The Hungarian language, known as Magyar by its speakers, has a unique heritage and history.
Although it finds its roots in the Finno-Ugric subfamily of the Uralic language family, Hungary’s distance from areas where other Uralic languages are spoken has given the language a mixture of Uralic roots coupled with influences from Turkic, Romance, and Slavic languages, making Hungarian an intriguing point of study for modern scholars.
Classification and Early History of the Hungarian Language
The Hungarian language is classified as a member of the Finno-Ugric subgroup of the family of Uralic languages. Hungarian is part of the Ugric branch of the Finno-Ugric subgroup along with the Mansi (also known as Vogul) and Khanty (Ostyak) languages of the Ob River region in western Siberia.
First spoken in the eastern areas of the Ural Mountains, Hungarian began to develop as a distinct language approximately 2,000 years ago. The language gradually migrated toward the west and is believed to have arrived in the area of present-day Hungary around 900 AD.
Development of the Hungarian Language Alphabet
Established in 1000 AD, the Kingdom of Hungary early felt the influence of western Christianity, and the Latin language consequently came to play a significant role in the early development of written Hungarian. Under this influence, the Old Hungarian script was eventually discarded, and since the 13th century the Hungarian language has been written using a modified Latin alphabet.
This modified alphabet makes use of diacritic marks to produce certain sounds heard in the Hungarian language that a regular Latin alphabet cannot convey. Modifications included the introduction of the acute accent, ó, which signifies a long vowel, and special representations of two letters to produce a single sound such as sz, which sounds much like the English language “sh.”
Early Written Hungarian
Throughout the Middle Ages, the majority of cultural activities in modern-day Hungary were performed in Latin, the language used by the clergy who dominated the area. This religious language was adapted to literary use, however, as medieval legends and poetry came to be translated into the Hungarian. The earliest known example of a Hungarian language text is a funeral oration dating from the early 1200s.
The Reformation and the Printing Press: Effects on the Hungarian Language
The advent of the Reformation and introduction of the printing press in the 16th century both played large parts in the development of a standardized Hungarian language. In 1540 the first Hungarian-language translation of the Bible appeared, ushering in a period of stabilization for the Hungarian language.
Literary developments of the 16th and 17th centuries were not limited to religious texts. As the written language began to stabilize, a distinct Hungarian literary movement developed. Well-known poets included Baron Balint, Miklos Zrinyi, and Istvan Gyongyosi. These writers explored a variety of themes, from patriotic poems to epic tales, law, philology, and more.
19th Century Nationalism and Standardization of the Hungarian Language
Significant advances were made toward a standardized Hungarian language during the early 19th century. The poet and translator Ferenc Kazinczy played a large part in this period of development, as did a number of other Hungarian language writers.
Feelings of Hungarian nationalism were also awakened at this time, thanks to patriotic writers such as Janos Arany, whose famed epic poem “Toldi” celebrated the adventures of a legendary Hungarian hero.
Linguistic Suppression in the Empire of Austria-Hungary
The surge in Hungarian nationalism, however, was suppressed by Austrian rulers of Hungary. The German language was favored by the upper classes, and the status of the Hungarian language consequently suffered.
It would not be until the 20th century that written Hungarian would recover from the linguistic and cultural oppression exerted by the Hapsburg monarchy’s reign of the Austria-Hungary Empire. The empire was dissolved in 1918, and shortly after the Hungarian Democratic Republic was declared.
Hungarian Revolution of 1956
With the introduction of communist power to Hungary after World War II, new limitations were placed on Hungarian language and literature. Writing was limited to idealized communist themes, and writers who deviated from such material were persecuted. Such linguistic subjugation intensified after a failed Hungarian revolution in 1956.
Part of the 1956 revolution consisted of student protests against the mandatory Russian language courses taught in Hungarian schools at the time. Such protest against Soviet influence was quashed by brutal Soviet suppression that resulted in the execution and imprisonment of hundreds of Hungarians, and the migration of some 200,000 Hungarian residents to Austria.
Hungarian Movements Away from Communism
A new Communist dictatorship was instituted and remained in power for more than three decades, but by the late 1960s the strict regime began to loosen its grip and relations between Hungary and the West improved throughout the 70s and 80s.
In 1989, the country’s name was changed from the People’s Republic of Hungary to simply the Republic of Hungary. This landmark event was followed by Hungary’s first free legislative elections to be held in 45 years.
Outside Influences on the Hungarian Language
Hungarian has come to borrow many words from outside languages thanks to the westward migration of the language before the 10th century and the fact that present-day Hungary is surrounded by non-Uralic language speakers. Loanwords from the Iranian, Turkish, German and Slavic languages can be found in the Hungarian language; however, the core vocabulary still derives from the language’s Finno-Ugric roots.
Hungarian language grammar and phonology have also retained typical Uralic language characteristics. The accent is always placed on the first syllable of the word, for example, and consonant clusters generally do not occur at the beginning of words.
Hungarian Language and Dialects Today
A number of dialects exist within the Hungarian language, but they are all closely related and for the most part mutually intelligible. Now the Hungarian language is spoken primarily in Hungary, where it serves as the official language, as well as in parts of Slovakia, Romania and Yugoslavia. It is also spoken by a small number of Hungarian immigrant groups scattered throughout the world, notably in the United States.
Hungarian Quick Facts
Alternate Names & Spellings: Magyar
Language Family: Uralic, Finno-Ugric, Ugric, Hungarian
Official Language of: Hungary
Spoken by Approximately 13,612,000 people
Also Spoken In: United States
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