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Mini-Lesson #1 - The Prefix "El-"

A Few Words About Prefixes

The prefix el- appears in front of numerous Hungarian verbs and enhances or even completely changes their meanings oftentimes.

Before getting into the nitty-gritty details of el, here is what you need to know about almost all prefixes in general:

All prefixes (except for meg-) have one core meaning assigned to them that changes the verb they are interacting with in a definite way, without altering its original meaning completely. Apart from that core meaning, all prefixes can have several other impacts on the verbs they are interacting with. These other meanings either slightly modify, or enhance the original verb or change the meaning of the original verb completely.

The trick is to figure out which kind of alteration you are dealing with.

The Core Meaning of El-

In its most essential form, el- means away (to another place, from here to there, from one point to the other).

Examples for el- as away:

megy (to go) vs. elmegy (to go away)

rak (to put) vs. elrak (to put away)

vesz (to take) vs. elvesz (to take away)

Example sentences with el- as away

Holnap elmegyek, és még nem tudom, hogy mikor jövök vissza.

Tomorrow away-go-I, and yet not know-it-I, that when come-I back.

Tomorrow I’ll go away and I don’t know yet when I’ll come back.

Elrakom innen ezeket a könyveket.

Away-put-I from-here these(acc.) the books(acc.).

I’ll put these books away (from here).

Elveszem tőled a chipszet, mert nem tudod abbahagyni!

Away-take-I from you the chips(acc.), because not can-you stop!

I’ll take the chips away from you because you can’t stop (eating them).

Other Impacts of El-

Apart from its basic meaning, however, el- can transform a verb into several other forms, as well. Apart from meg- (which you can read about here) it is probably the most versatile prefix that is prone to cause frequent headaches for Hungarian-learners.

What follows is a list of examples and their explanations for the various uses of el-.

While this list won’t cover each and every possible use of the prefix it will show you the most important ones that’ll get you by most of the time that you encounter this versatile prefix.

El- as a slight modifier or enhancer Indicating closure

If not found functioning in its original meaning, in many of other cases el- will indicate closure:

jön (to come) vs. eljön (to come and arrive):

Persze, hogy eljöttem a szülinapodra!

Of-course, that came-I the birthday-yours-onto!

Of course I came to your birthday!

The person using eljön instead of just jön indicates that the process of coming is already completed, as he or she is already here on the birthday.

Spread or dispersion

El- can also indicate the dispersion or spread of something. Taking upon its original meaning (“away”), you can imagine the process of something spreading away from its original source:

mond (to say) vs. elmond (to tell, to give away)

Elmondok neked egy titkot.

Away-tell-I for-you a secret(acc.)

I will tell you a secret. (i.e. I’ll give sth. away).

Az almafát ellepik a férgek.

The apple-tree(acc.) away-cover the vermins.

The apple tree is slowly getting covered by vermins. (i.e. They infested the tree at one point and are now spreading).

Definiteness, something is final

At other times, el- indicates definiteness and the fact that something is decided and final:

vállal (to take sth. on) vs. elvállal (to take sth. on with full responsibility; to fully commit to sth.)

Úgy döntöttem, hogy elvállalom ezt az állást.

That-way decided-it-I, that oblige-I-it this(acc.) the job(acc.).

I decided to take this job.

While to “vállal” sth. still indicates a certain amount of leeway when it comes to responsibility, to “elválllal” means to fully commit to sth. with all obligations.

Short duration

In the following example el- indicates that the action is of only short duration:

hisz (to believe sth. permanently, e.g. the existence of God) vs. elhisz (to believe a quick, new fact that comes your way)

Nem tudom, hogy igaz-e amit mondasz, de elhiszem.

Not know-it-I, that true-whether what(acc.) say-you, but believe-I-it.

I don’t know if what you’re saying is true but I believe it.

Indicating Origin

kér (to ask for sth.) vs. elkér valamit valakitől (to ask someone for sth. specific)

Juli elkéri Zsuzsitól a könyvet.

Juli away-asks Zsuzsi-from the book(acc.).

Juli asks Zsuzsi for the book.

Zsuzsi is the original source, whom Juli asks for the book. This meaning of el- is in close connection to its original meaning. Think of it as the book going away from Zsuzsi to Juli.

Inaccuracy, Incorrectness

El- can also indicate that something is not exact or that something is more or less not correct:

számol (to count) vs. elszámol (to miscount)

Elszámoltam a pénzem.

Miscounted-it-I the money-my.

I miscounted my money.

mér (to measure) vs. elmér (to measure incorrectly)

Elmértem a lisztet, és nem lett jó a süti.

Falsely-measured-it-I the flour, and not became good the cake.

I measured the amount of flour falsely, so the cake wasn’t good.

Indicating the stopping of an ongoing action

El- can also end the active functioning of sth.:

zár (to close) vs. elzár (to turn off)

Elzárom a vizet.

Away-close-I the water(acc.)

I turn off the running water.

Very, completely, in the most possible amount

fárad (to become tired) vs. elfárad (to become exhausted)

Teljesen elfáradtam a séta után.

Completely exhausted-became-I the walk after.

I became completely exhausted after the walk.

Indicating that something goes on for an extended period

beszélget (to chat) vs. elbeszélget (to chat for a longer time)

Tegnap végre elbeszélgettünk.

Yesterday finally away-talked-we.

We finally had a longer chat yesterday.

játszik (to play) vs. eljátszik (to play for a longer time)

Szerencsére a fiam jól el tud játszani.

Luckily the son-my good away can play.

Luckily, my son can play [by himself] for a longer time.

El- as a complete modifier

There are certain cases in which el- completely changes the meaning of the verb it is attached to. Here are the most frequent examples of that.

ad (to give) vs. elad (to sell)

This is a combination of el- acting as away and an indicator of definiteness: you give sth. away for good, ie., you sell it.

vár (to wait) vs. elvár (to expect someone to do sth., to act in a certain way)

Elvárom, hogy segíts nekem.

Expect-I, that help-you for-me.

I expect you to help me (otherwise I’ll be disappointed).

fog (to hold) vs. elfog (to catch)

Tegnap végre elfogták a gyilkost.

Yesterday finally caught-they the murderer.

Finally, the murderer was caught yesterday.

How to Practice Prefixes

The best way to practice a certain prefix is by reading, and el- is no exception. It's very frequent and if you open any Hungarian text there will be numerous examples of it.

Bookmark this mini-lesson and every time you encounter el- when doing a Hungarian reading practice, see which above category that particular example fits into.

Hungarian prefixes are so versatile and subtle that it makes no sense to start learning all of their applications by heart. Rather, set aside some time in your learning routine, use this description as a cheat sheet and practice by reading to develop a feeling for their correct usage.

Happy learning!

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