The Hungarian language can be defined at least partly by its solitude. Separated from its closest European relatives (Finnish and Estonian) by continental Europe it stands as the sole non-Indo-European language of the Danube region, finding its closest linguistic ties with Khanty and Mansi across the Urals in Western Siberia. Such a singular existence has resulted in an interesting perception of the Magyar tongue, with commenters describing it as a “living volcano” and a language “with sounds of another world”(you can decide if these judgements are accurate by listening to our attempt here). However, in spite of the striking otherness of the language evidenced by such citations, as well as having official language status in (predictably) Hungary, the language is recognised regionally in Serbia, Slovakia and Romania and counts around 14.5 million speakers in total.
To touch as briefly as time and patience would allow on the history of such a fascinating language, Hungarian has been spoken in the area we now know as Hungary since the 9th century conquest of the Carpathian Basin, but began life in the Uralic region in modern-day Russia. Although any real guarantee of accuracy is effaced by the sheer lack of information, it is believed that between 2000 and 4000 BC, as Uralic unity disintegrated, some speakers moved eastwards, while others (including Finno-Ugric speakers, the linguistic ancestors of Hungarian and Finnish) chose to go west.
It is thought the speakers of these languages were still living close together approximately until 1000 BC, when the ancestors of Hungarians separated for good from the other members of their Uralic language family by migrating southwestwards into Europe.
The next major advancement in the language’s development came in 895-896, when the Magyars crossed the Carpathian Mountains, settled the area known today as Hungary and established the Principality of Hungary. This date marks the dawn of ‘Old Hungarian’, which would persist up to 1526, and this period would see the most fundamental change for the written language. Around 1000, the language was still written in a script similar to runes, but with the Christianisation of the country under Stephen I, the Latin alphabet was introduced to replace it. During this period, although marginalised by the official language of Latin, Hungarian came to be used in more and more contexts and by the 1490’s counted around 3 million speakers.
The period known as ‘Middle Hungarian’ lasted from 1526 to 1772 and heralded the first Hungarian printed book, ‘the Letters of Saint Paul’, in 1553. By the 17th century, the language was already very similar to its present form and a host of German, Italian and french loan-words also appeared, meeting Turkish words which had entered the language during the Ottoman occupation of Hungary (1541-1699)
‘Modern Hungarian’ stretches from 1772 to the modern day, and features a fascinating stage in the language’s development, the ‘language reform’, an intellectual-led drive to modernise the language. However the most interesting period of ‘Modern Hungarian’ does not lie in linguistic change, but in a perception shift, as it is around the 19th century that nationalists (not just in Hungary but in many parts of Europe) began to recognise the power of language for the creation of a cohesive and unified state (imaginary or otherwise). This “search for kinship” meant that language and nation became entwined in the multilingual nation and language became a source of national pride. as a result, in 1844 Hungarian was designated the official language at the expense of Latin but the Hungarian state would also face criticism for an attempted ‘magyarisation’ of its people, notably the German-speaking minority, in the 1880’s, as patriotism lapsed into particularist nationalism.
Features of Hungarian
One of the Hungarian language’s most fascinating characteristics is its “transparency”: for despite inevitable borrowing from other languages, nothing has altered its fundamental structure and unity. As Moses Nagy states, “at the time when most European languages were in their stage of formation, Hungarian already IS!” The case system is the finest example of this, as while other languages, notably English, have lost their case systems over time following the natural thrust of linguistic change towards clarity of expression and simplicity, Hungarian is possessed of a highly intricate and strikingly complete case system in which nouns can have up to 238 possible forms. 17 cases in total perform the roles of English prepositions and indicate a noun’s grammatical function in a phrase. For example:
Az egyetemről egy étterembe megyünk. We go from the university to a restaurant.
Ről = from…Be = to
Budapestről hajóval megyek Bécsbe és I go by boat from Budapest to Vienna Bulgáriába. and Bulgaria.
Ről = from…Be/ba = to…Val = with (with boat = by boat)
Another key feature of Hungarian in structural terms is ‘focus’ of the sentence. A contrast with English here allows most clarity on the matter, as in English the subject and predicate are the most important pillars of the sentence and thus come first in it, whereas in Hungarian the most important piece of information to be transmitted takes the prominent syntactical role. Let us consider the following sentences in English with their Hungarian equivalents:
A korláton ülünk We sit on the fence
The fence-on sit-we
Magyarul tanulok I study Hungarian
The words in blue in these sentences represent the ‘focus’ of the sentence, i.e. the central thrust of the discourse. For instance in the first sentence, what is important is the place where ‘we’ are sitting, not the act of sitting itself (the ‘a’ in the sentence is simply the article).
A final element of note, particularly pertinent for the theme of ‘Global Citizenship’, is the fact that, possessing as it does a unique position and history, Hungarian has benefited from a tremendously wide range of loanwords from various language families. Here are a few examples:
Iranian family: ezer – ‘thousand’, híd – ‘bridge’
Turkic family: homok – ‘sand’, harang – ‘bell’
Permic family: agyar – ‘fang’, daru – ‘crane’
Slavic family: káposzta – ‘cabbage’, kovács – ‘blacksmith’ (also a popular surname)
Germanic family: csákó – ‘peaked cap’, sztrájk – ‘strike’
Romance family: notórius – ‘notorious’, pillér – ‘pillar’