Understanding How Modern Hungarian Came to Be

Have you ever tried memorising a text you don’t comprehend? It’s difficult, isn’t it? This holds equally true for language learning. Understanding where languages come from and the way they have developed is a great way of making the learning process a lot easier for yourself.

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Unfortunately, this is not something many language teachers can help explain. So, in an effort to make learning Hungarian a bit simpler for you, our Hungarian teacher Sara has put together this guide to understanding where modern Hungarian came from.

Language reform and the birth of modern Hungarian

The 18th and 19th century brought on an explosion of the sciences and culture which meant that a whole new bunch of things had to be talked about. This brought on language reforms in several languages, including Hungarian. To recap – a language reform is primarily done by writers, poets, and linguists with the aim of expanding vocabulary, replacing foreign words, renewing style, and to unify the language.

The Hungarian language reform occurred within a roughly 100 year period between 1770ies to 1872. The Hungarian language reform is unique in that it was very closely linked to politics: the question of national independence, social advancement, and the Hungarian language could not be separated; the reform was a form of fighting against feudalism. Those supporting the reform were the ‘neologists’ (neológusok) and those against were called ‘ortologists’ (ortológusok) (they were of the opinion that the language can only be reformed from within, building only on existing traditions).

Language reform was needed for Hungarian to become official

The aim of this reform was to make Hungarian the official state language and provide it equal rights within the arts and public life (e.g. governance). (It became one of the official languages – next to Latin – from 1836 and became the sole official language only from 1844). In order to reach this goal, the Hungarian language had to be:

– cleansed from foreign elements

– its vocabulary had to be expanded to express new concepts (in science, education etc.)

– made more effective for use in literature

Techniques used to modernise Hungarian

The Hungarian language was enriched by bringing in new words by:

– reviving old words and bringing in words from differents dialects (terem – sg is growing (or room), iker – twin, hullám – wave, poggyász – luggage/baggage, burgonya – potato)

– changing the meaning or expanding the meaning of certain words (baj – trouble)

– forming new words from existing ones (e.g. with endings such as -aszt, -eszt, -kozik, -kezik, -ong, -eng, -öng, -ít, -z, -dék – kodik, -alom, -elem, -dalom, -al, -ék, -lék, -mény, -at-et, -ékony, -atag, -ár, -ér, -ály, -ény, -am, -cs, -sít, -zat; words formed e.g. vonal from von: to pull + al = line, fogékony from fog: to hold (or tooth) + ékony = receptive)

– taking away these endings also formed new words (e.g. derű-l: originally meaning serene -l meaning serenity, cég-ér: originally meaning name plate/store sign -ér meaning company)

– merging words (hullócsillag: from hulló (falling) + csillag (star), anyanyelv: from anya (mother) + nyelv (tongue/language))

Some words did not make the cut

Hopefully, this adds a little bit of color to your future Hungarian studies. For laughs, here are a few words that were suggested during the reform but didn’t become a part of the official language:

– original suggestion: nyaktekerészeti mellfekvenc – “wrap around your neck and lie on your chest thing” / now used: nyakkendő – tie)

– original suggestion: foltos nyakorján – “spotty necky thing” / now used: zsiráf – giraffe

– original suggestion: rovátkolt barom: grooved beast / now used: rovar: insect

– original suggestion: gyújtófácska – a small piace of wood you use to light a fire / now used: gyufa – match

– original suggestion: véglakás – your last flat / now used: temető, sír – cemetery, grave

– Istókhalma (’Stockholm’)

– Kappanhágó (’Koppenhága’) – Copenhagen

Conclusion – modernising Hungarian was a complicated task with a happy ending

Thanks to the quick development of sciences and culture, the need for reforming Hungarian became a pressing issue in the late 18th century. The language reformers faced the complicated task of modernising Hungarian and they used various methods of upgrading the language. Finally, the effort paid off and Hungarian became an official means of communication eventually replacing Latin.