya mellől I took the bone from next to the dog.
  • vette az autót az orrom alól he took the car from under my nose (literal translation)

The third member of the triad is "to...", such as "to under". We Englishmen don't nomrally use such a structure (we nomally just say "under"), but it's not incorrect to do something like this: I moved the chair to under the table, I put the plate to under the sink. In Hungarian they are quite hot on this:

  • tettem a széket az asztal alá I put the chair (to) under the table.
  • tettem az ajandekoket a fa alá I put the plate (to) under the Christmas tree.
  • tettem a tányért a poharak közé I put the plate (to) between the glasses.
  • tettem a sót a bors mellé I put the salt (to) next to the pepper.

Here are some examples. For a complete list of Hungarian postpositions, see below.

  • allat below
  • alá to below
  • alól from below

  • mellett beside
  • mellé to beside
  • mellől from beside

Non-nominative forms of the modifiee

In all the examples we have seen so far, the modifiee must be in the nominative form of the noun; that is, the base form without any inflection.

For example: Anya szerint, vörösbor jobb mint fehérbor. According to mother, red wine is better than white wine.
Here, anya mother is in the nominative form.

Some of the postpositions listed below in the complete list of common postpositions require their modifiee to be in another case. Let's look at some.

Supressive noun cases for postpositions

These postpositions require the superessive case; that is, the "on top of" case. These cases include:

  • keresztül through, across
    • a szobán keresztül across the room
  • át across
    • a szobán át across the room
  • túl over, beyond, past
    • a Dunán túl beyond the Danube
    • a falon túl beyond the wall
  • belül within, inside
    • dobozon belül inside a box
  • kívül without, outside
    • a szobán kívül outside the room
  • innen on this side of
    • a Dunán innen on this side of the Danube

Other noun cases for postpositions

Other postpositions require yet further cases. Some postpositions changes their meaning depending on the modifiee's noun case.

  • -ra/re nézve regarding
  • -nál/nél fogva thanks for, by virtue of
  • -tól/től fogva/kezdve beginning at, since, beginning with

The one preposition, mint

With the exception of the verb-modifiers miellőtt and miután , there is one preposition that modifies nouns. That is mint . The meaning of this word is somewhere between "as", "like" and "than", and as you will see in the following it always precedes the nominative form of the items to which we're comparing.

When used in sentences comparing two things (in inequality) using a comparative adjective, it means "than":

  • Ági szebb, mint ő Ági is prettier than she.
  • ő nem szébb, mint Ági she is not prettier than Ági.

When used in sentences comparing two things (in equality) using an absolute adjective, it means "as":

  • Ági nem olyan magas, mint én Ági is not as tall as me.

See also the section on adjectives.

List of common Hungarian postpositions and personal forms

Root postposition Postposition Meaning én te ő mi ti ők
alatt alatt under alattam alattad alatta alattunk alattotok alattuk
alatt alá to under alám alád alá aláunk alátok aláuk
alatt alól from under alólam alólad alól alólunk alóltok alóluk
előtt előtt afore  előttem előtted előtte előttünk előttetok előttük
előtt elé to afore elém eléd elé elénk elétek eléük
előtt elől from before előlem előled előle előlünk előltek előlük
mögött mögött afore  mögöttem mögötted mögötte mögöttünk mögöttetek mögöttük
mögött mögé to afore mögém mögéd mögé mögénk mögétek mögéük
mögött mögül from before mögülem mögüled mögüle mögülünk mögültek mögülük
fölött fölött above fölöttem fölötted fölötte fölöttünk fölötttek fölöttük
fölött fölé to above fölém föléd fölé fölénk fölétek föléük
fölött fölül from above fölülem fölüled fölüle fölülünk fölültek fölülük
mellett  mellett afore  mellettem melletted mellette mellettünk mellettetok mellettük
mellett mellé to beside mellém melléd mellé mellénk mellétek melléük
mellett mellől from beside mellőlem mellőled mellőle mellőlünk mellőltek mellőlük
között között between közöttem közötted közötte közöttünk közötttek közöttük
között közé to between közém közéd közé közénk közétek közéük
között közül from between közülem közüled közüle közülünk közültek közülük
  felé in the direction of felém feléd felé felénk felétek feléük
  felől from the direction of felőlem felőled felőle felőlünk felőltek felőlük
  kívül *** outside, excluding, except kívülem kívüled kívüle kívülünk kívültek kívülük
  rajta kívül *** outside, excluding, except rajtam kívül rajtad kívül rajta kívül rajtunk kívül rajtatok kívül rajtuk kívül
  helyett instead of helyettem helyetted helyette helyettünk helyetttek helyettük
  ellen againt (of) ellenem ellened ellene ellenünk ellentek ellenük
  miatt because of miattam miattad miatta miattunk miattotok miattuk
  nélkül without nélkülem nélküled nélküle nélkülünk nélkültek nélkülük
  szerint according to, in the opinion of szerintem szerinted szerinte szerintünk szerinttek szerintük
  után after utánam utánad utána utánunk utántok utánuk

It is safe to say that the forms kívülem, kívüled, etc. are slowly being edged out by forms rajtam kívül, rajtad kívül, etc., and sound quite archaic. Likewise, közém, közöttem, közülem, etc. in first, second and thid person singular only appear in archaic Bible translations (Karoli, etc.) but not in contemporary spoken or written Hungarian.
Many thanks to Vica Papp for this note on modern usage.

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