The prefix el- appears in front of numerous Hungarian verbs and enhances or even completely changes their meanings oftentimes.
A Few Words About Hungarian Prefixes
Before we get into the nitty-gritty details of -el, here’s what you need to know about most prefixes in general:
The trick is to figure out which kind of alteration you have in front of you.🔮
The Core Meaning of the Hungarian El-
In its most essential form, el- means away (to another place, from here to there, from one point to the other).
We’ll start with 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)
… and continue with complete 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 the Hungarian Prefix El-
El- can transform a verb into several other forms, apart from its basic meaning as well. In close competition with meg- (which you can read about here) it’s the most versatile prefix prone to cause frequent headaches for Hungarian-learners.🤯
In the following paragraph, we’ll list plenty 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.
El- as a slight modifier or enhancer
1. El- Indicating closure
If what’s in front of you isn’t the original meaning for el- (away), it’s likely it indicates 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 who uses eljön instead of just jön indicates the process of coming is already completed, as he or she is already here (on the birthday).
2. Spread or dispersion
El- can also indicate the dispersion or spread of something. If you think of its original meaning (“away”) you can imagine the process of something that spreads 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).
3. Definiteness, something is final
At other times, the Hungarian prefix el- will indicate 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.
4. 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.
5. El- 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.
6. 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)
Miscounted-it-I the money-my.
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.
7. El- indicating the stop of an ongoing action
El- can also end the active functioning of sth.:
zár (to close) vs. elzár (to turn off)
Away-close-I the water(acc.)
I turn off the running water.
8. 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.
9. El- 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.
The Hungarian Prefix El- as a complete modifier
There are certain cases in which el- completely changes the meaning of the verb it’s attached to. Here are the most frequent examples.
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.
Holnap megyek a bolhapiacra eladni a régi ruháimat.
Tomorrow go-I the flea-market-onto to-sell the old cloths-mine.
I’ll go to the flea market tomorrow to self my old clothes.
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
Bookmark this mini-lesson and every time you encounter el- when you do a Hungarian reading practice, see which above category that particular example fits into.
Hungarian prefixes are so versatile and subtle it makes no sense to start and learn 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.
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