Hungarianness: The Origin of a Pseudo-Linguistic Concept

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  • Hungarianness: The Origin of a Pseudo-Linguistic ConceptAuthor(s): L. G. CzignySource: The Slavonic and East European Review, Vol. 52, No. 128 (Jul., 1974), pp. 325-336Published by: the Modern Humanities Research Association and University College London, School ofSlavonic and East European StudiesStable URL: .Accessed: 14/06/2014 15:58

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    Volume LII, Number I28-July I974

    Hungarianness: The Origin of a

    Pseudo-Linguistic Concept L. G. CZIGANY

    WHEN I started classes in stylistics at school our teacher gave us, by way of introduction, a 'safe' rule of what he considered to be the characteristics of good style. He assured us that, if we remembered his axiom we would easily acquire the ability to speak and write in a 'really' good style. His golden rule was the following: we must express ourselves at all times with clarity, precision and Hungarianness. I easily grasped the significance of the first two criteria of good style, but it was not so easy to understand the third. Surely, anything expressed in clear, precise Hungarian will be characteristically Hungarian. Were French and English high school children told to ex- press themselves with clarity, precision and Frenchness, or Englishness? Were there people who expressed themselves with clarity and pre- cision in Hungarian, yet whose style still lacked something because it was 'un-Hungarian'? These were perturbing questions to which I could find no satisfactory answer. Years later, as a university student, I realised that the problem was much more complicated, but I still did not realise that our teacher had been simply echoing what I now believe to be the relics of a igth-century linguistico-political concept, whose origin and aim was probably as little familiar to him as it was to his pupils.

    In this paper I propose to trace the origin and application of the concept of 'Hungarianness', and to show why I consider it spurious. Its origin can be traced through certain features of Hungarian history and society; but to describe its application the concept must be examined historically and semantically, with examples of usage.

    The intense interest in the various peculiarities of the Hungarian L. G. CzigAny is Lecturer in Hungarian at the University of Califomia, Berkeley. This

    paper was presented at the Second Intemational Congress of Hungarian Linguists, Szeged, 22-5 August 1972.

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  • 326 L. G. CZIGANY

    language, so characteristic of the i gth century, dates back only to the second half of the i8th century. Before that time, in spite of the fact that grammars, dictionaries and textbooks were compiled in growing numbers from the i 6th century onwards,' the Hungarians were puzzled mainly by the origin of their language: Hungarian was likened to Hebrew, Slavonic, German, Turkish, Persian and some of the more exotic languages.2 The oldest and most popular theory was founded on a confusion caused by medieval Hungarian historians: the Hungarian-Hunnish kinship.3 In I770, however, a scholarly argument was propounded by a Jesuit, Jainos Sajnovics, that proved the linguistic relationship between Hungarian and Lappish4 and at the same time laid the foundation for comparative Finno-Ugrian linguistics. Although the scholarly feat of Sajnovics and Gyarmathi, who followed up Sajnovics's researches, is considerable, as Finno- Ugrian comparative linguistics were thus established before compara- tive Indo-European linguistics,5 the Hungarian public disliked the idea of kinship with the Lapps; for them it savoured too strongly of fish oil.6

    The fact that public opinion was not flattered and therefore not convinced was not simply a question of contempt for kinship with faraway people like the Finns or Ugrian tribes living in Russia. There was a growing sense of isolation among the Hungarian intel- ligentsia. By the I83os and i840s some Romantic writers were con- vinced that the Hungarians living in 'a sea of German and Slavonic people' were doomed to extinction. The sense of loneliness and general pessimism about the future of the nation was aggravated by the con- jecture of Rousseau's German disciple, Herder, who predicted a glorious future for the Slavs and extinction for the Hungarians as a national entity.7 A general mood of gloom prevailed, and poets, particularly Kolcsey and Vor6smarty, invented and popularised the Romantic vision of nemzethala'l (death of the nation).8 The failure of

    1 I. Szathmari, Rigi nyelvtanaink Is egysdgesiil6 irodalmi nyelvdink, Budapest, I968, and L. G,ildi, A magvar szdtdrirodalom a felvildgosodds kordban es a reformkorban, Budapest, 1957.

    2 For an excellent historical survey see J. Hegeduis, A magyar nyelv 5sszehasonlftdsdnak kezdetei az egykorzi eurdpai nyelvtudomany tiikr6ben, Budapest, 1966).

    3 C. A. Macartney, The Medieval Hungarian Historians, Cambridge, I953, pp. 37-42. 4 Demonstratio. Idioma Ungarorum et Lapponum idem esse, Copenhagen, I 770. 5 'Finno-Ugrian linguistics can boast of being older than Indo-European linguistics'.

    N. Pedersen. The Discovery of Language, Bloomington, n.d. p. I05. 6 M. Zsirai, 'SAmuel Gyarmathi, Hungarian pioneer of Comparative Linguistics', in

    T. A. Sebeok, (ed.), Portraits of Linguists, I, Bloomington, I966, pp. 59-60. 7 '. . . die Ungern oder Madscharen .. . sind sie jetzt unter Slawen, Deutschen,

    Wlachen und andern Volkern der geringere Theil der Landeseinwohner, und nach Jahrhunderten wird man vielleicht ihre Sprache kaum finden.' Quoted from J. G. Herder, Ideen zur Philosophie der Geschichte der Menschheit, in D. Diimmerth, 'Tortenet- kutatAs es nyelvkerdes a magyar-Habsburg viszony tukreben' (Filoldgiai Kozlony, Buda- pest, I966, p. 406). This gives an excellent analysis of Herder's sources.

    8 The haunting vision is best expressed by F. Kolcsey in 'Himnusz' (I823) and M. Vorosmarty in 'Szozat' (1836).

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    the War of Independence in I848-9 as a last desperate bid for supremacy in the Carpathian basin seemed to convert the Romantic vision into a traumatic experience. Therefore, any evidence found by the philologists regarding the origin and kinship of the Hungarians was rejected by the public because it did not provide the desired ideological weapon for a nation in search of brethren, at a time when the growing sense of brotherhood among the lesser Slavonic peoples was provided with a opportune ideology in the form of Panslavism. As Finno-Ugrian kinship did not provide a solution to the linguistic isolation of the Hungarians in the Carpathian basin, substitute theories were put forward, the most important of which, the Turkic origin of the Hungarians, was advocated by the orientalist Armin Vaimbery.9 This proposition had no political usefulness either, but at least it provided a pedigree for the Hungarians in the nomadic warriors of the steppe, which was more attractive than the peaceful hunting and fishing image of the proto-Finno-Ugrians. The educated public accepted only with reluctance the evidence of the Finno- Ugrian philologists around the end of the igth century.

    While the sense of linguistic and thus political isolation seemed to provide reason for pessimistic tendencies among the intellectuals, its realisation helped to put the language itself into the focus of general interest. The uniqueness of the language was simultaneously a source of pessimism and of pride.

    The consciousness of language, which had been growing almost unobserved'0 in the second half of the i8th century, surfaced in a dramatic way when the Emperor Joseph II issued a royal decree on 6 May I784 introducing the obligatory use of German throughout the Kingdom of Hungary and in all its dependencies for public and official communications. The effect of the royal decree was so notice- able that contemporary foreign observers attributed the growing interest in the language exclusively to it." Although there was a general uproar against the decree from all quarters12 it would be a gross oversimplification to view it as the starting point of the emergence of the Hungarian language; the decree simply clashed with the consciousness which already existed.'3

    9 See his A magyarok eredete, Budapest, I882, or A magyarok eredete Is a finnugor nyelvlszet, 2 vols., Budapest, I884-5.

    10 G. F. Cushing, 'Books and Readers in i8th-Century Hungary' (Slavonic and East European Review, London, I969, XLVII, pp. 57-77).

    11 E.g. R. Bright, Travelsfrom Vienna to Lower Hungary, Edinburgh, I8I8, pp. 213-I4. 12 'If... the foreign and, to us, novel language of Germany is to be introduced ... it is

    impossible to say what a fearful convulsion of all things the state included, must ensue', claimed the petitioners from one of the megyes. All the deputies of the counties took a similar view', quoted by I. Katona, Historia critica regum Hungariae, XL, Buda, I8I6, p. 384.

    13 L. Deme, 'A XIX szdzad elso felenek harcai a nemzeti nyelvert' in Nyelviink a reformkorban, ed. by D. Pais, Budapest, 1955, p. IO.

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  • 328 L. G. CZIGANY

    In historical literature the emergence of national languages or nationalism, is usually ascribed to the ideas of the Enlightenment, particularly to the ideas of the French revolution, together with the political ferment caused by the Napoleonic wars in the eastern half of Europe.14 The influence of Herder's doctrine, according to which human civilisation manifests itself not in the universal and general, but rather in the national and particular form, was probably the most important factor responsible for the consciousness of language in Hungary. Herder was well known to Hungarian intellectuals, primarily because of his prophecy about the doom of the nation, but his doctrine also contributed to the rise of the value of the national language in their eyes.

    Therefore the realisation of the unique character of the Hungarian language, coinciding with theories produced by the Zeitgeist and the fact that the very existence of the language was endangered by the enlightened absolutism of Joseph II, may be accepted as the chief cause of the general interest in the language. The neglected language became suddenly the most treasured possession of every Hungarian. The attention was universal and culminated in a linguistic reform (nyelvijitds), which may be considered the most important intellectual movement in Hungary at the end of the i8th and beginning of the igth centuries.

    Nyelvujita's was not an exclusively Hungarian phenomenon: Norwegian, Estonian, Turkish and Slavonic had been reformed; so to describe the history of the Hungarian nyelv4jitas here is unneces- sary. It is, however, essential to mention a few facts pertinent to the evolution of the concept magyarossag.

    The purpose of the linguistic reform was firstly to enlarge the vocabulary. The spoken language contained many German and Slavonic loanwords; Latin words were used for abstract ideas as a result of the long-term use of Latin in Hungarian schools. The same words were naturally used in all neo-Latin languages and English, where they were not felt to be alien. Kazinczy, the main advocate of the nyelvzjitas, was worried: 'Herder says', he wrote to a friend, 'that when a nation does not have a word, it does not have the idea or the thing which it represents'. 15 Therefore a great effort was made to coin new words to replace every word whose root could not be identified as genuinely Hungarian. The impossibility of this task was not obvious to the advocates of neologism who were obsessed by a single idea, namely that, if Hungarian was to retain its unique character, it must not be contaminated by alien elements. The impos-

    14 See H. Kohn, Nationalism: Its Meaning and History, Princeton, n.d., pp. 35-7 andpassim. 15 Kazinczy to I. Horvath, i6 January i8i i, in Levelezdse, ed. by J. Vdczy, VIII,

    Budapest, 1898, p. 274.

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    sibility of purifying the language was apparent to the foreign observer not entangled in the intricacies of the Hungarian language. Thomas Watts, the lexicographer and one of the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary, criticised them in an essay: 'They only showed their unacquaintance with the history of languages in general, and their own in particular. Even in the most primitive languages, in the most primitive state in which they are known to us, some extraneous admixture is always to be found-there are foreign words in the Hebrew of Genesis and in the Greek of Homer'. 16 But the universal search for new Hungarian words went on. No stone was left unturned: besides artificial coinage the dialects and obsolete words were ran- sacked, obsolete prefixes and suffixes were reactivated and re-used. Grammatical constructions were also scrutinised for possible 'un- Hungarian' forms; forms which did not agree with the spirit or nature of the language. If, for a particular construction, an analogy was found in German (the chief culprit in the eyes of the reformers) the construction had to be eliminated. By the I82os a fairly compr...


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