Omitting Pronouns in (In)Definite Conjugation

In English you always need to use any pronoun (direct, indirect, demonstrative…) irregardless of whether the verb refers to an indefinite or definite object/person.

I’m writing a letter. I’m writing the letter.

The object is ’letter’ and our verb ’write’ is the same in both sentences. The indefiniteness and definiteness of ’letter’ are expressed with the indefinite and definite articles ’a, the’. Here’s the Hungarian translation:

I’m writing a letter. – Írok egy levelet.
I’m writing the letter. – Írom a levelet.

As you can see, the Hungarian verb ’ír-write’ has two different conjugations. The indefinite conjugation requires the -ok suffix in 1st person singular present tense, whereas the definite conjugation in the same person/number/tense is formed with the -om suffix. The indefinite and definite articles are used accordingly.

So far so good. But what if we get a question like ’Are you writing a/the letter’? How do you answer that question?

Are you writing a letter? – Yes, I’m writing it.
Írsz egy levelet? – Igen, azt írok.

Are you writing the letter? – Yes, I’m writing it.
Írod a levelet? – Igen, azt írom.

The pronoun ’it’ refers back to ’a letter’ and ’the letter’. In the same way, the Hungarian demonstrative pronoun ’az’ turns into an accusative pronoun ’azt’ to refer back to ’egy levelet’ and ’a levelet’.
And that’s when omitting pronouns becomes relevant. In everyday language, we do tend to ”forget” saying certain pronouns when the context is clear and we know for sure what we are talking about. So the above-mentioned answers can be turned into:

Igen, írok. Igen, írom.

It is more common, though, that we leave out pronouns when the verbs are in definite conjugation. Since the definite conjugation already refers to the object, there is no confusion about the context. Let’s see more examples with other pronouns, too. So that you know what I omit, I’ll parenthesize the pronouns. It is also evident from the examples that English has to use those pronouns.

-Látod a lányt? – Igen, látom (őt).
-Can you see the girl? – Yes, I can see her.

-Akarjátok az új ruhákat vagy sem? – Nem, nem akarjuk (azokat).
-Do you want the new clothes or not? – No, we don’t want them.

The problem starts when there seems to be no context like in this question:

-Látod? – Can you see it?

We translate it with ’can you see it’ because ’látod’ is obviously in definite conjugation. The speaker knows exactly what he sees and that’s why he’s asking ’Látod?’.

-Látod? – Can you see it?
-Semmit nem látok. Te mit látsz? – I can’t see anything. What can you see?
-A boltot. – The shop.
-Igen, már látom. – Yes, I can see it now.

The other person answers ’nem látok’ in indefinite conjugation because he cannot see anything. And ’anything/nothing’ is something indefinite. So is ’something’, by the way :). Then he asks ’mit látsz’ in indefinite conjugation because he still cannot see anything. Finally, the speaker clarifies ’boltot’. So the other person answers ’látom’ in definite conjugation. Now he knows exactly what he sees. It does not matter if the answer is affirmative or negative. The same rules apply.

That’s why you give such answers:

-Nem értek semmit. -Az egyenletet így kell megoldani. Már érted? -Igen, értem.
-I don’t understand anything. -The equation has to be solved like this. Do you understand now? -Yes, I understand (it).

This is a good example for native English speakers because as you see the verb ’understand’ does not require ’it’ when you answer. Yet you know exactly what you understand.

-Érted? – Do you understand?
-Értem. – I understand.

Let’s take a look at more examples:

-A bank elveszi a házadat. – Nem hagyom.
-The bank is going to take your house. – I’m not going to let (it happen).

-Tessék a visszajáró! – Köszönöm.
-Here’s your change. – Thank you.

The verb ’köszön’ has two meanings ’to say thank you’ and ’to greet’. If it means ’to say thank you’, it is transitive, so Hungarian people thank something, and not thank for something. On the other hand, if you greet someone, it is transitive in English, but it requires an indirect object in Hungarian. Actually, we say ’greet to someone = köszön valakinek’.

-Köszönöm a visszajárót! – Köszöntem önnek, amikor bejöttem? – Igen, ön mindig köszön nekem.
-Thank you for the change. – Did I greet you when I entered? – Yes, you always greet me.

The difficulty also lies in the different use of verbs in English and Hungarian. A verb that is transitive in English might be intransitive in Hungarian and viceversa. In the above-mentioned sentence you can’t use ’köszön’ in definite conjugation because it is not transitive. It cannot require an object.
Let’s contrast indefinite and definite conjugation with ’ért’.

-Érted? – Mindent értek.
-Do you understand? – I understand everything.

’Minden’ is indefinite or general, so ’értek’ is in indefinite conjugation.

PROBLEMS WITH ACCUSATIVE PRONOUNS

As languages do not consist of rules that always make sense, we have to be prepared to learn odd things. That is the case with accusative pronouns if you conjugate verbs in definite mode. To make this problem tangible, I’ll use the accusative pronouns ’őt’ and ’engem’.

Látom őt. – I can see him.
Látod őt. – You can see him.
Látja őt. – He can see him.
Látjuk őt. – We can see him.
Látjátok őt. – You can see him.
Látják őt. – They can see him.

’Lát’ is in definite conjugation in every number/person. But what if we use ’engem’?

Lát engem. – He can see me.
Lát téged. – He can see you.
Látja őt. – He can see him.
Lát minket. – He can see us.
Lát titeket. – He can see you.
Látja őket. – He can see them.

’Lát’ is used in definite conjugation only when referring to the accusative pronoun in 3rd person singular and 3rd person plural. In any other number/person (engem, téged, minket, titeket) ’lát’ is in indefinite conjugation.

This goes for ’őt, őket, önt, önöket, maga, magát’. That is, for polite forms, too.

If there is an accusative pronoun, one would think it is definite. Well, it’s no use asking why it is that way. It just is. I couldn’t find any explanation why this phenomenon had developed the way it is. Something for you to struggle with :). So let’s ask more questions and give the right answers.

-Érted a szabályt? – Igen, értem (azt).
-Do you understand the rule? – Yes, I understand (it).

-Érted őket? – Igen, értem (őket).
-Do you understand them? – Yes, I understand them.

-Értesz engem? – Igen, értelek (téged).
-Do you understand me? -Yes, I understand you.

-Látjátok őket? – Nem, nem látjuk (őket).
-Can you guys see them? – No, we can’t see them.

-Látnak minket? – Nem, nem látnak (minket). Önt viszont látják.
-Can they see us? – No, they can’t see us. However, they can see you, sir.

Omitting Or Not Omitting? That Is The Question.

WHAT’S THE POINT OF OMITTING DATIVE AND ACCUSATIVE PRONOUNS?

The very first reason the definite conjugation developed is not the fact that Hungarian people were eager to refer to specific/definite objects with a different conjugation type. The reason the definite conjugation survived the language reforms is: COMPRESSION.

Compressing the meaning of the direct object makes sentences shorter and allows to express nuances, as well as the use of the accusative and dative pronouns (may) become obsolete.

Take a look at how other languages form the following sentence:

English: I write you a letter.
German: Ich schreibe dir einen Brief.
Italian: Ti scrivo una lettera.
Spanish: Te escribo una letra.

It is the same pattern. Either you need two pronouns (English, German) or you need one pronoun and you conjugate the verb (Italian, Spanish). The point is that you always form sentences of this kind in these languages.

What is the Hungarian translation?

Hungarian: Írok neked egy levelet. OR Írok egy levelet.

If you know who you’re talking about, you can omit the dative pronoun neked. Let’s say we’re in this situation:

You’re walking on the street and you meet an old friend.

You: I haven’t seen you for ages.
Friend: I know. It’s been a long time since high-school.
You: We really should meet sometime.
Friend: Yes, we should. I’ll give you my address.
You: Then I’ll write you a letter and we’ll see the rest.

(Of course, nowadays you would write an e-mail or make a call, but that doesn’t matter now.)

So we have this conversation where it is obvious who’s talking to who and who’s giving the address / writing a letter to who. English can’t make it in a different way, it uses the personal pronoun I and the indirect pronoun (dative pronoun) you actually meaning to you.

And that’s when Hungarian says ’BULLSHIT!’ Why should I refer to someone if I know exactly who the talk is about? So I just forget about the fact that dative pronouns even exist because I write a letter to you and I give my address to you, obviously.

How does the conversation above sound in Hungarian?

Te: Ezer éve nem láttalak.
Barát: Tudom, sok idő telt el a gimi óta.
Te: Találkozhatnánk egyszer.
Barát: Igen, tényleg. Megadom a címemet.
Te: Én meg írok egy levelet, a többit meg majd meglátjuk.

Wait a sec! You can omit dative (and accusative) pronouns with indefinite conjugation, as well? Sure you can. That’s the beauty of the Hungarian language.

Take a look at the English sentences if we omit the pronouns. Is the text understandable anyway?

You: I haven’t seen you for ages.
Friend: I know. It’s been a long time since high-school.
You: We really should meet sometime.
Friend: Yes, we should. I’ll give my address.
You: Then I’ll write a letter and we’ll see the rest.

YES, IT IS! It might sound strange like that, but everything is understandable from the context.

And this phenomenon works for all numbers and persons, not just for the I-you relation. Nevertheless, you need to have a context giving you a hint who or what the talk is about. With no context, that’s what we get:

Elmondod? Will you tell?

Tell? Who should I tell? There is no context whatsoever for me to deduce who I should tell. However, it is already unambiguous what I should tell. That’s why the definite conjugation is used. You could complete the question like this:

Elmondod azt? Will you tell about that?

But you don’t need to. The definite conjugation already refers to azt. What we don’t know is who the person is we should tell. It’s impossible to figure out with no context. Let’s give it a context.

Girl1: I cheated on my boyfriend last night?
Girl2: Will you tell him (about that)?

Lány1: Tegnap este megcsaltam a barátomat.
Lány2: Elmondod neki (azt)?

So she should tell HIM = NEKI. And now that there’s a context, we don’t need neki.

Elmondod? Will you tell him?

What if I ask ’Will you tell him everything?’ Then you use indefinite conjugation because everyhing = minden is an indefinite numeral.

Elmondasz mindent? Will you tell him everything?

OR

Elmondasz neki mindent? Will you tell him everything?

Despite all these explanations above, remember this:

IT IS NOT MANDATORY TO OMIT THE ACCUSATIVE AND DATIVE PRONOUNS. IT IS YOUR CHOICE.

But sometimes omitting them definitely makes the conversation ’more Hungarian’.