The Minimal Kit

of frequent claims/counter-arguments and answers (intended to be as concise as possible) concerning “Anti-Finno-Ugrism” as popularized in Hungary, inspired on the recent debate on the URA-LIST mailing list (which, being a list for scholarly discussions between Finno-Ugrists, is not the proper forum for comments of this kind).

In the course of this debate, I received numerous e-mails from Hungarian “Anti-Finno-Ugrists” – some polite and friendly, some rather unpleasant – and noticed that the argumentation is based on a few claims repeated over and over again. In what follows, I try to summarize the pros and cons. I know that whatever I write will only strengthen the prejudices of the convinced “Anti-Finno-Ugrists”, but I do hope that those who are still honestly looking for answers might be encouraged to think and find out themselves.

Claim #1:

“Finno-Ugrism” is linguistically unfounded.

The ideas about Finno-Ugric language relatedness are based on the general principles of historical-comparative linguistics (the Comparative Method), valid for any language family anywhere in the world. If you want to falsify the ideas of Finno-Ugric language relatedness, you will also have to falsify, for instance, the relatedness between Indo-European languages such as English, Latin and Sanskrit, and the interrelated work of generations of linguists in numerous countries and nations.

In principle, it is not entirely impossible that hundreds of researchers in mutually independent institutions all over the world are all wrong – but it is fairly improbable, and it is rather unrealistic to assume that more than two hundred years of work by hundreds of specialists might be falsified by a handful of laymen on the basis of a handful of arguments.

Claim #2:

“Finno-Ugrism” is aimed against the Hungarians and the Hungarian language.

Although Hungarian, of course, is the greatest Finno-Ugric language, with correspondingly strong traditions of linguistic research and documentation, and although many important Finno-Ugrists have been Hungarians (starting from the Founding Fathers Sajnovics and Gyarmathi), from the viewpoint of comparative Finno-Ugristics Hungarian is simply one member of the language family. The position of Hungarian is not the sole important question of Finno-Ugrian studies; Finno-Ugristics does not revolve around the Hungarian language.

Above all: Linguistics has nothing to do with national pride or the “worth” of languages. The aim of linguistic studies is not to prove the superiority (whatever this might mean) or inferiority of a certain language. As far as we know (and this, in fact, is the basic assumption of all modern mainstream linguistics), all human languages have an equal communicative and expressive potential. The rest is politics, not linguistics.

Claim #3:

“Finno-Ugrism” was devised to serve the political goals of Habsburg and, later on, Soviet imperialism

The official support for Finno-Ugristics from Vienna, St. Petersburg and Moscow was always rather scanty. Although some of the pioneers did receive fieldwork scholarships and a few university posts were founded in the Austro-Hungarian and Russian empires (i.e. in Hungary and Finland) in the 19th century (certainly not more than for other European philologies!), most of today’s “received wisdom” about Finno-Ugric language relatedness rests on work that was funded either by non-state organizations (above all, the Finno-Ugrian Society in Finland) or after World War I by the independent states of Hungary, Finland and Estonia (or research institutions in other countries).

The Soviet Union never particularly supported or endorsed the idea of Finno-Ugric relatedness. The Soviet research on Finno-Ugric languages has not concentrated on the historical-comparative side but, rather, on the description and development of today's Finno-Ugric languages. At times, the idea of Finno-Ugric relatedness was a political taboo and could even be used as a pretext for the absurd persecutions of the Finno-Ugrians in Russia during the Great Terror of the 1930s.

(For more detailed information, see this excerpt of a paper by Prof. Gábor Bereczki)

Claim #4:

“Finno-Ugrism” was devised by a handful of 19th-century Bad Guys such as Pál Hunfalvy and József Budenz...

Since Hunfalvy and Budenz (and their predecessors, Sajnovics and Gyarmathi, as well as their most important successors such as József Szinnyei), the ideas about Finno-Ugric language relatedness, the “family tree” of these languages and the proto-language reconstruction have changed considerably. Substantial modifications to many details have appeared and will probably appear in the future as well. Besides, there were linguists from many other countries – not only Finland but also from uninterested third countries such as Germany, Sweden or Norway – who have greatly contributed to our present-day understanding of Finno-Ugristics. Once again: Finno-Ugrian studies are not an internal affair of the Hungarians.

(For those who read Hungarian: a very relevant and readable paper by the linguist Ádám Nádasdy, in the journal Élet és Irodalom. Also in Finnish translation.)

Claim #5:

... who did not even speak Hungarian properly.

Hunfalvy (Hunsdorfer) and Budenz were German native speakers, “Wahlungarn” who devoted their work and patriotic feelings to Hungary but – if anecdotes are to be believed – never got rid of their German accent. However, although a linguist necessarily needs some kind of a working knowledge of the language s/he is researching (and, very often, the cooperation with native-speaker informants), s/he need not be a native speaker, as the history of linguistics amply shows. And vice versa: being a native speaker does not make you a competent linguist any more than being able to sing qualifies you as a musicologist.

Besides: Sajnovics and Gyarmathi were native speakers of Hungarian. And so were/are numerous latter-day Hungarian linguists who never saw any conflict between loving their mother tongue and researching its Finno-Ugric prehistory.

Claim #6:

The traditions of Hungarian history-writing, the old chronicles, the first comments about Hungarians by foreign historians and travellers never breathe a word about the Finno-Ugric relationship – on the contrary, they speak about Huns, Scythians, Turks etc. This means that there is no proof about the alleged Finno-Ugrian heritage.

Nor do the traditions of British or French history-writing say anything about linguistic relatives in Armenia or India! The methods by which such a distant linguistic relatedness can be detected did not exist in the Middle Ages: they only developed from the late 18th century on.

Peoples do not define themselves on the basis of distant linguistic relatedness. At least until the times of National Romanticism (which inspired ideologies such as Pan-Slavism, Pan-Scandinavism or Pan-Germanism), the most important criteria were religious or cultural affinities, sometimes even overriding quite close and obvious linguistic relatedness. In the 19th century, some Ingrians called themselves “Russians”, due to their identification with the Orthodox church, in contrast with the Lutheran Finns of Ingria – although the relatedness between the Ingrian and Finnish languages is very close, something like between Czech and Slovak. Against this background, it is more than natural that the early Hungarians called themselves (or were called by outsiders) or identified themselves with “Huns” or “Turks”.

Claim #7:

If the Hungarians are related with the indigenous peoples of Siberian tundra, why did not Árpád and his people come to Hungary riding on reindeer instead of horses? Seriously speaking, how could Hungarians be related with racially and culturally so different peoples – and unrelated with the other, culturally so similar horse nomad peoples of the steppe zone?

An ethnic identity (such as Hungarianness) is not a homogeneous monolith but a product of complex historical processes. Its components, culture, genes and language, are structured differently and not transmitted in the same way. This means that across great time depths there are very little correspondences between race, culture and language (again, compare the speakers of Icelandic and Urdu, two distantly related Indo-European languages!). In other words, despite the lack of linguistic relatedness there may be a great cultural and genetic affinity between Hungarians and, for instance, Turkic-speaking peoples. No serious Finno-Ugrist has ever tried to refute this.

Claim #8:

Finno-Ugrists do not have real understandable arguments for their cause, just technical lingo and abstract symbol-pushing without any perceptible connection with reality.

Finno-Ugristics is linguistics. Linguistics is not just “knowing a language”, it is science and needs special expertise to be fully understood. Similarly, geneticians talk about arcane things such as chromosomes (which an ordinary person has never seen, who says they exist, anyway?) and archaeologists claim they can tell how old a dusty shard of pottery is. These people are specialists: they have spent many years trying to learn these things and their job, however annoying it might seem, is to know their special field of expertise better than other people do. (The problem here might be that many people, although they respect a nature scientist, an historian, a physician etc., are not aware of the existence of linguistic science but believe that in linguistics, anybody who speaks a language is an expert.)

Claim #9:

Finno-Ugrists are too arrogant (or too much afraid of us) to discuss these things impartially, they just bluntly refuse to acknowledge that somebody else might be right...

Now this is an important point. The critics may be partly right in accusing Finno-Ugrists of arrogance. Popularizing comparative linguistics is frowned upon by some colleagues, and there are too few linguists who are ready to spend their precious work hours for non-academic pursuits, such as informing tax-payers about what is being done with their money. (The result is that the wide masses do not even know that comparative linguistics exists, let alone how it functions.)

BUT: The “Anti-Finno-Ugrists” seem to consist largely of true believers who see their opinion as an act of faith and refuse to listen to any counter-arguments (and, of course, they will not read the basics that could be found in any handbook of historical linguistics). Could you blame an academic researcher of geography who has lost his interest in debating with the Flat Earth Society – or, in this case, the Hungarian department of the Flat Earth Society claiming that our Earth might be round elsewhere but in Hungary it is flat?

Claim #10:

... and they cruelly silence their opponents, denying their freedom of speech and only allowing one “official truth” to be preached.

“Freedom of speech” (or freedom of faith, cf. the case of Scientology marketed as a religion) in this case can only mean “freedom of not listening to reason”. Nobody has prohibited the publication of dozens of alternative works on Hungarian-Turkish, Hungarian-Sumer, Hungarian-Tamil, etc. etc. linguistic relatedness, nobody (to my knowledge) has threatened the proponents of these alternative theories with violence, imprisonment or other nasty consequences (as the Soviet authorities did with some Finno-Ugrists of Russia in the 1930s...).

Anybody who keeps to the scholarly standards of research and argumentation is welcome to question the foundations of Finno-Ugric linguistics on scholarly fora. This is, actually, what the linguist Angela Marcantonio attempted in her recent book The Uralic language family: facts, myths and statistics. The book, issued by a renowned publishing house, was extensively reviewed by numerous scholars in various linguistic journals, patiently pointing out the basic flaws and misunderstandings. It was not silenced or suppressed but subjected to detailed criticism. In this case, the criticism was devastating – but if anybody who has done his/her homework (that is, has the required expertise and has bothered to get acquainted with previous research results) can come up with new, solidly founded arguments, the discussion can and should continue. This is how science works.

This being said...

... I seriously advise any honest readers (who are really interested in finding out the truth) to do some independent thinking and read some good handbooks of historical linguistics. I will not discuss these general arguments any more; those who really want to learn more should rather ask Hungarian experts of Hungarian linguistics and prehistory.


December 2006. A couple of additions in May 2010.