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Were Do The Hungarians Come From History Essay

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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016

The Hungarians call themselves Magyarok and the name “Hungarians” was given to them by foreigners. In the English name – as in name forms stemming from the same source such as German Ungarn or French Hongrois – one finds a reflection of the name for a Turkic people, the Onogurs, who once roamed the steppe of southern Russia in the first millennium C.E. It was under the leadership of the Onogurs that the Hungarians migrated to central Europe and into the Pannonian plain from the East. The medieval chroniclers confounded the name of the Turkic élite with that of the people that came with them, so the Hungarians came to be named after their leaders during the time of migration. The Hungarians are the only Finno-Ugrian population that migrated as far as central Europe.

There are some 14.5 million Hungarians in the world of whom 10 million inhabit Hungary. The Hungarians account for 96 per cent of the countries population; among the ethnic minorities are (—>) Roma (Gypsies), (—>) Germans, (—>) Romanians, (—>) Croats and others. The largest group of Hungarians outside Hungary lives in neighboring Romania, in the region of Transylvania (1.4 million). Their number had decreased dramatically during the communist regime. In the early 1980s, Transylvania was still the home of some 2 million Hungarians. Populous Hungarian minorities are scattered in other adjacent states of the Hungarian heartland; i.e. in Slovakia (0.57 million), Serbia (0.34 million in the autonomous region of Vojvodina), Ukraine (0.11 million in the Transcarpathian province of western Ukraine), Croatia (0.224 million), Austria (15,000) and Slovenia (9,500). Some 0.7 million people of Hungarian descent live in overseas countries, most of them in The United States (0.45 million).

From the social and economic standpoint, the situation of the Gypsies in Hungary is not balanced. Although their number, according to estimates, may exceed half a million – which makes them the most populous of all ethnic minorities in Hungary – they are stigmatized because of the prevailing prejudices and stereotypes in the minds of the Hungarian majority: “The usual prejudice portrays Gypsies as unreliable, anti-social, and semi-nomadic people – all according to the stereotypes of the Gypsy lore of modern society” (Fenyvesi 1998: 152).

The people living in the part of Europe that was to become the land of the Hungarians experienced an early shift to sedentism and agrarian lifeways. The Old Europeans accustomed to agriculture already in the sixth millennium B.C.E. Early agrarian settlements were established along the Middle Danube (Lengyel culture) and in the valley of the river Tisza, a tributary of the Danube (Tisza culture). These regional cultures are northern outliers of the Danube civilization in Southeast Europe (—> Serbs, Macedonians, Bulgarians, Greeks, Romanians). Among the evidence for a developed religious system in that region are the abundance of female figurines, elaborated cult vessels and ceremonial assemblages at sacred places (e.g. Vésztö-Mágor in eastern Hungary). The bearers of the Old European culture were not akin to any of the peoples that later came to inhabit Hungary, the Longobards (a Germanic people) and Slavs – both of Indo-European affiliation -, the Avars (of Turkic stock) and the Hungarians (of Finno-Ugrian affiliation). Distant soundings of the Old European cultural legacy can be found in certain forms of pottery and in some ornamental motifs in textiles that have persisted.

The origins of Hungarian ethnicity are connected with the migrations of Finno-Ugrian populations. Since the original homeland of the Finno-Ugrians is in eastern Europe – that is, west of the Ural mountains – the formation of the Hungarian ethnos is part of European history. The Hungarians are most closely affiliated with two other Ugrian peoples, the Mansi (Voguls) and Khanty (Ostyaks). While the other Ugrian peoples moved into Siberia the Hungarians migrated west. The motivation for them to opt for the western direction is unclear, as is their acceptance of the Onogur nomads as their leaders. The first Turkic tribes to appear in the southern steppe were the Huns, followed by others such as Onogurs, Bolgars, Khazars, Avars, Pechenegs, etc. Those nomadic groups were well organized and sometimes took the role of a ruling élite for groups of non-Turkic affiliation. One such case is the partnership between South Slavs in the eastern Balkans who were ruled by a Bolgar Turkic élite from whom they adopted the name, but not the language (—> Bulgarians). Another case is the patron-client relationship of Onogurs (as élite) and Hungarians that ended with their arrival in Transylvania and Pannonia. The Hungarians maintained their culture and language, and also their self-given name, while the name of the Turkic élite (i.e. Onogurs) was erroneously transferred to the Onogurs’ clients by outsiders.

The Onogurs were the major clan of the Turkic Bolgars who had settled in the area of the Middle Volga in the seventh century C.E. and who are therefore called Volga Bolgars. The Magyars joined the Onogurs and acknowledged their leadership. The traditional view is that there was only one migration of the Magyars under Onogur leadership from the eastern steppe to the Pannonian plain, the heartland of Hungary. Recent findings of the archaeology of nomad cultures suggest that there were two waves of migrations involving Magyars and Onogurs, one in the seventh century and another in the ninth century. The second migration was decisive for the peopling of Hungary with the Ugrian Magyars. Their legendary leader was Árpád and they came in groups of seven tribes. The date for the arrival of the Magyars is given, in Hungarian chronicles, as 896. The occupation of the land was partly peaceful, partly violent. The entrance to Transylvania had to be earned in fights against the natives. Those who settled in Hungary prior to the Magyars, Avars and Slavic groups, assimilated swiftly into the majority population of Ugrian stock within a few generations.

In the decades after their arrival the Hungarians expanded their area of settlement and engaged in border clashes with their western neighbors. In 955, the Hungarians were defeated by the German emperor Otto I, the Great (reigned 936 – 973), and this event dimmed Hungarian aspirations for further westward thrusts. The western (i.e. Catholic) tradition of Christianity spread into Hungarian lands in the late tenth century and it was proclaimed state religion by Stephen the Saint (reigned 1000 – 1038). This ruler organized the administration of his country according to the Frankish model, and the territory was divided into comitats (county units). As a Christian kingdom, Hungary entered the world of medieval statehood in Europe. Under Stephen’s successors the Hungarian-held territory extended far beyond the core area of Hungarian settlement. In 1102, Croatia entered a union with Hungary and this union turned out to become Hungarian-dominated. The rising power in central Europe managed to retain its independence and to balance political interests between its two powerful neighbors, the Holy Roman Empire (i.e. the German state) in the West and the Byzantine Empire in the East. The reign of king Matthias Corvinus (reigned 1458 – 1490) marked the final phase for Hungary as a medieval great power.

Pressure from the Ottoman Turks in the South increased and, in the decisive battle at Mohács in 1526, the Hungarian army was defeated and the southern parts of Hungary fell to the Turks. The Northwest of the Hungarian kingdom came under the control of the Habsburg dynasty. In a series of wars (from 1683 to 1699) the Habsburg armies succeeded in expelling the Turks from Hungarian territory which left the whole country to Habsburg sovereignty. Officially, Hungary continued to exist as a kingdom separate from the Austrian state although Habsburg authority was felt in all domains of public life. A permanent agenda of conflict with the Austrian was the fear of the Hungarian nobility to lose any influence on the internal affairs of their country. Hungary’s factual independence depended on the good-will of the individual Habsburg rulers. How real the fear of the Hungarian noblemen was to be marginalized became evident under the rule of Josef II (reigned 1780 – 1790). Josef took a stand against any form of Hungarian particularism and favored a campaign of open Germanization, with language use and administration as target areas. This unbalanced political union of Hungary with Austria remained fragile and it produced opposition, in peaceful and militant terms.

The liberal movement that was supported by the Hungarian nobility won majorities and was in the position to set the course for national legislature. The first achievement, in 1847, was the abolition of Latin in official use and its substitution with the national language, Hungarian. Political aspirations for republican statehood that flared up with the revolution of 1848-49 were dimmed by the suppression of the Hungarian rebellion by an Austrian-Russian alliance. In the years following the events of 1848 the Habsburg government did not succeed in achieving a balance of interests. Finally, in 1867, a compromise was reached with the installment of a novel type of reign, the “dual monarchy”, with two, formally independent governments. Hungary had its own parliament which retained the right to collect taxes. This political dualism, once it had been institutionalized, became functional and lasted until 1918.

Since Austria-Hungary was among the losers of World War I there was no authority that could have prevented the dual monarchy from being dissolved by the victors of the war, Great Britain, France, and The United States. By the Treaty of Trianon (1920) Hungary was disconnected from Austria and established as an independent republic. Those regions with non-Hungarian population that had formed part of the Hungarian monarchy before 1918 were separated and ceded to neighboring states (e.g. the Vojvodina to Yugoslavia, Transylvania to Romania, Slovakia to Czechoslovakia, etc.). Consequently, exterritorial Hungarian minorities became scattered all around Hungary, causing new problems of coexistence with ethnic majorities.

During the intermediate period between the wars the political development was marked by strong nationalistic trends. Expectations for a restoration of the greater Hungary made Hungary decide to side with Nazi Germany during World War II, an option that turned out to become disastrous for Hungary’s political future. The country experienced a political change from right-wing to left-wing radicalism after the end of the war. The shift to a communist regime was affected under Stalinist pressure by 1948. The Hungarians, though, were no easy prey for Stalinist hegemony. The year 1956 saw the revolt of the citizens of Budapest which spread to other parts of Hungary. After weeks of street fighting Soviet tanks crushed the armed resistance and buried dreams of liberation from totalitarian rule. And yet, the grip of the communist regime in Hungary – after the events of 1956 – was never as tight as in Czechoslovakia or in East Germany. The Hungarian leadership knew how to steer a course of moderate dissent by avoiding open conflict. When the political climate favored change the demise of communism was no dramatic event as in Czechoslovakia or Romania. On the 33rd anniversary of the Hungarian uprising of 1956, on 23 October 1989, the communist regime was abolished. This symbolic dissolution of the Soviet-imposed order opened the path into true political independence, after 450 years of foreign rule or patronage.

Hungarian is a Finno-Ugric language and related to Finnish, Estonian and various minority languages in the European part of Russia (—> Karelians, Komi). Together with Mansi and Khanty Hungarian forms the Ugric branch. From the standpoint of geographical spread Hungarian is the westernmost Finno-Ugric language in Europe. Although Hungarian has been heavily influenced by the languages with which it has been in contact during more than one thousand years of its history in central Europe its Finno-Ugric grammatical structures have persisted to a great extent. The vocabulary has absorbed thousands of lexical borrowings from Latin, German and French; e.g. iskola ‘school’ < Latin schola, pucol 'to clean' < German putzen, bonbon 'sweet; candy' < French bonbon. Many of the French loanwords were transferred via German; e.g. cement 'cement' < German Zement < French ciment/cément.

The genealogical affiliation of Hungarian and other Finno-Ugric languages had been identified as early as the seventeenth century. The first works of historical linguistics proving Finno-Ugric interconnections originated in the eighteenth century. János Sajnovics, with his study on Hungarian-Saamic comparisons (1770), and Sámuel Gyarmathi, with his analysis of Hungarian-Samoyedic parallelisms (1799), laid the scientific groundwork for Finno-Ugric studies. The findings of these works were well received and furthered a consciousness, among the Hungarians, of linguistic kinship with the Finns, Saami and other Finno-Ugrian peoples.

Latin was the first written language that was regularly used in Hungary, from the eleventh to the fifteenth century, as chancery language and as medium for the learned élite. Hungarian has been written in two different scripts. The oldest records of Hungarian, dating to the ninth century, are short inscriptions in a script which is called in Hungarian rovásírás (‘carved script’). The ways in which letters are carved resemble the Germanic Runes although there is no historical relation between them and the Hungarian script. This writing system also resembles the script that was used by the Avars in Hungary with which it is affiliated. Ultimately, the “Runic” script of the Turkic people, sometimes referred to as “Siberian Runes”, originated in northern Mongolia. The Hungarians may well have got acquainted with this script in contacts with the Volga Bolgars and the Onogurs. The Hungarian Runic script was in use during the early Middle Ages. It persisted in Transylvania (among the Széklers) into the twelfth century.

Hungarian has been written, since the twelfth century, using the Latin alphabet. Hungarian expressions and names are found in medieval documents but the first text written entirely in Hungarian, a funerary speech (“Halotti Beszéd”), dates to around 1200. For centuries, the contents of Hungarian texts was predominantly religious. During the fifteenth and sixteenth century a series of chronicles originated; among the most important are the Ehrenfeld Codex (c. 1440), the Jókai Codex (1448), the Vienna Codex (c. 1450) and the Munich Codex (1466). The reform movement of the Protestants furthered the use of Hungarian for writing. The first translation of the Bible into Hungarian was done by the Protestant reformer G. Károli and appeared in 1590. Its influence, though, was marginalized by the publication of the Catholic version of a translation of the Bible (1604) by P. Pázmány. The orthographic norms of modern Hungarian consolidated in the seventeenth century. Hungary’s membership in NATO (since 1999) and in the European Union (since 2004) has revitalized the century-old ties of the Hungarians with western Europe.

Harald Haarmann

Further Reading

Abondolo, Daniel. “Hungarian.” In The Uralic Languages, ed. Daniel Abondolo, 428-456. London & New York: Routledge, 1998.

Barta, Gábor et al. History of Transylvania. Budapest: Akadémiai Kiadó, 1994.

Fenyvesi, Anna. “Linguistic Minorities in Hungary.” In Linguistic Minorities in Central and Eastern Europe, eds. Christina Bratt Paulston and Donald Peckham, 135-159. Clevedon, Philadelphia & Toronto: Multilingual Matters, 1998.

Fenyvesi, Anna. (ed.). Hungarian Language Contact Outside Hungary: Studies on Hungarian as a Minority Language. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2005.

Kontra, Miklós. “Hungary.” In Contact Linguistics, vol. 2, eds. Hans Goebl et al., 1708-1723. Berlin & New York: Walter de Gruyter, 1997.

Róna-Tas, András. Hungarians and Europe in the Early Middle Ages. An Introduction to Early Hungarian History. Budapest & New York: Central European University Press, 1999.

Sugar, Peter F. (ed.). A History of Hungary. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1990.


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